Meet the royal party planner

Elizabeth, a cousin of Queen Elizabeth II and, for more than 50 years, her party planner, in London. She may have been married at Westminster Abbey, but still thinks of herself as a hardworking entrepreneur.
Elizabeth, a cousin of Queen Elizabeth II and, for more than 50 years, her party planner, in London. She may have been married at Westminster Abbey, but still thinks of herself as a hardworking entrepreneur.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

Queen Elizabeth's cousin is the go-to person for aristocrats and luminaries celebrating big events

LONDON • Lady Elizabeth Anson, Queen Elizabeth II's cousin and her party planner for more than 50 years, was raised in a Downton Abbey-like home where servants ironed the newspapers, and was married at Westminster Abbey.

But on a recent Friday, Elizabeth - the orchestrator of some of Britain's most aristocratic parties - was in her white-azalea-filled sitting room. She was wearing a grey Tomasz Starzewski jacket bought on sale more than 40 years ago, drinking tea from a purple-flowered tankard (an eBay find) and discussing her recovery from her weekly lottery ticket-buying addiction.

"I still do a lucky dip if it's a huge amount of money," said Elizabeth, who has also organised events for Tom Cruise and other celebrities seeking discretion.

On her feet were what looked like Roger Vivier court shoes, but when a reporter suggested she might like to remove whatever was stuck to the bottom of them before having her photograph taken, Lady Elizabeth, 75, handed the footwear to her liveried butler. "Certainly, my lady," he said, before getting rid of the price tags that revealed that the shoes cost £25 (S$49).

"Marks & Spencer's best," Elizabeth said, looking delighted at this evidence of her frugality.

  • LADY ELIZABETH'S PARTY TIPS

  • Whether or not she is entertaining royalty, Queen Elizabeth II's party planner adheres to eight strict rules.

  • A ROUND DINING TABLE IS BEST

    When Lady Elizabeth Anson entertains at home, she is always glad she has a round dining room table so she can dispense with protocol - no worries about determining who is the most important guest and thus must be seated in the middle.

    "It makes life easier," she says.

    "If there's a duke there, he can sit somewhere opposite me if I think there's somebody more amusing that I want to sit next to."

  • THE INVITATION SETS THE TONE

    If you have a cheap-looking invitation, she says, "you imagine there's going to be acidic wine and miserable food".

    Simple and elegant are preferable to invitation one-upmanship.

    "Someone wanted me to do 'save the dates' with Swarovski crystals costing no less than £2,500 (S$4,900) a card, and that's just vulgarity," Lady Elizabeth says.

    For Americans, she admits to occasionally using Paperless Post.

  • GOOD PARTIES DO NOT HAVE TO BE EXTRAVAGANT

    "A party with good table wine and good pasta or good sausages and mash can be just as much of a success as one with Krug, caviar, oysters and lobster," she says.

    "It's not about expensive ingredients.

    "It's about people."

  • GOOD LIGHTING IS ESSENTIAL

    After the guests, the single most important element of a party is proper illumination.

    "Lighting makes or breaks it," she says. "You can use it to make people look nice and to divide a big room up."

  • PICK UP THE PHONE

    It is the fastest way to get organised, and there are fewer misunderstandings.

    "It's old-fashioned but it's instantaneous," she says. "I don't want endless e-mails and bits and bobs."

  • GETTING EVERYONE SEATED

    If you are trying to get guests to take their seats, tell them it is a souffle.

    "I've never had anyone come back to me later and complain that it wasn't," she says.

  • SEAT ALL THE BORES TOGETHER

    "They don't realise they're the bores, and they're happy," she says. "It's my biggest tip."

  • END A PARTY WHEN THERE'S AT LEAST 20 PEOPLE ON THE DANCE FLOOR

    "If you let it peter out, it's death," Lady Elizabeth says. "I made one mistake in the whole of my career, which was being persuaded to restart the band. It was a flop."

    Announce or have the band say that it is the second to last dance, and then stop the bar from serving. "People leave fast when they can't get a drink," she says.

And really, why shouldn't she be?

Among her "grander family", as she calls them, frugality is a trait to be celebrated. The Queen has been known to take public trains. Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge (whom Elizabeth refers to as "Catherine"), is applauded for wearing dresses more than once.

KEEN EYE, CREATIVE MIND

The devil is in the detail, and the detail doesn't need to cost very much.

LADY ELIZABETH

Let somebody else be the embarrassingly profligate relative that makes the monarchy look bad.

Elizabeth - daughter of Princess Anne of Denmark, goddaughter of King George VI - is just another hardworking entrepreneur, albeit possibly the only one with the word "lady" in her e-mail address.

"I do not know how to be a lady who lunches," she said. "I love my work, and my work pays for my home." She asked the butler to bring her her nicotine sweets. She gave up smoking in the 1960s, picked it up after 17 years, then quit with difficulty again 11 years ago.

If she were to start again, the sitting room would rebuke her. Every surface is crammed with decorative eggs - 536 of them, by her grandchildren's last count - that she began collecting after her stepfather presented her with an alabaster one as a worry bead for her right hand when she first put down the cigarettes.

Hers is a nerve-racking business.

One of her projects is the Queen's 90th birthday. The milestone last month was marked with street parties, pageants and ceremonies, but Elizabeth handled the private family celebration, which, like all of her events, she was "not prepared to discuss".

Still, she is as unguarded as one can possibly be when bound by confidentiality agreements, referring to one of Ivana Trump's post-Donald husbands as "looking like a frog". (Ivana Trump is a former client. Things did not end well.)

Of the overweight king of Tonga, whom she was looking after, along with all the other foreign heads of state, at the 2011 royal wedding, she said: "He thought he'd break the furniture in Buckingham Palace." The chairs there are "very low", she said, "very wonderful Louis Quatorze. It looks as if you sat on one, it would break. But it doesn't."

During a discussion about the lost art of conversation because of cellphones, she took her incessantly ringing land line off the hook, letting the receiver dangle at her feet, and leaned in, saying: "I think I can tell this. It's a bit about the royal family."

She described how the Queen had had her grandchildren over for dinner. "And she said to me that she found it really difficult," Elizabeth said, "because they didn't really know how to talk to each other. And she said, 'I suppose it's because they're always getting up and down and helping somebody and putting something in a dishwasher or whatever they're doing, because they don't have enough staff.'"

On the subject of Her Majesty: For the record, the Queen is a "most meticulous hostess", though she does not insist only on Malvern water or yellow freesias, as has been reported. "People love creating myths," Elizabeth said. "It makes them feel very self-important."

In fact, it was a gardener at Windsor Castle who decreed the yellow flowers.

For the wedding of William and Kate, for which Elizabeth was an adviser (and planned the wedding eve family dinner), the couple had very strong ideas that the Queen "was marvellous and listened to". Traditional royal weddings have no reception afterwards - guests just depart after the service - but William and Kate wanted one after seeing that was what their friends had had. "And so the palace had to learn quite a lot about different canapes, because they weren't used to doing them," Elizabeth said.

Her code name around the office for the Queen is (or was until it was published) Shirley Temple, though Elizabeth said she can't remember why. Referring to her staff of five, she said: "We literally had the funniest names possible for everybody."

Elizabeth started her business at age 18, in 1960. Her inspiration was the stress of planning her own 1959 debutante party, which prevented her from enjoying the evening.

Chasing down RSVPs was a particular headache, and she claims credit for inventing "this ghastly thing called the reply card" to solve the problem. The first time she created one, she forgot to leave a space for people to write their names, and ended up with a bunch of yeses and nos but no clue as to who they were from.

Her first event for the Queen was a disco at Windsor Castle for Prince Charles, then 15, and Princess Anne, then 13. "My business started before the discotheque was invented," she said. "So when this man told me he was going to charge me £25 to put on records for the evening, I thought, 'Is this man absolutely crazy?' Anybody can put on a gramophone record." She soon learnt it was "an art form".

A party for the Rolling Stones ended with the police showing up as guests were drunkenly throwing unopened bottles of Dom Perignon into the Thames, but generally, Elizabeth's events are known for their calm elegance and thoughtful touches.

At a white-themed dinner for 40 people in March hosted by royalty at the cavernous, drafty Victoria and Albert Museum, Elizabeth marched over to "my little Indian caftan man on the Portobello Road" and bought a load of white pashminas to drape on each chair. She hid hot-water bottles underneath cushions. "It's that ghastly boring phrase 'the devil's in the detail'," she said, adding:. "And the detail doesn't need to cost very much."

She can do strict protocol - working out what year various marquesses or earls were created to determine seniority (and thus seating arrangements) - but she is not afraid to break it, along with convention.

Glynn Woodin, who has worked with her for 30 years as the managing director of Mustard Catering, a society favourite, recalled that recently she decided the damask tablecloth (Woodin described its colour as "eau de vie with a bit of olive") would look better flipped, using the rougher textured side. "We were doing a party absolutely littered with royals," he said. "You and I would be horrified to use a cloth on the wrong side, but it was exactly right."

She has never advertised. Instead, she attributes her success in part to being "terribly, terribly shy", arranging party spaces with the timid in mind. "The downfall of any party in the countryside is to walk into a hall and be confronted by a dance floor," she said. "Some young man has driven you down, so he's got a girl on both arms, and what do you do with yourself?"

Her solution: a well-lighted bar.

With multiple events a week, she said she has little time for hobbies, though she was an avid "Downton Abbey" watcher (dismayed as she was by the dining room tablecloth - "a well-polished table was a butler's pride and joy").

She has a fondness for foraging, especially for mushrooms. "There's a wonderful book called Food For Free and it's quite amazing what you can eat from the hedgerows," she said.

She paused to contemplate what she would do if she retired, but then quickly got back to work.

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 01, 2016, with the headline 'Meet the royal party planner'. Print Edition | Subscribe