Zibby Owens: I’m here today with Bronson van Wyck who’s the author of Born to Party, Forced to Work: 21st Century Hospitality. He’s the cofounder, along with his mother, of Van Wyck & Van Wyck, a well-known event planning firm that has designed events for three presidents of the United States, Beyoncé, the Cooper Hewitt, and many other notables. A graduate of Yale University, he currently lives in New York City. Although, he’s originally from Arkansas.

I’m here today with Bronson van Wyck, very exciting. He’s the author of Born to Party, Forced to Work, which is right behind him. We are on Instagram Live also. Instagram Live and doing the podcast, a multimedia Bronson van Wyck morning for everybody today.

Bronson van Wyck: Full exposure.

Zibby: Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Bronson: Thank you for having me come. I don’t know if anybody has time to read books anymore. It’s really hard.

Zibby: It’s really not just moms.

Bronson: You have to make time to read books.

Zibby: You do. Do you make time to read books?

Bronson: I make time.

Zibby: When you do read?

Bronson: I read whenever I can. At any moment on any given day, I probably have five books open in different places in my apartment. It’s a great source of refreshment for me to get outside of the present and where I am and what I’m doing or my day, my bills, my loans, my administration, all of it, and go into the world of a book. I read history. I like to get taken to other times and places.

Zibby: Do you end up remembering everything? Are you one of these people who can remember everything you read?

Bronson: I can’t remember what I had for breakfast this morning.

Zibby: Good, I feel better. I was going to say if I read a history book, it would be in one ear and out the other at this point. I have to take notes and study my notes.

Bronson: The thing I get out of history books more than anything is just how much circumstances change, but the human condition and who we are fundamentally doesn’t change. We find ourselves doing the same things. That adage of history repeats itself, history really does repeat itself. We have problems today that are the same problems, just in a slightly different form, that people had in the past. When we observe those and study them, we have a great opportunity to see how other people solved the problems or didn’t solve the problems and maybe learn from them.

Zibby: It’s optimistic.

Bronson: We could use a little more historical perspective in all parts of our national life today.

Zibby: You’re a big reader. You love history. Now you’ve come out with your first book after twenty years in the event planning business. It is this book. Why this book? You could’ve written anything. You’ve written a beautiful, gleaming, golden Born to Party coffee table book/manifesto on hospitality.

Bronson: You’ve got to write about something you know. This is something I think I know about. I remember when I decided to go out to LA to be an actor. My parents were stunned into silence when I told them this. They’re not silent people. They really didn’t have anything to say that night at dinner when I told them. The next day I came into my dad’s office. He was on the phone with my godfather. The thing I heard him saying when I walked in the room was, “But he went to Yale. Why is he going to go out to LA and throw it all away?” I had, at that point, worked as a photographer on a political campaign and for a newspaper. I had done correspondence for Hillary Clinton in her office. I’d worked at the State Department in protocol. I’d spent a summer at a venture capital company. I’d worked on the farm for years. I went out to LA. I was an actor. Of course, that meant I really was a waiter. I was waiting tables at this Indian restaurant called the Bombay Café at Pico and Bundy. It was on the second floor of a strip mall.

Zibby: As many good restaurants in LA are.

Bronson: That’s true. That is true. I did some set design. I was reading scripts. I realized that comment of my dad’s that I’d had this training or this education, it dovetailed with feelings that I had of not knowing how to do anything or not being prepared for anything. I started doing this. I realized really quickly, actually, my entire life was training and education to do this. You learn protocol at State. I learned how to create a budget at the VC company where I worked. I learned about the importance of the visual when I was taking pictures. Set design, obviously that’s so related to what we’re doing. You learn how to deal with guests if you’re a waiter. You learn how to deal with clients if you’re an actor. Everything had sent me down this path of having not been able to find — I went through this extended process of elimination in which I really felt like I had no marketable skills. I realized I’d been developing the skills that were important for what I ended up doing. That was a really long answer to a not-very-complicated question.

Zibby: That’s great. I love long answers.

Bronson: Growing up on the farm in Arkansas, we were a hundred miles from Memphis. We were a hundred miles from Little Rock. Our closest neighbors were three miles away. Those were my grandparents. Here we were in this very isolated rural place which had great natural beauty, but there were no movie theaters or restaurants or museums or night clubs or anything. My family, all of us were — well, I was a little kid. All of them, the generation above us and the generation above them, were really involved in the world. They travelled. They wanted to go places. I had an uncle who was a stunt pilot. I had another one who was Mr. Arkansas. I had an aunt who was involved in all kinds of things involving getting dissidents out of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. There were artists. My dad was from New York. They were involved in a larger world or a world that was outside of the geography of where we were. That world sometimes came to us.

When people came, we had to entertain them because there was no other option. There was no other way to entertain them except what we created or what we gave them. We had a meal every day — it was lunch or dinner; we would call lunch, dinner; we would call dinner, supper — where almost everyone in the family was together. Whoever had houseguests or visitors, they all came. Every day there was basically an event. That might be twenty people. It might be thirty people. It might have been fifteen people. It was breaking bread together as a family also with the participation of guests. We were constantly engaging in this exchange, which is what hospitality really is. It’s an exchange of kindness and love and making people feel comfortable. Why did I write the book?

Zibby: Did I ask that? Bronson, why did you write this book?

Bronson: What I realized is that there’s a lot about hospitality that is completely transferrable from one event to another, to another, to another. Whether we’re talking about the opening of the St. Regis Hotel in Bal Harbour, or we’re talking about the launch of a new shade of lipstick from Chanel, or whether we’re talking about somebody’s wedding, or whether we’re talking about children who are giving a surprise fiftieth anniversary party for their parents, it all comes back to this idea of hospitality. I’ve always been curious about the rituals of hospitality. As you go back in history — again, this is maybe where the nerdiness comes in.

Zibby: Now I see why this is in the book. Go on.

Bronson: As you go back in history, you see that every single culture on the planet, completely independently of each other, felt the need at some point in its development to call forth divinity in order to ratify or support or to condemn certain kinds of behavior that a functioning society needs to either have, or can’t survive if they do have. These are things like love and weddings and not killing each other. The divine was always used to explain the things we didn’t understand in life and death and the weather. Hospitality was so important because there was always a horizon. There was always something beyond the horizon. As human beings, we want to know what’s beyond the horizon. We want to go there. If we’re going to go there, we might encounter people who are like us but different from us. They may be nice. They may be mean. We have to figure out a way to initiate the contact and allow the contact and allow the interaction, let’s say the exploration of what the relationship could possibly be. We have to figure out a way to do that in a safe space. The safe space is what hospitality creates. It’s a ritualized safe zone where strangers get to interact and get to know each other, hopefully become friends.

You see this with the ancient Greeks. I talk about this in the book. The king of the gods, Zeus, was actually the god of hospitality also. Hermes, who was another really important one of the twelve Olympians, he was a god of guests and travelers, the messenger god. There’s a great story which I tell in my book about Zeus and Hermes going down to a little village in what’s now Turkey and disguising themselves as poor vagrant travelers, beggars on the road. They go to a really prosperous town that has rich merchants. In those days, you could tell the prosperity of a town based on if they had good walls. They went to a town with really high walls. Nobody would take them in. They went from house to house asking for hospitality, a meal, a place to sleep. All the doors were closed to them. They finally wander to the edge of the town. There’s a hovel there with an old man and an old lady, Baucis and Philemon, and a little farmyard and a few sheep. That’s all these guys had. They present themselves.

The couple immediately open the door and invite them in. They come in and sit down. The woman bustles around and pours them wine, washes their hands for them. They’re sitting there drinking the wine. The husband goes outside. They have one goose. He goes outside to slaughter their one goose to make a meal for these strangers. It’s a meal that will be better than any meal that couple has had together just for themselves in a long time. The goose is fast. The old man is slow. The goose escapes from him and jumps into the lap of one of the gods where the goose becomes very calm. This moment is probably surprising to the couple. What is more surprising is they’ve been sitting there drinking wine and they look down, and the glasses of wine are full again without anyone having poured the wine.

Zibby: That’s the perfect party.

Bronson: It’s the perfect party. That is the perfect party. Zeus says, “Why are you honoring us this way?” The old man says, “We’re honoring you as guests. When we honor guests, we honor the gods.” At that point, the gods throw off their disguise. They’re revealed. They said, “Of all the people in this town, you two are the only ones who have treated us with honor. What can we give you?” The couple fall down on their knees. They said, “We just want to be able to continue to honor you. We love each other so much. Neither one of us wants to outlive the other.” The gods destroy the town. The couple live a long, happy life in the structure that the gods create for them. When he starts to pass years and years later, he turns into an oak tree. She goes with him and turns into a linden tree. The branches intertwine. They get to spend eternity together as trees. That is a Greek myth. The same story happens in almost every single culture. The foundational myth of Christianity is a couple shows up in a town. They’re there because they want to get counted in the Roman census. All the doors are closed to them. She’s pregnant, nowhere to stay. They end up staying in a manger. Mary gives birth to the son of God. This is a story about hospitality. You see the same story in the Old Testament with Lot and Sodom. You see it in Hindu tales. My point is hospitality is divine. We are touching divinity when we practice hospitality when we do it right.

Zibby: I love that. It’s taking it up a notch. It’s not just a dinner.

Bronson: You should always take it up a notch. It’s daytime. We can take it up. Maybe at night, you take it down.

Zibby: This is putting you on the spot a little bit. You’re like a producer. These aren’t just parties. You produce massive events and happenings. Yet you go down to the tiniest detail to make them important. For somebody at home who loves to entertain but doesn’t have the means to hire a genius like you to help them with a party or wants to do it themselves and make an amazing event, how do they make it divine? How can you bring the divine into your own home to make a really special memorable event?

Bronson: It really comes down to the intention and the things about hospitality that are actually free. Those have to do with care and thoughtfulness. Have you ever been on a date with someone and they ask you meet them, you go to meet them, and they say, “What do you want to do?” You’re like, what do I want to do? You invited me. “We can do this. We can do that.” That’s about as romantic as going to the dentist. You go on a date with somebody and they say, “Meet me here,” and you get there and you’re at some great restaurant that you’ve never been to before. You eat, but he says, “We have to eat fast because we’re somewhere after.” Then you go somewhere after. You’re going to see some great show. You feel so appreciated and so loved because somebody else has anticipated you. They were thinking about you when you weren’t even there. That’s a big compliment. Any host can do that. The fundamentals are seeing to the comfort and well-being of your guests. This has to do with, if they’re hungry, feed them. If they’re thirsty, give them something to drink. Keep them dry. Keep them warm. The rest is just semantics.

Another important dynamic of that is it’s not just people’s physical well-being, but also their emotional and spiritual well-being. That means making sure that they feel accepted and included and comfortable. I talk a lot about this in the book. This is common sense in a way. When we have people in our care, we have this wonderful opportunity to allow them to forget about their problems and know that somebody else is solving the problems. You have a guest come and you know they have certain interests. Think about another guest who you might have come who has the same interests or is curious about those interests. Those two people are going to — guess what? They’re going to have a great conversation, probably. The most important thing that a host can do on a practical level is be sure to plan ahead so that you can be present with your guests. If that means getting a recipe from Epicurious to make a great punch that you can make that afternoon from the refrigerator and then serve so that you’re not having to play bartender at all night and not be able to hang out with your guests, then you do that. If it means cooking something that you can serve room temperature so you’re not having to leave the table five times during the course of a meal to go in the oven and try to get that soufflé just right, you do that. Does that start to answer your question?

Zibby: That’s great. The important thing I took away, and the challenge I have when I have events is you’re managing so much in your head, being able to be really excited and talking and not having to run around, like what you’re saying, being present, you shouldn’t have to be running around at all.

Bronson: Remember, your presence is actually what you’re giving the guest. The hospitality is happening around them. It creates the stage or sets the environment for the interaction. They’re coming because they love you. They’re coming because they want to see you. They want to see you happy. They don’t want to see you pulling a Sylvia Plath and putting your head in the oven in the kitchen because somebody dropped a tray of glasses. Who cares?

Zibby: I feel that way when I go to people’s houses. If they’re all stressed out, it’s like, I have enough of my own stress.

Bronson: You feel like, “Oh, god. I’ll leave soon. Don’t worry.” You never want a guest to feel that way.

Zibby: How did you come up with this title? Born to Party, Forced to Work. Forced? Really? Give me a little more background into this. Do you feel like you’re a party boy who’s now a grown-up? Who are you thinking of when you came up with the title? Did you come up with the title?

Bronson: I hate to say it, but yeah, I did. I came up with the title. I hate to say it, but I was really just thinking about myself, maybe just self-absorbed. I was always made to work. I had to mow lawns when I was kid. We would wash cars. When I was thirteen, I actually had to work on the farm. That wasn’t like setting up a lemonade stand. There are probably laws against it. There probably are. If there aren’t, there should be. At thirteen, I got the lowliest job on the farm which was pulling red rice out of rice fields. You grow rice and the whole point is to get a crop of white rice because that’s what Uncle Ben’s will buy. Naturally in a field of rice, you get some red. It’s a recessive gene. There’s no machine that can sort for that because they’re all exactly the same size and shape. Only people can do it. It’s the sucker that has to do it.

If there’s a group of people working on the farm, you know from the one who’s pulling out red rice that they’re the lowliest on the totem pole. I did that for an entire summer. You’re bent over. You’re wearing work gloves. The blades of grass from the rice are so sharp that by the end of the day, you’ve ripped through a pair of gloves. You go through a pair every day. Another summer, I walked around on a farm and checked levies all summer to make sure that water wasn’t going through levies. That sounds sort of bucolic in a way. You’re in hip boots, not because of the water, although there’s a ton of water obviously, but because there’s so many water moccasins, which is a very aggressive poisonous snake. They love levies because they come up out of the water and they sunbathe. Every day, you have encounters with twelve or fifteen snakes.

I tell you about these stories because this was part of the culture of my family. We were always made to be productive and work. When I went out to LA to be an actor, at a certain point my dad said, “This is for the birds. You’re on your own. You’ve got to figure this out entirely.” I had to be productive and independent. That’s where the forced to work part comes from. I would’ve loved to have been just a party boy. I kind of was in college. You don’t have to think about it so much in college, or I didn’t. I was able to be at college without having to work while I was there. I went through this trying to find myself in a way by exploring all aspects of social life. I had a friend who gave me that great book, Edie: An American Biography, which Jean Stein and George Plimpton wrote about Edie Sedgwick who was doomed. A friend gave it to me and said, “You have to read this before you turn into this.” It was a wake-up call. Then I got serious.

Zibby: One question about the background from your childhood that you put in the book and that we’ve been talking about. Do you feel like you would’ve been able to develop all these creative skills if you had a different — how much do you think your upbringing contributed to it? I wonder about kids now, let’s say kids here in New York City on the iPads. They’re not out picking rice from a field where their brain is allowed to really flourish.

Bronson: Wander.

Zibby: Yeah, wander, have all that time and freedom to really come up with stuff. Do you feel like that made you a more creative person? Do you feel like you’re creative? I’m assuming you’re a creative person by the content of what you create.

Bronson: I think of myself as a creative person. It’s a process that I really enjoy. We were free to be creative, but we also had to be creative because there were no other —

Zibby: — You had to amuse yourself.

Bronson: We had to entertain ourselves. I had parents who — if we were inside when the sun was up and we weren’t reading a book, Mom or Dad was like, “What are you doing in here? Get outside. Go play.” Play meant building something or destroying something or shooting something. Where we lived, we didn’t actually have television. There was one ABC affiliate that we could get with a lot of snow and static, local affiliate that was within range. We were way too far outside of town to get cable. We had this satellite dish that was a gigantic moment when we got this satellite dish. We were so excited for it as kids. It was kind of a pain. Where it was sited, it was outside the house obviously, but we had to go out and crank it to turn to go from the MTV satellite to the CBS satellite. You didn’t know when you were out there cranking, what the result was. Somebody had to be at the window shouting to you out there, “Go back half a notch.” That was a lot of work to watch a TV show, so we didn’t watch much TV. I worry about kids who are — you want them to be digitally proficient. You want them to exist in the world that they’re going to have to function in. I think that forcing kids through lack of stimulation but provision of opportunity to be creative is really, really powerful and effective in terms of people being self-sufficient in their creative process. We weren’t overstimulated, but we were very stimulated.

Zibby: It’s hard to strike that balance in today’s world.

Bronson: It’s very hard. It’s really hard. I have a lot of godchildren. Some are in New York City. Some of their parents didn’t let them watch TV, didn’t give them an iPad, didn’t give them a cell phone until they’re twelve or thirteen. Those are the ones who want to go to the science museum. Other kids who I know, of friends, grew up with all that. They don’t really know how to interact.

Zibby: They need some more party planning.

Bronson: I’m not judging.

Zibby: I know. Too late for my kids. Oh, well.

Bronson: We’re all making choices. We’re all busy. I don’t think there’s any one right way.

Zibby: We’re almost out of time. Tell me, is there an event that you’re longing still to produce or to have or something that is in the back of your head that you’ve always wanted to do? Now that the book is out, have any new opportunities come about? What’s next? What’s next that you want to accomplish?

Bronson: I’m going to Miami tomorrow because we’re working on the Super Bowl. I’m excited about that. We’re doing the NFL’s party. Then the Dolphins are hosting the Super Bowl this year. They’re not going to be in it. I think they’ve won zero games this year. I think they’re zero and seven. As the hosting team, they’re giving a party. We’re working on that. I’m doing some stuff during Art Basel. I’m going down there tomorrow. I’m looking forward to that. That’s a great part about this job, is traveling and getting to go places. I’m going to Aspen, which I can’t wait for, in December. We’re doing a polo tournament in snow which I think will be really fun. I’ve never done that before. We’re going to spend Thanksgiving in London, my family. I’m looking forward to that. What are you looking forward to?

Zibby: What am I looking forward to? I don’t know. Having time to read not on a schedule.

Bronson: You need a vacation too, it sounds like. I want to give an ancient Egypt party, a Nile — it could happen in Egypt. Given what’s going on there right now, more likely it won’t. I’ve been dying to give that party. People come as pharaohs and gods. That’s the one that’s racing around in my head right now.

Zibby: I should’ve answered differently. What I am looking forward to is I’m having a holiday book fair, which I had last year also. I sell all the books of the people who have been on my podcast. I invite everybody. They meet the authors. They meet each other. I am looking forward to that. Thank you for asking.

Bronson: That’s fantastic. That’s great. That’s in December?

Zibby: Yes, December 2nd. You should come. Do you have any advice to aspiring authors having completed this task?

Bronson: Somebody said to me, write the first sentence and write the last sentence. That helps a lot. I found that very hard, actually. The first sentence was impossible for me. I could write the last sentence. I started there. Then I tried to write the first sentence of the last chapter. I did that. Then I started doing that chapter by chapter. I created this outline of the chapters. I worked from there. Actually, I couldn’t write any of it. For a year, I sat there really not able to write the book. Then I started recording myself talking. You can tell I like to talk by the length of my answers to your questions.

Zibby: It’s great.

Bronson: I recorded thirty hours of talking. I would do it every day, not even in a regimented way, but ten minutes here. I was in a cab. We transcribed everything, and I have the book. It took me four months to take all that and then cut and paste it and go through and make the sentences sound so when my grandmother reads them, she doesn’t regret that she sent me to college, make the English proper and everything. I did it orally.

Zibby: Excellent. Thank you for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Thanks for sharing your experience and the beautiful images and the stories in the book.

Bronson: Thanks for having me.

Zibby: Thanks.