Written By: Bill Syken

We’ve all been there, at the moment when a previously lovely party suddenly becomes Alcatraz, and the inmates’ thoughts turn to escape.

The people in these photos certainly knew that feeling. Back in the day LIFE sent photographers to all sorts of parties, and while snapping photos of gatherings of celebration and joy, they occasionally captured images of people who looked like they would give anything to be home and in bed.

Knowing how to handle such moments without being rude is a common social dilemma, and the Internet is full of guides on knowing when to leave a party, and the right way to do it. Marie Claire offered up multiple graphs that help you figure out the right time to leave. The magazine Southern Comfort, for instance, offers pearls of advice, including the suggestion that when you exit early, do it quietly: “Unless you are leaving your own wedding reception, there is no reason everyone at the party should be made aware of your exit. Save the trumpets and tears for your own affairs. Please.”

Of course there are some guests who love parties so much they will always be the last person out the door—including author Elena Ferrante, who explains why in an article which explains her reluctance, saying that “separating from people feels like a blast of cold air.” But then the parties she is talking about are probably the fun kind, in someone’s home with a good mix of close friends and interesting strangers. Most of the parties that LIFE photographers attended were big public affairs where the line between work and pleasure was often blurred.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was surely of a different mindset than your conventional partygoer at a Democratic fundraiser. It is possible that movie director Alfred Hitchcock attended the tribute dinner for powerful Hollywood gossip columnist Louella Parsons at least in part out of professional obligation; the look on the face of the master of suspense suggests that at that very moment he might have been conceiving the shower scene from Psycho.

The person most clearly in work mode in these photos is Soviet politician Andrei Vishinsky, photographed at a dinner party for delegates to the Danube River Conference of 1948, held in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. The conference is remembered in history as the moment in which the diplomatic breach between Russia and its Western allies from World War II became clear. During the conference LIFE described Vishinsky as operating with a “chill ferocity” as he told Western allies, “The door was open for you to come in. The door is open for you to leave, if that is what you wish.”

So as Vishinsky sat alone and looking fed up in the picture taken by John Phillips, he was perhaps, like so many other tired party guests, thinking of what else he would rather be doing—even if, in his case, it was getting on with the business of cleaving the world in half.

Attendees at the Jackson-Jefferson Day dinner, a Democratic party fundraiser, in 1944.

J.R. Eyerman/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Attendees at a party thrown by Lady Mendl, a prominent interior designer and the wife of English diplomat Sir Charles Mendl, 1939.

William Vandivert/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Celebration of the season opening of the New York Philharmonic, 1958.

Gordon Parks/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Gloria Vanderbilt, seated to the right of legendary composer Jule Styne, at a celebration of the opening of the New York Philharmonic season, 1958.

Gordon Parks/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Tthe Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Fashion Ball, New York, 1960.

Walter Sanders/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Fashion Ball, New York, 1960.

Walter Sanders/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Attendees at a party thrown by Lady Mendl, a prominent interior designer and the wife of English diplomat Sir Charles Mendl, 1939.

William Vandivert/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Attendees at a party thrown by Lady Mendl, a prominent interior designer and the wife of English diplomat Sir Charles Mendl, 1939.

William Vandivert/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Attendees at a party thrown by Lady Mendl, a prominent interior designer and the wife of English diplomat Sir Charles Mendl, 1939.

William Vandivert/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Comedienne Martha Raye and husband David Rose attended a Gay 90s party hosted by ventriloquist Edgar Bergen, 1939.

Peter Stackpole/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Actor Thomas Beck and actress Patricia Kirkland shared dinner at a gathering of New York actors at a house in Pennsylvania, 1947.

Nina Leen/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt at a fundraising dinner, 1937.

Peter Stackpole/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

A view of members of the Kappa Alpha Theta sorority singing at an engagement party on the campus at the University of Kansas, 1939.

Alfred Eisenstaedt/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Movie director Alfred Hitchcock, with his wife Alma, sitting near actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and actress Joan Fontaine., during a testimonial dinner for columnist Louella Parsons, 1948.

Peter Stackpole/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

United Nations Ball, 1951.

John Dominis/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

The woman at the left is not at all into the party game put together by Frederick Lewis Allen (left), author and Harper’s’ Magazine editor and his author wife Agnes Rogers (left, back to camera) in which describing in which a painting is described and guests try to draw it.

Allan Grant/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

French actress Arletty (left) and designer Andrew de Beaurepaire wopre matching costumes for the Classical Ball in Paris, 1949.

Nat Farbman/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Parisians dressed up as gods and goddess of ancient Rome at a Classical Ball, 1949.

Nat Farbman/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Prince Aly Khan’s party, 1959.

Alfred Eisenstaedt/LIFE pictures/Shutterstock

The Jackson-Jefferson fundraiser for the Democratic party, 1944.

J.R. Eyerman/LIFE pictures/Shutterstock

Soviet deputy Andrei Vishinsky attended a dinner party for delegates to the Danube River Conference of 1948 in Belgrade; the conference was a noted diplomatic showdown between former World War II Allies from the West and the East.

John Phillips/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

More Like This

history

Bye Bye, Bambino: The Funeral of Babe Ruth

history

When Racing Babies Was a Thing

history

Howard University: “Every Signal Told Students We Could Be Anything”

history

Mother Teresa: The Portrait of Christian Charity

history

Here’s Some Old-Time Texas Football For You

history

There’s Quaint, and Then There’s a Story on Phone-Obsessed Teens from 1956