By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 4, 2009
At the 1893 inaugural ball of Stephen Grover Cleveland, heralded as "a triumph of the electricians' skill" at the time, a canopy constructed of 10,000 square yards of gold bunting hung over a jubilant display of silk, flowers and incandescent light bulbs, which spelled out the names of all previous presidents in gargantuan twinkly letters. A 120-piece orchestra led by John Philip Sousa played for the guests, who could pause from dancing to nibble on 60,000 oysters, 10,000 chicken croquettes, 150 gallons of lobster salad and 1,300 quarts of ice cream, among other things.
For male attendees who arrived feeling disheveled, a team of 10 barbers stood at the ready to provide on-site cuts and shaves.
At the 1997 inaugural balls of William Jefferson Clinton, guests at certain venues could purchase a plastic box containing a ham and Swiss mini-biscuit for $5.50 and, for an extra $4, a glass of wine dispensed from an 18-liter box. Naturally, that wasn't true of every venue. Some places went the peanuts 'n' frozen cookies route. At the Tennessee ball in Union Station, one resourceful guest brought along her own box of Cheez-Its.
Sadly, sometime in American history, the inaugural ball became, to put it bluntly, hideous.
"Oh, there will be something big hanging from the ceiling and something big hanging from the end of the room, but it won't be beautiful. It will be gaudy," says Letitia Baldrige about the ball experience. Baldrige was Jackie Kennedy's social secretary and has seen the worsening of inaugural balls through several presidential terms. "The music will be great, but you won't be able to hear it over the people asking why they paid so much money for this and why there aren't more bathrooms."
She won't be attending any of the 10 official balls planned for Barack Obama's inauguration, as "I've been through the physical punishment of it enough already."
Yes, Mr. or Ms. Prospective Ballgoer, we know. We know all about the Stuart Weitzmans and the facials, and the dress you have been telling everyone was on sale (and we know it wasn't). We know all about the way you blush when you talk about your invite, because this is not just a party, it is a ball, even if two weeks ahead of time, most details remain TBD. It is the mixer where Cinderella met her future husband.
We know all of this, and we join you in asking: When did this ball go so wrong?
* * *
The first one appears to have been lovely.
The official inaugural ball on March 4, 1809, at Long's Hotel, near what is now the Library of Congress, was the brainchild of that hostess with the mostest, Dolley Madison, wife of the fourth POTUS, James.
Washingtonians were despairing over the lack of social opportunities in the city, and the Madisons knew that keeping them happy would go a long way toward keeping the capital in town. Answer: a ball! A departure from the past precedent of the first three presidents!
"The ball became a symbol of a new era," says Dolley Madison biographer Catherine Allgor. "It said there was a new sheriff in town, and that sheriff was Dolley Madison." The ball reassured the fledgling (and still British-influenced) country that it had the "right" kind of people in leadership positions. Americans began calling Mrs. Madison "Queen Dolley."
She threw a really great party. Anyone with $4 (about $50 today) could attend, and would be treated to lemonade and coffee, a late supper, candies and this drink called "chocolate," new to the young nation.
The Marine Band played, guests did minuets and waltzes, the Madisons stayed late, and such a fabulous time was had by all that James Monroe kept the idea for his 1817 inauguration. So did John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, who decided to double his pleasure with two balls. Three balls were hosted for William Henry Harrison. He attended all of them, then died a month later from pneumonia caught during the inaugural festivities. For a while after that, presidents scaled back to just one.
With each inauguration, the federal government fine-tuned its famous love of "process," of committees and subcommittees. Enter the Presidential Inaugural Committee, and its departments of Programmes, Hall and Promenade, and Public Comfort -- dedicated, absurdly, to actually making travel and lodging for out-of-towners affordable.
A sample PIC agenda from 1881: "Appointment of Persons to Have Charge of the Hat Boxes."
Other agendas asserted themselves early: At one 19th-century meeting, members proposed such ideas as charging female guests double because of their large dresses. At another, the chair of the civic organizations committee received special thanks for dealing with the "women suffragists" who "have greatly added to the troubles of the inaugural committee."
Aside from the pesky females, with their big mouths and bigger skirts, there were other mishaps (two words about Ulysses S. Grant's icy ball: frozen canaries). The sites were almost always too crowded, but the parties seemed magnificent regardless. For Abraham Lincoln's second inauguration, the list of desserts takes up its own paragraph ("tarte a la Nelson, tart a la Orleans, tarte a la Portuguese, tarte a la Vienne . . ."), and a New York reporter praised the event for sporting "the best arrangement of the ladies' retiring-rooms and gentleman's cloak room that we have ever seen."
So far, so good.
* * *
Today we think of balls as Disney extravaganzas, but without the glass slipper.
But back then, balls were just big excuses for dancing: formal, choreographed, partnered dancing.
"In the 19th century, the average person would know a wide variety of dances," says Richard Powers, a dance historian at Stanford University. Waltzes, polkas, longways country dances, the lancers' quadrille -- everybody knew all of them, and had the chance to show them off at least once a month, if not at a formal ball, then at a private party or dance hall.
Dance lessons were, in fact, one of the few acceptable methods of social climbing: Tailors or tutors could enroll their kids in the same dancing schools as rich landowners in the hopes of securing future party invitations or even making a good marriage match.
Woodrow Wilson shook up the ball tradition when he decreed in 1913 that he would not have one. He thought it was too frivolous for a serious occasion. His wife had her own reasons: "I cannot bear to think of a ball with modern dances at Woodrow's inauguration," Ellen Wilson told reporters. The quadrille was being replaced with the foxtrot; it was all very scandalous.
Warren Harding also canceled-- the country was in a recession, after all -- and it seemed that the ball might have taken its last spin.
But Washingtonians had grown to love the century-old event, and they came up with an inspired work-around: privatization.
Those who could afford to would hold their own ball and give the proceeds to charity.
So from Harding's time through Franklin D. Roosevelt's, the inaugural ball became several events around the city, all for a good cause. So far, so good.
* * *
The whole thing started to go all wrong, prospective ballgoer, in the '50s, that decade of Kinsey, Elvis and Ike. It wasn't his fault; he and Mamie loved to dance.
The maelstrom of occurrences:
1. A party change.
3. The twist.
When Dwight D. Eisenhower entered office in 1953, Democrats had been in the White House for two full decades, and Republicans were rarin' for a good bash.
And how. An official ball was planned and the Inaugural Committee sent out thousands of invitations to supporters -- way more than the D.C. Armory, the planned venue, could accommodate. By the time Inauguration Day rolled around, more than 90 percent of those invited had responded affirmatively, so the committee had decided to split the ball between two jampacked locations: the Armory and a Georgetown gymnasium. On the morning of the event, some 2,000 come-latelies rushed the ticket booth to learn which venue they had been assigned to, and in the process missed something important: the soon-to-be-sworn-in Eisenhower, passing by the booth on his way to the Capitol.
That night, both official balls were so crowded that something else kind of important didn't happen: dancing.
"Friends always talked about how much the Eisenhowers loved to dance," says Marilyn Holt, author of "Mamie Doud Eisenhower: The General's First Lady." "He had been reprimanded at West Point for twirling his partner too fast and causing her ankle to show." But at the 1953 inaugural balls, "it was such a crush that they barely had room or time to get in and out of there."
There was no dancing in Camelot either. John F. Kennedy's balls (all five of them; once Eisenhower opened the multiple balls door, there was no going back) were once again too swamped for the couple to dance at all.
Of course, by that point, partnered dancing was going out of fashion anyway. Blame the twist, introduced in 1959, which ushered in an era of "dancing at your partner, rather than with them," says Powers.
A ball without dancing is less "ball," more "cattle herd."
Technology added another layer of frenzy to the Kennedy festivities: Those inaugural balls were televised, meaning that people around the country saw the first family in all its glamour and began, in later years, to angle for tickets like never before.
Jimmy Carter realized the absurdity of the ball in 1977. He tried to scale back, way back. He tried to transform the event into something that made sense for the time. He renamed the balls "parties." He served pretzels and peanuts. He charged just $25 per ticket.
Everybody hated it.
Ronald Reagan swung the pendulum back in 1981, planning eight white-tie affairs and starting ticket prices at $100 apiece. An inaugural volunteer said the night was all about "dignity and class," though accounts of the time describe the balls as total madhouses.
At Reagan's 1985 inauguration, a seriously logjammed coat room resulted in Mink-gate. Several guests' outerwear went missing, including the $8,000 fur that Annandale resident Colleen Beveridge had borrowed from her mother-in-law for the occasion.
It capped off a so-so evening. "I'd expected a lavish buffet. Or some kind of buffet," said Beveridge in a recent interview. "It was kind of like going into the gym at a high school dance. Most people just stood around; no one danced. It wasn't what I expected."
* * *
Of course, what we expect is something that may not be possible: an old-fashioned Madisonian fairy tale blended with a modern populist sensibility, in which everyone who wants to mingle with the president can come and mingle with the president.
It just doesn't work.
Does anybody dance anymore, aside from rabid "Dancing With the Stars" fans?
What is a "quadrille"?
Can I do it while wearing this repurposed bridesmaid dress? I know it's "persimmon"-colored. It's the only floor-length dress I have.
And still we have balls.
We have balls because we are a country of nostalgia and tradition, perhaps, or because we want to believe we are classier than we actually are.
Because even in this age of the first "Internet president," sometimes we want to experience things in real life.
Because Washington still has a social inferiority complex?
We cling, prospective ballgoer, because we have always had balls, because somewhere along the way we became more enthralled with the idea of them than by any actual enjoyment derived, because everyone in this nation of crazy optimists still thinks he or she will magically know how to samba, once the music starts again.