* The table's beautiful, the food's a delight, but what
truly sets apart L.A. screenwriter Laurie Frank's creative
and dynamic dinner parties is her gift for the guest list.
By Reed Johnson, Times Staff Writer
the ditzy, post-feminist parable "Making Mr. Right,"
which Laurie Frank co-wrote, the heroine played by Ann Magnuson
is a go-go career gal who has mastered the fine art of applying
makeup and shaving her underarms while barreling down the
freeway in a red Corvair convertible.
It's all very '80s, very L.A. though the film is
actually set in Miami Beach and it depicts the kind
of helter-skelter life that Frank has known during her bicoastal
existence as a documentary-filmmaker-turned-big-studio-screenwriter
and art gallery impresario.
But as she steps into the sun-glazed kitchen of her Italianate
home in the Hollywood Hills, arms filled with groceries,
fresh-cut sunflowers and pussy willow stems, Frank is as
poised and serene as a Botticelli portrait. "I have
dinner parties down to a science," she says evenly.
"I don't have to do anything."
That's a mild exaggeration. But it perfectly captures Frank's
deceptively laissez faire attitude toward home entertaining.
As a recent get-together at her home demonstrates, this
transplanted, Ivy League-educated New Yorker seems to have
mastered the trick of creating dinner parties that seem
simultaneously laid-back and meticulous, elegantly choreographed
without ever feeling micromanaged to create a haute-couture
It's a shade past 5 o'clock on the year's first truly summery
afternoon. In about three hours, 25 or so guests
Frank never bothers with precise head counts will
stream through the front door, where they'll be hugged and
kissed by the hostess, individually and warmly. Then they'll
walk down a short flight of steps, past a wall lined with
stunning Depression-era photographs by the legendary Horace
Bristol, and into an art-strewn living room where Adam Vignola,
an actor who moonlights tending bar, will place a martini,
a mojito or perhaps a very full glass of Châteauneuf-du-Pape
in their hands while they're still busy gawking at the floor-to-ceiling
views of the hills rising above the Hollywood Bowl.
will all look so effortlessly inviting that Frank's most
recent acquaintances may wonder how many hours she spent
pondering the menu and slaving over the floral arrangements.
But regular visitors know that Frank's dinner parties are
less about the food or the surroundings, enticing as they
are, than about the mix of personalities, ideas and creative
"Everything in L.A.'s a secret, and I love that. It's
like a giant treasure hunt," says Frank, by roundabout
way of explaining how she picks the right ingredients for
her intimate affairs. Even so, she concedes, "for a
lot of people it's hard to penetrate that secret,"
and the sprawling metropolis can feel isolating and indifferent.
Getting to know and appreciate the human richness of Los
Angeles, she believes, is "an antidote to that loneliness."
Because Frank was an only child who "forgot to get
married and have children," her extended family is
made up of concentric circles of film, TV and art-world
colleagues, cherished neighbors, old Yale pals and youthful
acquaintances from Paris and other previous lives. And as
a busy single working woman who likes to throw dinner parties
at least twice a month, she takes an approach to hostessing
that's as much Madame Curie as Martha Stewart: It's all
about getting the right chemistry.
"I've been at Laurie's many times and it's always really
interesting people and it's never the same people,"
says painter Dorothy Braudy, who attended last week's soiree
with her USC professor husband, Leo. "The other thing
about Laurie, I've never, ever heard her say one mean thing
So how has she survived nearly 20 years in Hollywood? It's
a tale that emerges over the next couple of hours as Frank
bustles about getting ready for her arrivals without ever
appearing rushed. Earlier in the day she'd gone grocery
shopping at Mayfair and Trader Joe's, two-thirds of her
usual party-shopping holy trinity (Whole Foods is the other
regular stop). Setting her bags down in the kitchen, she
pauses for a cigarette.
When hosting company, Frank favors food that's tasty, unpretentious
and relatively easy to make in large quantities. For tonight's
main course: a whole salmon, deboned, poached in white wine,
stuffed with garlic, scallions, lemons and chives and topped
with a teriyaki, mayonnaise, sour cream and dill sauce.
She'll accompany that with caviar potatoes and three salads:
mixed greens, eggplant and a fine carrot râpée.
Usually, Frank says, she'll whip up the latter two salads
the night before a party. But she spent the previous evening
hosting a reception for artist Larry Bell at her itinerant
gallery, whose latest incarnation is Off Main at Santa Monica's
Bergamot Station, where she has shown for the last year.
Frank began organizing art shows with her screenwriting
partner, Floyd Byars, several years ago and has since mounted
dozens of them under the name Media Rare Gallery at such
venues as Miau Haus and Les Deux Cafés in Hollywood.
morning of her party, Frank had accompanied Bell to a TV
interview, leaving her somewhat short on party preparation
time. No worries. She confesses she "cheated"
a bit and bought two of the salads at Beriozka Grocery,
a Russian deli on Santa Monica Boulevard that displays a
painted mermaid swimming in a caviar sea in its front window.
Putting the potatoes on to boil, Frank, dressed in green
cargo pants, a black pullover and Dolce & Gabbana crocodile
skin boots, takes a few minutes to savor the amber light
and balmy air spilling through the open kitchen windows.
It's an ideal moment for appreciating the playful wit that
Nic Valle, an artist friend, used to help reinvent the formerly
cramped space shortly after Frank moved into her home 13
years ago. "I really live in my kitchen and my bedroom,"
she says. "The rest of the house is for my friends."
Riffing on a Southwestern motif, Valle laid down a base
coat of deep-blue paint, which he then whitewashed, suggesting
a pale desert sky. A floor of dark gray Mexican marble and
a wall-mounted steer's skull between the slender see-through
refrigerator and the stainless-steel sink create the sensation
of wandering into one of Georgia O'Keeffe's burnished landscapes.
Adding the final touches to a style that Frank dubs "rustic
modern" are an antique butcher block table; a vintage
O'Keefe & Merritt stove, red as a fire engine; and a
red telephone that looks as if it should connect to Nikita
Khrushchev's desk at the Kremlin through some Cold War time
warp. It rings loudly for the second time in 10 minutes.
For now, Frank lets it go.
she does remember to feed Mega, the female boxer who keeps
Frank company along with Hot Dog, a 20-year-old "feminist
cat." Frank slips some anti-gas pills into Mega's metal
dish, cheerfully explaining her pooch's tendency to telegraph
her presence at packed social gatherings.
With the potatoes hissing away on the stove and the baby
greens and Belgian endive awaiting their bath in the sink,
Frank sets the dinner table. It's a Guatemalan altar table,
maybe 150 years old, and capable of comfortably seating
14. Frank purchased the carved relic from some former tenants,
and it has morphed from found-art object into a kind of
At one end of the table a huge mirror bestrides the floor,
reflecting the guests' bonhomie back at themselves. At the
opposite end, French doors open onto a patio where a large,
round, metal table seats an additional eight to 10 guests.
Frank is particularly fond of its unusual top: a mosaic
of smooth white splinters, flecked here and there with color.
It's made up of the remnants of Frank's mother's wedding
china, which smashed during shipping from New York to the
West Coast, made into a smashing objet d'art by artist friend
Carefully, Frank lays out sterling silverware (another bequest
from her mother), rose-colored wine glasses, bottles of
Evian, small round ashtrays and medium-sized white plates
inscribed with a picture of a camel. "You really know
you're in the home of a smoker when the plates come from
Camel cigarettes," she says. She also begins peeling
the wrappers off the dozens of candles she'll use to illuminate
the dining and living rooms and fill the Moroccan lanterns
out on the patio.
just gone 6:30 when Vignola, the bartender, slips through
the front door and begins setting up the libations on a
small, wooden, 1920s classic Monterey bar stand in a sun
porch tucked below the dining room. There's a variety of
beers and wines (a Francis Coppola Blanco, a 1998 Marques
de Riscal). There's also a pitcher of pre-mixed martinis,
"and lots of different juices and sodas for people
who are in AA," Frank says with her usual forthrightness.
Vignola, an Army veteran who has just made his first film,
says that Frank's guests pick up on her easygoing vibe.
"They seem to let go of whatever armor they have,"
he says. "Maybe it's the art."
Ah yes, the art. Tons of it, everywhere you look. In all
manner of materials, media and genres, from the elegant
solemnity of Jeff Dunas' photos of American Indians to the
full-frontal camp of a stuffed bighorn sheep named Mario
that commands the far end of the living room. Practically
every nook and cranny of the 1926 house, whose previous
owners included Maurice Chevalier, imparts a sense of drama.
Small wonder that it has guest-starred in a Sheryl Crow
music video, a Jaclyn Smith clothing line ad and a Tampax
commercial that was filmed right in her kitchen, Frank proudly
More helpmates arrive. Patricia Foulkrod, a movie producer
who's temporarily lodging with Frank, comes bearing peach-and-pink
roses that Frank proclaims the most beautiful she's ever
seen. Another friend pitches in filling small bowls with
A little after 7 o'clock, the fish flashes a crooked grin
and disappears into a long silver broiling dish. "I
like to leave the head and the tail on because it reminds
me more of the fish," Frank says, adding a dash of
As Frank's assistants thread their way from room to room,
dodging furniture and two photographers and a reporter from
The Times, a glass cake dish dome gets knocked off the shelf
under the butcher's block and shatters. Frank instantly
appears, utterly unfazed, with a vacuum cleaner. She has
changed into a sea-green velvet dress with a plunging neckline,
a crystal-and-pearl necklace and red lipstick. As per her
dinner-party custom, she is brazenly barefoot. Soon the
floor is safe to walk again.
By 7:40 the party is shifting into high gear. The phone
rings again and this time Frank grabs it. Hello. Oh yes,
she assures her caller, the more the merrier. "I can't
stop inviting people," she says, returning to her lemons.
Another neighbor and party perennial, screenwriter-producer
Jan Sharp ("Wide Sargasso Sea") arrives. "Well,
this is very fabulous," she says in a plummy Australian
accent. She and Frank exchange smooches. "You look
very fabulous," Frank replies. Alas, Sharp's husband,
Australian director Phillip Noyce ("The Quiet American,"
"Rabbit-Proof Fence"), is at home convalescing
from an old rugby injury.
first CD of the night goes on the stereo as more guests
come strolling down the 15 steps that lead from street level,
past a sculpted cactus plant, to Frank's front door. She
always makes a point of introducing each of her guests to
one another. Like any good dramatist, she loves creating
spinoff relationships, sequels as it were. Soon the house
is awash in serendipity, in free-floating coincidences and
newly discovered connections involving friends and friends
of friends, former roommates, distant cousins. Six degrees
of separation instantly dwindle to two or three at most.
Michael Besman, the "About Schmidt" producer,
sips a mojito and swaps industry chat with Sharp. Allan
Mindel, a movie director-producer who also founded the Click
and Flick modeling agencies, is roundly congratulated for
the buzz generated at Cannes by his feature film "Milwaukee,
Minnesota," starring Troy Garity, Josh Brolin, Bruce
Dern, Randy Quaid and Debra Monk. How'd he put together
that cast, the reporter asks? "Everybody in the film
was either someone I knew or a friend of a friend,"
Mindel says. "You use the people you've met in your
By 8:30, the setting sun's glorious ochre has been overtaken
by candlelight. "I love the night," Frank says,
"because it covers a multitude of sins. This house
is a little frayed at the edges." In truth, the encroaching
candlelight lends an enchanted quality to the evening. Informality
reigns. The only two men who came in ties quickly shed them.
Vignola is preparing his third pitcher of mojitos when suddenly
Frank's voice breaks through from the living room: "Hey,
hey! Mega's into the cheese!"
On the long table, dinner plates are taking shape as Frank
serves up the salads while Foulkrod drizzles teriyaki sauce
on each salmon portion. Extra chairs are rustled up from
the kitchen and soon the guests are finding their places,
though not by design. "We never do a seating arrangement
because I think it works out better if you don't,"
Frank says. Most couples have been separated and are busy
recombining with new partners.
the patio table, photographer Robert Stivers, who has exhibited
with Frank, is talking with Shoshannah Stern, a young actress
who's just been cast as a hearing-impaired FBI computer
expert in ABC's upcoming Thursday-night drama "Threat
Matrix." Stern, who comes from a fourth-generation
hearing-impaired family, says it's been her dream since
she was a little girl to live in L.A. and be an actress
and "wake up every day with a smile on my face."
As the guests clean their plates, platters of green grapes
and crackers and brie arrive. Two men have left the dinner
table and are talking on a sofa. Other guests are starting
to arrange themselves in new configurations.
Meanwhile, Frank heads for the kitchen to make coffee and
slice up two Gelson's cakes: a fudgy extravaganza whose
jutting shards of hard chocolate remind Frank of the spiky
futuristic architecture in Fritz Lang's "Metropolis,"
and a green marzipan number.
Stacking plates in the kitchen, Foulkrod says she's realized
something about Frank tonight.
"She makes everyone feel like the most amazing person,
and that whatever they're doing is the most amazing thing."
That doesn't happen enough in this world, Foulkrod says.
A few feet away, late arrivals Lisa Bittan, an attorney,
and Mickey Kaus, the trenchant Internet blogger, take in
the scene. "I realized half the people I knew in Los
Angeles I met in this room," says Kaus, a native Angeleno
who recently moved back to his hometown, in a wondering
It's 11:45 p.m. and most guests have begun to tear themselves
away from the long table, with its brimming ashtrays and
jumble of empty champagne flutes and coffee cups. Vignola
is still hovering, dispensing refills. In the background,
the lady of the house, now with a mandarin blouse thrown
around her shoulders, can be heard affectionately introducing
Kaus to some friends as a "neo-con."
By half-past midnight the party finally starts to break
up in earnest, and the last guests bid their goodbyes and
reluctantly head for their cars. Outside, a mockingbird
is singing to wake the dead, while just below street level
the candles in Frank's house are still visible, and their
warm glow endures like a longtime friendship.