A Tale of Two Birthdays–Indoor and Outdoor Entertaining

Before May completely gets away, here are two dinner parties I thought you might enjoy and be inspired by. One is outdoors in the olive grove at Rancho La Zaca, our home in California. The other is in the beautiful Manhattan apartment of my friend Carolyne Roehm.

Tom's Birthday at Rancho La Zaca
Tom's Birthday in the olive grove at Rancho La Zaca

Both were May birthdays–one for His Grace (aka husband Tom) earlier this month and one for the Principessa (aka Carolyne Roehm, friend and traveling buddy). I’ve taken to titling my friends and family. Clearly have watched too much Downton Abbey.

No fuss was made over HG’s birthday per se, because he is grumpy about it, so the party was officially for no reason whatsoever.

We started with drinks by the pond and a special guest…

Fortune Teller at Rancho La Zaca
Oh my, look! A gen-u-wine fortune teller. "Madame Pam" (as I called her for fun) was an amazingly accurate palm reader and great fun. She can be reached through the Mystic Merchant bookstore in Solvang, Ca. 805-693-1424

Thank goodness for the roll of striped fabric leftover from slipcovering chairs. It became the fortune teller’s booth and the tablecloth.

Table setting for Tom's birthday at Rancho La Zaca
Table setting for Tom's birthday at Rancho La Zaca. Red peonies on brown and white striped Sunbrella cloth, with rock crystal candle holders and lots of votives. Garden variety red balloons bouncing around in the olive branches.

You think three dozen balloons is a lot, but they didn’t go very far among the olive trees. I have learned to get what I think I need and then get some more–but sometimes I forget.

Dinner in the olive grove, Rancho La Zaca
Dinner in the olive grove, Rancho La Zaca

You always hear about bringing the outdoors in, but sometimes it is fun to bring the indoors out.  We brought out two of the striped slipcovered chairs out and set them up with a table and candelabrum to make a seating area. “Madame Pam” carried on her readings there.

She asked Preacher, not knowing he was a minister, if a lot of people came to him with their problems. “I mean a lot of people,” she said. He allowed as how they did, but he never did tell her he was a minister.

Dinner in the olive grove at Rancho La Zaca
The breezy evening required us to anchor the napkins with the silverware and to clip place cards to chair backs with clothes pins, which was kinda cute. This photo by Partner, aka Bill Hurbaugh.

This post is a study in contrasts. As I had been caught up in moving and other of life’s busy-ness, I confess HG’s party was rather hastily (though lovingly;) thrown together, and that is okay. The important thing is to do it. If you wait until everything is perfect, you’d hardly ever do anything. People are happy to be invited, happy not to do it themselves, and happy to be with you, and that is plenty.

Birthday dinner at RLZ
As it was breezy, we clothes pinned the place cards to the backs of the chairs. Photo by Julie Farrell.

Not to say that a bit of perfection now and then isn’t wonderful. The second party, a few days later in New York, was planned and executed with such grace and beauty that one could naught but gasp with visual pleasure.

Carolyne Roehm dinner party
In Carolyne Roehm's Manhattan apartment, the stage is set for an elegant dinner, much to her surprise.

Carolyne’s handsome longtime beau Simon Pinniger and her assistant Rosa Costa and staff conspired to surprise her this year, and surprise her they did. Read her account of it and see all the beautiful photos on her site here.

Caroline Roehm dinner party
At Carolyne Roehm's birthday dinner. Set to perfection...
Caroline Roehm dinner party
Carlos and Antonio, of Carlos Rivas Floral Design, did the gorgeous arrangements of peonies. Simon's beautiful invitations were a clue to the scheme, and friend and designer CeCe Cord even wrapped her gift accordingly.

If you follow Principessa you know she has recently acquired a lovely old house in Charleston and is up to her elbows in Palmettos restoring it. Simon commissioned a birthday cake made as a replica of the house. Have you ever.

Caroline Roehm dinner party-Sylvia Weinstock cake
Caroline Roehm dinner party-Sylvia Weinstock cake

It was good, too.

Here we all are.

Carolyne Roehm beautiful birthday dinner.

Among Carolyne’s lovely and talented guests this evening were Alex Reese and his wife the architect Alison Spear. Alex is above on Carolyne’s left, and Alison is at the end of the table on the left. Their wonderful house in upstate New York is featured in Architectural Digest this month , written and produced by another friend and another May birthday girl, Nina Griscom, who’s been blogging up a storm lately, btw.

Many happy returns! … And speaking of returns, I will return soon with Painting in Italy Part 2 and with a  brief re-cap of  our cycling adventure in the cold, rainy Loire Valley… If you think HG was grumpy about his birthday…


  1. Takes my breath! Just birthdays to remember always. What a treat to armchair see. Cannot wait for next writing on Loire. Was there once in time of drought and next time flood stage and still raining. Whatever, wonderful! Have fun..
    Lynn and Dick

  2. Tom’s birthday was actually magical – so “thrown together” depends on who’s doing the throwing…
    And even something like not having the number of balloons befitting a “go big or go home” approach can work unexpectedly well as they floated on a perfect breeze like an installation of festive orbs – they had space to move…
    So, as you said, the important thing is to do it…
    And the palm reader was truly a revelation – and a great addition to a birthday party when we’re inclined to reflect on the gift of life – in specific…

  3. Just beautiful party settings. The large rock crystal candle holders will be on my list of look for’s at the next Tucson Gem and Mineral Show. Can you possibly share your resource of them?


    1. Thank you Cynthia! Sadly I failed to collect. Do you think it is too late to send bills? 🙂 xo Frances

  4. Duly inspired by both parties!! Hope you will get in touch when you visit Carolyne in Charleston. there is so much to paint here-you will love it. i work for the fabulous water color artist Mary Whyte. I would love for you to meet her

  5. Wow, will you come and organize my life? I loved the red balloons in the olive trees.I’ve had fun with the biscuit recipe, but the southern twang is difficult.
    xo, Linda

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