Who was that woman sitting next to Obama at the state dinner?

(AFP PHOTO/Brendan SMIALOWSKIBRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
(AFP PHOTO/Brendan SMIALOWSKIBRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

The big question – -well, one of them anyway — leading up to the state dinner in honor of French President Francois Hollande on Tuesday was all about musical chairs. With Hollande arriving at the White House sans coquette, President Obama was left without a first lady to expertly chat with throughout the four-course meal. Thelma Golden to the rescue.

In a somewhat surprising choice, the White House tapped Golden, director and chief curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem, to be Obama’s left hand woman. Golden’s appearance at the head table was unexpected simply because most of Washington had already decided that Christine Lagarde, head of the IMF, would make the most sense as a stand-in for the French first lady. But in fact, Lagarde, who attended the dinner alone, wasn’t even seated at the head table.

Thelma Golden (AP Photo/Evan Agostini)
Thelma Golden (AP Photo/Evan Agostini)

As it turns out Golden’s ties to the White House are perhaps deeper than most realize. She was appointed to the Committee for the Preservation of the White House by President Obama in 2010. Last September, while Obama attended the United Nations General Assembly, Mrs. Obama hosted a luncheon for a few dozen of her diplomatic counterparts at the Studio Museum in Harlem. Ms. Golden’s husband, the London-based Nigerian-born designer Duro Olowu is a favorite of the first lady’s.

One has to imagine that when scrambling for a suitable seat-filler, the chief planners at 1600 Penn. had watched Golden’s 2009 TED talk. The celebrated curator had this to say about her 20-year career in the museum world: “To talk about beauty, to talk about power, to talk about ourselves and to talk and speak to each other, that’s what makes me get up every day.” We hope the president was able to keep up.

Helena Andrews is the co-author of The Reliable Source. Follow her on Twitter @helena_andrews, and send your hot tips, sightings, and gossip to reliablesource@washpost.com.
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