Jerry Rafshoon was acting out a little fantasy last night at the Meridian House Ball. It featured Pope John Paul II running into trouble with a policeman in the nation's capital, and it went like this:
"What's your last name, John Paul?" the imaginary cop asked the pope. "II? he continued. "Is that a last name? . . . What's your Social Security number? . . . You sound like a foreigner . . . Where's your passport?"
Rafshoon's stand-up routine was just brief comic relief amid lots of serious shop talk with fellow White House staffers about the logistics of the pope's visit. Meanwhile, around the tiny knot of White House workaholics (which included Social Secretary Getchen Poston and East Wing staff director Kit Dobelle) swirled the chiffon and black ties of the annual fund-raiser for international culture exchange programs.
The ball is strictly social, and is one of the few notable Washington events that have little to do with politics. When asked about the upcoming FBI report on Hamilton Jordan's alleged use of cocaine, Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti replied: "No comment. Can I get you a gin and tonic?"
But what it lacks in politics, the party makes up for in architecutre. Meridian House was built in 1922 as the fulfilled daydream of American millionaire Irwin Laughlin, and today it is a Washington landmark in the National Register of Historical Places.
Last night, partygoers wandered enchanted among the linden trees that marched across the terrace, or sat at candlelit outdoor tables sipping champagne, Jack Daniels and other concoctions from the bar.
A greenish satyr stood at the head of the staircase, sporting a neat, tiny pair of horns and the traditional lustful leer and carrying a rustic flute. But he had no goat hooves, just human feet, and so to classical scholars he was a sham.
He was the first of a crowd of Roman-style statues scattered throughout the house among the flowers from Bloomingdale's. Everyone marvelled. Even going to the ladies' room was a classic experience.
"You know, you go into the bathrooms and the ceilings are 20 feet high and the tubs all have legs," said Joyce Bonin, who helps introduce new diplomats to Washington. ("The have trouble getting through the traffic circles," she revealed.)
But the architectural detail that caught the most attention was not part of the permanent decor. Rather, it was a bust in the 18th-century French style, sitting on a buffet table in the middle of the sinfully lavish spread of cheese, fruits and chocolates. Nobody had any idea who he was.
Nontheless, everybody guessed, Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a popular bet, as were Rene Descartes and the Marquis de Lafayette. Trailing far behind was Pierre L'Enfant.
But whoever he was, he looked happy with a dark red lipstick smudge on his pale left cheek.
As for the human guests, they included:
Abelardo Valdez, the new chief of protocol; Livingston Biddle, the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts; David Lloyd Kreeger, Washington's "Renaissance man;" a few senators, a lot of ambassadors a bunch of corporate executives and anybody else who could afford to spend $125 for a ticket.
Before the ball, the 500 or so guests had been distributed to 26 embassies for food and more food. In fact, what they ate at their respective embassies was a prime conversation topic.
"We had three wines and we had a lovely fish course and then we had a lovely veal course and then we had lovely chocolate and lovely brandy. Everything was lovely." This from Austin Kiplinger, a Washington publisher, who had dinner at the Italian Embassy and was later spotted doing a lovely can-can.
The Kiplinger can-can was inspired by a group of leggy young women who suddenly flounced into the room and began dancing. They had been hired as part of the evening's ambience and were dressed in enough black and purple ruffles to make them candidates for a Toulouse-Lautrec painting. They were also great hits.
"Ta-ta-ta-ta-da-da-ta," sang Kreeger, a front-row admirer. And when he stopped singing, he added: "Very intriguing. But I wish they had better lighting. They've got the girls in the dark."
One index of the quality of a Washington party is the number of chauffeurs you can spot idling outside into the small hours. By this standard, the Meridian House Ball was clearly a success. Nearly 75 chauffeurs were seen standing around on nearby street corners like well-dressed loiterers -- and heaven knows how many were somewhere else under orders to come back at 2 a.m.