From How (Not) to Have a Perfect Wedding

Chapter 1


“Good afternoon! Come in! Welcome to Rosecourt! I hope you’re all rested and ready for the wonderful evening ahead. Yes, isn’t this weather fantastic? You couldn’t have picked a more perfect day for a wedding!”

Another bride, another groom, another Saturday in June. Another smile on my face, although, as I was advised when I started at Rosecourt as a hostess some ten years ago, “The smile on your face doesn’t have to be sincere, just present.” I remember the jolt I felt when the previous event supervisor imparted that wisdom in her most gracious tones, beaming a patently false smile at me in demonstration. I smiled back—already I was learning—but how could she be so two-faced, so cynical?

I was then in my late thirties, and having reached one of those family-career crossroads the advice gurus extol as an opportunity for self-exploration, I was optimistic about trying a new job in a new field. For that matter, I was still optimistic about marriage, and you’d have to be coldhearted indeed not to be entranced by a wedding in such a romantic setting. Though neither as large nor as grand as some of its more famous neighbors, Rosecourt to my mind is still the most beautiful of the Newport mansions, its neoclassical white stone exterior a sugar-icing confection, its airy interior furnished, as far as our tenuous budget will allow, with objets d’art and period antiques that the Lamont family might have owned when the house served as their summer cottage during the Gilded Age. Our landscaped grounds front on fabled Bellevue Avenue, where millionaires’ carriages once passed on parade. In the rear, where the outdoor weddings are performed, a lush green lawn unrolls from the columned verandah to a vista of blue Atlantic Ocean. On the south side of the property, through an archway in a privet hedge, the rose garden first planted by Augustus Lamont, an amateur horticulturalist, has just burst into bloom, a profusion of peach and scarlet petals, the air scented by their collective sigh of release…

Forgive me—I’m beginning to sound like a glossy brochure—but to maintain the aura of wealth and history, to sell the illusion, is imperative. Like the former Astor and Vanderbilt properties we’re nestled between, Rosecourt has been in the tourist trade for several decades now, and the guided tours by day, weddings and corporate parties by night, saved our mansion from condo conversion or worse. Our mansion—I do love the place—and now that I’m the event supervisor, I try to revive my optimism for each guest who walks through our doors. But tonight will be especially hard, and I’m secretly dreading the impossible expectations, volatile egos, and obnoxious behaviors a wedding too often brings.

“Allison, let me have one of our hostesses escort you up to the suite, where you and your bridesmaids can dress. Mead, you and your best man might like to remain at the front of the house to greet the guests as they arrive. The remaining groomsmen can position themselves on the verandah to assist with seating. And here’s our little flower girl, Fiona. Doesn’t she look sweet!”

Faux smile. Tonight’s event isn’t a ceremony, it’s an extravaganza. New York people, two hundred and fifty guests. Years ago, when the group of investors who bought and restored Rosecourt first opened the mansion to the public, a minimal office staff worked overtime to produce the few evening events. Now, with upwards of a hundred parties and weddings a year, the office handles the bookings, and a separate function staff, which I direct, steps in at night. It spares me from meeting the bride and her family until the rehearsal—the office is usually sick of them by that time—although copious notes and a code scribbled inside each client file cue me in on what to expect.

Allison’s file bears the fatal VHM notation—very high maintenance—not surprising when the wedding party alone consists of the bride and groom, seven bridesmaids, seven groomsmen, a junior bridesmaid, ring bearer, and flower girl. Add to that lineup five parents—the bride’s mother and father being divorced and the latter remarried to a twenty-two-year-old trophy wife—and you can appreciate the degree of tact that will be required. At the rehearsal, one of the groomsmen was missing due to a delayed flight from Chicago, three of the bridesmaids were distracted by hair/humidity issues while a fourth sulked in an unexplained pout, and two-year-old Fiona whimpered with exhaustion from the travel and excitement as her yuppie parents alternately bullied and coaxed the poor child to perform. Deirdre Hollingsworth, Allison’s mother and the mastermind behind this shindig, watched tight-lipped as a snake hoarding its venom when Gordon, her ex-husband, practiced escorting their daughter down the outdoor aisle. Conspicuously absent was Kimmy, the trophy wife, and I confess my staff and I are dying of curiosity to see her.

Yet despite the flusters and tension, Allison remained coolly collected, a sculpted blond of the Hitchcock variety, while Mead, in sunglasses, is laidback and joking. Not quite the pairing you’d expect, but they’re in their early thirties, a career couple, and should be mature enough to know their own minds. Another plus: his parents, so far, seem to be the noninterfering kind. Best of all, I can count on the caterer and band the Hollingsworths have chosen. Riverside is one of the premier restaurants in Providence, and Hank, the catering manager, is a pro; likewise, the Glen Gold Orchestra. Both have been at Rosecourt before, and their familiarity with the house is a big advantage. To pull off this bash, Deirdre Hollingsworth has also engaged a phalanx of florists, a photographer, a videographer, and a valet parking service.

Now all these people are swarming over the lower floor of Rosecourt, steaming up the kitchen with boiling pots on the cast-iron stoves, plunking crystal and flatware onto the ballroom tables, rolling keyboards and drum sets into place beside the grand piano at the head of the dance floor. They’re overwhelming the mantels, the marble table in the foyer, and the grand staircase with lavish floral displays. Toss in the rehearsal dinner, the gowns, the tuxes, the suite of rooms at Newport’s poshest hotel and my guess is a price tag in excess of $200,000.

“Yes, Mrs. Hollingsworth, everything’s on schedule. As your guests arrive, our front door butler will direct them inside, where our hostesses will help them locate their place cards and ask them to sign the guest book. The box for money cards is on this side table. Guests will then turn right through the music room and outside for the ceremony. We won’t open the ballroom doors until it’s time for dinner so everyone can get the full breathtaking effect. Would you like to go upstairs to help Allison dress or would you prefer to see the seating arrangement on the lawn? The seating? Of course, if you’ll come this way, please.”

I gesture for Mrs. Hollingsworth to accompany me and suck in a battle-ready breath. Deirdre Hollingsworth is one of those nipped-and-tucked, salon-perfected women in their late fifties who aren’t afraid to spend money in pursuit of a lifestyle that succeeds in pleasing them only when it succeeds in making their friends overtly jealous. They always have better taste than the interior decorators they’ve hired, their gourmet kitchens feature a granite-topped island with gleaming, never-used copper pots hung from a ceiling rack, and their walk-in closets—wedged with designer clothes—are large enough for several homeless people to camp in. The opportunity to stage a daughter’s wedding provides the ultimate showcase for their talents, yet a risky showcase at that. Image, prestige, and status, not to mention the bitterness provoked by her ex-husband, are all riding on Deirdre’s bare, tanned shoulders as she descends the verandah steps and walks up the aisle, inspecting the rows of padded gilt chairs radiating in a semi-circle from the altar. She’s already dressed in a gown that is nothing short of gorgeous, a strapless, full-skirted, burnished gold-bronze affair, the satiny fabric appliquéd with vibrantly colored beaded peacocks. Her short, chic hair has been expertly dark-blond highlighted to match.

“You look stunning!” I’d normally say to the bride’s mother, and mean it, but in Deirdre’s case I hold back. It would sound too familiar. So I merely stretch the smile on my face as I await her verdict. How can she possibly find fault? The rows of chairs are arranged to the precise width she specified, the lawn, thanks to a relentlessly rainy spring, is as plush as emerald velvet, and the aisle cloth upon which Allison will walk has been laundered to a virginal whiteness. The florists have been laboring since one o’clock to erect an eight-foot-high bower of white dogwood branches to frame the bridal couple as they speak their vows. A catch rises in my throat at the loveliness of it, the serendipity of beautiful weather, the brilliance of blue ocean dancing beneath a few cotton-puff clouds.

Like a seek-and-destroy missile, Deirdre zooms in on target: a single blossom in the bower, slightly bruised by handling, its petal edges browning in the heat. Frowning, she snaps it off. Not our fault. As with the caterer and musicians, we provide a list of recommended florists, photographers, and other wedding suppliers, and leave it to the client to interview and select. Nevertheless, Rosecourt ultimately gets the blame or the credit for everything, including the weather, so every detail must be scrutinized and triple checked.

I divert Deirdre’s attention from the bruised dogwood to the minister, a handsome silver-haired man they’ve brought from New York. He’s pursing his lips in contemplation of a sailboat on the horizon, and I leave them to confer, the smile dropping from my mouth as soon as I’ve turned my back.

Inside, I’m ambushed by my staff.

“Anne, the caterer wants to know what time to send out the servers with the champagne welcome.”

“Anne, the toiletries baskets for the restrooms—is the bride supplying them or should we get ours?”

“Anne, the photographer’s in a snit because the waiters are still setting up in the ballroom, and he says he needs everyone out so he can get an uncluttered shot. We told him he’ll have to work around them, but he’s being an asshole about it.”

“Anne, the bride’s father just arrived with his Barbie doll, excuse me, his new wife.”

“Okay.” I point a finger around the circle, delegating tasks. “Tell the caterer we’re expecting the first guests around five-thirty and we’ll give him a heads up to send out the champagne. The bride’s supplying the toiletries baskets; look in the upstairs office, one of the bridesmaids brought them to the rehearsal last night. Ignore the photographer, he’ll get over it. I’ll go greet Mr. Hollingsworth. Where’s Allison, our bride? Still upstairs in the suite?”

“With a gaggle of bridesmaids.”

“Good, keep them there. And someone go tell Glen and the band they’re absolutely not to announce a special dance for the parents of the bride and groom or to play ‘The Anniversary Waltz’ tonight.”

“Anne,” says Leon, our head butler and my second-in-command, and we all pause at his deep, barrel-chested voice. “I presume you’d like me at the front door?”

“Yes, thank you, Leon.”

He nods and departs, and the others dart away on their assignments, my battle-tested troops. Usually, I try to conceal from them a VHM code, not wanting to prejudice them against the wedding party and guests before the evening starts. But two hundred fifty is the maximum head count for Rosecourt, and they already know it’s going to be a long, hard night. They reported at three o’clock for setup, cleaning and vacuuming the entire first floor, ferrying the more valuable antiques upstairs to safety, and arranging the rented ceremony chairs on the back lawn. Then they manually hauled another two hundred and fifty chairs and twenty-five six-foot round tables up the narrow basement stairs to the ballroom, Rosecourt’s original investors having neglected to install any kind of elevator, let alone a helpful freight elevator, in their historically accurate nineteenth-century house. By the time set-up was complete, the staff had fifteen minutes to change from their sweaty work clothes into their uniforms, formal butler’s suits with black tailcoats for the men, and for the women, long black skirts, white blouses, and gold vests embroidered with the Rosecourt crest.

Now they’ll be on duty for the ceremony at six, the cocktail hour at seven, the formal dinner and reception from eight until midnight. Then they’ll re-don their work clothes and break down the party, hauling tables and chairs back to the basement, repositioning antiques, mopping floors and vacuuming the debris left by the mob of eating, drinking, dancing guests. If they’re efficient, they’ll have the last stain out of the carpet by two in the morning, an eleven-hour day spent mostly on their feet. And for many of them, it’s a second or third job. If I could share one trade secret with our unsuspecting guests, it is this: my staff hates you. You are the only thing standing between them and a paycheck.

I step forward to greet the bride’s father, Gordon Hollingsworth, suave, early sixties, and Kimmy, the trophy wife. So this is what men can get away with. Kimmy—blond, naturally—is cheerleader pretty and wears a bright smile and coral lipstick. On a slender chain around her neck, a diminutive gold cross points down to the suggestive cut of her silky black halter dress. I don’t know when black became acceptable for weddings, but on Kimmy this backless gown with its alluring drape is downright hot. Alongside the Hollingsworths are Mead’s parents, Joseph and Donna Morelli, stocky and down to earth, easy to lose sight of in a crowd. Looking at them, you wouldn’t quite have predicted Mead’s tall, dark good looks.

“Dr. and Mrs. Hollingsworth, Mr. and Mrs. Morelli, welcome to Rosecourt! I’m so glad the traffic on Bellevue didn’t hold you up. I believe the caterer and florist have finished in the ballroom. Would you like to take a peek? And isn’t this weather fantastic? You couldn’t have picked a more perfect day for a wedding!”

I guide the quartet to the ballroom and slide the heavy doors open a few feet. Sometimes, I hope, if I prime everyone sufficiently, if I tell them that everything is wonderful, breathtaking, exquisite, they’ll buy into the illusion and believe me enough to discount any evidence that may arise to the contrary. Because a perfect wedding is what all clients want, even though, in a saner moment, they would admit it’s an impossible feat. In my ten years at Rosecourt I have worked virtually every type of wedding and witnessed every type of disaster, the rings lost en route to the altar, food poisoning and allergic reactions, kitchen fires, flooded toilets in the restrooms, elderly guests suffering heart attacks, even a drunken bride and groom in fisticuffs—all nonfatal to date. So to emerge at the end of a major production like tonight’s with only minor grievances ought to be as close to heaven as it gets.

But no, it must be perfect, because a wedding that is flawless to the last detail is somehow a promise that life together thereafter will be perfect, too, and why shouldn’t it be, why couldn’t it be, if only you can get the beginning exactly right? Such yearning, when the real mystery is why anyone continues to marry at all. It’s hardly necessary, cohabitation is mainstream and respectable, and given the divorce rate, surely no one can have the blind faith that their union will be the one shining exception, the happily-ever-after into-the-sunset that not even death can part. I should know. I got my own divorce papers this morning.

The Hollingsworths and Morellis have nudged forward for a peek into the ballroom, and I prepare to second their exclamations, the instantaneous gasps. But then I look too, and my eyes can’t seem to retract. It is beautiful, it is exquisite, a fairy-tale scene of crystal and flowers, a swirl of candles and elegantly set tables reflected in gilded wall mirrors, a snare of brightness and promise that constricts my throat. What happened? What went wrong? Mrs. Morelli is speaking—to me, I think—but I can’t seem to reply. The wire around my throat cuts through my voice, and the sparkle of the ballroom swims before my gaze in a hurtful white light.

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