Steve Kemble has thrown so many over-the-top parties it is hard to decide which one is most outrageous. A Canadian consulate event in 1996 would certainly be a contender. The theme for the Dallas gathering was “moose.” A custom carpet with a moose motif was installed beforehand. At the gala, a chef served salmon mousse, chocolate mousse, and a Kahlúa concoction called “moose milk.” Guests had their photos taken with a person in a moose costume. A real-life Mountie checked invitations.
The classic Steve Kemble party, however, does not rely solely on theme for its grand effects. Like a judge at the Olympics, one must consider different qualities. When assessing the level of difficulty, for example, some devotees of his work nominate a debutante ball in 2000. For this occasion, the Dallas Opera’s rehearsal hall at Fair Park was outfitted with white carpeting and seven thousand yards of white spandex drapes. Belgian artist Jean Francois painted portraits of debutantes to the tune “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” and serving bowls and a fifteen-foot buffet table were carved entirely out of ice. Other admirers, evaluating ambition and scale, have proposed a 2007 wedding at the Grand Ole Opry as his masterpiece. A custom arrangement of “Oh Happy Day” was sung by a 46-member gospel choir led by one of the song’s original recording artists. Any guests who weren’t sufficiently impressed had time to reconsider after leaving the party and driving by a roadside billboard with the song title plastered on it.
Many event planners in Kemble’s hometown of Dallas, such as the city’s predominant party designer, Todd Fiscus, create elegant, modish affairs. But disciples of the craft agree that nobody in Texas pushes the envelope like Kemble. He is hands down the craziest party planner in the state. For one hit party years ago he requested that a client paint the waiters light gold, dress them in Versace briefs and combat boots, and serve the guests appetizers off hubcaps. At the annual meetings for a major real estate company, he’s instructed the CEO to arrive in unusual ways, such as via helicopter or by skiing down a snow hill. This tendency toward the rare and marvelous is significant in Dallas, a city with a reputation for decadence. In some circles, Kemble is regarded as the man who single-handedly resurrected the audacious Dallas parties of legend at a time when the social scene had grown predictable. And across the country he is known as a 24-hour party person, an obsessed, eccentric, anal-retentive genius who is able to pull off stunts others wouldn’t attempt in any economic climate, fair or foul.
When I told Kemble last fall that I wanted to attend one of his parties with him, he said, “Oh, I’d love for you to see something fun and fabulous!” He ran down a list of projects: an opening for a new residential high-rise in Boston, a wedding for major league pitcher Kyle Farnsworth in Savannah, Georgia. “I’m working on a party for this adorable little girl in some of the Huggies baby commercials,” he said. “I love that.” A few weeks later, he had found the perfect event—a private Christmas party in Dallas—and confirmed the date. The e-mail’s salutation was “SO FUN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
Kemble would be easy to spot in any crowd in the world. He labors over his attire, which usually includes some combination of Versace, Dolce & Gabbana, Moschino, Gucci, Issey Miyake, Prada, Jean-Paul Gaultier, and Richard Tyler. Many of the items are rare, such as a three-of-a-kind pair of $6,400 Gucci pants embroidered with a peacock design. (Madonna has a pair, Faith Hill has a pair, and Kemble has a pair.) But not all of his notable attire is couture. The fifty-year-old has been seen in public wearing a cardboard cake on his head. He has been known to walk into a party sporting a custom jacket made from the same material as the tablecloths. Some years ago, at a catering convention in New Orleans, he wore a red feather jacket, a silver tiara, and a copy of the Heart of the Ocean blue-diamond necklace from Titanic. Surprisingly, his enthusiasm for his wardrobe tends to impress even his most buttoned-down clients. One former businessman who hired Kemble for a wedding remembers meeting him at the site of the ceremony, a garden in Vermont. “Steve showed up in white tight leather pants and a white jacket with fur trim,” the client told me. “As we were walking through the snow, the garden curator turned to me and said, ‘If he falls off the stage, we’re going to lose him in a snowbank.’”
One night last fall in Oklahoma City, at a cocktail party at a hotel following an intensive bridal-planning weekend called the Wedding Workshop, I waited while Kemble changed clothes in his room. Kemble gracefully slid into the lobby, waving as he approached, his mouth in an open smile. He had replaced a white brocade jacket he had worn earlier with a dark-purple crushed-velvet coat and a lavender tie. His beard and mustache were trimmed into a Vandyke, and his brown hair, receding slightly at the temples, was trimmed short. Kemble had the dramatic energy of Richard Simmons, the comic timing of Pee-wee Herman, and the controlled, singsong laugh of a thirties movie star. Anyone not looking in his direction was doing so intentionally, to avoid staring. He charted his way through the sea of guests like a sailboat in a small port, stopping to chat with a wedding dance instructor demonstrating her salsa. An event organizer who stood with a shrimp hors d’oeuvre in hand took a bite, then held the meatless tail and asked Kemble, “What am I supposed to do with this?” prompting Kemble to whisper one of his party rules: “No napkins or tails or garlic.”
Kemble’s flair for the dramatic is no act. One day last winter in Dallas, he picked me up in his black Mercedes at 6:05 in the morning