To create a summer idyll, you need: smiling women, a garden, sunshine, lots of flowers, fluttering skirts, a bare shoulder or two, heaps of strawberries, small cunningly shaped cakes, lots more flowers, bare toes, grass, pink Champagne, and big beautiful hats. Men are optional; the hats are not.
"I've always wanted to have a hat party," says Oprah from beneath the brim of an aqua straw confection. "I wanted more than a garden party, I wanted a fantasy, a scene from a Merchant Ivory film."
At the Montecito home of friend Genevieve Robert Reitman, she got what she wanted. There, beneath a benevolently blue California sky, nine of Oprah's girlfriends gather for a late luncheon. Genevieve and her daughter Catherine, a student at U.S.C., are already on the scene. O magazine editor at large Gayle King, Harpo Films president Kate Forte, NBC news correspondent Maria Shriver, and The Oprah Winfrey Show executive producer Dianne Atkinson Hudson and supervising senior producers Dana Newton Utigard, Ellen Rakieten, and Katy Murphy Davis arrive within minutes of one another, resplendent in summer frocks and a bouquet of fancy hats.
It looks like Paris and Ascot and Audrey Hepburn and a Baptist church on Easter Sunday. Like birthday cakes and wedding presents and high tea at Harrods. Women wearing hats turn even the most gorgeous garden into backdrop scenery, a small luncheon into a party. Women wearing hats are different from women without hats. "Is this my little girl?" asks Genevieve's husband, Ivan, catching sight of 21-year-old Catherine in a wide straw covered with silk roses and orchids. "My little girl who I don't even recognize?"
"I've always loved hats," says Oprah, and it's easy to see why. Women wearing hats are at once sophisticated and whimsical. Surrounded by dappled shade and color, their faces are younger, softer. They carry themselves differently, daintily, like deer. Their voices flutter a bit, as do their hemlines, even when they're talking about things like money and power and work, even when it's clear that they're very much in charge of their lives.
Descending the steps into the garden, laughter drifting behind them, these women wearing hats seem a splendid extension of the rose-laden centerpiece on the table and the sweet nosegay that decorates the back of each chair. The linens echo the terracotta-tile roof and the warm yellow of the house, the green of the garden and the blush pink of the English roses that Oprah likes best, because they're thickly petaled like peonies, her favorite flower. Everything blooms here: The handle of the water pitcher is twisted with ivy and French lavender, the punch bowl rises from a wreath of lemons and lavender and narcissus, the trays of hors d'oeuvres—panini with prosciutto and asparagus—are scattered with blossoms.
The air, too, blooms with the glimmering notes of flute and harp—whose players sway behind music stands wrapped in ivy and flowers as if they, too, had sprouted from the earth.
Talk around the table is as varied as the food. Politics and journalism, art and cooking—avocado, cucumber, and tomato salad with sautéed shrimp. Kids and computers and tennis shoes, media and cultural influence, stuffed chicken breasts with baby root vegetables. When the dessert arrives, however, all conversation stops. Chocolate cakes in the shape of flowerpots topped with chocolate "dirt" and sugar posies play second fiddle to no topic except delight.
By the end of the meal, the women are still wearing their hats, but they have slipped off their sandals. Languid and giddy with the meal and the talk and the afternoon, they stand barefoot in the grass, eating strawberries like stars in a Bergman movie. They make small sounds of wonder at the parting gifts—rose-topped boxes full of fragrance and makeup, wee hatboxes in which nestle amazing iced cakes disguised as hats, and individual stacked silver tea services.
"We will have to do this again," Oprah says, raising a shared sun-lulled murmur of agreement. "It really is the perfect kind of party," she adds, looking at the flowers and the tartlets and the lovely gifts. "Just like a wedding, but no lifetime commitment involved."
Except, of course, to the hats. "I'm never taking mine off," says Gayle as the party begins to drift apart. Leaning in to hug Oprah, Katy discovers the one disadvantage of millinery—what with the brims and the bows and the feathers, saying goodbye isn't easy.
Mary McNamara is a Los Angeles Times staff writer.