Sondra Gotlieb, wife of the new Canadian ambassador to Washington and, according to one Washington socialite, "deliciously offbeat" by Embassy Row standards, recalls with horror and amusement her introduction to the pitfalls of protocol.
It was Geneva, 1960. Gotlieb, plump, unglamorous, university dropout, sat across a restaurant table from her husband Allan, sophisticated Rhodes scholar and first secretary at the Canadian mission. They had wed six years earlier, when Sondra was 18 and Allan 26. It was an "arranged" marriage, a bargain struck between two Winnipeg families.
At the dinner, honoring Rhodes scholars, Sondra was seated between a duke and an American senator. There were two other women present, one the daughter of an earl. After dinner, a decanter of wine was passed to the guests. Sondra warmed to the sweetness of the liquor, letting it loosen her young, inexperienced tongue. She took one glass, then another, chatting incessantly. A hush fell over the table. Sondra noticed her husband jerking his neck. Suddenly, the earl's daughter swept out of the room, followed by the other woman. The men stood up. Sondra kept talking. The men were still standing. Sondra kept talking. Finally, one of them interrupted to ask if she wouldn't like to join the other women.
She walked out to the adjoining room where the earl's daughter sat reading a newspaper. "Sondra, don't you know when the port comes around, ladies never stay with the gentlemen? You're the senior woman. You should have walked out first."
Sondra decided to go to the washroom. She found the door and walked in. After a few moments, Allan Gotlieb appeared, accompanied by several of the men from the dinner table. He cleared his throat, then told his wife that the funny sinks on the wall where she was going to wash her hands were not sinks at all.
"If I managed to live through that," she laughs, "nothing could bother me anymore."
But the rites of passage in the wily ways of protocol aren't over. At the age of 46, Sondra Gotlieb suddenly finds herself an ambassador's wife. Washington is a tough city, she has been told. The rules, the rituals, the parties, the politics. And it is especially tough for a woman who's never done it before, who, unlike most of her peers, never had the advantage of trying out for the position in, say, Abu Dhabi first.
"In the first place, it was like Alice in Wonderland for me because I've never had a staff and I didn't know what to do," she says, gazing around the marble and leather and oriental-carpeted Canadian residence overlooking Rock Creek Park. "I didn't know I was supposed to say what we were having for dinner and stuff like that. I didn't know what the maid was going to do."
She is short and dimple-cheeked and decidedly unaffected, in brown skirt, bronze heels, cream and brown blouse knotted at the neck with a loose bow she keeps tying and untying. Her auburn hair is cut short, thin wisps spilling over walnut-brown eyes that twinkle with self-deprecating humor. The stubby fingernails are short and painted dull pink. She takes tiny puffs on a cigarette and doesn't inhale.
"I couldn't remember where to turn out the lights, what do you do in this room, what do you do in that room, how many people were living in the house. I didn't know how to work the telephones. It took me three weeks to work that out. Very physical problems. And I'm not very quick about these things."
Until six weeks ago, Sondra Gotlieb was a successful Canadian author who had never thought of having a social secretary. Now the one assigned to her is handling the high-powered guest lists, plotting the names on small, round, table maps. Al Haig here, Cap Weinberger over there, James Kilpatrick here. Since her baptism by fire in Geneva, she has learned about protocol. Oh sure, she says, she still spills wine on her dress and says outrageous things, but nothing can top that night. She even re-created the scene for her new novel, "First Lady, Last Lady," which is causing a stir in Canada. The book includes the ambitious wife of a prime minister who is being blackmailed, a homosexual ambassador who is murdered, servants who lick the bubbles from champagne bottles and a cast of characters who rip the chafing-dish lid off the diplomatic life.
"Have you ever heard of escort cards?" she asks. "I hadn't. My social secretary says it's a way to get people into the dining room. How do you do that? Say, 'Soup's on'? And theoretically, people like to know where they're sitting first. So the thing is, you put the man's name on one side with the table number. And he opens up the card and there's the woman's name. It was very hard for me to grasp the principle. Everybody in Washington seems to know about it except me."
She jumps out of the squishy leather armchair, fishes into a visitor's pack of cigarettes and lights one up with a match from a red and white maple-leaf matchbook, then plops back into the chair.
A shadow appears in the doorway. It's the butler. A dark, severe-looking man with hollow cheeks.
"Madam, would you care for some coffee or tea?"
Sondra Gotlieb is silently chewing her lip. The visitor asks for tea. The butler glides out.
"I really would like some coffee," she whispers, looking distracted. "I should have asked for coffee."
She isn't used to servants. "They don't know what you want. I don't know what I want. That's the problem. I mean, for the first three days it was like living in a hotel. I thought it was just bliss. Then, for the next two weeks, I couldn't stand it. I didn't want to see any of them. Now I'm used to it. Now we have a section of the house closed off. Nobody bothers me there."
She lights another cigarette. "Let's not go on too much about the servants," she whispers.
Enter the butler, carrying a large tray glittering with silver teapot, china cups and a plate of cookies. The visitor suggests Mrs. Gotlieb might prefer coffee. The butler is stone-faced.
"Well. I'll try the tea," she says timidly. "What kind of tea do we have?"
"The tea you brought from Florida," he says, setting the tray down.
"Oh, the orange tea," she says, pouring the steaming liquid into the cups.
For the first three weeks, she didn't know there was a powder room on the first floor. "I kept running up and down the stairs." She has no sense of direction, arriving 20 minutes early for every social event, instructing the chauffeur to ride around the block just one more time. She hates large receptions, has been going out to lunch a lot and says she likes it. "Well, sometimes these things are dull, but . . ."
She likes New York better than Washington. It's more "relaxed." But she's surprised by the people she has met here. "I thought they'd be cold or snobby, but they weren't."
This week, she is going to the White House for the first time. A diplomatic dinner, which, she says, is "not something that enthralls me."
She drinks her tea in short gulps. There is something she wants to show her visitor. It's an article she recently wrote called "Housewives Are People, Too!"
"I've got it somewhere; what did I do with it?" she says. The phone is ringing. She goes toward it, then stops, turns around and flutters back to her chair. She reaches for the silver pot and begins to pour more tea into the visitor's empty cup.
"No thanks," the visitor says. "I've had enough."
"This is for me," she says.
The 'Appendage Wife'
Speaking of Sondra Gotlieb, one Canadian journalist says, "I think she's perceived in Canada as a real character."
In Ottawa, the Gotliebs were known as a very prominent social couple. Allan Gotlieb, with his Victorian flair and impeccable academic credentials, filled their house with rare prints, antiques and hand-carved chess sets. And even if his author wife was outspoken, she was certainly no liability. "She's different. Unusual. Not your normal diplomatic wife by any stretch of the imagination," the journalist added. "But beneath that flaky exterior is a fairly solid person. Washington will probably be more tolerant of her than Ottawa was. They may even find her enchanting."
At least one prominent Washington socialite who has been a guest at one of the embassy's first dinner parties already agrees.
"I find her deliciously offbeat," the woman says, pleading anonymity. "She gives the impression of being much more unsophisticated than she really is. She is well-read and well-traveled. A woman of strong opinions. Highly intelligent. I think Washington is going to find her refreshing."
"Here it is! I found it." Sondra Gotlieb walks over the marble floors, back into the room, waving a Xeroxed copy of her article. It is an angry defense of the housewife.
Loyal wives, whether they are married to politicians, diplomats or coal miners, have become the lepers of our society . . . What's wrong with cleaning your husband's bathtub? Coal miners' wives do it as a matter of habit . . . I consider myself an "appendage" wife. I married at 18 with no thought of becoming anything but a wife and mother . . .
But after her three children were in school, her interest in cooking led to two books, "The Gourmet's Canada" and "Cross Canada Cooking," both published in the '70s. She did a bit of free-lance writing and talk-show chatting before being urged to write her autobiographical novel, "True Confections or How My Family Arranged My Marriage."
The book won a Leacock Award for humor in 1978. Part Erma Bombeck, part Philip Roth, Sondra Gotlieb captured the essence of growing up chubby in Winnipeg, ending with the hilarious circumstances of her marriage to Allan Gotlieb, the Harvard Law School graduate and Rhodes scholar home from Oxford who took her out for nine consecutive days then casually mentioned that they might someday be married. When Allan returned to England, both families sprang into action with overseas phone calls to and from Oxford, pushing, prodding and suggesting until Sondra Kaufman, without formally being asked, said yes.
"We had met. We liked each other," she recalls. "They the families just speeded up the process. When he came off the plane from Oxford I didn't recognize him. I couldn't remember what he looked like. We got to know each other after the marriage. And we got along very well."
The Gotliebs moved to Oxford where Allan was a fellow at All Souls College and Sondra was a college dropout, too intimidated to take any courses and reluctant to compete as a hostess with the other wives. She recalls that time as a difficult one.
"English women are the pits," she says.
They returned to Ottawa, where Allan joined the Department of External Affairs, eventually working his way up to undersecretary before being appointed ambassador to Washington.
But any suggestion that Sondra Gotlieb wants to be the wife of a prime minister is scoffed at. The politically ambitious heroine of "First Lady, Last Lady" is not Sondra Gotlieb, she insists. Nor is it Margaret Trudeau.
"She interviewed me on her television show," Gotlieb says. "The first thing she said was, 'But it's not about me!' "
Gotlieb hopes the book will be published in America soon. But copies already are making the rounds, and at least one passage has ruffled a few Federal City feathers.
In the scene, the prime minister's wife is speaking to her husband:
"Why on earth would you want to become an ambassador? . . . Give Washington to the Belknaps . . . Stephen and Moira can play bridge with the congressmen and run after the senators. That's what ambassadors do. All prestige and no power. High class lobbyists. Let Moira give the tea parties and burst into tears when the cabinet wives don't show up."
Sondra Gotlieb groans. "That's come back to haunt me a fair amount."
She went on the "Today" show last week to plug the book and ended up defending that paragraph. She wrote it last year before she knew her husband was in line for the Washington post.
"I'm in a vulnerable position," she says. "In Ottawa, I used to say the most dreadfully outrageous things. They used to tell me to keep quiet, that I was too outspoken. I never thought of myself as outspoken, I just thought I was honest."
Problems With Primroses
As an ambassador's wife, "You don't want to be stuffy . . . but you have to realize that you can't open your big mouth all the time. I want to enjoy myself. I'm a hedonist. I've never taken myself seriously."
But she does take newspaper reports of other ambassadors' wives in Washington seriously, perhaps too seriously.
"I read this story about this Swedish lady who grew her own grass," Gotlieb says.
It was Countess Ulla Wachtmeister, wife of the ambassador from Sweden.
"I've met her. She's a delightful lady. I was very intimidated. She grew her own grass for the centerpiece and made Styrofoam tennis balls and I have a friend here, the first week I came here she saw me and said, 'You have to do that kind of thing.' She told me she went to one party where the tables were covered with jasmine and I got scared to death. Scared to death!"
For her first party, she says, "I got the idea of primroses. They're kind of spring-like. Well, it was the day of the biggest snow storm. I remember running around, going to every flower shop trying to find primroses. And then all the flowers flopped. And I was in a state of total hysteria because the flowers had somehow died. I got over-excited," she says, pausing for breath. "I'll never do that again."
Gotlieb says she's more interested in good food, but is having a slight problem with her chef. Especially a few days before a recent dinner party.
"The chef doesn't communicate very well. He's a 200-pound Turk. He says, 'What you want? You want the meat or you want the feesh?' And when I tried to get into more details, he got difficult because all he had were pictures. I didn't sleep for two nights because of the food. I must have changed my mind three times, I drove him absolutely mad. Maybe I should let him do what he wants, but I'm the cookbook writer!"
Then there was the seating arrangement. "We had arranged to have four tables for seven. Then, the afternoon of the party, the butler says, 'Madam, we don't own four tables for seven. You can't get them into the dining room.' "
She would like to write a story on her first six weeks as an ambassador's wife, but is reluctant to offend anyone. "You can't write Washington the absurd. I simply can't do it."
Until she does, there will be more lunches, more dinner parties and more interviews over "First Lady, Last Lady."
"Actually, I want to change the title," she says, smoothing the snags in her brown stockings. "To 'Behind Every Great Man' . . . "