The young law clerk and his wife were enjoying their dinner party and their guest, a stuffy Bostonian, when the writer who lived just down the street barged in, dressed as an Armenian rug-peddler, and tried to sell the horrified guest some particularly moth-eaten examples.
The host and hostess that night were Dean and Alice Acheson, and the "rug-peddler" was Sinclair Lewis, who was then in the midst of writing Main street . The house where it happened, now painted yellow, still stands at 1830 CORCORAN STREET NW.
In the autumn, when the cooler weather draws people out for walks, Washington is an especially interesting place to ramble -- not just for the postcard scenes, but for the literary landmarks, of which there are plenty: attic rooms in rundown houses on obscure sidestreets where great books were written; dark restaurants and elite clubs where fictional characters held trysts or made deals; places where real writers and make-believe characters were born, seduced and buried.
Some literary landmarks -- such as the graves of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and the restaurant where Les Whitten's reporter lunched with the Speaker's wife, are etched in granite or printed in black-and-white. Others, such as Tohoga House, home of The Man Who Loved Children , you have to search for. Some landmarks have vanished -- victim of the wrecking ball, and still others are hidden by authors in romans a clef .These are the most fun -- especially after you've cracked the code that tells you which hotel, which restaurant and which house on which street the author really means.
Where, for example, did Stingo lose his virginity and finally seduce the Sophie of William Styron's sophie's choice ?
Though he has lusted after her in his heart through a long, hot Brooklyn summer, the rite of passage happens here, but the name of their hostelry is masked in symbolism.
"THE HOTEL CONGRESS breathed an air of troisieme classe ," writes Styron. Take a walk past the old hotels strung along E Street near Union Station and see if you don't agree. To escape from their "cubbyhole of a room," Stingo takes the desk clerk's advice to "try this restaurant down on the waterfront. It's called HERZOG'S. Best crab cakes in town." That's an easy one, of course, but be sure you picture the old Hogate's, not the synthetic, post-urban renewal version.
It's a little easier to find TOHOGA HOUSE, where the boisterous Pollit family brawled and bred in Christina Stead's The Man Who Loved Children . Just follow Sam Pollit, the government naturalist of the title role, as he walks home:
"He loved this Thirty-Fourth Street climb, by the quiet houses and under the trees. . . Tohoga House, that he called his island in the sky, swam above him. . . He came up slowly, not winded, but snuffing in the night of the hot streets, looking up at the great house, tree-clouded. Now he crossed P Street and faced the hummock. On one side of the long galvanized-iron back fence of his property ran toward Thirty-Fifth Street and its strip of brick terrace slums. Over this fence leaned the pruned boughs of giant maples and oaks. . ." When you get to Reservoir Road, turn left and you'll see the house, shrouded by trees and crowded now by neighbors, as it wasn't in the '30s when the book was written.
Another family that lived in Georgetown when it was fit for large, unrich families was that of Janey Williams, one of the kaleidoscope of characters in John Dos Passos' 42nd Parallel , part of the USA trilogy. Janey grows up "in AN OLD FLATFRONT BRICK HOUSE a couple of doors up the hill from M Street." You could prowl Georgetown north of M Street for weeks, and still not know for sure which old flatfront. But there are less elusive landmarks, too: Janey shops at WOODIES ON F STREET, dines at THE WILLARD and attends vaudeville shows at KEITH'S THEATER, the facade of which remains at 15th and G NW. When her father dies at Georgetown UNIVERSITY HOSPITAL he is buried in OAK HILL CEMETERY on R Street, where "all the nicest people in Georgetwon were buried."
But families like the Pollits and the Williamses can't afford to live in Georgetown anymore, and nobody writes about them anyway. The typical Washington novel deals, naturally enough, with politics. Its prototype, Democracy , was written by Henry Adams, who lived on LAFAYETTE SQUARE in a Gothic mansion torn down to make way for the Hay-Adams Hotel. Mrs. Lightfoot Lee, the central character in Democracy , also lived on Lafayette Square in a house probably patterned on Adams' own. But many of the characters in later novels of this genre don't even live here. In Joseph Heller's Good as Gold , touted as a Washington novel, the title character commutes on the shuttle. In one of the better examples of the genre, Allen Drury's Advise and Consent , the main characters, senators and socialites here until the next election, live in appropriately transient quarters.
In the opening chapter, Senator Bob Munson wakes up in his apartment in THE WARDMAN TOWER -- part of the Sheraton Park complex -- and reads that Leffingwell has been nominated for Secretary of State. At THE WOODNER, then fashionable transient quarters at 3636 16th Street, Senator Lafe Smith is saying goodbye to a female Hill clerk with whom he has spent the night. Later, Smith, wanting to talk over the nomination with another senator in private, goes to out-of-the-way NORMANDY FARMS (10710 Falls Road, Potomac). The desire for privacy is frustrated when they run into gossipy socialities Dolly Harrison and Lady Maudulayne, lunching a deux .
Another Washington pair seeking privacy at lunch -- Betty Edwards, the speaker's wife, and Aubrey Warder, the reporter hero of Les Whitten's Conflict of Interest -- go to THE OLD ANGLER'S INN:
"Angler's Inn is off the old C & O Canal," writes Whitten. "In summer it has a patio, and inside there are Edwardian sofas instead of chairs drawn up to the tables. The food is fair and it has cold wines at good prices. No more than a dozen couples ever show up on weekdays for lunch. . ."
Whatever doesn't happen in restaurants usually takes place in clubs. When Clay Overbury, the senator's aide who is the evil hero of Gore Vidal's Washington D.C. , is first invited to the CHEVY CHASE COUNTRY CLUB, he is "disappointed by the simple wooden porch, set back from the suburban street."
But once inside the club, from which he later elopes with the newspaper publisher's daughter, Overbury "felt that he had strayed into another century, where rooms were vast and evocative of slow pleasures, where tall clocks seemed never to strike the hour, and manners were ritual."
In Andrew Tulley's engrossing potboiler Capitol Hill , the meeting that almost does in Assistant Secretary of Defense John Thurston takes place at a reception at THE F STREET CLUB, which, one of the characters said, "looked exactly like her grandfather's house in Evansville, Indiana, a house that was always considered old-fashioned and uncomfortable and too square to be handsome. . . It was old and square, with its rooms solidly centered by the hall and long steep stairway, and its windows with their starched ruffled curtains were drafty and usually needed washing."
Susan Richards Shreve, a contemporary Washington author who actually grew up here, wrote a novel about the children of the senators, ambassadors, journalists and bureaucrats, The Children of Power . Natty Raylor, the novel's child-heroine, lives on HIGHLAND PLACE, in the heart of Cleveland Park, in a "Victorian clapboard farmhouse, painted white, with turrets and stained-glass windows, built by Senator Percy from Rhode Island the same year that ground was broken for the cathedral, half a mile up the road."
Highland Place is a short street, and it's pleasant to rubberneck along it trying to picture Sam and Natty or a drunken Joe McCarthy climbing the front steps.
Shreve's children of power -- like many real-life children of power -- attend SID. WELL FRIENDS SCHOOL at 3825 Wisconsin Avenue, NW, just around the corner from Cleveland Park. Some of the more sinister children kidnap Natty Taylor to force her father, who they believe is soft on Joe McCarthy, to resign from the FCC. They hold her in the Sidwell "senior shack," where the book's tragic denouement takes place. The shack, alas, is now a workmen's equipment shed and the seniors have their own lounge in one of the newer buildings.
In Washington novels, journalists often live in CLEVELAND PARK, probably because the only journalists who get written about are the kind who can afford to live in Cleveland Park. Jeff and Sarah Streator of Abigail McCarthy's Circles live there, but McCarthy doesn't say exactly where. mRich Morgan, the Times bureau-chief hero of Tom Wicker's Facing the Lions , lives there, too. We never find out exactly where, but he takes his son to the Macomb Street playground.
But Nona Landau, the radical journalist of Barbara Raskin's The National Anthem , lives in a fourth-floor walk-up "squeezed between a dry-cleaning shop and an Italian delicatessen" on COLUMBIA ROAD.
A stroll through Adams-Morgan along Columbia Road uncovers no four-story apartment building with the adjoining businesses described, but Raskin's description of the street rings true: "a grim, grimy congested street, crammed with apartment buildings, ethnic restaurants, tawdry shops and disheveled crowds." She hobnobs with the establishment journalists covering the Watergate hearings at THE CAROL ARMS (sic), now a government office building on First Street NE between C and D Streets; at THE MONOCLE, around the corner; at THE CLASS REUNION and at THE WASHINGTON HILTON. For a rendezvous with an establishment journalist who may be able to help her fugitive boyfriend, Nona walks from her apartment "up toward Nineteenth where Columbia Road turned into the svelt curve of Connecticut Avenue and where the mammoth white fortress of the imperial Hilton Hotel imperviously turned its back on the neighborhood huddled behind it."
When she dares her reporter friends to come to her apartment "on the wrong side of Rock Creek Park," they worry about parking their expensive cars in front of the Columbia Road Giant.
War figures almost as heavily in Washington literary landmarks as politics and political journalism. During the Civil War, which raged even in the suburbs, Washington drew famous authors in the role of war correspondents, among them Nathaniel Hawthorne who covered the war for the Atlantic Monthly.
When not touring the battlefields, Hawthorne holed up at THE WILLARD -- not the building about to be restored but an earlier incarnation. wThe hotel, he wrote, "may be much more justly called the center of Washington and the Union than either the Capitol, the White House or the State Department. . . You exchange nods with governors of sovereign States; you hear statesmen and orators speaking in their familiar tones. . . You adopt the universal habit of the place, and call for a mint-julep, a whiskey-skin, a gin-cocktail, a brandy smash or a glass of pure Old Rye, for the conviviality of Washington sets in at an early hour and, so far as I had the opportunity to observing, never terminates at any hour. . ."
Some twenty years after Hawthorne checked out of the Willard, another New Englander, William Wetmore Story, cast a bronze statue of John Marshall, which now sits on the west terrace of the Capitol. Story, an expatriate Bostonian working in Rome, was the son of an associate justice of the Supreme Court and reportedly the model for the sculptor-hero of Hawthorne's The Marble Faun .
While Hawthorne socialized at the Willard, poet Walt Whitman was nursing the wounded at makeshift hospitals all over the city. Whitman lived a vagabond existence, moving from one cheap boarding house to another. One of the places he lived the longest was at 1205 M STREET NW, now the site of a senior citizens' public housing project that should bear his name but is, instead, called the Claridge Towers.
During World War II, Washington was also a wartime city, and it figures prominently in Herman Wouk's two-book epic: The Winds of War and War and Remembrance . Pug and Rhoda Henry play tennis at ST. ALBANS, go to ST. JOHN'S CHURCH on Lafayette Square and spend New Year's Eve at THE ARMY AND NAVY CLUB on Farragut Square. Rhoda picks up her lover, Palmer Kirby, at UNION STATION and drives him to the Henrys' Washington home, a 12-room mansion at 1417 FOXHALL ROAD that she bought with her own family's money. A pilgrimage here will disappoint, because 1417 is at the bungalow end of Foxhall Road and would have been much too modest for Rhoda's tastes. She probably really lived up the road a mile or two.
Some authors came to Washington in non-writing roles. Edward Everett Hale, who wrote The Man Without a Country , spent his last years here as chaplain of the Senate. He lived at 1741 N STREET NW, in a house that is still there, wedged between the Gralyn and the Tabard Inn. Paul Claudel, the French surrealist poet, came here in the 1930s as his country's ambassador. Claudel and his family lived at the old French Embassy at 2460 16TH STREET.
In the early '20s, an obscure writer named Harry Sinclair Lewis, who had already written one obscure novel, lived and worked on Corcoran Street -- writing about the Midwest, far away. And other writers whose works are not associated with Washington lived here. Paul Laurence Dunbar, the black poet who was a force behind the Harlem Renaissance, was born at 314 U STREET NW. Marjorie Kinnan Rawlins, whose most famous book, The Yearling, is set in the wilds of Florida, lived as a child in Brookland, in a still-standing Victorian house at 1221 NEWTON STREET NE.
F. Scott Fitzerald, who wrote about the gold coast of long Island, the blue coast of France, and the celluloid coast of California, chose to be buried in Rockville. And he was -- twice: first in a non-sectarian cemetery and later, in 1975 when Catholic authorities had grown more tolerant, in the small cemetery next to ST. MARY'S CHURCH at the busy intersection of Viers Mill Road and Rockville Pike.There, in the old churchyard shaded by ancient oaks, Fitzgerald is surrounded by the weatherbeaten granite tombstones of his ancestors.
Two years before the novel Tender Is the Night was published, Fitzgerald had attended the funeral of his own father at St. Mary's, and the experience inspired the passage in the book where Diver speaks about how comforting it was leave his father among his ancestors, who came to the area "in the forest-heavy darkness of the seventeenth century," when Fitzgerald's family had come to Maryland. At the foot of the grave of the laureate of the Jazz Age and his wife, Zelda, is a marble slab with the last line from The Great Gatsby:
"So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."
Elinor Wylie, whose poetry was the theme song of the flaming youth of the '20s, was born into a prominent Washington family -- the Hoyts -- and married into another one -- the Hichborns. Elinor, not yet a published poet, shocked the Washington of 1912 by her affair with attorney Horace Wylie. Wylie's wife, Katherine, hostess of fashionable soirees at the Wylie mansion on THOMAS CIRCLE, refused to give him a divorce. Elinor's husband, Philip, committed suicide, and the illicit lovers fled to England.In 1915, Katherine Wylie relented on the divorce, and Horace and Elinor were married. But five years later, the poet left Horace for another poet, William Rose Benet, and settled down in Greenwich Village. Katherine Wylie continued to give soirees, including her popular Christmas dances, which were always featured in the newspaper social columns. She died in 1941, and the house was torn down six years later. The International Inn now occupies the site.
Joaquin Miller, the crusty poet of the Sierras, wrote about the mining camps of the West, but some of his poems were written in a log cabin on MERIDIAN HILL, where Miller lived as a Washington journalist in the 1870s and 1880s. He returned to California in 1887. His cabin, which got in the way of the city's plan to extend 16th Street, was moved to Rock Creek Park. It stands, empty and locked up,at PICNIC AREA NO. 6.
Frances Hodgson Burnett, whose books are set in English gardens at tea time, was born in England but wrote most of her books in Washington, while married to a local doctor. In her den at the top of a rowhouse at 1219 I STREET NW, she finished the book that made her famous: Little Lord Fauntleroy. In 1936, 50 years the publication of fauntleroy , movie magnate David O. Selznick placed a plaque on the house to honor the author of this "deathless classic." The plaque was removed in the last few weeks, probably by the ghost of Burnett herself. For the house where the quintessential good boy was created now serves as a pornographic book and movie outlet, conveniently across the street from the Trailways bus station.
Little Lord Fauntleroy would have blushed.