D.C.’s Dinnertime Diplomacy

From Elaine’s Lumière column for T Magazine’s The Moment.

Bettmann/Corbis
Jacqueline Kennedy at a gathering in December 1961.

 

Susan Mary Alsop would be shattered. A grand hostess of the nation’s capital in the 1960s, she transformed the Georgetown town house she shared with her husband, the columnist Joseph Alsop, into a Parisian-style salon for the elite, including President Kennedy himself.

 

She had learned to give great parties in Paris, where she lived as the young wife of an American diplomat. In Georgetown, she wore Balmain and Givenchy and Yves Saint Laurent with Roger Vivier shoes. She entertained with French cut crystal, French porcelain, French sterling silver cutlery, French souffles and two French maids. When she married and moved in with Joe, she brought the contents of her French wine cave with her.

 

“For Susan Mary, entertainment was a job,” said Sophie-Caroline de Margerie, the French author of “American Lady,” a biography of Alsop in French that will be published by Penguin in English next year. “She felt that putting important men together — and it was always men — in congenial surroundings with a glass of whiskey would help them get to know each other. Conversation mattered. It was not an afterthought.”


It was a patrician Washington back then, with good manners and even better conversation, not partisan hatred so deep that Democrats and Republicans won’t dine at the same table the way it is today. Back then, policies about Vietnam or the Soviet threat could be built informally at a multicourse dinner, à la Louis XIV’s Versailles; today, there is back-room partisan strategizing about how to bicker better and promote policy gridlock. It is so rare to cross party lines that when Frank Fahrenkopf Jr., the former chairman of the Republican National Committee, turned up at the National Democratic Institute 2011 Democracy Awards Dinner the other night, he was applauded.

 

Physically, with its monuments, statues and radiating avenues, Washington retains the elegant Parisian look assigned to it upon its creation by the French-born architect Pierre Charles L’Enfant. Spiritually, however, the blend of pleasure and politesse that still infuses eating and drinking in Paris disappeared here long ago.

 

Washington became the most serious of American cities. A dinner with drinking, having fun, clever conversation and innocent flirting is considered a waste of time, and even wrong. “Women don’t flirt and banter and play the way they did in the Susan Mary and Evangeline Bruce era and they way you still do in Paris today,” said Eden Rafshoon, a longtime Georgetownian and the president of the Foundation for Art and Preservation in Embassies. “These days it’s hard to compliment someone directly. If it’s a woman, it’s perceived as obsequiousness; if it’s with a man he either feels very uncomfortable or that you are coming on to him.”

 

Well over a decade ago, Jaime de Ojeda, Spain’s ambassador here, told me he spent much of his time trying to persuade people to accept his dinner invitations. “Everyone is dieting now, which no one used to do,” Ojeda said at the time. “Nobody wants to drink anymore. People want to leave at 10:30, before coffee is served. And on top of that, it’s become fashionable to go home and take care of one’s children in the evening. Can you imagine? Between no food, no drinks and children, you don’t get to see anybody now.” He once had flamenco dancers perform on a makeshift stage set atop the fountain of the residence’s tiled patio to maintain his reputation as a good host and keep his dinner guests amused.

 

The Internet, e-mail, social media and online everything since then has made face-to-face social contact in the evening that much harder.

 

The private dinner party has been replaced by the private book party. “You leave your car running, you dash in, you grab a glass, you shake hands,” said Sally Quinn, the author and journalist. “You get points for being there and then you are out the door. You may or may not buy the book. The average time is 13 minutes. No one has a good time.” It’s O.K. that the book party ends early because you probably have to be at a working breakfast at 7:30 the next morning.

 

John Loengard/Time Life, via Getty
Society columnist Stanlee Miller at a cocktail party in Washington in May 1963.

 

Dinners tend to involve either only a few trusted friends or be too big for any meaningful conversation.

 

There are the educational dinners, like the recent dinner dialogue hosted by the Women’s Foreign Policy Group in a basement ballroom of Georgetown’s Four Seasons Hotel, where my New York Times colleague Elizabeth Bumiller asked Senator Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat, serious questions about Iran’s nuclear program, cyberterrorism, Iraq and Afghanistan.

 

There are no-nonsense structured functions, like the recent NDI awards dinner. Guests went straight to the table at 7 p.m. with no predinner cocktails. The white wine had already been poured. The warm-up speeches accompanied the local harvest salad with a caramelized mushroom tart. Kenneth Wollack, NDI’s president, announced that “the eating portion of the dinner” — the main course, dessert and decaffeinated coffee or tea — would be over in 25 minutes.

 

Then came more speeches, including one by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. When dinner ended at 9:15, we were congratulated for our efficiency. “Tonight we have finished in record time,” Wollack said.

 

Stephane De Sakutin/Getty Images
Michelle and Barack Obama with Carla Bruni-Sarkozy.

 

Washington still has its share of ceremonial productions, like the recent National Italian American Committee’s annual black-tie dinner that crammed 2,500 people into the Hilton Hotel’s ballroom to see Italian-Americans like Frankie Avalon and Dion received awards. There were so many introductions and speeches that the dinner dragged on until nearly midnight. Besides President Obama as the guest speaker — he cracked that the only thing Italian about him was the vowel at the end of his last name — the most memorable thing about the evening were the un-Washington dresses: one woman wore a one-shoulder green satin sheath gathered at the waist with a sequin bouquet; another a confection in black velvet and white bunny fur.

 

How different are dinners in Paris. I belong to a club of about 200 high-powered Frenchwomen there, among them corporate executives, judges, lawyers, elected officials, doctors, academics, writers, fashion designers and cultural figures. Commercial and political self-promotion is forbidden in our bylaws. The goal is to promote serious conversation and have fun. A money- saving suggestion one year to eliminate Champagne before dinner was rejected. A number of women said they’d rather give up dessert.

 

This sort of pleasure-seeking doesn’t comport with the Washington work ethic. Certainly Obama seems to look at France as a destination for forbidden fun. During his visit to France in 2009 to commemorate the anniversary of the Normandy landings, he did no touring and declined an invitation to dine at the Élysée Palace with President Sarkozy and his wife, Carla Bruni. Asked at a news conference why he was spending so little time in Europe, Obama said he was too busy to enjoy himself.

 

“I would love nothing more than to have a leisurely week in Paris, stroll down the Seine, take my wife out to a nice meal, have a picnic in the Luxembourg Gardens,” he said. “Those days are over, for the moment. … At some point, I will be the ex-president, and then you will find me in France, I’m sure, quite a bit, having fun.”

 

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