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The White Dinner is a love poem to friendship, joy, elegance, and the beautiful monuments of Paris. And each year it is an unforgettable night. Other cities have attempted to emulate it around the world, with little success. There is only one Paris, and the event is so revered and respected and perfectly executed that it is hard to imagine it in any other city.
It began some thirty years ago when a naval officer and his wife decided to celebrate their anniversary with their friends in a creative, unusual way, in front of one of their favorite monuments in Paris. They organized about twenty of their friends, everyone dressed in white. They arrived with folding tables and chairs, linens for the table, silver, crystal, china, maybe flowers, brought an elegant meal with them, set everything out, and shared a glorious celebration with their guests. The magic began on that night.
It was such a success that they did it again the following year, in a different but equally remarkable location. And each year ever since, the White Dinner has been a tradition, and more and more and more people attend, to celebrate the evening in the same way, entirely dressed in white, on a night in June.
The event remains by invitation only, which is respected by all, and over the years it has become one of the most cherished secret occasions held in Paris. The all-white dress code is still mandatory, including shoes, and everyone makes a real effort to dress elegantly and follow the established traditions. Each year the White Dinner is held in front of a different Parisian monument, and the possibilities are vast in Paris. In front of Notre Dame, the Arc de Triomphe, at the feet of the Eiffel Tower at the Trocadero, in the Place de la Concorde, between the pyramids in front of the Louvre, in the Place Vendôme. By now the White Dinner has been held in a myriad of locations, each one more beautiful than the last.
Over the years, the White Dinner has grown so large that it is held now in two locations, with the total number of invited guests approaching fifteen thousand. It’s hard to imagine that many people behaving properly, arriving looking elegant, and following all the rules, but miraculously they do. “White food” and meals are encouraged, but above all a proper meal must be served (no hot dogs, hamburgers, or sandwiches). A real dinner is meant to be brought along, set out on a table on a white linen tablecloth, eaten with silver utensils, with real crystal and china, just as in a restaurant, or a home where honored guests are being entertained. Everything one brings must fit in a rolling caddy, and at the end of the evening, every scrap of garbage or debris must be put in white garbage bags and removed, down to the last cigarette butt. No sign of the revelers must remain in the beautiful locations chosen that year for the White Dinner. People must appear and disappear as gracefully as they arrive.
The police turn a blind eye to it, although no permits are taken out for the event, despite the vast number of participants (taking out permits would spoil the surprise), and remarkably, there are no crashers. An invitation to the White Dinner is much coveted and celebrated when received, but those who are not on the guest list never show up and try to claim they are. There have been no bad incidents or hostilities at the event. It is an evening of pure joy, reinforced by respect for fellow guests and love for the city.
Half the fun is not knowing where it will take place that year. It is a formal secret kept religiously by the six organizers. And wherever it will happen, people are invited in couples, and each couple must bring their own folding table and two chairs, both of regulation size.
The six organizers inform “subheads” of the evening of the first location where people are meant to gather. All invited guests are to show up with their caddies, tables, and chairs, at one of the initial sites at precisely eight-fifteen p.m. The two groups will dine in two different locations. The excitement begins to mount when the first locations are revealed, which revelers are informed of only the afternoon of the event. It gives one some rough idea of where the actual dinner might be held, but it’s all guesswork, since usually there are several possible beautiful locations within easy walking distance of that first location. All day people try to guess where they will be having dinner. People arrive promptly at their first location, dressed all in white and equipped for the evening. Friends find each other in the crowd, call out to each other, and discover with delight who is there. Spirits are high for half an hour in the meeting place, and at eight-forty-five precisely the final destination is revealed, no more than a five-minute walk from where they are.
Once the location is announced, each couple is assigned a space the exact size of their table, and they must set up in that space, in long neat rows. People often come in groups of couples, friends who have attended the event for years, and dine side by side with their individual tables as part of the long rows.
By nine o’clock, seven thousand people have reached the spectacular monuments that are the lucky winners for the night. And once they have arrived and been given their table location assignment, measured by the inch or centimeter, tables are unfolded, chairs set down firmly, tablecloths spread out, candlesticks produced, tables set as for a wedding. Within fifteen minutes, the diners are seated, pouring wine, happy, and beaming in anticipation of a spectacular evening among old and new friends. The excitement and the finally revealed secret of the location make the participants feel like children attending a surprise birthday party. And by nine-thirty, the festivities are in full swing. Nothing could be better.
The dinner begins about an hour before sunset, and as the sun sets, candles are lit on the tables, and after nightfall the entire square or place where the event is held is candlelit, as seven thousand diners clad in white, toasting each other with shimmering crystal glasses, silver candelabra on the tables, are a feast for the eye. At eleven p.m., sparklers are handed out and lit, and a dance band plays halfway through the evening, adding further merriment. At Notre Dame the church bells toll, and the priest on duty offers a blessing from the balcony. And precisely half an hour after midnight, the entire crowd packs up and disappears, like mice scampering into the night, leaving no sign that they have been there, except the good time that will be remembered forever, the friendships that were formed, and the special time that was shared.
Another interesting aspect of the evening is that no money changes hands. No fee is charged to be invited, nothing has to be purchased or paid for. One brings one’s own meal and cannot buy one’s way into the White Dinner. The organizers invite whom they chose to, and the event remains pure. Other cities have tried to make a profit from doing similar dinners and immediately corrupt the event by including rowdy people who don’t belong, pay any price to be there, and spoil the evening for everyone else. The White Dinner in Paris has stuck to the original model, with great results. Everyone looks forward to it, as the date draws near. And in thirty years, the secret of where the actual dinner will be has never leaked, which makes it even more fun.
People wait all year for the White Dinner and are never disappointed by the event itself. And unfailingly, it is a night one could never forget, from the first moment to the last. The memories of it are long cherished by those who are lucky enough to be asked. And everyone agrees, magic happens there.
Jean-Philippe Dumas had been attending the White Dinner for ten years, since he was twenty-nine years old. And as a friend of one of the organizers, he was allowed to invite nine couples, to form a group of twenty seated together with their individual tables tightly placed side by side. He chose his guests carefully every year, and along with good friends he had invited before, he tried to include a few new friends who he thought would be respectful of the rules of the event, get along with his other guests, and have a good time. There was nothing haphazard or casual about his guest list. He took it very seriously, and if he included anyone who didn’t appreciate the evening, or wasn’t fun to be with, or tried to use it as a networking opportunity, which it emphatically wasn’t, he replaced them the following year with other friends. But mostly he brought back regulars who begged to come every year.
After Jean-Philippe married seven years earlier, his American wife, Valerie, came to love the dinner as much as he did, and they carefully selected their guests together every year.
Jean-Philippe worked in international investments at a well-known firm. Valerie had met him two weeks after she moved to Paris. Now, at thirty-five, she was the assistant editor of French Vogue, and the leading candidate to become editor-in-chief in two years, when their current one was slated to retire. Eight years before, Jean-Philippe had fallen in love with her at first sight. She was tall, sleek, smart, with long, straight dark hair. She was chic without being tiresome about it, had a great sense of humor, and enjoyed his friends. She had been a wonderful addition to the group, she and Jean-Philippe got on famously, and after they married, they had had three children, two boys and a girl, in six years. They were the couple everyone wanted to spend time with. She had worked at American Vogue in New York straight out of college, before she moved. She took her work seriously, but still managed to be a good wife and mother and somehow juggled it all. She loved living in Paris and couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. She had made a big effort to learn French for him, which served her well at work too. She could speak to photographers, stylists, and designers now. She had a heavy American accent he teased her about, but her French was fluent. They took their children to her family home in Maine every summer, so their children could get to know their American cousins, but for Valerie, France had become home. She no longer missed New York or working there. And she thought Paris the most beautiful city in the world.
They had a wide circle of friends and a good life. They lived in a wonderful apartment. They entertained often, and sometimes cooked for friends, or hired a cook for informal dinner parties. Their invitations were much coveted, especially to the White Dinner.
Valerie had met Benedetta and Gregorio Mariani at Fashion Week in Milan right after she had gone to work at Paris Vogue. They hit it off immediately, and Jean-Philippe loved them too. They had invited them to the White Dinner even before Jean-Philippe married Valerie, when they were still dating. The Marianis had been regulars ever since and flew in from Milan every year. This year Benedetta was in a white knit dress she had designed that showed off her excellent figure, and high heels, and Gregorio was wearing a white suit he’d had made in Rome, with a white silk tie, impeccable white shirt, and immaculate white suede shoes. Gregorio and Benedetta always looked as if they’d just stepped off the pages of a fashion magazine. Both their families had been involved in fashion for centuries, and they had managed to combine their talents to the benefit of both houses. Benedetta’s family had been making knits and sportswear that were famous around the world, and they were doing even better now than previously with her talent for design. And Gregorio’s family had been making the finest textiles in Italy for two hundred years. They had been married for twenty years, and Gregorio had been working with her ever since, while his brothers ran the family mills and supplied them most of their fabrics. They were slightly older than Jean-Philippe and Valerie, Benedetta was forty-two and Gregorio was forty-four and they were always fun to be with. They had no children, as they had discovered that Benedetta was unable to conceive, and had chosen not to adopt. Instead, she lavished all her love and time and energy on their business and worked side by side with Gregorio, with impressive results.