In more normal times, I would have chosen more cerebrally: think Socrates, Montaigne, Simone de Beauvoir. But these are not normal times and, after a year in which my dining highlight was a socially distanced Eat Out to Help Out at the local Miller & Carter, I make no apology for craving something more hedonistic — not quite the infamous Led Zeppelin 1972 tour of the US but certainly the full Gatsby.
The venue for this evening’s festivities is the Royal Yacht Britannia. We have dropped anchor outside the Port de Cannes in late June and, as I stand on deck admiring the Côte d’Azur in its midsummer splendour, Jack Nicholson, star of two of my top-three all-time favourite films and most nominated male actor in the history of the Academy Awards, strides up the gangplank.
We shake hands firmly — touching elbows is so last year — and Nicholson flashes me his famous grin. “I won Best Actor here in ’74,” he says. “Can you name the movie?”
“The Last Detail,” I say.
“Boom,” says Nicholson.
The sommelier brings us each a glass of Krug Vintage Brut 1988 and then retires to a discreet distance.
“I recognise that guy,” says Nicholson.
“It’s Prince Charles,” I say. “I think he’ll be great. Not only is he familiar with the layout of the boat but it gives him the chance to serve.”
“I’ll drink to that,” says Jack. As we touch glasses, two more guests arrive: F Scott Fitzgerald, chronicler of the excesses of the 1920s and author of two of my favourite books, and his wife, muse and drinking companion Zelda Fitzgerald.
“How do you do?” says Scott. Zelda, famous for her scant regard for social convention, notices my gold tie and silver shirt. “I don’t think they’re your colours,” she says and beckons Prince Charles over.
“Say, Fitzgerald,” Nicholson says. “Did you hear about the hoax letter that went viral last year? It was said to be written by you at the height of the 1918-20 flu. One part went: ‘At this time, it seems very poignant to avoid all public spaces. Even the bars, as I told Hemingway, but to that he punched me in the stomach, to which I asked if he had washed his hands.’ Hilarious, don’t you think?”
Scott is about to respond when he is distracted by something behind me. My final guests, John F Kennedy, 35th president of the US, and his rumoured lover, the actress Marilyn Monroe, have joined us. Prince Charles pours more Krug.
Nicholson tells us that he turned down the role of Michael Corleone in The Godfather. Monroe says she was Capote’s first choice for Holly Golightly . . . As missed opportunities and mutual friends are discussed, I make my excuses and check how the food is coming along.
In the Royal Galley, the FT’s very own Sarit Packer and Itamar Srulovich are putting together a three-course menu: a mezze; a mixed grill; and, finally, their legendary feta and honey cheesecake. Thoughts of returning to the couple’s Honey & Smoke restaurant on London’s Great Portland Street sustained me through lockdown, and the wonderful aromas embrace me like a long-lost friend. With final preparations in full flow, I judge that this is not a good time to catch up and so, happy that all is just as it should be, I return to my guests.
HMY Britannia has a 56-seat state dining room but tonight we will be eating al fresco on the Royal Deck. As we take our seats, Prince Charles serves the wine and the waiters bring up the mezze. I tell everyone they must try the grilled pear with almond tahini and smoked almonds.
Zelda asks Kennedy and Monroe for the truth about their relationship. “The rumours were horrible,” says Monroe. “People were saying that I was threatening to reveal state secrets if Jack didn’t go public about us. The truth is that we only met on a handful of occasions. Four at the most, and that includes that time at Bing Crosby’s house.”
By the time the mixed grill arrives — Scott Fitzgerald, Nicholson and I go for short ribs, Zelda and Monroe for the charred octopus, while JFK opts for the chicken — we’re on to childhoods. I was concerned that JFK and Scott might not get on, that the former president might represent the side of privilege that Fitzgerald had such a love-hate relationship with. I needn’t have worried: Irish heritage is a wonderful bond.
The cheesecake is a triumph — everyone agrees it’s the best they’ve ever tasted — and as we wait for coffee, Kennedy brings out a box of hand-rolled Petit Upmanns. “I bought 1,200 of these the day before our trade embargo against Cuba,” he says, offering them around.
“Thanks,” says Nicholson, “but how about we skip coffee? I know this boîte in Cannes Old Town . . . ”
Soon all seven of us (it seemed rude not to ask Charles; he’s had a rough year) are in a rowboat, JFK and Scott taking on oarsmen duties. “This is so Some Like It Hot,” says Monroe.
“Where exactly is this boîte?” asks Zelda. “As long as it’s not Harry’s Bar,” says Prince Charles.
By wonderful coincidence, Led Zeppelin are playing a Liberation from Lockdown outdoor gig and, as we near the shore, the great Robert Plant starts to belt out one of my favourite songs: “It’s been a long time since I rock ’n’ rolled . . . ” And I think to myself, hasn’t it just.
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