Last week, guests walked back in time with HBO’s Human By Orientation, who hosted a lavish uptown affair in an Upper East Side mansion that felt it could have belonged to Gentleman Jack‘s main character herself. Gentleman Jack, a queer period drama is now in its second season and is based on the collected dairies of Anne Lister. Those diaries contain over four million words and are written largely in secret code, documenting a lifetime of lesbian relationships maintained by Lister. The first season was celebrated for its exploration of the complex social landscape of the 19th century and the subtle wit and passion of Lister (expertly portrayed by Suranne Jones).
In our own way, guests were able to luxuriate in Lister’s atmosphere by way of the soirée in a hallowed home: the austere, dramatic Fabbri house, built in 1916. The property and building were bought and financed by Margaret Louis Vanderbilt Shepard as a wedding gift to her daughter, Edith Shepard Fabbri. It was said that dinners would not begin until after 1am and guests would stay weeks.
Today, we partake in a similar pleasure in the spare and delightfully cold Italian interior (already of antique demographic by 1916), warmed by candle sticks lining the walls and halls, a string quartet providing music through the evening, and even period-influenced dances by Cortney Key and Lenai Wilkerson. Cocktails were prepared in the spirit of the period on the mezzanine, served in glassware of a rare regal scale and quality, weighing more than 2 pounds each. In the courtyard, a Mercedes-Benz SL350 “Pagoda” sat, the car Ms. Lister would have been well-likely to drive if she had the choice. The grand library of the Fabbri house was converted into a screening area where guests watched the first episode of the new season of Gentleman Jack. The drawing room with its important and intricate ceiling (coming way of Italy by boat) was the site of a photo studio, complete with gorgeous floral arrangements by Nicole Absher framing a period sofa.
The beautiful florals continued into the dining room, where a U-shaped table was arranged at the foot of an imported mantle. Guests assembled for a multi-course meal prepared by celebrated chef Melissa King (Melissa was quite busy this week as she had the MET Gala dinner to serve yesterday as well). The menu, according to Melissa, was heavily influenced by the period (especially the pea soup, “Always the pea soup”). But Melissa also included a part of her own legacy, that of being a queer person with Cantonese heritage. “There are some Asian influences here, especially in the selection of ingredients”.
Read more about Lister and her diary at the West Yorkshire Archive Service Exhibit blog. Gentleman Jack seasons one and two are streaming now on HBO Max as part of their Queer Voices collection. Learn more and watch the series here. Follow along with HBO’s LGBTQ community on Instagram @humanbyorientation.