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.


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