When Life is Still a Cabaret
By Megan McKinney
Mamie Walton and Bill Zwecker, two of the most brilliant of Chicago’s shining stars.
No matter what they had done before, where they’d been in their lives, who they knew or how many great parties they had attended, no one who was at The Peninsula Chicago last Saturday night had ever experienced anything like Mamie Walton’s 90th birthday party. They were all accustomed to Mamie’s unique qualities but not to the extraordinary style in which she would welcome great age. It was also a memorable lesson in how individual age has become.
One of Mamie ‘s secrets is that she celebrates every day with her motto, ” Life is a cabaret.”
The first clue to how singular the evening of May 19 at The Peninsula would be was the elevators. Those accustomed to using elevators linking the hotel’s Lobby floor with the Ballroom level were confronted with great screens, which had been set up to forbid access to the entire line of lifts (a term used in deference to Mamie’s status as a former London bird).
Guests were obliged to descend by stairway. However, it was worth every scary step downward as portions of what was beyond the great red swags partially screening the Ballroom Foyer came into view. Those making the descent were soon to enter a London street.
Mamie with Dori Wilson, another Chicago star, in front of Harrods.
Harrods was to the left as guests walked through the space, and an authentic English telephone booth—which they could enter—was to the right. All around was every bit of detailing the fertile mind of Tom Kehoe could envision and assemble, including London streetlamps. And, oh yes, his associates at Kehoe Designs even managed to rustle up four tall, very much alive and really quite attractive Grenadier Guards, who seemed to be around all evening. Thanks, Tom.
Cocktail hour could be spent on the lovely Peninsula Terrace or at the London thoroughfare within. Many chose to remain “in London.”
Remaining “in London” and heavily guarded are, left to right, Leigh Anne Kelley, Nancy Kelley and Susan Meredith.
Later, inside the Ballroom, guests from New York, L.A., Palm Desert, Palm Springs, Palm Beach and, of course, Chicago gathered at long tables centered with great rows of massive bouquets of white roses running their full lengths. As one Los Angeles guest marveled, “There must not be another white rose left in the world.” And then—almost dazed—he repeated, “In the world!”
Mamie on the dance floor with Chicago’s celebrated orchestra leader Stanley Paul.
There were also great framed montages of Mamie, captured throughout many of her nine decades, on either side of the fabulous band that played all evening. We suspected the band was chosen by Stanley Paul, who had played Mamie’s 40th birthday at The Pump Room a half century earlier. We were more than correct; it was The Stanley Paul Orchestra under the direction of Robert Cole. Terrific!
Chicagoans Janet and Rodger Owen on the dance floor.
There was much more to see, but who had time to look? As soon as everyone was seated, almost all were back up again and on the dance floor. Or table hopping. Never has there been more electricity in The Peninsula Ballroom. Or any Chicago ballroom. This was not a benefit—or even a wedding—it was a collection of Mamie’s friends. If they didn’t know each other, they knew about each other. If they hadn’t bonded before that night, they did then, filling the room with energy and excitement.
Peninsula Director of Catering Greg Hyder was also a great friend of many of those in the Ballroom that night.
The pulsating current barely subsided for Greg Hyder and Toni Robertson’s wonderful English menu, which managed to meld nostalgic English nursery food with high sophistication. It was more than perfect!
What was the highlight of the evening? It’s hard to say. But how could anything surpass an end-of-desert trumpet fanfare announcing the arrival of “Prince Harry” at Mamie’s side at her table. Remember, it was still May 19 in Chicago, a few hours after his London wedding.
It was a red letter day for both.
“Prince Henry of Wales,” or the new “Duke of Sussex” sixth in the line of succession to the British throne, then escorted Mamie to the dance floor and twirled the former West End and Broadway hoofer around a few times. At that point, an immense, white, tiered cake was wheeled out—no doubt déjà vu for Harry that day.
A microphone was handed to Mamie, who performed Time After Time. Don’t forget, she sang as well as danced on West End and Broadway stages.
Mamie requested that no presents be given; however, the John Reillys brought a lovely one—a gorgeous, beautifully gowned young woman bearing a Nikon or was it a Canon? And the result follows. Thank you, Myra and John, from all of us.
John and Myra Reilly, left, with Mamie and Stanley Paul.
Biba Roesch, one of Mamie’s every second Tuesday lunch companions, and her architect husband, Peter.
Mark and Linda Heister with Mamie; Linda is another Tuesday regular with Mamie at RL’s Table 68.
Karen and Peter Martino arrived from the East Coast for the Party.
Peninsula Chicago General Manager Maria Zec and her husband Bob’s trip was shorter.
Tom Kehoe, the party’s creator, was surrounded all evening by the fruits of his amazing vision.
Sean Eshaghy is an example of the generational span of Mamie’s closest friends. She refers to this long time dear friend as an “old soul.”
Painter Peter Axelsen is another handsome younger friend of Mamie’s.
Ron Katz and Cheryl Coleman with their friend Mamie.
Bill Bartholomay Jr. and his wife, Cathy, were also among the many friends with Mamie on that special night.
John Reilly Photography
Robert F. Carl