The First Recorded Cocktail Party Wasn't What You'd Expect

Cocktails are arguably one of the most enjoyable ways to drink. The combination of hard spirits mixed with other flavors aesthetically presented in a garnished glass brings an element of innovation and surprise to the drinking experience. The origins of this imbibing style are shrouded in mystery; there are many stories, though none seem wholly supported or convincing. Per The Feast podcast, some say that an early American revolutionary stole her loyalist neighbor's chicken and added the feathers to their glasses, resulting in a "cocktail." Others link the word to New Orleans and the French term "coquetier" (via Angel's Envy). The original entry for cocktail in the Oxford English Dictionary notes it as a term for a non-thoroughbred horse, which was then later extended to alcoholic spirits mixed with something else. But as Difford's Guide declares, the question still isn't quite settled. 

Along with the question of cocktails and their origin is the matter of cocktail parties. People can always enjoy a cocktail on their own, of course (as Stanley Tucci masterfully reminded us on Instagram during the pandemic). But they're better enjoyed with company. Ideally, a crowd. 

What are the origins of the cocktail party? While it's still being debated, a party held by a certain Mrs. Walsh is often considered the first gathering that fits the bill (per The Wall Street Journal and Sauce).

It wasn't in London or New York

In 2007, Eric Felten clarified for his Wall Street Journal readership that the first (or at least first recorded) cocktail party wasn't held in London, as some had suggested to him, or even in New York. No, the first cocktail party was held in none other than St. Louis, Missouri. The house? 4510 Lindell Boulevard.

It was a large, but private affair: Mrs. Julius S. Walsh, Jr., (referred to as "a leader in social activities" by the local Tacoma Times paper) was the hostess, and the guest list included 50 or so of her close friends. Mrs. Walsh, born Clara Bell, was a native of Lexington, KY, came from a very wealthy and important family, and was considered an excellent horsewoman. When Clara Bell married Julius Walsh, president of Terminal Railway Co. and Mississippi Valley Trust Co., their 1906 wedding was referred to as "the most notable affair in the history of Lexington society." The pair was quite a power couple — they took up residence at the Plaza Hotel in New York immediately after it opened (via the New York Times), though they continued to spend time in St. Louis, especially when there was a party involved.

A Sunday party in April of 1917

The Tacoma Times newspaper entry for Clara Bell's cocktail party is dated April 17 and refers to the party as having been "last Sunday," which suggests that the celebration first took place on either Sunday, April 8 or 15 of 1917 (per The Feast). It started at noon, and a number of the guests came straight from church or after having attended a "motor promenade of the boulevards" — so it was practically a brunch cocktail party.   

Party-goers had ample reasons to look for distractions. The First World War was raging, and American troops had just joined their European allies on the front at the beginning of April, as the front pages of that week's newspapers remind us.

The party lasted an hour — from 12 until 1 p.m. — and one of the many novelties it introduced was people standing, rather than sitting, while they drank and socialized, though chairs were made available for the weaker set (per Pomp and Whimsy). Clara Bell Walsh was a savvy woman, and had hired a bartender to mix drinks behind the family mansion's mahogany bar. The newspaper reports a variety of old-school mixed drinks being served, with Bronx and Clover Leaf cocktails leading the charge, one Sazerac being mentioned, and numerous orders of High Balls and Gin Fizzes. Apparently, only a limited few were "old fashioned enough" to request Martinis and Manhattans, per The Tacoma Times.

The archbishop lives there now

The house where that fateful cocktail party was held doesn't seem to be a hot spot for revelry these days. In fact, it was bought by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. Louis in 1924, per The Wall Street Journal, and became the archbishop's residence.

The party made quite an impression and sparked numerous imitators, as the Tacoma Times newspaper article alludes and historians at outlets like The Wall Street Journal have noted. The hostess Clara Bell herself went on to live an unusual and free-spirited life. She divorced her husband and lived the rest of her life in the Plaza Hotel, holding famous parties and breaking social taboos, according to Pomp and Whimsy. She died in 1957 — with a tribute in The New York Times, of course — but her legacy lives on. 

The Tacoma Times' reporting concludes by saying, "...Mrs. Walsh, because of her innovations, has become more of a social celebrity in St. Louis than ever." Who knew, on that Sunday in April of 1917 when Clara Bell Walsh threw a party for 50 people, that they were making history, and that more than a century later, it would still be a thing? 

Clara Bell Walsh: the first lady of the cocktail party. Thank God now we know who to thank.