WIFE OF . . . An Irreverent Account of Life in Powertown. By Sondra Gotlieb. Acropolis. 208 pp. $12.95.
ANYONE WHO has ever lived in our nation's capital, affectionately dubbed "Powertown" by author Sondra Gotlieb, will chuckle and nod in recognition while dashing through the pages of this book. (It's not the kind of book over which the reader lingers.) Some- one who has never been to our nation's capital will also chuckle over Gotlieb's musings, even if the subject of the book, the supposed "glamour" of embassy life, is far removed from his or her personal experience. Sondra Gotlieb, the wife of the Canadian ambassador to the United States, previously published much of the book material in column form for The Washington Post, thus incurring no small amount of wrath (jealousy?) among some of her peers. An ambassador's wife traditionally is supposed to tend to her embassy knitting instead of having a career of her own, particularly that of a writer.
Tongue firmly planted in cheek, Gotlieb writes a series of letters about life in Washington to her provincial friend Beverly back in Canada, claiming that "wives of" get wrinkles in the District of Columbia at a much younger age than anywhere else. She characterizes the capital as a city where everyone puts the acceptances of all invitations "on hold" until the last minute, so as to be able to attend the most important party of the lot. She describes how Washingtonians, after stopping short only of murder in order to receive the right invitations, proceed to concentrate their efforts at the party on leaving by 10:30 p.m. She demonstrates how the real access to Washington power is through the game of tennis, which leaves the Canadian Embassy, with only a swimming pool and with non-tennis-playing inhabitants, in a bit of a diplomatic predicaent.
Gotlieb chronicles with refreshing humor matters Washingtonians take very seriously. She describes, for example, the famous Gridion Club's annual dinner as the event where the press invites famous politicians to dinner and insults them while they eat. She adds that the "famous people are supposed to laugh and like the press better."
The author tells us about her life among the "Powerful Jobs" (Washington VIPs), detailing the experiences of the book's imaginary protagonists, who have names like Marvin Thistle Jr. of the State Department, Sonny Goldstone (the Gilded Batchelor and Social Asset); Baron Spitte (the dusty diplomat); and Lionel Portant (a famous columnist whom everyone wants for dinner but whom everyone fears).
Her greatest purveyor of Washington social history is a pushy, upward climber named Popsie Tribble, a successful hostess who drags her husband up the ladder of success. Gotlieb labels her "the Great Destabilizer who makes you feel inferior." Popsie is constantly telling the ambassador's wife to jazz up her dinner parties. "Why don't you strew jasmine over the tables? . . . And get rid of those embassy vases. They look like hospital catheters." (Gotlieb in the meantime worries about other matters, such as when at her first large important dinner party, the waiters brought the platters of lamb chops to serve the guests, but there were no plates on the table.) She reports that fatuous Popsie Tribble is the type who puts her $80-a-yard upholstery fabric outdoors in the sun for "maturation." When a new Powerful Job became available, and three gentlemen-in-waiting were rumored to be in line as contenders, Popsie wrote each a note saying, "If you are appointed, which I sincerely hope for the sake of our country, please come for dinner. If you are passed over, I would still like you to come, but afterward, for the dance."
THERE IS a touch of feminist yearning in Gotlieb's prose, perhaps because the diplomatic service is considered by many to be a very chauvinist career. As "Wife of" (an ambassador), she may possess the job title of "ambassadress," but she is also a woman without a job description, salary or place "in any bureaucratic hierarchy." She explains her role as "the unpaid manager of a small hotel," a task she must assume cheerfully and efficiently. (When her husband is having his picture taken with someone important, her job is to step out of the way -- fast.)
When she follows the ambassador around California while he spreads the good word about Canadian products (including Ontario rutabagas or perhaps live hogs from Gravelbourg, Saskatchewan) they dine nightly on "underdone duck breasts and warmed goat cheese salad." It is not a glamourous, exotic life, this ambassadorial business, but when the "Wife of" has a sense of humor like Sondra Gotlieb's it can't be all that bad.
Wife of is a light, fast read, sophisticated and sometimes too rich for the blood. However, it manages to unstuff diplomatic life and unmask in an amusing way the scheming and conniving that have always been endemic to a seat of government. You're going to love it more if you happen to be familiar with our own seat of government.