Home & Garden

Rebecca Gardner Is the South’s Doyenne of Entertaining

Step inside the tinsel-gilded, garland-bedecked, glitter-frosted, champagne-soaked gumdrop-and-marshmallow world of the Savannah merrymaking maven

Twenty-four-inch-thick garlands fill Rebecca Gardner’s home with dramatic scale and scent; she dons suede mules with a kitten heel when entertaining at home because “they’re easy to kick off for late-night dancing.” 

Rebecca Gardner says she still believes in Santa Claus because he came to her mother’s Christmas parties in Corpus Christi, Texas, for decades.

Turns out the guy with the real white beard was a man her mother had found slumped outside a local liquor store and paid to do the job. When Gardner’s family moved, he found them each December. She says, “He showed up every year at the same time for the rest of time.”

To Gardner, it was a Christmas miracle.

She says, “The best guests are unexpected.”

She says, “Every party should have a little bit of naughtiness.”

Gardner should know. As a child, she worked her mother’s soirees, taking coats. Knee-high to a grasshopper cocktail, she learned that “you can make anything happen with a party.”

Whether used for matchmaking or garnering a favor, a party is a tool. A party is power. She says, “Hosting is work.” She says she was so drawn to this idea, she wanted to grow up to be a senator’s wife. But Gardner stands behind no man. And she proves that behind every successful woman lies a spiral day planner.

Gardner takes a page from her grandmother’s party playbook and serves caviar for mini blini. “I even have the copper blini pan she commissioned in New Orleans,” she says.

Gardner asks that the staff of Houses & Parties, the full-service event and interior design collective she founded more than a decade ago, use the same eight-and-a-half-by-eleven Blue Sky black weekly and monthly calendar. She wants them to see how her mind works. She writes in pencil and fills each day with lists. Once she does something, she marks through it with a highlighter. Green for work, pink for friends. That way she can see that her life is balanced.

She splits her time between a New York City jewel-box apartment and a post–World War II International Style house in the Ardsley Park neighborhood of Savannah that looks like Mildred Pierce’s home colorized by the Sugarbaker sisters. She painted the sunken living room a pink she calls “dirty nickels” (her slang for nipples).

Gardner gets festive in a Prada gingham skirt and a “gargantuan Gucci brooch”; her French bulldog, Walker Percy, sports an Elizabethan collar from House & Parties.

Gardner is a woman with a devilish sense of humor. And whether you’re throwing an intimate dinner or a gala with a head count in the hundreds, Gardner’s got ideas. Let’s celebrate your husband’s forty-fifth with Marie Antoinette foam wigs and a Liberace impersonator! Let’s have a bridal shower at a gas depot! Instead of a party bus, let’s hire a hearse! Yes, you should have sugar cubes in the shape of mice. Yes, you should serve edibles as amuse-bouches. Forget a bowl of twelve lemons as a centerpiece, let’s make a mountain out of Hostess Sno Balls!

You know, those coconut-covered puffs that never expire? When you see them in a squishy pyramid, I promise you’ll want to do a face-plant. Yes, in front of everyone and their mothers-in-law. And no, Gardner will not take offense. Anybody can throw a party; she wants to give you an experience.

Cheese cookies get fancy in silver cracker baskets; Gardner provides her youngest guests elf costumes for singing from her printed caroling cards (“A good party ends in a sing-along. I have songs engraved in red on pink paper for the occasion”).

The pantry; pickled shrimp on hand-painted Herend China.

Adam Kuehl, a Savannah-based photographer and frequent collaborator, says Gardner has an unlimited archive of songs that she can sing on cue. He says, “I don’t know what jukebox is playing in her head, but I’ve never heard her sing the same song twice.” Me, I’ve been listening to her forty-four public Spotify playlists, which include “Winter,” “Spring,” “Summer,” and “Surviving the Grocery Store,” and from what I gather, nothing is too outside the boom box. When Kuehl suggested pairing a promotional video on Instagram of little girls eating cake in their Easter finest to the tune of Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise,” Gardner embraced it.

Kate Rheinstein Brodsky, the owner of the New York City interiors store KRB, says Gardner has so much get-up-and-go that “the page you bookmark in a magazine—she actually does it.” Garden & Gun style director Haskell Harris says Gardner is so daring, she serves little Baked Alaskas radiating with lit sparklers. Lucie Harte, the founder of the clothing line Soft Animal, says Gardner is so next-level that a few hours before a Christmas party at Harte’s Houston home, Gardner suggested they take her white lampshades into the driveway and spray-paint them brick red.

Walker Percy, center of attention; martini making.

I ask Harte: “And what did you say?”

“I was like, I’ll drive!” she replies. “Let’s go to the hardware store and get some spray paint!” Harte loves the color so much, she’s kept them that way.

The painter and designer Happy Menocal says Gardner is so generous that when Menocal showed up at her place in a wrinkled dress, Gardner fixed her a cocktail and then asked her to strip so she could iron it. Harte says, “She’s happiest when she’s ironing.” Gardner admits that her fantasy afternoon includes ironing while watching The Sopranos.

Crystal coupes and glass goblets; “I think it’s fun to include children at holiday parties,” Gardner says. “I always hire a babysitter to distract and wrangle when it’s time for the caroling.”

I wonder if this is how she gets her lightning bolts of creativity: by doing something domestic under a bad influence. The way I ball melons and play online poker. There’s satisfaction in opening a drawer stacked with perfectly pressed cloth napkins or a Pyrex loaded with paintball-pellet honeydew, and being the only one to know what you did to produce it. You let your mind wander; you flirted with danger. The illicit makes the mundane delicious. I bet Gardner would host a brunch at the Bada Bing!

When I meet Gardner at a restaurant on NYU’s campus, she slides over and insists I split her kale chicken salad. I don’t fight her. Because it seems that wherever she is is the place to be. A party has started. I pick up a fork because I want to catch up.

Gardner has resting synchronized swimmer face. She has cool edge-of-the-pool, about-to-dive-in, big-flowered-swim-cap energy. No cares, no airs. Her face is beautifully bare but for brown eyeliner. She wears a genie-in-a-Sprite-bottle-green shirtdress and a hint of I’ll grant your wish but give it a twist.

Gardner serves Champagne and wine from Revere bowl coolers. “I invite about sixty people to my holiday open house,” she says, “which requires every single glass I own, from the latticinio tumblers from my shop for bourbon punch to Saint-Louis crystal coupes for martinis and wine."

We are tucked in a round chartreuse booth with Houses & Parties’ director of events Kimberlin Rogers, a former ’Bama Kappa Kappa Gamma social chair who joined H&P as an administrative assistant four years ago, rose up the ranks, and loves her job so much that she hired Gardner to plan her own wedding this past June. Then Gardner planned Rogers’s sister’s in August.

The H&P team is working on a client consultation with a November bride who will be having a theatrical Sleep No More meets the Corleones wedding in a five-story town house complete with drag queens, an opium den, a balloon-hat maker, and a marching band. Yes, there will be Champagne and streamers. Yes, there will be more candles than the Police’s “Wrapped around Your Finger” video. A full bar will sprawl just past the fish tank. On the roof will be wisterias. Glow balls will nest under chartreuse tulle table skirts.

Gardner says, “It’s Dries Van Noten on mushrooms.”

The budget never comes up. When it comes to what a party costs, Gardner says she can’t pinpoint it for clients. “It’s like shopping for a car. There are Toyota Camrys and…”

For Gardner, creating vignettes and framing rooms add to the aesthetic of her holiday decor, from festooning doorways with swags of greenery and ribbon to the pièce de résistance: the sweets room dressed to bring “visions of sugarplums” (middle). The confection-colored hideaway, she says, serves as “a little destination for dessert, a magical wonderland of delight.” It also demonstrates her devotion to both the high and the low; she creates massive candy topiaries that hold court over trays of cookies and stacks of Technicolor treats, such as assorted pastilles from Marchesi in Milan and a mound of Hostess Sno Balls from a local gas station.

“Rolls-Royces,” Rogers offers.

“That’s right,” Gardner says. “And we don’t sell Toyota Camrys.”

That’s because Gardner appreciates what she’s worth, even though she says she’s owned the same pair of Chanel black ballet flats for eighteen years. “I keep coloring them in with a Sharpie.”

I say, “It sounds like you don’t take yourself too seriously, but you’re serious about your business.”

She says, “I’m not a businesswoman, I’m a storyteller.”

She also says she’s never told the same story twice.

Our November bride knows this. She’s followed Gardner’s Instagram “forever.” She came to Gardner with a dream, not a dress. She was so thrilled to meet her, and “get her,” she saved Gardner’s business card as some women press their prom corsages. See, even Gardner’s business card is special. Our bride holds up her hands for size reference. It looks like she’s holding an Etch A Sketch.

Iced cookies courtesy of Melissa Lemmon, a baker from Gardner’s hometown of Corpus Christi. “As a child, I was mesmerized by her incredible edible art,” Gardner says. “I spent three hours tracking her down on Facebook. She’s no longer baking, but I begged her to make fifteen dozen cookies for me”; rubber elf ears help set the mood.

Latticinio tumblers ready for tipples; tinsel on the tree.

Tori Mellott, the style director for the design magazine Frederic, longed to meet Gardner after receiving an invitation to one of her events. I ask her what made the invite special. (I’d heard tell already of hand-delivered invitations attached to Brie in wooden boxes.) Mellott says, “It was everything from the font and the script to the idea of having a pop-up at a fabulous hotel in New York City. It felt like less of a press event that you begrudgingly have to attend and more like a party that you wanted to be a part of. A place that you wanted to be, around people that you wanted to know. I went directly to her Instagram account and was like, Who is this person?

In 2020, Gardner celebrated the launch of the Houses & Parties website and shop, “an online retail destination for everything you need to create beautiful and memorable occasions.” It’s the memorable part that sets her apart. This is not Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop. The only thing I see on the site that’s organic is a $998 stuffed sheep. I wonder if Gwyneth would use H&P’s neon-green toilet paper. Or eat a chocolate eyeball. Gardner’s store is for women who like to laugh at themselves. We sit on stools that look like ice cream cones and put life jacket coozies on our Cokes.

Mellott says, “You can tell the person behind this shop is playful.”

All is chic and tongue-in-cheek.

Register for your wedding on her site. Rogers did. Her fine china sports marigolds and poppies. Her everyday-ware gets described as “your grandmother’s 1970s solarium pattern, refreshed.” Looking for the perfect gift for someone who has everything? I assure you she doesn’t have a $278 rainbow crocheted parasol or a pair of $48 cabbage slides. I myself bought a $28 sky-blue glass Aqua Net ornament tied with a calligraphy note that reads, “higher the hair…” I love it so much, I’m going to buy a fake blue Christmas tree to go with it.

“My uncle taught me his tree techniques, which require ten thousand strands of twinkle lights wrapped down and around each branch with the tenacity of a madman,” Gardner says. “The ornaments hang from the very base to the very tip of each branch, so you want a tree with lots of space between the limbs. I like a little tinsel at the end—because it’s worth overdoing.”

For Garden & Gun, Gardner styled her home for her favorite party to host: a holiday open house, where guests can bring plus-fours, dogs are welcome and dogs wearing tutu collars welcome even more, and kids hyped up on sugar can be plied with dollar bills from their dads to dress like elves and sing carols. Gardner will even provide the pointy ears, rubber shoes, and capes, custom made and kept on hand the way some hostesses have fire extinguishers.

Hand-blown glass ornaments galore; Gardner prefers serving unfussy, passable classics like beaten biscuits with Virginia ham. “Even vegetarians like ham biscuits,” she says; look closely—that’s a faux-pearl cocktail pick on the martini.

Olivier Pechou, an H&P vendor with a French accent that will turn your legs into uncanned jellied cranberry, says, “You can go to people’s homes, and you do not feel welcome. You walk into Rebecca’s home, and you feel like she’s been your best friend for the past twenty years. She has a natural charm and warmth that doesn’t seem contrived. To me that’s very Southern, and you definitely don’t have that in New York. New York can be a little more, um…” He struggles to end his thought tactfully, and I do my best not to fill in the blank, for I have been to such homes and want to shout: “Snooty! Museum-like! Colder than a corpse’s cold shoulder?” He says, “Rebecca is very much a one hundred percent Southern woman.”

As a Southern woman, I don’t ask Gardner how old she is or if she was married or if she has kids, because it doesn’t matter. She is who she is, and I like who she is. Like so many Southern women, she comes to you first by way of reputation. And then when you meet her, she doesn’t disappoint. She wants to bring out the best in you. And she does. Sometimes, by throwing you a party.