Resident Mary Hayes has become known in town for her parties to celebrate the British royal family.
It’s usually quiet in Woodbury around 4 o’clock in the morning, but on a late April day in 2011, festive things were starting to occur inside the house of resident Mary Hayes. Hats of all sizes were being pinned on, fancy dresses straightened, bets made, and the champagne poured. Suddenly KSTP news was at the door, ready to capture all the action. A mere 4,000 miles away, wedding bells rang in Westminster Abbey.
“I like to have parties,” says Hayes, who’s become known in town for her parties to celebrate the British royal family (and her delicious cranberry butter cake). But it hasn’t always been this way. Before moving to Woodbury, Hayes and her husband Gary lived in a rural part of Wisconsin. “I had no neighbors for 10 years,” she says, as the group of women gathered around her dining room table chuckles. It hasn’t seemed to affect her neighboring skills.
“She puts on the best parties in the world,” says neighbor Ione Gale, and the rest of the women agree.
Hayes has assembled a collection of her partygoers to join our chat. We go around the table for introductions. First up is LeeAnn McDonald, a retired nurse who has lived in the neighborhood for 21 years. She sits next to Sharon Swanson, a retired social worker who has also lived in the neighborhood for 21 years. Next is Gale, who has lived here since the community was developed and says she has been “retired forever.” Later, Katie Floyd joins us after her work day. She works in IT, but I know her as the woman who famously wore her wedding dress to one of Hayes’ royal parties. Hayes, our host, works at United Hospital. She’s lived in the neighborhood for 20 years.
Once we start talking, it’s hard to stop. Hayes has poured wine and brought out homemade brownies. She shows me a copy of a previous party invitation; it’s neatly tied together with white ribbon and lists the schedule of events along with what will be served and what everyone is expected to wear. Swanson takes out her phone and shows me a photo of a wedding cake that Hayes made for Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding. It has three tiers and icing flowers. It was elderberry flavor, to match the cake at the real royal wedding that year.
The parties started on that early day back in 2011. Hayes had planned on inviting some friends over to watch Prince William and Kate Middleton’s wedding (broadcast live from England) in their pajamas, but that quickly was upgraded to formalwear (hats required) when her daughter convinced KSTP news to come by. Since then, the ladies have celebrated two royal weddings and four royal baby showers, in addition to a yearly goodies exchange around Christmas. During the weddings, the ladies dress up and guess what color the queen will wear; Hayes serves cake she makes, and smoked meat courtesy of Gary. (You won’t find him at the party, though—they’re ladies-only affairs). For baby showers, everyone brings a dish to share and there is betting on the birthday, gender and name in addition to a hat contest.
While the neighbors don’t quite identify themselves as Anglophiles, they do enjoy the royal family. They remember watching the wedding of Princess Diana, and hearing about her tragic passing. “In the whole royal family, no one will ever be Diana,” says Swanson. When she died, “I remember I was up all night crying.”
But besides this nostalgia, the crew has really put their own spin on commemorating the royal family’s biggest moments. There’s no tea or crumpets needed for these shindigs, as they seem just as much a celebration of the neighborhood community as of a royal event.
For those looking to host their own royal family parties, a few words of advice straight from the experts. “Have Mary plan it,” says Swanson with a grin.
“All you need is good neighborhood friends,” says McDonald.
“And have people bring something to share,” adds Floyd.
“Just get them talking,” says Hayes.
This perhaps is the best advice for a lively party, and warm conversation certainly abounds in this close-knit group.
If you’d like to create a royal wedding party of your own and don’t have these ladies at your disposal, start with paper invitations. Hayes typically invites around 20 to 25 people. She plans a menu and sets out the nice china. She finds fun prizes for games and goes cherry picking to make her special cocktail, a fermented brandy drink called cherry bounce. Once the wedding (or other event) begins, the ladies suggest a healthy dose of critique of the televised guests’ apparel and hats. Hayes herself appreciates the pomp and circumstance, adding, “They really know how to throw a party.”
The Woodbury partygoers have added a charitable element to their gatherings, too. In the past, they’ve collected clothing and small items for local hospitals. This year, they brought games and puzzles to donate to the Ronald McDonald House. “When you come, you know you’re going to a party and are going have a good time, but it really does feel good to give,” says Hayes, who started the tradition. She estimates that as a group they’ve contributed around $1,500 in donations. “The majority of us in the neighborhood are the kind that like to do things for other people,” explains Swanson. “That’s what we’ve done in our careers. To be able to continue that is important to all of us, and thank goodness we have Mary to keep it going.”
Our little interview party has also kept going, and stories from royal parties past have come to the surface. Swanson talks about a snafu she hit getting ready for the Harry-and-Meghan wedding. “I was coming in a formal gown, and I’m up at 3 o’clock in the morning doing hair and makeup, getting these long gloves on, and I couldn’t get the back of my dress zipped up,” she shares. (She succeeded eventually.) Everyone agrees that they preferred Kate Middleton’s dress to Meghan Markle’s, but they like Prince Harry’s personality more than his brother William’s. And no one saw the Queen’s lime green outfit coming at Prince Harry and Markle’s wedding.
When I spoke with them, the ladies were preparing for their next royal baby shower, happening at the beginning of March for the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s first child (that’s Harry and Meghan, for the uninitiated). Swanson was hoping to find a suit to wear with a hat made by her great-grandmother in an old St. Paul millinery. Some of the other ladies were musing about possible baby names. Hayes advises me this party might be pretty exciting, as she’s sent an invite to the Duchess of Sussex herself. And I have to say—if Her Royal Highness didn’t show, she really missed out.