"You know what they say," said actress Anne Jackson, standing next to her husband, actor Eli Wallach, and surveying the celebrity-filled Benjamin Franklin Room at the State Department Saturday night. "When everybody is somebody, nobody is anybody."
John Travolta, in a black tuxedo, also stood at the reception for the recipients of the Kennedy Center's 1980 Honors, pretending not to notice the gaggle of admirers standing an indiscreet yard or two away.
"I'm here to honor my friend Jimmy," said Travolta, nodding toward James Cagney's table. Cagney is one of five artists -- along with composer Leonard Bernstein, diva Leontyne Price, choreographer Agnes de Mille and actress Lynn Fontanne -- to receive this year's Kennedy Center Honors for lifetime achievement in the performing arts.
"We met last March. We talked about everything -- movies, art, life, everything. I adore him," said Travolta. He smiled. His blue eyes twinkled. His elegantly dressed fan club grew agitated.
Travolta and Wallach were two of 270 performing artists, friends of the Center, and friends of the honorees who were guests of the Kennedy Center board of Trustees and Secretary of State Edmund Muskie.
There was lots of discreet rubber-necking, and plenty of the other kind too, on the part of both the celebrities and the Washington crowd.
Lauren Bacall, dressed in black trousers and a white shirt, draped her arm around Eli Wallach's shoulder. She looked deep into his eyes. Deeper, then deeper still. Conversation around the pair ceased. It grew quiet. Then she spoke. "Hi," she said.
"Oooh," said a man watching. "Isn't she magnificent? Do you think she'd say hi to me like that?"
There was enthusiastic mingling throughout the night: opera queen Beverly Sills shared a table with actor Donald Sutherland, the Sargent Shrivers mingled with conductor Zubin Mehta, former senator William Fulbright sat next to Leontyne Price, Eli Wallach talked to Fontanne, and Anne Jackson did an impersonation of comedian Robert Klein, who was standing beside her. Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Geraldine Fitzgerald and Florence Henderson, Thimas Wyman of CBS, and the National Gallery's J. Carter Brown were among others in attendance.
"All I want to know," deadpanned Klein, looking at the crowded reception room, "is where the exits are and if there's a sprinkler system."
Leontyne Price, in a black caftan, jet-sequined turban, and gold-mesh scarf, greeted admirers with radiant smiles.
"I'm speechless," she said, her kohl-rimmed eyes widening. "As far as I'm concerned, this is the pinnacle." Did she have to cancel any engagements to make the ceremony? "No, but you can bet I would have!"
Muskie wasn't there, so Under Secretary David Newsom filled in, welcoming the Kennedy Center crowd as "neighbors from the other side of Foggy Bottom," with a bit of envy, saying that "the reviews of your productions are frequently better than ours."
The crowd raised glasses of white wine five times, as the honorees were toasted by friends, and then festooned with the beribboned medals. "More wine!" called out someone from Bernstein's table after the second toast. The honorees did not make any acceptance speeches, and on the whole kept low profiles throughout the Saturday festivities. Cagney, who sat quietly throughout the evening, listened as he was toasted by lifelong friend, actor Frank McHugh.
"We were Irish, we were actors, and we were young," said McHugh. "Ours is a friendship that has lasted 50 years.Here's to your good health, Jimmy . . . May you live long, and prosper." The applause was warm and sustained.
"I normally work at these things," said Leonard Bernstein, referring to his performance at last year's gala, when Aaron Copland was among those to receive the honor. "This year, I'm idle." And what would he do Sunday, on the big night? "Just smile and be happy, I guess."
Agnes de Mille, regal in a golden gown, was standing beside former National Endowment for the Arts head-Nancy Hanks when Rep. Sidney Yates (D-Ill.) strolled up. "Hi," said yates to de Mille. There was a pause. DeMille put on her glasses. "You don't remember me," said Yates, trying again.
"This is Sidney Yates," cried Hanks to de Mille. "The congressman with all the money!"
"Ah," said de Mille.
"Oh," said Francis Breathitt, a Kennedy Center trustee, who was on the other side of the room watching Travolta. "Isn't he darling?" Her companion, standing with his hands in his pockets and an expression of benign disinterest in his face, said nothing. "Do you think I should ask him for his autograph?" asked Breathitt.
"I will if you will," said a woman nearby. They stepped forward, then back. By that time, Travolta was busy signing menus. "The name is Carol," said a man, proffering a pen from his pocket."For my wife," he explained. "That's all right," murmured Travolta.
Conductor Zubin Mehta stood with his wife, Nancy, and surveyed the understated opulence of the State Department room. "You've been to my house?" Mehta exclaimed to a couple next to him, and pointed to the floor. "We have the same carpeting at home!" He paused. "Only smaller."
"Do you know what I told Lynn Fontanne [wife of the late actor Alfred Lunt]?" said Eli Wallach to a small group of people as the evening ended. "I told her that John Simon had written about us [Eli and Anne Wallach] and he called us the Blunts!" His companions laughed. "Gee, why am I telling that story?" said Wallach.