The ‘new’ Washington dinner party

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly described Angela Simmons as the daughter of Russell Simmons. She is his niece. This version has been corrected.

June 7, 2012

“You know,” a doyenne of the Washington dinner party scene tells you, “this is a very dangerous story you are working on.”

“This is just not something people want to talk about,” a well-known host says.

“If you put my name in there,” a socialite tells you, “I will get [your editor] to kill you.” She smiles, sitting in the parlor of her lovely home. Then she rises, as powerful people often do when the conversation has ended but you do not know it, and you are cordially escorted to a grand door. You notice the maid, who announced your arrival, watching your departure.

You hurry in your conservative pumps down the broken brick sidewalk, perplexed. All you wanted was to find out what has replaced the legendary Washington dinner party — the fabled institution that rose to fame with the arrival of the glamorous Kennedys. The kind of party where a “real Washington hostess” with a champagne voice reigned supreme over guest lists, hoping that history might be made in her dining room. The kind of party that journalist Sally Quinn, known for her own glamorous dinners, declared dead in a 1987 article in this very Magazine. “The Party’s Over,” the headline read.

If that dinner party has been dead for a quarter-century, what are the hallmarks of today’s Washington dinner party? It seems like a simple question, but getting people to RSVP to a request for an interview about the current dinner party scene is proving almost as elusive as getting an invitation to attend one. In fact, those in the know try to convince you that a “real Washington hostess” would never deign to talk to you. “Everybody is a little guarded around Washington,” says one host.

But people used to want to talk about the Washington dinner party: Who was there? Who whispered what to whom? Was that his mistress or his wife? Which enemies were served from the same plate? What political deals were brokered? Which literary giants literally duked it out?

That era was defined by the generation of hostesses who made it famous, and “all the people are gone,” laments one former hostess. “Evangeline Bruce, ... Mrs. Pamela Harriman, Mrs. Katharine Graham. They had the most incredibly elegant dinner parties. Five courses. Oh, my. All that is gone. Nobody has the time now. They don’t have time to prepare that elaborate dinner or sit through it.” And guests, she says, “are all about business. They look at their watches and go home at 9.”

The bitter split in Washington politics has sliced into dinner, too. “Nobody has manners anymore,” one hostess says. And even if politicians were inclined to mingle, Congress’s maddening never-ending campaign cycle has made it difficult.

“The fundraising machine is sucking the opportunity out of more social action,” says Tammy Haddad, chief executive of Haddad Media production company, who throws an annual garden brunch attended by politicians, business people and celebrities. “The traditional salon dinner has definitely given way to . . . fundraisers and restaurant parties.”

Another factor spoiling dinner: a White House administration that seems to not like to party. The Obamas rarely attend Washington dinner parties beyond their own circle of friends. “The president and folks have famously said they are not in town to go to Washington dinner parties,” Haddad says.

“Everything starts from the top,” another hostess says. “When Reagan was president, they were extremely social. It spilled over into the community at large. And the Clintons, a lot was happening then. And dramatically less so with George W. And probably Obama has followed suit.”

“It’s a different time and different era,” another hostess says. “That world is gone. It is just like Downton Abbey.”

Yet, you know there must be people who still orchestrate Washington dinner parties — and, finally, you find some folks to talk about that. You learn that a new generation of hosts and hostesses has risen to fill the void left by the grande dames. Names that often come up, in addition to those interviewed in this story, include: columnist George F. Will; senior White House adviser Valerie Jarrett; Washington Mystics president Sheila Johnson; physician Sharon Malone, wife of U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder; Rima al-Sabah, the wife of the Kuwaiti ambassador, Salem al-Sabah; philanthropist Adrienne Arsht; Debbie Dingell, Democratic power broker and wife of U.S. Rep. John Dingell (Mich.); Marlene Malek, president of Friends of Cancer Research and wife of Republican presidential adviser Fred Malek; lobbyist Abigail Blunt, wife of U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.); Kennedy Center honorary trustee Buffy Cafritz; lobbyists Heather and Tony Podesta; and the ambassadorial couples from the United Arab Emirates, Britain, Italy and France.

The old guard is correct in that the parties thrown by these men and women are a bit different. If the mythic salon parties of old were about private power-brokering, those of today are about public power-backing. Today’s gatherings often focus on promotion: of causes, of people, of books. They’re often less exclusive, perhaps less scandalous: no Nora Ephron pouring wine on Carl Bernstein, no Norman Mailer punching out Gore Vidal. They’re usually more socially diverse, more agenda-driven.

Yet, there are similarities to the salons of yore: Some parties are lavish; some are off the record; some still get big-name politicians and heads of state; most involve networking. You know this because you get yourself invited to a few.

***

Hostess: GOP lobbyist Juleanna Glover

Agenda: Promote power brokers

“Please don’t put those there!” People lean against the mantel and before you know it, “their hair has caught fire!”

The caterer scurries to move the votive candles from the mantel. Juleanna Glover is still running around in leopard print slippers and black slacks, only minutes before 150 guests are due to arrive at her seven-bedroom Kalorama mansion, which sits between two embassies.

Glover keeps promising she will go upstairs and get dressed for the party. But there is more to do: set out the silk tablecloths, pour a bottle for the 6-month-old with full cheeks and eyes so blue he looks as if he belongs in a National Gallery portrait.

The baby rests in his father’s arms, cooing to himself. “Christopher is holding the baby because he has been gone all but five days this month,” Glover says of her boyfriend, Christopher Reiter, who owns furnishing stores in Washington and New York. “He’s happy to hold the baby.” (Glover, 43, who was divorced in 2008 from fellow lobbyist Jeffrey Weiss, also has a 13-year-old boy and two girls, 12 and 9, from that marriage.)

Glover disappears into the kitchen — with white granite and a stainless-steel stove the size of a small Cadillac. You grab a wineglass, and a servant fills it with sparkling spring water. You take a sip and absorb the ambiance. The dining room looks like a gallery. The thick walls are painted pale blue, draped in ivory curtains, framed by oil paintings of faraway lands.

Glover is now running around the dining room, twisting blue and white tablecloths on the formal dining table. “They are imperfect for a reason,” Reiter explains. “When you lay the plates, you will see just the layers.” The party is being catered by Franco Nuchese of Cafe Milano.

You take a bite of fig tart and make small talk with Reiter, 43, who is from Austria and whose stores showcase designer lighting. (Indeed, the lighting in this house is fabulous; one chandelier is made of tiny white silkworm cocoons.)

Glover appears in the dining room — again. She is in full makeup but still no party dress.

“Darling, you are not changed,” Reiter says.

“I’m going to light the fireplace.”

“You need to get dressed,” Reiter says.

“I am,” Glover promises.

In 2008, Glover was named by Washington City Paper as “Washington’s best hostess,” who, with an electronic Rolodex to die for, is able to pull a bipartisan crowd into her living room. Politico once wrote, “You haven’t made it in D.C. until Juleanna Glover throws a party for you.”

The accolades rest lightly on her thin shoulders. She seems to have that “I don’t know how she does it” life: Four children. Good cheekbones. Porcelain skin. And connections.

In this city, connections are the greatest currency. There are only so many degrees of separation from power. Glover throws dozens of parties each year. If you keep throwing enough parties, work a room long enough, you’ll get closer and closer and closer to real power. Some call it self-promotion. Glover — a onetime aide to former Vice President Dick Cheney, who has been a guest in her home — does not flinch at the word. “Everything is about promotion,” she says.

Glover says she invites guests “who are unabashedly brilliant. The smartest people in the room, who are interesting and unafraid. Certainly not the folks who rely on talking points.” Guests, she says, such as Jake Tapper of ABC News; Peter Bergen of the New America Foundation; Simone Bemporad, chief executive of aerospace company Finmeccanica USA.

Glover prefers to throw parties rather than attend them. “I feel obligated to make people comfortable and happy,” she says, but she feels no obligation to emulate the legendary Washington hostesses. “That type of lifestyle is not my lifestyle.”

You ask why she does what she does. Her answer is unexpected from a woman seen as a power broker. She does this, she says, because she is a single mother who “can’t fail” her children.

“I’m hyper-paranoid about doing my job as well as I can. And doing my job as well as I can means knowing as many people as I can. It happens to be something I’m good at.” Yet she has no illusions about why her guests come: to connect. “I don’t think they come to see me or my lovely children.”

Those guests are finally arriving, up the walk, into a foyer papered in pale blue, beyond white French doors. A woman in black guarding the entry reminds you that there are to be no notes or photographs. The party, like so many throughout Washington history, is off the record. For the next two hours, a celebrity financier will hold court in the dining room. The guests will nibble, sip and listen with rapt attention to the powerful man at the head of the table.

***

Hosts: Philanthropists and business owners Catherine B. Reynolds and Wayne Reynolds

Agenda: Promote charity

There should be paparazzi outside Cafe Milano in Georgetown on this Sunday night. Instead, Washington’s A-listers slip into the famed see-and-be-seen restaurant almost unnoticed. A passerby on the street might never recognize the collective star power gathering inside.

Catherine B. Reynolds, 54, and Wayne Reynolds, 55, stand at the door of the Domingo Room, greeting guests. The Reynoldses’ parties attract some of the biggest names in the city, but the parties, the Reynoldses say, are not thrown for frivolity.

“There usually is a purpose to the evening,” Catherine Reynolds says. “Almost 100 percent of dinners hosted by my husband and myself, I would say at least from our perspective, are usually organized around a philanthropic purpose or a cause.”

This dinner is thrown to support the D.C. College Access Program, which provides college scholarships for D.C. schoolchildren. The party, Catherine says, is “all about the people and the conversations.” The connections are choreographed. “I don’t believe in open seating,” Wayne Reynolds says.

Inside the Domingo Room, guests are connecting, as they are supposed to: Chris Wallace, host of “Fox News Sunday”; Rickey Minor, bandleader for “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno”; dancer and choreographer Debbie Allen. The Washington Post’s Donald Graham; mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves; former U.S. secretary of state Colin Powell and wife Alma Powell, chair of America’s Promise Alliance; and Post columnist Colbert King are talking to Grammy winner Dionne Warwick.

Dionne Warwick! If you could only get to her side. But unless you push and elbow and rudely excuse yourself, you will never make it to that corner where it looks as though she and the Powells are having a very lovely conversation.

You glance over your shoulder: You see BET founder Robert Johnson; television anchor Barbara Harrison; former secretary of defense William Cohen and his wife, Janet Langhart; NPR host Michel Martin and her husband, litigator Billy Martin.

Wayne Reynolds introduces you to Billy Martin, who says an invitation from the Reynoldses is “meaningful because you really do get to meet people you enjoy talking with.” Last month, at another Reynolds party, Martin met basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. “It was a dream of a lifetime to sit down and talk with him about his life and career and basketball,” Martin says.

Reynolds is thrilled to hear that story. “The success of a dinner party is when you learn something new and you meet someone new,” he says.

You are dying to ask more, to find out what new thing Martin learned from Abdul-Jabbar, but the party crowd shifts. Barbara Harrison kindly points out that the cap is still on your camera lens.

The Reynoldses entertain about three times a month. Last month at their corporate D.C. townhouse, they threw a party in honor of Singapore Ambassador Chan Heng Chee. The Reynoldses had the furniture removed from the top floor of the townhouse to make room for a sit-down dinner for 90, during which former secretary of state Henry Kissinger gave a toast to Ambassador Chan. After dinner, the guests moved to the second floor for a three-song performance by opera singer Dame Kiri Te Kanawa.

In the room were U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt; Italian ambassador Claudio Bisogniero; U.S. trade representative Ron Kirk; former U.S. representative Susan Molinari; Gen. Brent Scowcroft; former U.S. representative Jane Harman; and Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell. The party was packed with power.

***

Host: Winston Bao Lord, founder of Venga

Agenda: Promote an artist

It’s a Friday evening. Outside Winston Bao Lord’s house in American University Park sits the Venga Bus, which Lord bought for $1,000 on Craigslist. Lord — whose father is former ambassador to China Winston Lord and mother is Bette Bao Lord, author of the international best-selling novel “Spring Moon” — co-founded Venga, a company that helps to manage customer loyalty for restaurants.

On this night, Lord, 44, is throwing a dinner party to promote his friend, painter Lisa Ryan. Inside the red dining room is an abundance of South African red wine. The house, where Lord spent some of his childhood, is newly renovated, designed specifically for the parties he hosts several times a month. The rooms are painted in deep reds, chocolates and blues. The furnishings are sparse, allowing guests to move uninterrupted by clutter. Step down into the great room, where Lord has planted four handmade wooden tables created by a friend’s company. Ryan’s realist and abstract oil paintings — including a portrait of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones — line the walls. Soon, guests will arrive, but Lord is not harried.

“Have a glass of wine,” Lord says to his friend Ashley Taylor, who co-chairs the Washington Ballet’s Jete Society for young professionals with him. Taylor, wearing a black babydoll top, continues to speed around Lord’s house. “I’m still setting up,” she says, arranging glasses.

“We’re done setting up,” Lord insists.

“You are such a boy,” Taylor says before heading for the kitchen. Lord slips into a seat in the dining room and explains his plan for the party. It is simple: Invite guests. Demand nothing of them.

“I tell them where I live and what time it starts. It doesn’t mean you have to be here at 7. They can come at 9 o’clock. I don’t have rules.

“I don’t tell them when to leave. I don’t tell them where to sit. ... I don’t tell them what to wear. I don’t feel you should tell people where they should sit and who they should sit next to.” There is a time and purpose for that, a state dinner, perhaps. “But to me, the secret to the success of a dinner party is for guests to come and have fun and let go.”

Lord doesn’t worry about the tablecloths or whether the forks match. “If we ran out of beer, that would worry me.”

Lord learned to entertain from his parents. “There were heads of NSO, gourmet chefs, the ambassador from Iran. My parents ordered takeout. It was more about who was around the table and not what was on the table.”

Guests tonight include young people in government, the arts, design and technology.

Lord introduces Dick Sauber, the kind of guest you want at your party. Sauber, a high-profile Washington lawyer, sinks into the L-shaped sofa and regales the other guests with anecdotes about Washington dinner parties, some of them perhaps true.

“The British prime minister from the last century is supposed to have been at a dinner party where the food was terrible,” Sauber says. “Finally, for dessert the doors of the kitchen fly open and the butlers are standing there with huge bowls of ice cream. And he turns to the hostess and says, ‘Ah, something warm at last.’ ”

Laughter. The great thing about living in Washington, Sauber continues, is that your next-door neighbor could be a secretary of commerce or an ambassador to Bulgaria. A former neighbor of Sauber’s worked for President Clinton, who loved dinner parties and would attend hers. “No one felt comfortable leaving before the president left. He would stay until 1 or 2 o’clock in the morning,” Sauber recounts. “My neighbor remembers the time he said to her, ‘Can I invite everyone back for milk and cookies?’ The whole thing was like a grad school social scene. They would stay up late and argue and talk and scream at each other.”

The caterer announces dinner is served. She has arranged plates of pad Thai and succulent shrimp. Guests help themselves, then take seats at the tables in the great room.

Holding court at one of the tables is the artistic director of the Washington Ballet, Septime Webre.

“You are writing about dinner parties?” he asks. “Interesting. Have you read ‘Babette’s Feast’?”

     Yes. It’s a story about a woman who lives in a puritanical village. After she wins a lottery, she decides to spend her entire fortune on one wonderful, sensual meal.

“It is not an apt metaphor for a D.C. dinner party,” Webre says, “because the goal here is not necessarily food. It’s about human interaction and networking.”

The conversation spins like a ballet. What kind of artist would you rather have dinner with? Webre asks. His opinion: “The writer is a generalist and can talk a little about everything. The actor is probably the most fun, because he is the most animated. The musician is the most talented but a little bit of a geek. The dancer is the best-looking but is vulnerable,” Webre says. “And looks the best in a skirt.”

He laughs. Lord pours more South African wine.

***

Hostess: Debra Lee, CEO of BET

Agenda: Promote conference, book

Her house is one of those OMG houses on a hidden tree-lined block in the Embassy Row neighborhood. A pale yellow stucco, rising like a statement. You look, and you know that it must be the house of media executive Debra Lee.

Outside, valet attendants wait. Inside a sleek garage, caterers hurry with platters of food. Up gray slate stairs, the room opens wide. Blue lights. Big windows. Sunken living room. Sleek art. Coffee-table books on massive window seats. Gray carpet beneath an off-white sectional sofa. A keyboard, drum set and microphone near the fireplace.

A tree is growing in the middle of a terrace courtyard, overlooking Rock Creek Park. Low black bamboo cushions await guests. A high-end sound system playing Prince.

This is what Hollywood would look like if it were in Washington.

As if by magic, most of the guests appear at the same time, transported from the Ritz-Carlton via charter bus.

The women arrive in cocktail dresses, frosted pinks, tangerines, black glitter.

“It is not your standard fashion,” says Jeanine Liburd, executive vice president of communications at BET. There is something special about a Debra Lee party, she adds. “People will wear their best shoes, their best dress, and their hair is done. The accessories are just right. It is not your typical navy and black D.C. event.”

This evening’s dinner begins the “Leading Women Defined” conference, an invitation-only gathering at the Ritz for leaders in the arts, business, entertainment, politics and academia.

Running BET, which hosts dinners related to its shows and specials, gives Lee a distinct advantage in attracting A-listers, not only from Washington but from throughout the country.

“My goal in doing the guest lists is to make sure we have political types. Celebrities are there, personal friends and colleagues are there,” she says. “I try to make it the hottest group of people possible. I try to make it a mix of people racially, a mix of the corporate, entertainment and political worlds.”

After seven years as BET’s chief executive, she says, people know she throws “a hot party with first-class details.”

This year’s BET Honors dinner was held at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in January, in conjunction with the “30 Americans” art exhibit. Black limousines lined 17th Street. More than 300 people poured into the museum. Inside, fountains flowed with chocolate; towering bouquets of flowers, ostrich feathers and gilded elephant ears anchored tables. Waiters, quiet as clouds, swept through the crowd serving pear martinis and gin and basil “Smashes.” As guests moved on to dinner, they descended stairs lined by a choir, which sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Each table, covered with a sparkling cloth, had different chairs and a different flower arrangement. The four-course meal began with truffle soup. During dinner, a violinist played classical music — and R&B.

Back at Lee’s “Leading Women Defined” party, waiters in tuxes and bow ties circulate, quietly serving lobster bites and vegetable wraps. You, dressed in olive green, squeeze past a sea of black sequins and mango dresses, fabulous cocktail rings on fabulously manicured fingers. You are trying to get to the dining room table and the cheesecake pops on a stick, when you notice actress Regina King. She looks tiny, compared with her onscreen presence in that Will Smith movie. And there is NBA wife Tracy Mourning. And actress Anika Noni Rose, who says she appreciates a Washington dinner party because “it doesn’t have to be so high-end that you can’t be comfortable.”

Look across the room, BET’s Liburd instructs you. “To have Angela Simmons, [the niece] of Russell Simmons, in that lace, little cutie-pie dress, talking with Rhonda Mims, president of ING Foundation, and Ava DuVernay, the first African American woman to win the Best Director Prize” at Sundance for her feature film “Middle of Nowhere.” “You are not going to roll up on that scene in too many places.”

Mikki Taylor, the Essence beauty columnist who wrote “Commander in Chic: Every Woman’s Guide to Managing Her Style Like a First Lady,” is the guest of honor. She is wearing a lipstick-pink dress. Her legs are bare.

“I’m thrilled and honored to be in the midst of sisters I know and love,” she says. Another thing that has her “over the moon” is that singer, songwriter and spoken-word artist Carolyn Malachi is performing.

In the living room, wearing a flowing cocoa gown, the Grammy-nominated Malachi sings: “My skin is black. My arms are long. My hair is woolly. My back is strong.” The words are liquid jazz in the living room. “My skin is yellow. My hair is long. Between two worlds, I do belong.”

Malachi, in gold heels, dances on the plush carpet in the sunken living room.

Beyond the glass panels, the sun is setting over Washington. And a Washington dinner party is just getting started — and is very much alive.

DeNeen Brown is a Washington Post staff writer. To comment on this story, send e-mail to wpletters@washpost.com.

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