The center of attention was the bold guest who arrived in the garb of a traditional Japanese dancer: Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore. She was 37, an author, journalist, traveler and collector of the lore and artifacts of far-off lands.
Celebrated for her adventures in Alaska and the Far East — daring for a single woman of her day — she would soon gain renown in Washington for something few people at the ball knew much about.
Scidmore (pronounced SID-more) would become in many ways the mother of the cherry blossoms.
She is the woman whose love of their beauty sparked the first lobbying campaign to plant Japanese cherry trees at the Tidal Basin — and this month marks the centennial of her efforts realized.
Enchanted by the culture of Japan, by 1894 she had been pestering federal officials for almost a decade to plant some of the gorgeous trees she had seen in Tokyo around Washington’s reclaimed Potomac River mud flats, she would say later.
It is “the most ideally, wonderfully beautiful tree that nature has to show,” she wrote.
Princes and beggars were entranced. In Japan, people scrawled poems on paper and hung them in the tree branches.
But in Washington, bureaucrats of three administrations had been unmoved by her pleas and photographs.
“It was as one crying in the wilderness that I begged,” she wrote.
And the newspaper report of the ball that evening on New Hampshire Avenue made no mention of her crusade.
Today, it is the reason she is famous.
In 1909, 15 years after the ball, Scidmore’s “time-worn plea,” as she put it, reached the ear of the new first lady, Helen “Nellie” Taft, who was bent on beautifying Washington.
“I have taken the matter up,” Taft replied two days later, according to Scidmore, “and am promised the trees.”
After some starts and stops, and the support and generosity of several Japanese and American officials, the trees arrived in late March 1912.
On March 27 — more than 25 years after she said she had begun her quest in 1885 — Scidmore attended the ceremonial first planting and etched her name in blossom history.
But a century of cherry tree hoopla, and the most common photo of Scidmore looking like a pleasant schoolmarm, have obscured details of a remarkable and somewhat mysterious life.
She never married, and despite decades as a top-notch journalist, commentator and world traveler, she revealed almost nothing about her personal life in her writings. Always the narrator, she was never the subject.
“There are many gaps in her life,” said Diana Pabst Parsell, a Scidmore scholar, and “very little biographical information.
“She was a very, very private person,” added Parsell, of Falls Church. “In her books, for example, she never identifies people she’s traveling with. So you don’t get any insight into her personal life.”