5 feminist icons with famous cocktails

12 October 2022

This history of hospitality often lacks a key ingredient. Women. In fact, some of the best known cocktails owe their popularity to the female icons, society hosts and tastemakers of the time, a trend that continues today. Dr Nicola Nice introduces five women whose contributions to the history of cocktail party hosting, who have been largely overlooked.

Perle Reid Mesta or ‘Black Russian’

Why she matters: She brought women to the table in the places it mattered.

This is Perle Reid Mesta. US ambassador to Luxembourg, a tireless campaigner for women’s rights, and legendary society hostess of the 20th century.
She quite literally inspired  the moniker ‘The hostess with the mostess’, her lavish galas and parties from Washington to New York, London to Hollywood,  attended by diplomats, entrepreneurs, artists, and everyone in between.
In Perle’s parlour the convivial atmosphere, good food, music and cocktails, made differences of opinion and matters of policy easier to resolve.  And importantly, she believed the presence of women at such gatherings brought a savoir-faire to the conversation that was missing from the male dominated boardrooms and the policy-making tables of the time.

During Perle’s ambassadorship in Luxembourg, she was a regular guest at the Hotel Metropole in Brussels.  Legend has it that in 1949 a barman at the hotel, Gustave Tops, created the Black Russian cocktail just for her as a sardonic nod to the ongoing Cold War between the US and Russia.


Elsie de Wolfe or ‘Pink Lady’

Why she matters: She created the design aesthetic of the 1920s cocktail generation.

Talk about a decorated career… In the early 20th century, Elsie de Wolfe shaped the look of the cocktail generation.
Nicknamed the ‘mother of interior design’, her designs transformed the dark and dull spaces of the Victorian era into bright, cheerful, and feminine parlours synonymous with the jazz era. 
For most of her life, Elsie was the lover and partner of Elisabeth ("Bessie") Marbury, a prominent Broadway agent and producer and together they helped mentor the lesbian and gay community of the New York theatrical world.
She was also a formidable party host. “She mixes people like a cocktail - and the result is sheer genius,” said Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor, of her hosting skill.
Elsie de Wolfe’s favourite cocktail recipes regularly featured in the pages of Vogue, including one featuring gin, grenadine, lemon juice and egg white –  known today as The Pink Lady.


Margaret ‘Molly’ Brown introducing Bee’s Knees

Why she matters: Used her means to support women’s rights through national suffrage.

On April 15, 1912, Margaret ‘Molly’ Brown made a name that would stick for the rest of her life.
On this night, the philanthropist, activist, and socialite was on her way to New York City from Paris on the RMS Titanic when the ship hit an iceberg and sank.
Brown was among the lucky few to escape, and was instrumental in the evacuation and rescue of other passengers.
Later in life, she ran for the US Senate, was awarded the French Légion d'Honneur in World War I, and used her wealth and notoriety to support women’s rights through the national suffrage movement.

She was also a legendary hostess. During her travels in Europe, she was a regular patron of Paris’ women-only bars where she is said to have introduced the French to the Bee’s Knees cocktail.
She lived her final years in the infamous Barbizon Hotel in New York City, a women-only guesthouse for aspiring actresses and writers. In 1960, her life as a survivor and industrialist was forever memorialised in the Broadway show and movie ‘The Unsinkable Molly Brown’.


Dorothy Parker popularizing Martini/ Whiskey Sours

Why she matters: Smart, sassy, unafraid, she redefined feminism of her day.

American writer and poet with a razor wit, Dorothy Parker became a feminist icon of 20th century.
Her writing, theatre and political critiques, literary works and sharp wit graced the pages of esteemed magazines including Vanity Fair and the New Yorker, and earned a handful of Academy Award nominations.
She was acutely aware of women’s issues of the day, demanding equal pay for equal work. Through her words – and way with them – she redefined what it meant to be a woman of the day, unafraid to spar with her male counterparts, to discuss her mental health, her sexuality and romantic affairs.

She also had a penchant for liquor, with whiskey sours among her tipples of choice. Elegant, strong, and tart, little wonder in this cocktail she found such affinity.


Sarah Jessica Parker immortalizing Cosmopolitan

Why she matters: Her landmark show uber-popularised female sexuality and independence.

The Cosmopolitan was made by Cheryl Cook, made better by Toby Cecchini, and made cool by Madonna. Yet it was the legendary late-90s series Sex and the City that made it iconic.

Sarah Jessica Parker as Carrie Bradshaw played lead in this widely successful TV show about four brash young women living their best lives in Manhattan.
In a departure from mainstream television of the time, SATC celebrated strong, confident women, and helped destigmatise the frank discussion of sex and sexuality seen from the female perspective, often around a brunch table replete with Cosmopolitans aplenty. 
A believer in women’s equality, SJP today identifies more as a ‘humanist’ than a feminist. “I see a lot of people trying to sort out their roles. People of colour, gays, lesbians, and transgenders who are carving out this space. I don't think it's just women anymore.”

Researcher: Dr. Nicola Nice is a sociologist on a mission to write women back into the history of gin and the cocktail.
Discover her side hustle in the spirits business, Pomp and Whimsy.

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