Modern Mingle Makers

Hostesses revive salons and the lost art of conversation

In a summer evening several years ago, the president of a local university botanical garden was seated next to a dean from another college at an outdoor dinner party of mutual friends.

The two strangers struck up a conversation against the backdrop of irises and roses and the gurgle of an antique fountain. By the end of the meal, the idea for a joint master’s degree program in plant conservation had been born.

The collaboration between Barbara Carr and Dan Linzer was fortunate, but not entirely accidental. Their hosts, Dolores Kohl Kaplan and Morry Kaplan, intentionally bring together people who they think will have lively conversations.

They hope those conversations spark ideas whose reach will extend well beyond the gathering. The events are equal part dinner party and cultural salon.

“It’s a group of very interesting people who are brought together, and sometimes when you do that, magic happens,” Carr says.

Today we may not have the cultural salons popular in 19th century Berlin or 20th century Paris, but some hostesses in the Triangle still keep this historically female tradition alive.

Some of the events are informal gatherings, such as Kohl Kaplan’s parties. Others are more structured, with theme topics for group discussion.

Whether the events are casual or not, hostesses say they are focused on reviving what they consider the lost art of conversation.

“People are hungry for great conversation,” says Kohl Kaplan, president and CEO of the Dolores Kohl Education Foundation, a nonprofit that develops children’s education and arts programs.

“We’ve lost those moments where we can really connect with people.”

She and her husband hold dinner parties in their garden two or three times a month in the spring and summer.

The guest list and seating arrangements are crucial, she says.

She’ll seat a violinist next to a baseball executive, or a theater director next to a cardiologist.

As the hostess, Kohl Kaplan feels an obligation to moderate the conversation in a subtle way, throwing out new ideas and making sure people who can speak on a particular subject are given the chance.

The concept of women’s salons dates back to ancient Greece, says Dagmar Herrmann, who teaches a college course on the topic.

The hetaera, who were educated courtesans, were well-versed in the art of conversation. A hetaera named Aspasia, who was a companion of statesman and general Pericles, was known for drawing the most interesting Athenians to her home.
“I would call her the first saloneer,” says Herrmann, a linguist and translator whose interest in salons grew out of her interest in communication and language.

This concept of bringing writers, politicians, artists and philosophers together to exchange ideas and create new friendships and collaborations continued in such places as the court of French King Louis XIII, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Paris and Washington, D.C.

Among the more well-known salon hostesses in modern times were writer Gertrude Stein in Paris and Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham.

Salons historically were held by people marginalized by society, which is why women often were the leaders, Herrmann explains.

Today’s salons have generally lost that marginalized component, but they continue the tradition of bringing together people who like to converse, particularly with those outside their regular social circle.

Having majored in French literature, Kohl Kaplan has long been familiar with the concept of salons, though she doesn’t consider her parties to be true imitations.

“I never woke up and said, ‘Honey, I think I’m going to have a salon on the 23rd,’” she jokes.

But her gatherings are more than mere dinner parties.

“When people talk about small stuff, you don’t really come away from the evening feeling that you’ve received anything,” she says.

“I hope that people are able to walk away feeling that their lives have somehow been enriched.”

Lynnette Gaza holds similar gatherings a couple of times a month.

Gaza, the president of International Women Associates and a part-time actress, hosts dinners that often revolve around a foreign visitor.She chooses about 10 guests who reflect a diversity of cultures, backgrounds and experiences.
She believes these guests have a responsibility to circulate and talk with one aother.
Her role, she says, is to play devil’s advocate and keep the conversation lively.
Gaza, who is Australian, says she has noticed that Americans often shy away from topics they think may offend others at the table. But she dives right in.

“In Australia, the reason you would have a dinner party is to discuss sex, religion and politics.”

Unlike Gaza and Kohl Kaplan, hostess Lynn Schnell intentionally set out to create a salon, going so far as to look up the word in the dictionary for clarification.

Schnell, who sells computer-based training programs to corporations, says the idea grew out of a desire to start entertaining more at her home. She wanted to bring together her smart, interesting friends from various backgrounds.

“Why not center it around that and put a little spin on it?” she says. “There’s so much to talk about these days.”