It’s been eight years since Susan MacTavish Best was burned in a tragic fireplace accident.
In January 2009, she invited friends over to her chic San Francisco apartment one chilly evening for a Robert Burns-themed dinner party complete with poetry readings in front of her fireplace and custom cocktails. Guests departed her home around 10:30 p.m. — but for MacTavish Best, the night was far from over.
The hostess was tidying up her apartment after the party with the help of one last, lingering friend when the accident occurred. She bent over to tend to her fireplace when it exploded, shooting flames straight in her face.
“I couldn’t understand what was happening,” MacTavish Best, 43, tells PEOPLE. “I felt like there was cotton candy all around my face. I couldn’t figure out what it was, but it was flames.
“I felt like my soul had burned.”
MacTavish Best suffered second and third degree burns on 20 percent of her body, including her face, arms, legs and feet. Glasses she was wearing saved her eyesight.
The only way MacTavish Best was able to get through the ensuing nine months of grueling physical recovery (not to mention three years of psychological recuperation) was with an incredible support system of friends — like the guests at her Robert Burns party.
Inspired by the love her friends showed her, MacTavish Best, a former fixture on the Silicon Valley tech scene, decided to turn the worst moment of her life into a business focused on bringing people together. In 2011, she founded Living MacTavish, a lifestyle brand through which she hosts beautifully intimate dinner parties at her home for businesses and entrepreneurs. She has since thrown hundreds of “salon” gatherings with homemade food, drinks — and always excellent conversation.
“I love introducing interesting folks,” she says. “I want to change the world by bringing people together. I know the connections that will be made and why people should know each other. There’s a sense of purpose to come over, have a couple of drinks, but actually hear a conversation from someone. It’s content and it’s education in an intimate setting.”
All this was inspired by the kindness she received in the immediate aftermath of her horrific accident.
“I didn’t talk to [my friends] about the burns,” says MacTavish Best, who was treated in a burn center and could hardly move for six weeks. She bathed in an acid-like substance to clean her wounds.
“It was just them being there for me, I cooked a lot and had them over for dinner and between hospital visits I had people at my home almost every night,” she says.
“I didn’t want to be alone, I just needed people around me. They saved my life, really,” she adds.
MacTavish Best hosts her themed salons at both her SOHO loft in New York and a comfy home in San Francisco.
In 2016, she threw “The Way Out of Black Holes” with featured guest Andy Strominger, who is known for his work with Stephen Hawking on black hole research, including the launch of the Black Hole Initiative at Harvard.
Another event — dubbed “Drinking Scotch on Mars” — featured Pete Worden, former director of NASA’s Ames Research Center, and the distiller from Balvenie. The men interviewed each other while guests enjoyed a special Scotch tasting.
MacTavish Best says guests will linger until 4:00 a.m sometimes, coming to learn about the topic of the night.
“It’s like I’m a wedding planner except I do all the cooking, I do all the inviting, I choose the topic, sometimes I do the interviewing and I need to look vaguely nice,” she says with a laugh. “I love encouraging people just to sort of go forth and gather their friends because it’s going to be so good for them personally and on the business side, but you don’t have to be perfect about it!”
MacTavish Best hardly thinks about that fateful night years ago, the marks on her face have faded. All that’s left to remind her of the horrific fire are scars on her thighs from a life-saving transplant.
“I was depressed, but now I just love my life so much, I love life so much!” she says. “My friends definitely saved my life.”
“And now I’m giving back to them.”