Party Down South | Van Wyck & Van Wyck
When mother-son party planners Mary Lynn and Bronson Van Wyck entertain on their Arkansas farm, the meal features their famous buttermilk fried chicken and their trademark flair for the dramatic.
What do Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, rap mogul Sean "P. Diddy" Combs and socialite Marina Rust Connor all have in common with a tractor repairman from the Mississippi delta? The answer is Van Wyck & Van Wyck, a mother-son event-planning team with big-name clients and surprisingly deep country roots.
Bronson Van Wyck (rhymes with hike, not hick), the company's 30-year-old cofounder, is based in Manhattan, where he stands out on the social scene thanks to his party-planning prowess, old-fashioned manners and iconoclastic dress sense (open-toed sandals at a black-tie occasion, for example, or—as he displayed at the Guggenheim Museum's Artists' Ball in December—a fur-lined goatskin biker jacket custom-made for him by Gucci). But the company's headquarters and spiritual home is not Van Wyck's Chinatown studio, it's Arrowhead Farms in Tuckerman, Arkansas (pop. 1,757), where he grew up and where his mother and business partner, Mary Lynn Van Wyck, still lives.
Whether the event is a presidential inauguration or a Maine clambake, most of the duo's extravagant props—25-foot bamboo branches or moon-size disco balls—originate in Tuckerman. "Bronson dreams up these ideas, and I think, how are we going to implement this?" says Mary Lynn. "I'll end up taking the drawings of a disco ball to the welder who usually repairs tractors, and he'll make it." But, she adds with her Southern lilt, "that makes life fun."
Mary Lynn can't complain about her son's demands; she encouraged him to become a party planner. In the late 1990s, Bronson hit a career dead end. After graduating from Yale, he had enjoyable but short-lived stints as a set dresser on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and as an aide to Pamela Harriman at the American embassy in Paris, then wound up in an unfulfilling gig at a Los Angeles movie-production company. When he was complaining about his job to Mary Lynn on the phone, she asked what he would rather have been doing. "I would've had a party," he replied. "Okay," his mom said, "let's figure out a way to get paid for it."
In retrospect, the decision was an obvious one. Mary Lynn's own nuptials made Town & Country magazine's list of the 100 best weddings of the 20th century, and her son became something of a legend for his college parties. Classmates remember a play that Bronson, then an aspiring theater director, set in a 10-foot pit. "We all sat around the perimeter and watched the actors below, who were lit by torches," recalls friend Jill Kargman. "It was a perfect foreshadowing of how Bronson would make his living—transforming spaces and letting people see an event from a whole new angle." At the curtain call, Bronson appeared with a bottle of vodka in each hand and invited the entire audience back to his place for drinks.
A decade later, Bronson's sense of theatrics would translate well to the social circuit. Within weeks of incorporating their company, the Van Wycks were orchestrating Marina Rust Connor's wedding in Maine, where Bronson solved a last-minute problem involving bandleader Peter Duchin and a missing piano. Next up was the 2000 Democratic Convention, with 16 events in five days. Five months and scores of hanging chads later, Bronson received a call from the incoming Bush administration, asking him to arrange its inaugural celebration.
Bronson's father, also named Bronson Van Wyck, took a similarly idiosyncratic career path. A direct descendant of the man for whom the expressway in New York City is named, he's a product of Greenwich, Connecticut, and Harvard Business School. He had little intention of becoming a farmer "until," he says, "I married a girl from Arkansas." (The type of "girl from Arkansas," that is, who decided to transport an abandoned warehouse brick by brick from Louisiana to serve as the main house on her farm.) Despite some raised eyebrows back East, Bronson père took over the day-to-day running of Mary Lynn's family's business, Arrowhead Farms, which grows rice, pecans and soybeans, among other crops. Today he also owns citrus groves in Florida and vineyards in the Lodi/Woodbridge area south of Sacramento, California.
His Cabernet, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot and Chardonnay grapes supply the Mondavi family's wineries, so at a supper for a dozen family members and friends on the Van Wyck's farm, the unabashedly biased selection of wines included a rich 1999 Robert Mondavi Stag's Leap Merlot. In one of the cathedral-like alleys of hundred-year-old pecan trees that crisscross the property, Bronson and Mary Lynn strung dozens of oversize spherical paper lanterns from the branches. Mary Lynn set out 18th-century French chairs with gently peeling green paint and mismatched rush seats, a find at Linda M. Felts Interiors, Inc. in Memphis. Wrought-iron candelabras served as vases, their stems filled with sunflowers and herbs.
Somehow, Bronson also found time to prepare the meal. For his classic fried chicken—famous enough in the state that the recipe is included in the recently published Clinton Presidential Center Cookbook—he marinated the pieces in mayonnaise, beer, eggs and buttermilk before frying them. Helping him in the kitchen were his sister Mimi, who once ran her own mail-order ham business and recently joined her brother's company as the director of operations, and his cousin Scott McGehee, a former sous-chef at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California. Most of the evening's recipes—light, fluffy rolls (from Mary Lynn's Auntie Buck), creamy corn pudding, and spice cake with a rich caramel frosting—were culled from a cookbook written by Mary Lynn's grandmother, Ruby Thomas, who was the presiding culinary spirit at the Red Apple Inn, an Arkansas dining institution on nearby Eden Isle.
Though work now takes Bronson from Los Angeles to St. Bart's, he returns to Arkansas at least three times a year. "Where are you going to find the space to store a 20-foot-tall topiary frame in New York?" he jokes. But he also partly derives his optimism and open mind from this flat, fertile land with its never-ending vista of rice fields. "For a child, it seemed infinite," Bronson says. "I approached life with the attitude of 'Why not?'"
Dirk Standen is a contributing editor at Gotham and Hamptons and writes often for GQ, Details, Tatler and Style.com.