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Writer Maureen Orth talks hairdos with Monica S. Lewinsky at a March 13 book party for Larry King. (Gamma Liaison)
So, Monica . . . How 'Bout Those Wizards?

By Roxanne Roberts
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 18, 1998; Page D01

In the year's most interesting collision of current events and good manners, Washington is now faced with this delicious social dilemma: What on earth do you say to Monica Lewinsky?

For weeks, the most famous former intern in the world was silent. Washington's journalists were dying to talk to her but had to content themselves with occasional glimpses of Lewinsky dining at restaurants with her lawyer and spokesman, William Ginsburg.

Now Monica speaks! Lewinsky stunned the crowd at Morton's on Friday by making small talk at two private parties -- a practice run for future excursions on the town -- she was at the Wizards game last night, for instance.

"Eventually, we had to get her out," says Ginsburg, who called his client a virtual prisoner in her Watergate apartment. "I felt that this would be an excellent test to show that we weren't afraid."

Easy for him to say. Washington, on the other hand, was uncharacteristically tongue- tied. Take theater publicist Alma Viator, who was celebrating her 50th birthday at the restaurant when she was introduced to Ginsburg and Lewinsky.

"I thought, 'This can't be happening,' but it did," says Viator. "Then I thought, 'Oh, dear. What about my guests?' Because I thought some of them may not have wanted to meet her. Then I went into my gracious-hostess mode, which was, 'Oh, hello. How lovely to meet you,' or something like that, and we started talking about my birthday."

The guests at Viator's bash and those at an earlier book party for CNN's Larry King were on their best behavior. So was Lewinsky -- poised, low-key and "very un-Valley girl," says one guest. The star attraction wore a simple black suit and little makeup, and more than one person was struck by how young she looked.

"I thought everybody treated her with respect," says Ginsburg. Lewinsky is unlikely to talk to anyone about her current situation, of course, so the race was on for socially acceptable topics. It's always awkward to make polite conversation with someone when you're intimately familiar with tales about her sex life. "Everybody wanted to know how she was doing, if she has working or educational plans, all the small talk you can think of," he says.

Well, not all the small talk -- here's a beginner's guide to chatting with Monica:

The Concerned Inquiry. This opening is designed to create bonds of empathy. New York Times columnist William Safire ran into Lewinsky two weeks ago at the Cosmos Club and asked how she was bearing up. "Just fine," she replied, and Safire turned the two-word response into an entire column.

When Safire walked into King's party on Friday, he immediately spotted Lewinsky. "I went over and said, 'We've got to stop meeting like this.' She laughed and said, 'I'm just fine tonight as well.' " (Safire ruefully points out that he should have said, "Who helped you write the talking points?")

Charlie Peters, editor in chief of Washington Monthly magazine, also advises using the Good Cop approach. "I'd say to her, 'It must be terrible not to be able to talk,' and hope that would get her talking," Peters says. "It's a chance to get an honest conversation going."

Monica's Hair. Lewinsky has a thick, shiny, world-class head of hair and takes loving care of her locks. More than one female guest opted for girl talk: "Oh, I love your hair!"

That's how Vanity Fair writer Maureen Orth spent her time with Lewinsky. "We just exchanged pleasantries about our mutual hairdresser," says Orth. (It's Ismail Demir at Toka.) "We both like him very much and she's a big fan of Vanity Fair, so it was easy to talk to her."

Matzoh Ball Soup and Other Pleasures of the Table. Lewinsky was overheard saying how proud she was that she once prepared matzoh ball soup for her entire dorm when she was in college. Since it's almost Passover, she probably has other recipes for other matzoh treats as well. It couldn't hurt to ask.

Come to think of it, Lewinsky has now dined at most of Washington's better restaurants. She can probably talk at length about the food, the service and other amenities. Maybe when this all blows over, she could get work as a restaurant reviewer.

Career Opportunities. "Have you thought about writing a book?" is good party talk. "How do you look in a prison jumpsuit?" is not. Graduate school is going to seem awfully tame after the White House, but it's worth mentioning.

Of course, not everyone in Washington wants to chat with the woman of the hour. Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) planned a quick stop at King's book signing before going to dinner at the Canadian Embassy.

Warner walked into the party and was greeted by host Tim Russert. "I was shaking hands with Tim and said, 'What's all the commotion?' He said, 'Well, take a look.' " The senator spotted Lewinsky and Ginsburg, then said to Russert, "This is not my cup of tea. I have more important things to do."

But, frankly, most people were curious. Viator and her best friend, Ginny Grenham, spent a few minutes talking to the 24-year-old.

Grenham said to Lewinsky, "This must be so difficult for you. In times like these, you really need good girlfriends."

"Yes, but I don't get to talk to any of my friends," Lewinsky said. Then Viator told her, "Look, I'm 50 years old. I've been though a lot. One of these days you'll be having a 50th birthday, and this will be way behind you."

"But I was thinking, 'Oh dear -- will it?' "

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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