It’s easy to forget that Washington’s grand old edifices didn’t all start life as embassies or museums — but as houses, where real people really lived. (Well, the 1 percent, anyway.)
Take 15 Dupont Circle, the white marble palace built by newspaper heiress Nellie Medill Patterson in 1901. Now it’s the private Washington Club and a popular event space; did it ever feel like a home? Amanda Smith gazed up at its crystal chandeliers.
“It was designed for entertaining,” she said. “Nellie intended this to be a place that would launch her socially.”
On Thursday night, Smith used the place to launch her new book “Newspaper Titan,” a biography of Cissy Patterson, Nellie’s equally striving and volatile daughter, who inherited the mansion and later became editor of the sensational, gossipy, now-defunct Washington Times-Herald.
Big life for an ink-stained wretch: Patterson wed a no-good Polish count, mingled with Al Capone and Albert Einstein, stole men from Alice Roosevelt Longworth, and no, they don’t make them like that any more in Washington, do they?
“There are characters here now,” Smith said, “but they’re so much more guarded in what they say. This book is a parable of life before psychotropic drugs.”
Smith, 44, may know a bit about big characters and grand homes. Neither her name nor her book gives much hint of it, but she’s a third-generation Kennedy, daughter of former U.S. ambassador to Ireland Jean Kennedy Smith and the late Stephen Smith. The party at the Washington Club was hosted by her uncle Ted’s widow, Victoria Reggie Kennedy. Forebears such as Joe Sr. and JFK intersected with Patterson in WWII-era Washington, but on the dozen pages they populate, the author presents them as distant historic figures. Smith also knows the neighborhood: The N.Y.C. native and her husband, lawyer Carter Hood, live just blocks away from the former Patterson House in Kalorama.
We wondered: Where would Cissy make her home if she were trying to conquer Washington today?
“I wonder if she’d be one of the Spring Valley ladies, with a big fancy house,” Smith speculated. “It’s hard to say. Washington has changed so much.”
You can say that again. On the way out, we ran into an elegant woman who remembered wilder times at 15 Dupont.
“I’m afraid I attended many inebriated dances here,” Page Wilson told us. (Ooh, the Page Huidekoper Wilson of the book’s pp. 400-403? The Times-Herald cub reporter who suspected fellow writer/JFK paramour Inga Arvad of being a German spy in 1941? Yes, the very same.) Wilson recalled going back to the house, by then a club, for another party some years after her editor’s death. “So dreary,” she said. “In Cissy’s time, it was so full of fun and nonsense.”
Read also: “Newspaper Titan,” bio of Cissy Patterson, reviewed by Jonathan Yardley, 9/23/11