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The Tribute

The Ultimate Dinner Party Guests

Playboys, libertines and raconteurs… meet the seven bons viveurs who are top of our list

  • Messrs Peter O’Toole (left) and Omar Sharif, Hollywood, 1962. Photograph by Associated Press

As the late Victorian poet Mr Ernest Dowson wrote, “I cried for madder music and for stronger wine.” The tail end of Dry January and the tense political atmosphere only serve to make Mr Dowson’s hedonistic rallying cry more alluring than ever.

But who wants to dance and drink and eat alone? Certainly none of the soigne bons viveurs celebrated here. Though they were all well acquainted with the finest wines and the most succulent dishes known to man, this magnificent seven were far from being simply “browsers and sluicers”, as Sir PG Wodehouse used to put it. (Sir PG, by the way, told a friend in 1946 that “I have come to the conclusion that gin and Italian vermouth are the greatest thing in life,” so he knew a thing or two about browsing and sluicing himself.)

What any bon viveur must have – and what all our examples had in spades – was dash. And conversational sparkle. And style. And a good tailor. And… well, the yearning for fun. Sit next to any of them, at the grandest of dinners or the lowest of dives and you’d have been sure of a remarkable encounter – though there’s no guarantee that you would have remembered anything but the warm glow of time well spent. Make that, time very well spent.

Mr Peter O’Toole

  • From left: Mr Peter O’Toole, Ms Elizabeth Taylor and Mr Richard Burton, Paris, 1964. Photograph by Interpress Paris/ullstein bild via Getty Images

Sir Michael Caine had egg and chips with Mr Peter O’Toole in Leicester Square and then… Well, Sir Michael woke in a strange flat, in bed with Mr O’Toole, both of them fully dressed. “What time is it?” Sir Michael yowled. “Never mind what time,” Mr O’Toole said. “What day is it?” It was in fact 5.00pm, two days after that egg-and-chips supper. Mr O’Toole would eat other things, of course: “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this leg of pork,” said the landlord of the Kings Head, near Shepperton Studios, when Messrs O’Toole and Richard Burton used to drop in during the filming of Becket in 1964. Wild lunches would follow, fuelled by champagne and brandy, as both men declaimed Mr William Shakespeare. Dashing, devilish, winning and perverse, Mr O’Toole would talk cricket, poetry, politics, bagpipes and Connemara pony breeding. Even sober, he would perform somersaults at parties when bored. And when Lawrence Of Arabia made him a star, he bought a white Rolls-Royce and a white suit and drove down Sunset Boulevard, “waving like the Queen Mum”. He was, said Sir Alec Guinness, a man of “great, wayward charm”. “I could no more resist him than stop breathing,” as his ex-wife Ms Siân Phillips put it. And he gave the best possible advice to any would-be bon viveur: “Never ask what you did. It’s better not to know.”

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Mr Frank Sinatra

  • From left: Messrs Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra, LA, 1978. Photograph by Mr David Sutton/mptv.com

Mr Frank Sinatra was, she says, the love of Ms Mia Farrow’s life; at his funeral, she put “a small bottle of Jack Daniels” in his coffin. Fitting: the Chairman of the Board drunk a fifth of JD a day, prompting one doctor to exclaim “My God! How do you feel in the morning?” To which Mr Sinatra replied, “Hell if I know, Doc. I don’t get up till the afternoon.” He’d eat, and drink, at Jilly’s in New York, at New Jimmy’s in Monaco, at the Polo Lounge in Beverly Hills and at the Guinea Grill in London. Sicilian by ancestry, he controlled, it’s said, the menus of every Italian restaurant in LA: “If you want north Italian cooking, fly to Milan.” He would let off cherry bombs in the south of France, fling over-cooked pasta at the walls in California, woo Mses Ava Gardner and Lauren Bacall, and call the press “bums, fags, parasites and buck and a half hookers”. Tie askew, hat on head, he and the Rat Pack owned Las Vegas and won President John F Kennedy’s heart: “Hiya, Prez,” he’d say when he answered President Kennedy’s phone calls. Ms Shirley MacLaine would hang out with the boys: “Underneath it all, I sensed their underwear was as white and as fresh as soft, newly fallen snow.” Snow? Mr Sinatra was ice cool.

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Mr David Niven

  • Mr David Niven (centre), Antibes, 1968. Photograph by Keystone Press Agency via Zuma Press

The first naked woman Mr Niven’s children saw was Ms Greta Garbo, swimming in the actor’s LA pool. If born 20 years earlier, they would have seen Ms Marlene Dietrich bringing him chicken soup when ill. Mr Niven ate everywhere, with everyone: with Sir Winston Churchill at Ditchley Park, during the war; at San Simeon with Mr William Randolph Hearst, where he often slept in Cardinal Richelieu’s bed. And on the Sirocco, the yacht he and Mr Errol Flynn used to sail, providing the drinks while the girls they’d invited provided the food. Slim and light-hearted, Mr Niven sang wittily for his supper, the anecdotes tripping off his lips, the women putty in his perfectly manicured hands – Mses Rita Hayworth and Grace Kelly among them. He went, of course, to Romanoff’s, Chasen’s, Le Tour d’Argent and the Ritz, but he also went to Doc Law’s All-Nite Café in Santa Monica. He didn’t think he deserved the acclaim: “I know exactly what my position is, old cock,” he said to the late Sir John Hurt. “I’m a second-rate star.” Not so: the porters at Heathrow said he made them feel like kings and sent a colossal wreath to his funeral. That’s the spirit.

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Mr Roy Halston Frowick

  • Mr Roy Halston Frowick (centre) with Ms Marisa Berenson (left) and Ms Liza Minnelli (right), Versailles, 1973. Photograph by Mr Reginald Gray/REX Shutterstock

Where Mr Roy Halston Frowick (better known as just “Halston”) went, the scene went, too. When New York suffered a total blackout in 1977, the designer responded by summoning Ms Liza Minelli, entrepreneur Mr Steve Rubell and the cream of cool Manhattan to his East Side townhouse for a candlelit party. When he gave ravishingly simple lunches – “wine, salad, sometimes a quiche” – to the likes of Mses Barbara Walter and Lauren Bacall in his studio, invitations became as sought after as reservations at La Côte Basque. When he went to Washington DC, Ms Elizabeth Taylor slipped a sable coat over her nightie and took him on a midnight tour of the capital. And when Mr Rubell’s Studio 54 was all the rage, Halston was at the centre of things, orchestrating good times for Ms Bianca Jagger and Mr Andy Warhol. Cocktail in one hand, a cigarette in the other, his green, green eyes hidden by mirrored shades, he would survey the non-stop party, forever clad in black – as black as the Rolls-Royce that carried him from his atelier to the nightclub and onto Fire Island. For his lovers, Halston would order in steak and a baked potato; for his parties, only caviar would do. Moët & Chandon was his favourite champagne, orchids his favourite flower. He oozed elegance, chic, simplicity and luxury.

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Mr Porfirio Rubirosa

  • Mr Porfirio Rubirosa (centre), Courchevel, 1961. Photograph by Sipa Press/REX Features

“I find it impossible to work,” Mr Rubirosa once said. “I don’t have the time.” He didn’t: the playboy and one-time diplomat from the Dominican Republic was busy wrapping his “charm around your shoulders like a Russian sable coat,” as one Hollywood gossip put it. And busy marrying – once to a dictator’s daughter, twice to multi-millionairesses and twice to beautiful French actresses. Charm wasn’t his only asset. According to the heiress Ms Doris Duke, Mr Rubirosa’s manhood “was the most magnificent… I have ever seen… much like the last foot of a Louisville Slugger baseball bat.” (Which is why Italian waiters still refer to those giant peppermills as “Rubirosas”.) Polo, not baseball, was Mr Rubirosa’s game, though Lancia once offered him a place in its racing team. He preferred Ferraris, and died in one. He ate, splendidly, at Maxim’s and El Morocco, or with the Niarchoses and the Rothschilds, but would, if celebrating, go “todo liquid”, and drink through the night; in Paris, he would end his revels at dawn with the Spanish musicians at La Calvados, having a beer and eating a sandwich. His suits were from Dunhill, his shirts from Sulka – Mr Sammy Davis Jr said that, “the way Rubirosa dressed made me feel as though I’d fallen off the garbage truck”. His friends were legion and often grateful: he introduced a young Mr Taki Theodoracopulos to Madame Claude’s, the very upmarket Parisian brothel. Attendance there, he said, led to a happy marriage. And Mr Rubirosa would have known.

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Mr Patrick Lichfield

  • From left: Mr Rocco Forte, Mr Patrick Lichfield and Ms Bianca Jagger, London, 1979. Photograph by Mr Richard Young

Oh, to have been a guest of Mr Patrick Lichfield at Burkes, the private dining club he helped run in Mayfair in the 1970s. For the “lord who became a photographer” knew how to have fun: he once had to be restrained from mounting the stairs at San Lorenzo on his motorbike. A first cousin once removed of the Queen, he and his friends were “thrown out of everywhere”, and he was given crates of champagne for the tips he gave the gossip columnist Mr Nigel Dempster. On Mustique, he’d dine with “Raquel [Welch], Mick [Jagger] and Jerry [Hall], David [Bowie] and Iman” at Princess Margaret’s villa. The Queen’s sister and Mr Lichfield were, she said, “kissing cousins”, doing nothing to dispel rumours of an affair. Also on the Caribbean island, he fell over a wall and nearly died; he fell through a chair when photographing the Duke of Windsor and got a great shot doing it. Ms Jilly Cooper thought him gorgeous. So, more intimately, did Ms Britt Ekland. His first photos were taken as a child with a Box Brownie he’d “borrowed” from his grandfather: they were of a housemaid in her bedroom – “my first nude,” he recalled. His manners were as immaculate as his suits. So was his sense of humour: when Mr Lichfield was a judge at the International Male Elegance Awards, he had no hesitation in voting for himself as best-dressed royal.

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Mr Mark Shand

  • Mr Mark Shand (right) with Ms Bianca Jagger, London, 1980. Photograph by Mr Richard Young

According to Ms Marie Helvin, Mr Mark Shand had “the most beautiful body I had ever seen”. Speaking before his death, Ms Lee Radziwill said: “Mark is irresisitible. Always has been, always will be.” An adventurer, he hung out with headhunters in New Guinea and rode Tara, the elephant he adored, across India. The oddest thing he ate was poisonous beetles, the most delicious the garlic and chilli crab served in the shell at Trishna’s in Bombay – “the best seafood restaurant in the world”. He was less reverential about spending Christmas at Sandringham with his brother-in-law, the Prince of Wales. (It was the Tupperware presents that reputedly got him.) As at home in a sarong as a Savile Row suit, he drank blended whiskey in a tall glass, and champagne all night when he was competing in international bobsleigh competitions. He was a star of Studio 54 and a close chum of Mr Imran Khan; he decorated his Bayswater flat like “an oriental bazaar” and he filled London with a panoply of fibreglass elephants to raise money for the charity he founded. He lit up tables everywhere. Little wonder “women fell like autumn leaves into his arms,” as his friend the photograper Mr Don McCullin put it. And like any true bon viveur, he knew what to do in life: “All my life, when things have got too heavy, I’ve bought an aeroplane ticket.”

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