It could only have happened in Louisville, where the Kentucky Derby is the lodestar of local life. A Congress on Better Living met, as it had in other major U.S. cities, to ask the people of Louisville what they wanted in the way of home improvements. Elsewhere citizens were demanding three-car garages, splashier rumpus rooms, more convenient electric outlets. Louisville's wants were entirely different. "Louisville is a most hospitable town," the magazine editor who presided over the congress said, "and the only one in which there was really pained discussion on what to do with large serving platters."
This plea for platter space reflected the gracious traditions of Derby hospitality. For three days every spring these gigantic ovals of china and silver must hold the aged Kentucky hams, the roast turkeys, sides of beef, Bibb lettuce salads and the acres and acres of beaten biscuits and hominy grits that fuel the 100,000-odd visitors who act as if they hadn't had a bite to eat or a drop to drink since the previous May.
The home town of America's most famous Thoroughbred event is a wicked monument to those three much-deplored fundamentalist sins—cigarettes, whiskey and wild, wild horse racing. Tobacco (nine major brands are manufactured here), bourbon (71% of all distilled in the U.S.) and the Kentucky Derby (a two-minute horse race that keeps Churchill Downs operable) are Louisville's chief supports. Like a three-legged stool, the whole thing seems a bit rickety but hangs together and sits quite well. Today the hamlet founded on the Ohio River in 1778 by George Rogers Clark is a diversified, sprawling city of 400,000, its downtown area one of the most forgettable in America, its beautiful river sullied by ugly commerce, its night life virtually nonexistent and its commercial health a slow-paced trot compared to the flash of other metropolises.
But Louisville (pronounced Loo-uh-vill) has compensations beyond the casual observer's wildest dreams—Lordy, yes, it has. Its beautiful estates, only minutes from town, are the onetime hunting grounds of frontier history. Why, you can almost see the Cherokees creeping through the canebrakes, and a scuff of your foot turns up perfect arrow-heads and stone axes. Although actually many miles from the real bluegrass horse-farm country, Louisville has its share of showy white fences and handsome horses grazing over fields enriched by limestone—the sacred deposits that make blue-grass and bourbon possible. It has a dramatic profusion of ancient trees, fabulous flowers and scarlet cardinals—a scene that enchanted Audubon and inspired Stephen Foster to write My Old Kentucky Home. It has the best racial relations of any city in the South, thanks to its farsighted newspapers and its self-respecting, warmhearted people. It has all the shivery, excitement-making tradition and atmosphere engendered by Churchill Downs from the time of the first winner, Aristides, in 1875, right up to last year's Northern Dancer.
April 25, 1965
But, best of all, Louisville has unparalleled hospitality. Almost everybody entertains in Louisville during Derby Week. There is a slow buildup that starts the weekend before and rises as visitors pour in on Thursday, followed by a deluge on Friday. There is the actual heart-stopping mile-and-a-quarter Run for the Roses on Saturday, and then there is a relaxing, socializing Sunday. Only a few Kentuckians take out extra insurance, cache away their best hams and bourbon, rent out their houses and rush away to Manhattan, Europe or someplace West to avoid the fallout.
The most memorable Derby parties are, of course, the ones given by the city's social and financial leaders, the publishers, bankers and lawyers, the brains and backbones of the bourbon and tobacco industries, the horsebreeders or fanciers—all owners of Kentucky acres. A titan from this group is apt to describe himself as "an old dirt farmer" or "just a country boy." A dozen of these men are the backers of Cassius Clay, sportsmen all, men who love to take a chance, bet a winner, call a pretty girl "honey" and discuss the merits of this brand of bourbon or that breed of horse. They are deeply involved in the rituals of Kentucky entertaining, with its heritage of unselfconscious graciousness.
Their wives are charming and colorful former belles who work at the restoration of Kentucky's historical past, dabble in Louisville's cultural renaissance and know how to cope with the changing times. These ladies maintain the high standards of the mélange that makes up the delicious cuisine of Kentucky. "It's not southern cooking," says one, "but a combination of French, early frontier and Negro." They know as much about horses as their husbands and twice as much about hospitality. They don't flinch when a guest brings six others, when the grits run out in the middle of breakfast because a new cook simply could not believe people would eat so much ("now we use instant grits") or when 35 people ask for mint juleps though the hostess wasn't really planning to serve the troublesome things.
There is no Jet, International or Smart Set attitude in Louisville. The late Prince Aly Khan, arriving for a Derby, was introduced to a local who said, "What a coincidence—man in my office is named Al Kahn." One Louisville hostess, taking a notable exception to the usual "everybody welcome" attitude, refused to change her dinner plan to accommodate the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. "Sorry," she said, "my table is filled." Louisville Society Editor Helen Leopold says, "People here do very little entertaining for self-aggrandizement. They just give parties to see all their friends, or else they entertain for business. Kentucky had a nice, simple heritage to hand down. We were never as elegant as the Deep South. Also we weren't so devastated by the Civil War."
Social climbing is hardly necessary or excusable, with everyone so friendly. Two strangers drove into the grounds of the small and exclusive River Valley Club one Derby eve, wined, dined and enjoyed themselves among the Louisville elite, thinking they were in a public place. When no one would let them pay a check, they said, "This Derby life is something wonderful," and staggered off convinced they had discovered a new kind of nightclub.
The River Valley Club, founded in 1914, is the butt of many good-natured and sometimes envious Louisville jokes. It is totally unpretentious, with no golf course, a small boat dock, a pool, a few tennis courts and about 150 members. Here is held one of the best of the Derby eve parties, lasting far into the night, calling for survival of the fittest and imposing a rigid code of silence on its participants. "No one ever knows on Monday what happened on Friday night at the Liquor Valley Club," goes a saying.
The fun and games begin in Louisville late in April. If they started any sooner no one would be alive at the finish line. On Friday, a week before Derby eve, the Coronation Ball is put on by 100 women who make up an organization called The Fillies. It has been described as "more like the Mardi Gras in general and nothing like the Veiled Prophet Ball in particular." Many visitors obtain invitations and take it in. This year the theme is 1875, year of the first Kentucky Derby, and the ladies will display hair from the tail of Aristides, the first Derby winner.
The next day, Saturday, the spring racing season opens at Churchill Downs. Real horse followers go that day to see the Stepping Stone, a race that gives Derby nominees a chance to go seven furlongs and try out the track.
On Tuesday dedicated horsemen turn out for the Derby Trial, a one-mile race that isn't what it claims to be, but many people watch another race—the one between the Delia Queen and the Belle of Louisville on the Ohio River, duly celebrated with fireworks. Then, on Thursday, the hotels—booked solid for Derby Week since January—begin to fill up with people grumbling about jacked-up rates, and there is the four-mile annual Pegasus Parade of elaborate floats. There also, naturally, is dancing in the streets.
Meanwhile Louisville Society is dancing at home, where most of the real Derby Week entertaining takes place. Guests begin to arrive about dinnertime Thursday, and this year, you can be sure, more than one host will receive a house gift titled The Drinking Man's Diet.
On Friday the program grows more formidable. Somebody gives the first of the weekend breakfasts, which are in reality luncheons, starting about 11:30 and continuing until track time. Friday is an exciting pre-Derby day because of the running of the Kentucky Oaks for three-year-old fillies.
Friday night really swings. A typical party before the River Valley Club late doings is the one given by Attorney Millard Cox and his blonde, pink-cheeked wife, Marguerite, in their River Hill Road home located in six acres of what was once merely "The Territory." Last year 150 people came to try the ham, beaten biscuits, hot crabmeat and shrimp. The Coxes took over this Friday date when retired American Commercial Barge Line Magnate Patrick Calhoun Jr. and his lady wearied of their traditional Derby eve do. (Mrs. Calhoun is much admired in Louisville for her classic remark on how she entertained: "I just put an old ham at one end and an old turkey at the other, but since there are so many people you have to put cheese in the middle.")
This year the Coxes will have a young crowd in honor of the home leave of their Marine lieutenant son, Millard Jr. Their elegant house boasts a Gainsborough painting of the 12th Earl of Derby, for whom both the English Derby and the Kentucky Derby are named. Millard Cox, who is hoping that his nominee, Shannon Run, will make it all the way to the starting gate, says of the painting, "I think this is a fine thing for us to have here in Kentucky."
Cox, a member of the Kentucky State Racing Commission, calls Derby time "a very confusing weekend." He has little patience with partygoers who forget why they are in Louisville. "Sometimes," he says, "you simply have to skip the parties and go to the races."
Another Friday night blast-off is the one given annually by Reynolds Metals Scion William G. (Billy) Reynolds and his wife at their estate, Anchorage, on Stonegate Road. Although the guests wear black tie, the atmosphere is informal and relaxed. There is dancing to a four-piece combo, and guests invariably eat supper sitting on the living-room floor. The Reynoldses live in Richmond most of the year but always open Anchorage for the Derby, bringing carloads of Virginians, attracting names in the horsy set, snagging visiting show-business personalities.
Comes the dawn, Anchorage is usually the scene of a Derby breakfast to tone up eyeball muscles before the great race. Elsewhere in Louisville others have risen with the sun to start the day rolling. Newspaper Publisher Barry Bingham and his wife feed 200 at their home, Glenview—a breakfast on small tables outdoors under the pink dogwoods.
Nine miles out on Upper River Road, in an old brick house now much added to and made into a showplace called Ashbourne, the W. L. Lyons Browns will start getting ready to repeat a social success story they have had going since 1935. Mrs. Brown says, "You never know how many may come, so you have to serve something that will stretch out more than one to a person." This year they are inviting 50 or 60 people to greet their son Martin, who is returning with his wife from France. The Browns always serve mint juleps (Mr. Brown is chairman of the board of Brown-Forman Distillers), feeling the drinks are colorful and atmospheric for visitors. Mrs. Brown pooh-poohs the idea that the julep is a product of a slave era, meant to be made so individually and tenderly that it is impossible to serve properly to a crowd. It is true she returns early to Louisville from Delray Beach, Fla. "in order to get the julep cups polished. But as for the fixings, we cut the mint early in the morning, tie it in small bunches and put it in the icebox with the cups to frost. I do the syrup ahead of time and have it in a pitcher. Of course, some Kentuckians prefer bourbon a simpler way." One of these was the venerated founder of the Courier-Journal, Henry Watterson, who used to give a complicated julep recipe, then say, "Now throw that all away and drink the bourbon neat."
The Derby Day breakfast given in the heart of Louisville by Liberty National Bank and Trust Chairman Merle Robertson and his tall blonde wife begins at 10:30 a.m. in their baronial-looking stone Tudor mansion perched on a hill near Cherokee Park. The Robertsons feed and water down more than 200 guests, who ooze out of the house into a large garden, or "backyard," as Mrs. Robertson calls it.
Last year the Robertsons had a rock 'n' roll band called the Carnations, a combo playing inside, an organist and local models dressed in mesh stockings and jockey silks serving drinks. The traditional menu is turkey hash, hot biscuits, grits, cheese, crackers, jelly, Kentucky ham (Kentucky ham is bigger, better and stretches farther than Virginia ham, to hear Kentuckians tell it). People eat around 1 p.m., but the Robertsons have never forgotten the year some prominent Yankees showed up on the dot of 10:30 and expected to be served a regular breakfast of coffee and eggs. They simply had to wait until the hot shrimp and chicken livers were passed about 11 and the serious drinking began. "We don't serve juleps, Bloody Marys, anything like that," says Mrs. Robertson. "But we do have or try to have every single brand with which anybody coming to the party might be connected. People are sensitive about that here. I'll tell you, a lot more people are drinking Scotch than used to."
Mr. Robertson declares this is the last breakfast, though he has been saying that for 20 years. It is a lot of trouble. First someone must rush downtown early to pick up cocktail napkins printed with the starting lineup. Racing forms, pencils and mementos are passed out (last year everyone got a billfold with the names of Derby winners stamped in gold). One year Robertson gave away needles as a tip on guess what horse. He also provides the men with a pint of bourbon bearing a label such as "Old Soothie." There is a horseshoe of red roses on the front door, and the Robertson invitations are always spectacular.
Although Merle Robertson is on the racing commission, the Robertsons do not own a horse, and each year they find they get to the track later and later, though they try to make the third race. (The Derby runs at 4:30 p.m.) Many of their guests stay and watch the run on television.
Mrs. Robertson would like to come as a guest to her own party sometime. Instead she supervises 10 in help, works a week ahead to prepare food and put everything—even the biscuits—in the freezer. "I let the grocery cook my hams and cut them up, but I serve every guest on china and with linen napkins—a set I keep separate just for this party. I do have to borrow some silver."
Most of the people who entertain on this scale own their own Derby boxes, prized possessions that are said to be the best loan collateral in Louisville, "just as good as Government bonds." Up to 10,000 people a year ask for boxes, and there is only a 5% turnover. All reserved seats to the Derby were gone this year by March 15, and the mad scramble to stand or sit in the infield or anywhere else is on long before 4:30. Then they're off, and in a couple of minutes it's all over. After the 15-odd starters have chalked up another thriller for sports and nonsports fans all over the world and the winner is draped with Florist Mrs. Kingsley Walker's garland of roses (she has been making them for 34 years), all the owners, trainers and jockeys of entrants in the race, plus other horsy aristocrats tapped personally by Churchill Downs President Wathan Knebelkamp, are asked to come drink champagne to the winner. This year the party will be held in a new section of the clubhouse called the Kentucky Room.
About then the Lexington group, headed by Breeder Leslie Combs II and his wife, are climbing back in their chartered buses to speed the 80 miles home to bluegrass country. There are so many Lexington horse lovers that they do not expect to be entertained in Louisville and have already eaten on the bus—box lunches containing biscuits stuffed with ham, cold chicken and pecan pies prepared at the Combses' Spendthrift Farm in Lexington. On the bus is a bar, and mint juleps are served going and coming. Back in Lexington the C. V. (Sonny) Whitneys, the L. C. Stewarts and the David Trapps will all have entertained already or will be planning something.
As the Derby elite pours out of Churchill Downs, some are sure to say: "Let's stop at Mrs. Engelhard's." A Louisville grande dame, Mrs. John Engelhard still lives on Third Street in the same pale-yellow brick town house (circa 1875), though all around her downtown Louisville is either going or gone. Her daughter, Mrs. Lewis Seiler, says, "At least she is now next door to a parking lot, so it is easy for people to stop."
Crossing her sidewalk, one sees it has been whitened, just as in the old days, with some sort of stone dressing. Inside, the food is fabulous, the service impeccable and it is cool, though there is no air conditioning. Mrs. Engelhard says she will give her party this year as usual. She is 92.
Now an exhausted or exhilarated, track-weary or full-of-second-wind crew gets ready for postmortem night of Derby Day. Some of the crowd goes, for a change of pace, to a formal sit-down French dinner given by pacesetting Interior Designer Sarah McNeal at her family's home, Lyndon Cottage. Sarah calls this her Derby-Darby Dinner, poking fun at the controversy over the U.S. or English pronunciation. Here, in a house full of lovely antiques, the guests are mostly young marrieds who left Louisville for a few years in Paris or New York, then returned home to live. The menu includes filet de boeuf strasbourgeois, braised endive, croissants and a fine St. Emilion '53 to intrigue the palate. Sarah remembers a year when her late mother hired a band and took it with her everywhere all Derby weekend. Now she entertains herself, because "it's no fun to go through Derby Week without doing something. You feel more in the spirit if you give a party."
When Pink Linen Dress Day, the Sunday after Derby Day, arrives, the lucky ones have Louisville's most sought-after invitation, a bid to the Elbert Gary Sutcliffes' famous luncheon up the River Road on Harrod's Creek, overlooking the Ohio River. Mr. Sutcliffe is retired from U.S. Steel, and for 26 years he and his wife have been feeding crowds at this gathering in their white Colonial home.
The owner of the winning horse usually comes to the Sutcliffes, as this is the climax of Derby Week. At 1 p.m. luncheon is served, and because Edith Sutcliffe thinks everyone is tired of ham and turkey she offers sumptuous beef tenderloin. Guests fall on it like wolves, saying, "Thank God for red meat and Edith Sutcliffe." What's more, the Sutcliffes manage to seat their 100 guests—as many as 70 in the 48-by-25-foot library, others scattered outdoors among the azaleas, weather permitting.
Mrs. Sutcliffe loves to tell of the time she tried to offer her guests entertainment. "I had some piano players, and everyone just ignored them and walked away from them. So I gave up. People only want to rehash the Derby. Yes, we serve juleps, though we don't care for them ourselves. You know, people don't want anything unusual—just beef and bourbon. I served burgoo for five or six years, but it was too messy." (Burgoo is the traditional Kentucky version of Brunswick stew. These days it is usually found only at the Sunday post-Derby barbecue of the Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels, a charity affair attended by thousands and presided over by Anna Friedman Goldman, Keeper of the Great Seal.)
After the Sutcliffe lunch and all the similar Sunday galas, Louisville begins to thin out. When the 91st Kentucky Derby has been run next week and all those well-fed, well-watered and specially treated guests begin to stream out of Louisville, they'll know they have been to more than just America's most popular horse race. They will also have been to the nation's most neighborly, most generous and most grandiose eating and drinking contest.