Reprinted from yesterday's late edition.
A Maillol Venus smiled ageless at the glittering humans on their poor mortal track in the great lobby of the National Gallery of Art's new East Building and maybe everyone felt that inside those halls something a trifle like eternity was touching their lives. Such is the force of architecture.
Paul and Bunny Mellon received guests at a supper for 25 little tables' worth of donors, sponsors of special art commissions, and figures of the art world.
Last night a second dinner was given for those associated with government and power, but Tuesday night was rightly first - for true power, and the architect I. M. Pei was the man of the hour.
"He is the greatest architect of our day," said Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, sitting on a little stone coping around one of the tropical banyan-type trees of the hall, "and the kindest, sweetest man who ever lived."
"The only building I can think of," said architect Hugh Newell Jacobsen, "in which the concrete makes even marble look cheap."
"It is handsomer, I think, than the Rayburn Building," said one who shall be nameless.
What a difference a little glory makes. For the first time, many thought, the city has a building that does not so much interpret this century as give stature to it. Our daily lives - the snafu of airports, the botch of subways, the abrasion of petty concerns - all this was transformed. The building tells every citizen of the town that theirs is no mean city, and their lives are no mean lives, but fit for a fabric of astonishing richness and grace.
Onassis was dressed in a form-fitting white sheath so innocent a 17-year-old girl might have worn it without blushing, and so sexy a get-up that the most experienced siren might have envied it.
"I hate to say this," said Ruth Boorstin, "as a woman, but the truth is she is perfectly beautiful."
Her husband, Daniel Boorstin, the Librarian of Congress, did not contradict her.
"The great thing about being a doddering antique in this city is that you know all the waiters," said Joseph Alsop, the longtime influential columnist and closet esthete who has increasingly come out in recent years as one of the city's authorities on Chinese art and on collecting.
"Another advantage," someone said, "is that Jacqueline Onassis will be your dinner partner."
"Oh, she will never sit at Table 18 with me," he said.
One sensation of the evening was Benny Goodman who brought along his clarinet to play "Honeysuckle Rose" for Paul Mellon, a jazz and Goodman fan since the year of the Flood. Then he played jazz with a combo, and there was dancing and you will excuse the expression, hooting and hollering and whistling (of a decorcus sort) and much kicking up of heels.
Onassis had Alsop in tow heading to the dance floor, her eyes excited as a girl's.
"I'm as suited to this sort of thing as an old crow," he protested. Nonsense. DANCE. And it was done.
The Mellons, whose money met the $94 million bill of the new gallery, have not been coy about their donation but turned the conversation to art and its role in the capital if anyone tried to praise them. Like Andrew Mellon, whose gifts made the National Gallery possible, they believe the gallery is more important and more worthy of note than any individual contribution to it.
Bunny Mellon did not want to stand on a red carpet while greeting her guests and asked for a straw mat while standing, but since the red carpet was all there was. She said nothing further about it.
She designed the tables - double triangles like the new building, with Calder figures of animals for center-pieces - and the hedges of lemon tree branches and pots of clipped box.
Carter Brown, National Gallery director whose stature has increasing risen to the point that some now consider him the top museum director of America, said this little matter of greenery had raised some problem.
"We had jasmines and things trailing over the ledges [the gallery had mezzanines and open galleries and is a regular wonder of open spaces] and that was just fine, except when we watered the plants the water started to fall on those figures of knights from the Dresden museum. The Dresden curators got very unhappy."
"No combination is more difficult than simplicity and grandeur," said Franklin Murphy, chairman of The Los Angeles Times, "and here it is achieved."
"I don't see how anybody who works here or anybody who comes in here can help being uplifted. The power of architecture to ennoble life -" and Drue Heinz left the rest unsaid.
She is publisher of the little magazine, Antaeus, and literature, the great prince of the arts, is possibly higher in her affection than the others, but she does not exclude him.
When the lights cast shadows on the marble wall from the enormous Calder mobile hung from the glass ceiling, she said.
"Every child should see this. What a pattern to go to sleep by. How much richer and more beautiful than counted sheep."
The gallery had a whole spate of shows opening yesterday - President Carter was to be the first visitor to enter - covering a great range of arts, but significantly the art of this century. That is a field in which the gallery has been relatively weak, and this new building marks a new emphasis on contemporary art and study, for the building will become a center of art scholarship as well as display.
Among the works will be the late Max Beckmann's triptych, "Argonauts." His widow said she has always been unwilling to lend it - once she had the awful experience of an art work she had lent being left out in the snow thanks to a strike. But on this occasion yes, she would lend it, and she did.
Robert Motherwell, Willem de Kooning - the room was full of famous names in art, artists or their relatives (Paul and Pierre Matisse).
Betty Parsons, whose gallery has been so notable in the art of the century, was on hand, and so were great collectors like the Burton Tremaines of Connecticut.
Also turning out were many contributors to the seven works commissioned by the gallery - a new Henry Moore sculpture, a new Miro tapestry and so one - such as Mrs. George Garrett, the Andrew Kecks, Katharine Graham, and lenders of important works, such as the Morton Neumanns.
Nancy Shestack, who teaches problem children - not that she calls them that, but most have been expelled from public schools - in a public school in New Haven, worked herself into a passion and a corner (the topic had been the glory of life and why it is glorious) by saying she thought an Alpha timber wolf was worth the life of any human. Except her husband.
And yet not very well-placed woman of New Haven spends her life teaching difficult children, so she is possible not so harsh a judge of humans as her wolf talk suggested.
"I have tried them out on 'Antigone,'" she said, "and you would be amazed how they respond. These tremendous questions of what is worth dying for and living for. They understand."
People always understand, someone tossed in, if you give them something worth understanding. People respond, if there is anything full of splendor to respond to.
There was a little pause. Eyes looked down at the lovely Maillol, the plane upon plane of the monumental but delicate walls.
"You have something here very classical, very noble, but not tyrannical or ponderous," someone said to Pei.
"Thanks" he said. "I didn't want it to be a Lincoln Memorial," he said.
"Nor a Reichstag," said a woman.
Merely a disarming temple for the Venus, for the 20th-century hassled and harried man and woman of the town.