Several years ago, I met a charming, soft spoken man who forever upgraded my definition of what a truly welcoming host could be.  This person was a lover of all people, threw the best parties, and was a world-class connector.  His name was Jim Haynes (a.k.a. The Man Who Invited the World Over for Dinner).

Born in Claiborne Parish, Louisiana in 1933, Jim passed away earlier this month in Paris, his home for many years, at the age of 87.

What a life he lived!

Maybe you’ve heard of Jim.  If you’ve ever been to Paris (“What? Who can even remember traveling?!”), perhaps you’ve been to one of his Sunday evening dinner parties.  He hosted these casual soirees pretty much every week over the last 40 years at his tiny atelier off a quiet street in the 14th arrondissement.

Mind you, these weren’t fancy sit-down meals with a specially curated guest list and seating chart.  They were simple, cozy gatherings where any and all were welcome.  Guests from around the corner (or from around the world) stood or sat shoulder-to-shoulder (or mingled about) as they ate, drank, conversed, laughed, shared stories and songs, and got to know their newest best friends.

How did you get invited?  Initially, it began as an open house sort of thing. Very word-of-mouth and spontaneous.  Later, Jim’s Sunday dinners became so popular you had to call or email with a request to be added to the list for whatever date you were in town and wanted to join in.  No questions asked about who you were, but you were encouraged to make a donation to help cover costs.  And of course you had to not be a jerk, which is just good advice for any kind of socializing.  The party ended at 11 p.m. sharp.

In this time of pandemic and social isolation it’s hard to even imagine (or remember) an event like this or what it feels like to attend. But doesn’t it sound wonderful? Gathering casually and cozily on a Sunday evening with friends, old and new, and enjoying a simple, but hearty meal with some nice wine?

Personally, I am really missing this. Maybe you are, too.  Hoping we can gather again soon.

Anyway…

How many people do you know who love (and trust) people so much that they’d do something like this…host a Sunday night dinner every week for 40 years?  Jim’s son Jesper Haynes tried to replicate his father’s Sunday evening dinner model while living in Bangkok. He gave it up after six months, noting “It was a lot of work.”

Photo courtesy of BBC

Having had the pleasure of attending one of Jim’s dinners back in 2013 while on a Paris trip with my friend Jill Griffin, I can testify that those who attended Jim’s gatherings were an eclectic, fun, and fascinating mix of people. Some were regulars who lived in Paris. Many of these people kindly helped Jim with the cooking and logistics. They loved the events – and they loved him. Other guest were old friends passing through town and wanting to see Jim.  Still many others, like Jill and I, were random travelers who had heard about Jim via word of mouth or popular travel guides.

Maybe you read about our experience with Jim when I wrote about it shortly after our trip.  It was an evening I’ll never forget, filled with jovial conversation, delightful accents, a few surprising small-world connections, lots of laughter, a little singing (“Waltzing Matilda” with a bunch of Australians), and of course plenty of delicious food and plenty of wine.

It seems like eons ago.

Here’s something to note when you are hesitant to have people over because maybe you think your home isn’t big enough or fancy enough: Jim’s entire apartment was smaller than my kitchen. And he had one tiny bathroom. Nothing was fancy about Jim’s place, but no one cared.  It was about the people. The conversation.

Along these lines, in her wonderful book, The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters, Priya Parker writes that the number of people per square feet can make a huge impact on the tone (and success) of a gathering.  Basically, the more people per square feet the better. That is, if you want a jovial atmosphere where people are likely to mix and mingle. Jim’s dinner parties were perfect examples of this rule in action. And yet, these dinners were also civilized and pleasant.

Check out this little video with clips from one of his Sunday soirees and Jim talking about his thoughts on the art of his gatherings.  It really captures what fun was had each Sunday and Jim’s kind heart and soul.  Puts a little lump in my throat to see it, actually.

Of the many things I liked about Jim was this philosophy, which he shared readily: “When you do something nice for somebody, forget it immediately. When someone does something nice for you, never forget it.”  I wish more people could believe in and practice this. It’s about as loving and gracious as you can get.  Jim was truly that kind of guy.

I feel blessed and grateful that I had the opportunity to meet this man and experience what he was all about: People. Connection. Warmth.  Not being fancy, but being real. And always welcoming.

The world already misses you, Jim Haynes! May we all live as richly and generously as you did!

As one writer noted “[Jim] was trying to connect the entire world.”  He certainly put a dent in the project.  Imagine: 130,000 guests from…everywhere. One of Jim’s friends told me that he could literally travel the world and never need to stay in a hotel.  I believe it.

Maybe when this pandemic ends we can all honor Jim and carry on his legacy by hosting our own little Sunday suppers with friends, neighbors, colleagues, random folks we meet while out and about.  Doesn’t have to be fancy. Just sincere, simple, and social.  Let’s get the whole world connected. We are going to need this soon, don’t you think?