LONDON — Lady Elizabeth Anson, Britain’s doyenne of party planning and a cousin of Queen Elizabeth, is helping to organize the royal wedding festivities — and marveling at her own composure. “At the moment I don’t know how I’m sitting here, calmly talking to you — I really don’t — when we’re one week away from whatever we’re doing,” she says shutting her eyes briefly — for dramatic effect — from the cozy family room of her Notting Hill home. Then again, this has been her life for the past 50 years. “If the stress got to me, I wouldn’t be alive. I would have died at 21,” says the chatty and charming Anson who turns 70 this summer.
It’s safe to say Anson knows her way around a marquee: Earlier this year, she marked the 50th anniversary of her London-based company, Party Planners, with a celebration at St. James’s Palace, and has organized parties including the wedding of Prince Pavlos and Princess Marie-Chantal of Greece, the double birthday bash for Freddie and Ella Windsor and the Queen’s 80th birthday party at The Ritz in London. Past clients include Valentino, Bill Clinton, Donald Trump, Sting and Mick Jagger.
Anson founded her business when she was 18, and her approach has remained the same: “You have to really look on these things as military operations. You have to attack — in your own mind. You don’t let the client know, because they don’t understand that,” she says. Here, Anson talks about the dark ages of catering; why Buckingham Palace beats every other party venue; and why the royal wedding, in so many ways, is just another family affair.
WWD: Tell us about your early career. What was party planning all about in the Sixties?
Lady Elizabeth Anson: I had organized my own debutante ball at the Danish Embassy — my stepfather was a diplomat. And I later thought: “There must be a market for this.” My first client was a lady who lived in a wonderful house in Hampstead. I did a debutante party for her daughter. There were 300 people and a marquee, and it all went absolutely swimmingly. My stepfather strongly opposed [my choice of work] because he thought I had a fairly good brain, and he felt I should have been in the foreign office. But I sort of knew I had arrived two years later when he asked me to organize the military attachés’ ball in Claridge’s. You know when you’ve arrived when your family employ you.
WWD: You are related to the Queen, your godfather was King George VI. Did that help or hinder your early career?
E.A.: Because we don’t have press like we do now, nobody knew I was a cousin of the Queen. And she’s got lots of cousins anyway — poor lady — I’m not the only one! Nobody knew that the Queen Mother was my great-aunt. There was not that side of it at all. And I was brought up never to talk to the press. Also, I think people thought my business was a hobby. I had no idea it was going to turn into what it turned into. In the beginning, my living was made on embassy and debutante parties.
WWD: What’s been the most memorable event you’ve organized over the past 50 years?
E.A.: I suppose the biggest and most challenging thing was when I did the King of Greece’s son’s wedding [Prince Pavlos and Marie-Chantal Miller] because the numbers were so huge. We were, I think, 1,500 for the ball two days before and 1,700 for the wedding lunch, plus security and logistics. I was doing this with absolutely no help from a palace because the Greek royals are living in exile here. The Queen [Elizabeth] very kindly lent me a British policeman to help. We had to work with the fire brigade, the ambulances, and all the services like that. What was lovely about Robert Miller was that he let me give a party — about a week later — for all these people who had helped me.
WWD: How do you stay current — and competitive — after all these years?
E.A.: Every few months or years there are new florists, caterers, bands — everything. I give trial lunches here at home, and I invite 10 discerning people. I have a new caterer, florist, wine merchant or some form of entertainment come. I am constantly trying out new people. I also have much younger people in the office. The oldest person in my office is 26 years old.