Shirley Temple was the magical tap-dancing princess of my impoverished childhood in Waurika, Oklahoma, a vision of unimaginable glamour. I wanted all things Shirley Temple -- from coloring books to dolls. When my pious mother refused to indulge me, I was heartbroken. “Patsy Lou” she said “you know it’s a sin to go to the movies, and even if it wasn’t we don’t have money for such frivolity!” So you can imagine how excited I was, several decades later, when the real-life Shirley Temple (Black) was my guest at a Roundtable luncheon! There she was, from the silver screen to my table! And so it goes at the Roundtable.
Growing up in Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression I learned firsthand about scrimping and looking for bargains. Despite our meager dinners, my family had a Roundtable supper once a week or so --- although they didn’t call it a Roundtable, they called it, “getting people together to talk”.
My father, being a true minister of the people, met folk from all walks of life and would often invite them to dine with us. The mix made for fascinating conversation. They were a collection of disparate folks -- a down-on-his-luck bum, a missionary from Africa, a Fuller Brush salesman, a neighbor couple, the mayor, a suffragette -- all gathered at our large round dining table, everyone equal, eating, talking, laughing, and occasionally, crying as we bared our souls in an honest and forthright way.
My father (who was also a Father of the Nazarene church, and so a father to me twice-over!) would say a prayer, blessing the humble meal for the nourishment of our bodies and then guests helped themselves to bowls of steaming red beans, collard greens, cornbread and onions. Daddy would ask a question and the conversation began to flow like that river of milk and honey he preached about. The talk wasn’t always silky and sweet, sometimes it was more like firecrackers going down the gullet, but it was always interesting.
“Brother James,” my father said to the homeless man in our dining room, “why are you so down-on-your-luck? What happened to pull you off the railroad tracks of life?
“Well, Reverend,” the man said between big gulps of buttermilk, “I’m not a Christian, so accordin’ to your Bible I’m not a believer. But, you know, sir, I kinda like ridin’ the rails, not havin’ a care in the world, seein’ the countryside and sleepin’ in ditches.”
“‘Cept when it’s raining, I betcha,” my sixteen-year-old brother, Charles, chimed in, prompting laughter from the adults.
“No, not then,” James said with a snaggle-toothed grin, “Then I wrap myself up in oil cloth and try to find a dry barn somewheres to sleep inside of.”
No one condemned the man’s views or tried to convert him, and we enjoyed his tales of an unstructured life. The same was true of the missionary who regaled us with stories about elephants and lions and monkeys, as well as saving souls in Africa. Looking back, I wish we had talked about marriage and the trials and tribulations of relationships -- subjects we have no trouble talking about today.
After a twelve-year marriage I pulled up stakes and moved to California. During a year-long stint in a UC Hospital I fell in love with San Francisco, the city “air conditioned by God.” At that time, I was living on a ranch in the San Joaquin Valley, a rice-growing region in central California. After undergoing heart surgery as the tenth patient in the world to survive it, and after years of moving from one place to another with my husband, we divorced. I was young and foolish and didn’t know to ask for alimony, and drove to San Francisco in a secondhand purple-and-white Chrysler with only four hundred dollars to my name.
The first thing I did was to find an apartment and a job. It wasn’t difficult to solve those problems. I had experience in the retail world so that was a good place to start. But then I fell into a deep well of loneliness. I had no friends. As much as I longed to be invited to one of the shindigs I read about in the San Francisco Chronicle, I knew it would never happen if I stayed on the same trajectory as my old Chrysler. I remembered the Sunday Suppers my parents held when I was a child. Why, I could do the same thing, I realized. Then I thought of the poem “Outwitted” by Edwin Markham, that I’d memorized as a girl:
They drew a circle that shut me out,
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win
We drew a circle that took them in
So, you know what I did? I decided to grow my circle by inviting people to my apartment for lunch or supper, and soon my friendships grew like blossoms in springtime. A reporter and photographer for The San Francisco Chronicle attended one of my parties (at a time when newspapers were our main source of information long before Social Media was a gleam in Mark Zuckerberg’s eye) and soon a large feature about my Roundtable -- complete with photographs -- appeared in the Sunday paper. Not long after that, reporters from other news agencies were clamoring to attend my get-togethers and I became a San Francisco “celebrity”. Doors opened for me everywhere. McGraw-Hill offered me a contract to write a book on how to be a hostess and it wasn’t long before I had a job hosting a TV show on KGO (the local ABC affiliate), called Pat’s Prize Movie. I had thirty minutes of “talk time” and an hour for an old film. These were the early days of television and I was on my own, allowed to choose whatever topic I could think of. It was great fun.
When my first book, How To Be a Party Girl was published in 1965 noted San Francisco columnist Herb Caen reported, “Pat’s book took longer to gestate than that of an elephant!” If Herb were around today, he would have plenty to say about the time it has taken me to write Recipes for Conversation. After 30 years of hosting Roundtable luncheons and Sunday suppers -- some 500 well-attended scintillating meals– ta da! -- Here it is!
The steps I took to escape the lonely routine of my life and bring the party to my dining room are contained in this book. My life became enriched and is the reason I happily share this information with you. Laugh with me at my mistakes, learn from my victories, and reap the amazing rewards of relating to people on a level you may never have thought possible.
Preparing The Scene
After ten years in San Francisco I remarried, and my husband and I lived in a penthouse overlooking the Bay. We were known for our A-list parties. Still, I had begun yearning for conversations that went beyond chitchat about the weather, who wore what to the opera, etc. I was hungry to have conversations with people from different walks of life whose choices, circumstances, and accomplishments were polar opposites of mine.
The incubator for heart-felt conversation does not exist at most social functions; I felt emptier when I left a party than when I arrived. For my emotional well being, I needed to form connections with people beyond my social circle with whom I could communicate on a deep, honest level.
I’m not going to lie; when I first started out, I feared that I wasn’t up to the task of creating a Salon. While I was confident that I could handle invitations, food, service, and introductions, I wondered if I’d be able to set the tone for the kind of conversations I was seeking. Could I lead such a conversation, keep it going, and unsnarl it if necessary? I didn’t feel totally secure in my ability to avoid possible disasters – ugly disagreements, awkward silences – and keep the talk flowing smoothly in productive directions.
My plan for the Roundtables meant that many of my guests would be strangers to me – some shy, some overbearing, some accomplished and knowledgeable in fields I knew nothing about. Almost all of them would certainly have more formal education than I did; all I had was a high school diploma and six months of college.
Despite my fears, my first gathering was a success. My longtime friend, Merla Zellerbach, encouraged me to turn my knowledge into a book and Recipes for Conversation was born. She was as hungry for substantial interactions as much as I was. “I am sick of meaningless talk.” Merla said. “Most social events remind me of the inane questions asked celebrities at awards shows. ‘Who are you wearing?’ ‘Do you think the Crockers are getting a divorce?’ ‘Oh, look at that ugly centerpiece! Who uses sunflowers?’” Gossip is not food for the soul.
At the Roundtable we talk about things like rape, racism, and how to make the world a better place. We put our phones to bed; I have a docking system where guests charge their cellphones out of sight of the table. I devised The Question, asked towards the end of each luncheon. We also honed our listening skills, interpreting body language and thoughtful inquiries until we were comfortable asking and answering profoundly personal questions.
Our Stories and Our Friends
Too often we hide from the stories that define us. Perhaps we think we need to fabricate our days, hoping to appear more important than we feel we are. But I’ve found, after decades of bringing strangers together, that people are eager for an honest setting in which they can reveal their raw and unpretentious selves.
At one of my luncheons in 1978 for example, the legendary concert promoter Bill Graham told us about coming to America from Germany as a child.
His decidedly Brooklyn accent would have convinced you that he was a native English speaker. “My parents sent me and my siblings out of Germany, away from the Nazis, when it became obvious that as Jews we were in danger. We were split up: some were sent to China, others to Russia. I was sent to New York in September of ‘41 and three months later, the war broke out between Germany and America. I became a doorstep-child. Strangers took me in. The kids here didn’t care what your religion was. If you spoke German, you were a Nazi. So I got my head kicked in going to and from school every day. I never spoke German again until after my success as a musical wizard. I found my siblings from all across the world and brought them to the top-of–the-hill mansion I built in California’s Marine County. We stood around the piano singing the old German songs of our childhood for the first time....” Bill’s sobs resonated around the table, as tears of sympathy ran down the cheeks of all those seated there that day. Like Bill, we used napkins to wipe our faces. It was a true Roundtable moment of honesty and heart.
At another luncheon the author of the sensational best seller Roots, Alex Haley, told of the impact the Roots miniseries (which aired in 1977) had on his life. “Everything was pretty quiet, even when Roots as a book was just running away. And then the television show played. On the last night of the show, when 80 million people were watching, I came on for the last four minutes. That was it. But the next morning when I got out of the cab at Kennedy Airport to catch the plane for Los Angeles, I was mobbed.”
Such are the fascinating and bonding personal stories, that spill out at the Roundtable. Some of the guests I remember most fondly weren’t well known at all. There was Shirley Boccaccio, an attractive dark haired, single mother of three small children. Shirley was on welfare and talked about her view of herself. She gave the rest of us an insight into the trials of those struggling with poverty. Later, Shirley published books for children and happily left the welfare rolls.
Another woman at a Roundtable revealed she had been operated on for a malignant brain tumor. “When I learned I could die soon, it changed my whole concept of life. Life became so valuable. I now live for each minute and find great pleasure in the most simple task.” Her words prompted a lengthy conversation about life and death and what we each wanted before we took our last breath.
Inez Garcia, another guest, was out of jail on bail. Born in a New York ghetto, she could neither read nor write. During a highly emotional moment, Inez, who was extremely articulate, told us about killing the man who had raped her. By the time she finished talking, we were convinced of her lack of guilt and many of the guests volunteered to support her cause and help pay for her defense. We were gratified later, when a judge declared her innocent.
Rape was also the subject at the following 1976 Roundtable.
Eldridge Cleaver: Founding member of The Black Panthers.
Merla Zellerbach: San Francisco socialite and columnist.
Dr. Rollo May: Renowned existential psychologist.
Marcia Brandwynne: Los Angeles news anchor.
Sydney Goldstein: Founder of City Arts & Lectures in San Francisco.
Mimi Silbert: Chairman of the Board, President, and CEO of The Delancey
Father Miles Riley: Catholic priest, television and radio personality.
Dialog from a Roundtable
Eldridge: The only time I ever did anything that I felt guilty about was rape. And I didn’t get caught for it. But it was just something that ate me up.
Merla: What was your motivation for rape?
Eldridge: I still have difficulty in ironing that out. The way it happened the first time – I was living with a girl in an apartment in Los Angeles and we had to spend a couple of days in a motel while the apartment was painted. Well, we were sitting in the car outside this motel waiting for our room to come up and the girl with me saw her next-door neighbor, who was a married man, going into this motel with a girl who wasn’t his wife. She called to him and he came over to the car and pleaded with her not to tell anybody. And I just had a big flash on the vulnerability of people who go to motels. There is a whole scene that’s going on that can’t be reported, nine times out of ten. I was on parole and I had been selling marijuana and I had this big wad of money on me. If somebody had robbed me, I couldn’t have done anything. So anyway, the next weekend I found myself back at the same motel.
Eldridge: Because I saw that these people could be ripped off with impunity. So I went back to do it. I followed a couple into a motel room and I tied the guy up and put him in the closet and did what he had come there to do. And it wasn’t reported. There was something about the motel situation that intrigued me, pulled me. I wrote a poem about motels. To me, a motel was like an obscene institution, you know? I kept going back, every weekend to that motel and others.
But, years later, when I was in San Quentin, and then thereafter, it just ate me up because there was no way I could justify what I had done. It just kept coming back to me as something wrong. No problem with robbing a Safeway store, which I had also done. I was glad about that, you know. But this particular act- rape --it just drove me up the wall.
Marcia: But when you did these things, when criminals rape and rob – aren’t they afraid of getting caught, of being put in jail, of their freedom being taken away?
Mimi: Most of the people going around committing crimes really have no freedom to lose.
Eldridge: You don’t calculate that far. The act itself is what you want to accomplish. Most criminals don’t really plan their retreat, you know, like how to get out of a bank after you get the money and the cops are coming. The guy may feel that if he didn’t get killed he got off lightly, you know? And you have to distinguish between crimes against property and crimes against the person.
Rollo: That’s what rape is.
Eldridge: If a guy goes after property there’s sort of a cold-blooded calculation involved. He’s weighed the risk and he’s weighed the gains, even to the extent of saying, “If I get this money and get away with it, great. But if I get caught -- .” Then he calculates the number of hours that he will spend in jail. And often they equate with the number of hours he would have had to work for the same amount. I used to do it all the time.
Mimi: And it’s better in jail almost, than some of the jobs.
FR. Miles: Plus, it’s a crapshoot. You still have a chance of getting off scot-free.
Sydney: I think this about life -- that everyone wants to feel a sense of power over their lives and a sense of control and most people don’t. Committing crimes is a temporary surge of power. Rape certainly is. And research on this shows that women who become extremely aggressive rather than being the victim, who begin to take sexual initiative, then--.
Mimi: The rapist wilts and goes away?
Merla: I’ve wondered about that. What would happen if you say ‘this is fabulous, where have you been all my life?’
Pat: It would be a very unusual woman who could do that.
Marcia: If anybody could have done that it would have been Carolyn Craven. But she said she couldn’t when it happened to her because she felt if the man could rape, he could kill.
Merla: And also he kept saying, ‘Pretend you enjoy it,’ which is kind of weird.
Rollo: Who said this, the rapist?
Marcia: Yes, this guy who has committed seventy known rapes in Berkeley. And he just happened to hit on a reporter, Carolyn Craven, of Channel 9.
FR. Miles: She was really gutsy.
Marcia: He threatened his victims that if they reported him he would come back and kill them, but she had the courage to go public.
Eldridge: Do you think he chose her or was it random?
Marcia: He doesn’t know who the women are, but he watches their pattern for about five days and knows how they live. He has never chosen a house with a dog in it, or a house with a husband or a male who is there regularly. It’s always a woman alone or a woman with a child.
Rollo: Is he still at large?
Pat: Yes. It’s been headlined in the papers. Rollo doesn’t watch TV or read the papers.
Rollo: Only the New York Times.
Eldridge: I just want to point out something I am more and more impressed with as time goes by. That is, we have become more and more preoccupied with the penal code and the civil code. But there are other codes that really preceded these two. These are codes that are not policed by policemen but by family and community and self. And if we have a society that depends solely on the penal code and the policeman, then everything is already lost.
Merla: You’re right.
Eldridge: It’s really the policeman of the heart.
Don’t think for a second after reading these topics of conversation that we are always serious. No Lordy, no! At one luncheon we spent the entire three hours laughing. Every time a heavy topic began another person would interject a story that had us helpless with mirth. Inyoung Boyd, originally from Korea, told us about reading Gone With The Wind, and was seized with the desire to become Scarlett O’Hara. This beautiful Korean woman envisioning herself as a Southern Belle in hoop skirts brought peals of laughter to the table. That wasn’t all; Inyoung left Korea and flew to Atlanta, Georgia intent on becoming a true Southerner. She opened a store for Korean foods in a city that had no interest in such foreign delicacies. “They wanted fried everything, even fried ice cream,” she reported.
As you can imagine, because I live in Hollywood, the talk sometimes veers to celebrities. Guest Bob Ellison, a writer on the iconic Mary Tyler Moore Show, talked about touring Michael Cage’s Bel-Air Tudor mansion -- formerly owned by Dean Martin and later Tom Jones. “You should have seen the place,” Bob said, leaning back in his chair, “the Olympic size pool was a mess, actually a swamp! Full of tree branches, debris, and filthy water. I looked at that mess and said- “Hey Michael, you must use the same pool boy as I do.”
Everyone longs for meaningful connections with other humans. Over the long years of my life, I have learned that people who lack them fill up the resulting void in different ways. Some people become alcoholics, some become religious zealots, or thieves, or lovers. There are as many ways to cope, as there are causes of pain. We need to be able to talk with forthright honesty about our most deeply felt desires and voice our opinions without fear. Once in a while, we even feel compelled to cry in the company of others, without embarrassment. The ability to laugh at the silly things we have done without fear of censure is a gift. We need real camaraderie.