With their sensational style and gift for entertaining, these experts have advice every modern host or hostess can benefit from.
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book cover Entertaining in Style: Nancy Astor and Nancy Lancaster
Credit: Courtesy of Rizzoli New York

Whether you're a seasoned party-thrower adept at managing dinner, cocktails, and even impromptu backyard barbecues for 10 or 20 guests or a total novice with barely a grown-up social gathering under your belt, there's something valuable to be learned from the pros of bygone years; this is especially true when we're thinking about the entertaining experts who wined and dined guests with enviable panache. Entertaining in Style: Nancy Astor and Nancy Lancaster: Table Settings, Recipes, Flower Arrangements, and Decorating ($37.61, amazon.com), co-authored by cousins Jane Churchill and Emily Astor, invites us to take cues from the tables of two of the 20th century's most esteemed hostesses and icons of style. Photographed at Cliveden, Nancy Astor's historic country house outside of London, and her niece Nancy Lancaster's many magnificent English country houses, this transporting collaboration also gives us a window into the privileged world of these formidable women. And what a world it was.

From British Royalty to Lawrence of Arabia

Married to Waldorf Astor, heir to John Jacob Astor's enormous dynasty, Nancy Astor also made her mark in politics. "Nancy Astor was the first woman to take her seat in the British Parliament," says her granddaughter, photographer Emily Astor. "She entertained at Clivedon, St. James Square, her London house, as well as in Elliot Terrace, her house in Plymouth Sutton, which was her constituency. She had her own set of china for Plymouth, which was only used for entertaining there. Today, her eldest granddaughter still uses this attractive floral china in her house in Scotland."

Renowned interior designer Jane Churchill, who is Nancy Astor's great-great niece and Nancy Lancaster's great-niece, notes that Astor often entertained political and society figures at Cliveden, especially in the years when she was an M.P. (Member of Parliament) from 1919 till 1945. "The guests included Queen Mary, George Bernard Shaw, T.E. Lawrence, Neville Chamberlain, but always mixed with relations of all ages," says Churchill. Queen Marie of Romania, Charlie Chaplin, and Winston and Clementine Churchill were also among the luminaries who broke bread at the Astor homes, and much thought went into who sat where adds Astor, who's found detailed guest list upon list in Nancy Astor's archives.

Nancy Astor's niece, Nancy Lancaster, who also married men of distinction (her first husband was a descendent of the Marshall Field department store empire), was a nonpareil interior decorator with a wonderful eye, renowned for taking the English country house look to magnificent new heights. "The main point of Nancy Lancaster's interior design was comfort, and it was never pretentious. She was the first person to make bathrooms as comfortable as drawing rooms," explains Churchill. Both women, the cousins point out, were full of incredible energy. Whether channeled into politics, interior design, or entertaining the dignitaries who flocked to their tables, they gave it their all.

Southern Hospitality Migrates Across the Pond

Though they each made their homes in England, "The Two Nancys," as they were sometimes called, were actually American-born. Their upbringing at Mirador, an estate outside of Charlottesville, Virginia, wielded outsize influence on their generous hospitality and elegant approach to decorating and entertaining, achieving luxurious simplicity. Their menus also reflected that sensibility, with classic Southern dishes culled from the family's "Mirador Cookbook," (the original handbound in Morocco leather and red cloth) a cornerstone of their entertaining repertoire. English and French dishes were added as Astor and Lancaster put down roots in England, and many of those treasured recipes, like Maryland crab soup, Virginia ham with pickled peaches, and Cliveden baked haddock fillets are featured in Entertaining in Style. "They are not complicated, but we did leave out the one that said add squirrel for taste!" laughs Churchill.

Takeaways for Stylish Entertaining Today

Photographer Andrew Montgomery's gorgeous images in Entertaining in Style capture the joie de vivre of these two chatelaines, with breathtaking shots of verdant gardens and topiary, stately (but never stuffy) rooms, and lavish tables decorated to the nines with floral arrangements and charming china patterns. Few among us entertain the most important people of the day in English country houses, let alone live with such tasteful trappings of wealth, yet we can still draw inspiration from Nancy Astor and Nancy Lancaster's inimitable style as we welcome friends and family to our homes. "I think no matter how smart or casual dinners are today, it does not take much to create a wonderful party, however large or small," says Astor. At Cliveden, fresh flowers were changed between lunch and dinner and while that might not be the case today, she says, those blooms can still work their magic. "Together with pretty napkins, plates, and glasses, the table can look lovely."

Churchill wholeheartedly agrees, noting that while dinners nowadays are more casual affairs, contemporary party-givers have a world of resources at their fingertips. For instance, she sets her table with Ikea wine glasses in a classic design, with a more expensive colored water glass. "It does not have to cost the national debt," she says. "Good food, which can easily be simple, is key, and the choice of guests is important too!"

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