An Orgy of Simplicity Is Author Lee Bailey's Idea of a Perfect Country Weekend

updated 09/19/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/19/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The invitation read: Cocktails and Laughter, 6:30-9:30 P.M. If It Rains Forget It! It didn't rain. Instead, a cloudless sky shimmered deep blue as 100 summer folk recently turned up to party in the Bridgehampton, Long Island dunes. Surely the weather could do no less for host Lee Bailey, who this summer has become to chic Hamptons house parties as tonic is to gin. Dressed down in shirt, slacks and scuffed L.L. Bean moccasins, Bailey stood on a redwood deck that leads to the edge of a salt pond and welcomed such notables as ABC News president Roone Arledge, ABC newscaster Barbara Walters, Pulitzer Prize winners Edward Albee and James Kirkwood, author Peter Brown, novelist Nora Ephron, and Broadway producer Elizabeth McCann. "My house is too small," Bailey says. "I had to have this party outside or not have it at all."

Of such casual attitudes are perfect Bailey parties made. A former interior designer who now runs a smart housewares shop in New York's ultra-fashionable Henri Bendel's store and an accomplished amateur cook, Bailey has written a guide to relaxed entertaining called Lee Bailey's Country Weekends (Potter, $18.95). Since it was published in May, Country Weekends has quickly sold an astonishing 45,000 copies. The outdoor bash at Lee's house, co-hosted by his old friend, newspaper columnist Liz Smith, thus became something of a salute to Bailey as a new, best-selling author, and a let's-see-what-the-old-boy-is-up-to-now party.

Although Bailey believes in thoroughly organizing things in advance—he makes shopping lists and even maps his errand routes—when it comes time to play, he advocates an orgy of simplicity. "I don't think you should plan parties," he says. Indeed, only hours before his first guest appeared, Lee had napped and read the paper, then set out plain, no-frills cocktail fare: Planters peanuts, black olives, Carr's Table Water Crackers, toasted bagel chips, a brick of Vermont cheese wrapped in a cotton dish towel. "I don't bother with lots of expensive cheeses," he says. "I'd rather spend the money on an extra waiter." He made the egg and ham salads from scratch. "People don't eat ham salad very often, so it's a surprise."

Country Weekends, a handsome book that combines recipes, homilies and stunning settings designed by Bailey and photographed by Joshua Greene, is uncommonly personal. His menus are aimed at, say, lunches at the beach (veal-stuffed sweet red peppers) and dinners in the backyard (okra-corn fritters). "If you don't have exactly the right kind of outdoor furniture for the occasion, don't worry. Move the dining room table and chairs outside and pretend it's a Swedish movie."

His recipes have achieved a certain cachet. Nora Ephron, a frequent dinner guest, used one for baked lima beans and pears in her novel Heartburn, "although we have a violent disagreement on what goes into a Key Lime pie," she says with a smile. Nora, if her book is to be taken autobiographically, once threw such a pie in the face of former hubby Carl Bernstein. "When I was doing the book, I concentrated on remembering my childhood, when the knottiest problems gave way to a dish of hand-cranked vanilla ice cream," says Bailey. "I tried to recreate those recipes."

An only child (both parents died decades ago), Bailey grew up in Bunkie, La., where his businessman father managed real estate and movie houses for Lee's grandfather. "I saw every movie that opened—except for those of 20th Century-Fox," says Lee, still a film buff who keeps an autographed picture of Lana Turner above the kitchen stove. "My grandfather had a fight with the company so no one in that part of Louisiana ever saw Shirley Temple."

At 18, after two years at LSU, Bailey was drafted and served as a corporal in the Army's Special Services. After. WWII ended, he took off for New York, where he studied interior design at Parsons. For the next six years, he worked in New Orleans and taught design at Tulane before moving permanently to New York in 1957. In Manhattan he designed rooms and taught at Parsons until 1970, when he and designer Richard Huebner opened a specialty home-furnishings shop in Southampton. Geraldine Stutz, the president of Bendel's, visited Lee one weekend shortly after the shop opened. "As we were leaving, I asked Lee if he would like to have a branch at Bendel's," says Stutz. Bailey opened one there in the fall of 1974—he now grosses more than $55,000 per month for his 110 square feet of selling space—and a few years later closed down the Southampton store. Lee claims that he stocks only what he likes. "There was a time when you could get only white and beige," says Liz Smith.

After their Saturday cocktail party, Lee and Liz and their weekend guests, archeologist Iris Love and actress Elaine Stritch, sat down to a midnight supper of pasta with a fresh tomato and Italian bacon sauce, a dish Lee says everyone loves and is easy to fix, followed by a blackberry cobbler made from berries he had picked along the Hampton roadsides.

On Sunday morning, Liz fried up a batch of chicken wings, which is definitely okay by Bailey's standards. As he puts it on page 72 of Country Weekends: "If you happen to have guests who like to cook, don't be shy about asking one of them to make a lunch."

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