My dear, we always partied like it was 1999

Uncork the champagne! As we get ready to see off the century, John Walsh gatecrashes the 10 best parties of the last 100 years. From John Paul Getty's Sutton Place extravaganza (above, that's our man raising a glass) to Malcolm Forbes's little bash in Tangiers (a simple affair with 600 belly dancers), here are the parties that shook the world

THE BEST parties of the century? Where do you start? The 20th century has seen a madhouse of parties, a pandemonium of fancy-dress nightmares, a gallimaufry of retro-chic dressing-up, a vast penguin colony of monochrome formality getting gradually sloshed. From the same basic constituents - famous guests (in their hundreds), gussied-up interiors, tidal waves of alcohol, bending tables of savoury "sociables", and a passing parade of ludicrous costumes to snigger at - the human race has elaborated the concept of self-indulgence

into an art form.

Some things remain artily timeless; one is the Versailles periwig. In 1897, the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire had a phenomenal fancy-dress party to celebrate Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee. What everyone remembered were the duelling vanities of the hostess and her rival, Daisy, Countess of Warwick. The latter arrived as Marie Antoinette in turquoise velvet with thousands of pounds of jewels in her hair, and strode across the floor of Devonshire House under a blue-and-silver canopy borne by pages. The Duchess, sensing some competition in the air, crammed her portly frame into corsets, wore a double dress of cloth-of-silver, embroidered with gold that dragged a jewelled train, festooned the whole Devonshire jewel collection in her hair and rode in on a palanquin carried by four perspiring servants.

A century later, Elton John this year celebrated his 50th birthday by appearing in full Marie Antoinette fig; satin and lace dripping from every square inch of his burly circumference, surmounted by a pounds 3,500 head-dress, a colossal periwig the size of a moulting mountain goat. He was winched down to the party floor from the back of a truck, showing that making an entrance at one's party by being carried aloft hasn't changed either.

Periwigs feature too in one of the great party-aftermath photographs, when the fallout from David Tennant's Mozart party in Burlington Gardens in 1924 - a platoon of fops and dandies in silk knee-britches and floppy- lace cuffs, they included Cyril Connolly and Brian Howard - descended on a gang of workmen mending the road at Piccadilly Circus and, uproariously, borrowed their digging equipment to pose beside the grime-faced proletarians. It was the heyday of what Robert Graves called "The Long Weekend", when the smart set threw parties every night.

Carol Kennedy, in her entertaining Mayfair: A Social History, describes a nightscape of glittering ballrooms where "everybody danced", of penniless arrivistes, debutante balls, society hostesses and American grande dames. The best were those thrown by the Duchess of Sutherland - at one ball in 1926, an octet of girls dressed up as an Oxford rowing eight "rowed" themselves into the ballroom in a real boat coxed by Duff Cooper.

For wish-you-were-there appeal, though, it's hard to beat the young Norman Hartnell's Circus Party in London's Bruton Street in 1928, where the ballroom was recreated as a circus ring, acrobats and performing wolves prowled the stairs, and the head waiter of the Berkeley Hotel laid on a buffet decorated with circus animals carved in green ice.

Grosvenor Square was the most fashionable address in the most fashionable end of Mayfair, and was the home of two spectacular party-givers, Emerald Cunard and Chips Channon. Both were American exiles who reinvented themselves in London high society, and both loved a good party. Lady Cunard, a sprightly conversationalist ("This is Lord Alington, dear," she would introduce a new acquaintance. "He drives in a taxi at dawn from Paris to Rome, wearing evening dress and a gardenia, without any luggage"), threw fantastic charity balls in the Thirties at No 7 Grosvenor Square, full of minor royals and the Acton/Quennell/Lees-Milne literary troika (but not Noel Coward, whom she thought common for calling her "darling").

After the Second World War, the austerity years put an end to fancy partygoing as surely as German bombing raids demolished Grosvenor Square. But the first night of the Festival of Britain, Friday 3 May 1951, under a grey drizzling sky, as thousands of people headed across the Bailey Bridge to the dazzling South Bank for the first time, signalled a newly democratised party scene. Which is why one of the century's most tremendous thrashes was such a disaster.

It was J Paul Getty's housewarming party at his Tudor estate, Sutton Place in Surrey, on 30 June, 1960. Getty conceived it as a tax-deductible exercise in global PR, and invited 1,200 guests - senior management from the Getty empire, influential politicians, high society. Word spread that the richest man in the world was holding the party of the century, and a multitude of liggers began to converge on the house, where a dance floor was being laid by the swimming pool only hours before the first guests arrived. There were floodlights, flaming torches, marquees and firework displays, an Oriental fortune-teller and a sad cow in the milk bar.

Getty's 100 best friends dined at 8.30pm on caviare and veal; according to his chronicler, Russell Miller, the millionaire sat between the Venezuelan ambassador and the Duchess of Roxburgh. Outside, a three-mile jam blocked the A3, while policemen checked invitations; eventually, they just waved everyone through.

Hundreds of gate-crashers swarmed through the house or climbed over walls. Two thousand people drank Getty's champagne and lay around on his noble staircases. In the early hours, realising there were too many carousing strangers throw out, Getty ordered a lobster buffet to be served (the number by then had grown close to 3,000) and resigned himself to having his house trashed. The scenes of destruction were astounding, with ice cream smeared over tapestries, fag ends ground into Persian carpets and precious objets d'art pinched as souvenirs. "Easily the most fabulous evening since the war" commented William Hickey in the Daily Express.

The most high-profile parties since the Sixties have been the work of three kinds of host: sex entrepreneurs, moguls and monster show-offs. Hugh Hefner's parties at the Playboy mansion, and those of his British sidekick, Victor Lowndes, were legendary saturnalias, their fascination value restricted only by their crazed chauvinism, their guest-list as filled with one-thought-in-their-head lechers as Cynthia Payne's downmarket revels in Ambleside Avenue.

More educated tastes found the true party spirit in New York, among Andy Warhol and his entourage - and found a taste of heaven at Truman Capote's Black and White ball, held in the Grand Ballroom of the Plaza Hotel on 28 November 1966. Capote invited 400 close friends - Babe and Gloria and Jackie and Lee, Andy, Norman, Gore, Joanne, Lauren, Diana (Capote only name-dropped first names), and showed off his guest of honour, Katharine Graham, the former lover of Scott Fitzgerald, whose fictional alter ego, Jay Gatsby, all partygivers try to emulate. Capote regarded his party as a work of art; it was an act of creative genius, he said, to invite the cream of New York and forget Dorothy Parker.

Some monster egos offer themselves as the cabaret - like Bunny Roger, the son of a dour Scottish telecommunications tycoon, who became a flamboyant queen, going to war clutching a chiffon scarf and a copy of Vogue. For his 80th birthday in 1991, he gave "the Ball of Fire" at his home, transforming it with infernal themes, flames painted on the dance floor and stars in the blue ceiling; Bunny swanned through his 400 guests in a catsuit embroidered with flame-hued sequins and an organza cape.

According to Lady Elizabeth Anson, the doyenne of gold-edged socialising since 1960, getting guests to take the theme seriously is a crucial business. "One of the best recent ones," she said, "was Christopher Shaw's party at Claridge's last January for Lady Mary Gay. It was a red-and-gold Venetian ball, based on Charlie Bestegue's pre-war party in Venice - one of the classic parties of the century. Christopher's worked because the guests made a huge effort. Lots of the men wore tall, black silk top hats which looked marvellous. The decor was Venetian, there were views of Venice through palazzo windows. There were jugglers, stilt-walkers, acrobats - I love constant action - and there was a great deal of va et vient."

Tycoon parties have staged a comeback in the last 10 years, parties at which money, rather than rock'n'roll or film celebrity, is the aura the guests want to breathe. Malcolm Forbes, the zillionaire businessman, gathered 800 friends to celebrate his 70th birthday in a Moroccan palace in Tangiers in August 1989; representatives of 495 of the world's top 500 companies showed up. Rupert Murdoch wore a dinner suit; Robert Maxwell, dressed as a sultan with a wobbling turban, fitted in rather well among the 600 belly dancers and a sword-waving cavalry display.

Last year, the Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen celebrated his 45th birthday by charting a pounds 6.5m cruise liner and sailing 400 friends to Alaska. And in August, Tina Brown launched talk magazine with an awful lot of money from Disney and Miramax. The stars came out (Madonna, Hurley and Grant, De Niro, Pierce Brosnan, Lauren Bacall, Liam Neeson), and were ferried across New York harbour to Liberty Island to hang out under the Statue's great iron skirts. Ms Brown surveyed the scene with the satisfaction of one who knows she's pulled off the last great buzz of a noisy hundred years.

So there they are - the parties that defined the century. On 31 December 1999, you have a lot to live up to.

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