Different strokes for different folks. One kid grows up wanting to be president of the United States. Another wants to be an engineer on a railroad. Another wants to be an interior designer. Still another wants to be a nightclub singer. And Peter Malatesta? Peter Malatesta wanted to be a socialite.
No kidding. And what is even better, Malatesta's dream came true. Only in America. Moving with unerring instinct from the gaudy to the tacky, he rocketed from the world of Hollywood celebrity to the world of Washington society, faster than you can say "Rona Barrett." Hitching his wagon to the best and brightest of both worlds--Francis Albert Sinatra and Spiro Theodore Agnew, respectively--he became a certifiable luminary in that inimitable slice of American life in which "host" and "guest" are transitive verbs.
Now he has Told All, in a slender book that for sheer ingenuousness has not been rivaled since "Mary Had a Little Lamb." It is the story of a "short man with a big smile" who really, truly wants nothing more out of life than "to gather social and media attention as a host," a man who had "often fantasized" about being aswim in Washington society and who, because this is a just world, saw his fantasies come true.
Yes, only in America. Doesn't it do your heart good? Reading the story of this little fellow who managed to get just what he wanted and deserved is a true inspiration, a reminder that the American Dream is alive and well and living in cafe' society. Though it must be acknowledged that Malatesta started with a leg up on the rest of the pack--he is Bob Hope's nephew!--say for him that he made it to the top with enough pluck and luck to make Horatio Alger smile. It seems also to have helped that he was willing to boogie until any old hour of the morning.
Beginning as a hard-working free-enterpriser in California public relations and advertising ("I landed the Wham-O toy account and one night, after a snootful, took a corkscrew to a Hula Hoop, loaded it with BB pellets, and came up with the 'Shoop-Shoop Hula Hoop' "), Malatesta moved up rapidly. Ingeniously planting himself at the feet of Spiro Agnew, by 1970 he had gotten himself named "special assistant to the vice president and senior traveling aide," which is to say Numero Uno gofer. This paid large dividends:
"After the swearing-in of the 92nd Congress, we flew to Houston, Tex., for the first annual Vince Lombardi Award Dinner and my first official trip as a traveling aide. We stayed at the Astro World Hotel in what was known as the Celestial Suite. I've stayed in fine hotels all over the world, but this layout is the living end! Each of the rooms rivals the set design of 'Hello, Dolly!' The master suite had a black porcelain, S-shaped, 15-foot tub in the bathroom. At the end of the hall was a private double-decker discothe que and bar complete with piano, billiard table and pinball machines."
But was this to be the top of Malatesta's mountain? Heavens no! Leaping tall buildings with a single bound, he propelled "my identity from that of a mere aide to that of a socialite." Setting up shop with Ol' Blue Eyes in a "beige, California-style brick house on 24th Street, a shady tree-lined lane off Embassy Row," he engineered a "splash onto Wasington's social pages" the likes of which the old town hadn't seen since the days of the sainted Perle Mesta, who only a few months earlier had "lit a social torch in me that would illuminate my path to Embassy Row."
Long before Agnew's lamentable encounter with the law put Malatesta's social position in jeopardy, he had achieved a goal that most of us can only dream of: " . . . a personal identity as 'Host Peter Malatesta.' " This he did with a clarity of mind and purpose that would be noteworthy in a field marshal:
"I learned to screen my invitations ruthlessly. I would respond most enthusiastically to the larger, more social embassies, such as France, Greece, Iran, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Jordan or Tunisia. At the same time, I tried to be quick to entertain as many of the local socialites I had been meeting as possible. These black-tie-ers, often seen as the backdrop crowd at parties, were the bread and butter of Washington, and since I was growing to love the city, it was time for me to cultivate more than just visiting celebrities, ambassadors and Republican biggies. If I were truly going to be an independent social entity, mixing and mingling with these people was a must."
And so it was that as Agnew fell, Malatesta rose. After the abdication, he found a sinecure in the Department of Commerce--as "deputy assistant secretary for tourism"--and the mad, mad whirl spun ever faster. In a stroke of sheer genius, and with many thanks to the financial assistance of his very good friend Tongsun Park, Malatesta became major domo of the place for the elite to meet and greet: Pisces, the Georgetown nightery where names that all America knows and loves sat at "long, deep red banquettes" and dazzled each other with the numbing force of celebrity. It was a place where you could be yourself:
"The club was an extension of my living room, and whether it was a celebrity with the munchies or an up-and-coming dance coach, my guests comfortably did whatever they wanted. Despite its trappings and its ever-growing membership, it was the sense of familiarity that made the club. It was like every night was a party at Peter's."
But the fates had yet another severe test in store for our hero: "Koreagate was not as traumatic to the American public as the fall of Spiro Agnew, but when I glanced at the morning paper that turned a year's worth of rumors into headlines, I still shuddered. 'Don't tell me . . . Zero for two!' I said to myself." With Park's backing gone, Malatesta was gone from Pisces--but hardly out of the whirl. A Little Train That Could if ever one lived, he chugged over to Alexandria and set up shop at Peter's. Soon enough that one also hit the dirt, so he decided to take a break:
"A decade of parties and politics had come to an end. But not really an end, since I'll never willingly cut my ties with this particular kind of socializing. For a certain kind of person--and I guess I'm one of them--the Washington party circuit exercises an irresistible fascination. I may never again be able to aspire to be one of the great Washington hosts, but to be honest, I'd like to be one. Parties anywhere can be glamorous and exciting, but only in Washington do they have that special, exhilarating undertone of potency--that ever-present sense that from a casual conversation between guests or from some brief chance meeting, matters of national consequence might flow."
For the moment Malatesta may be hibernating, storing up his energies for the next bout with Dame Fortune, but he has given us his little memoir and, in it, much to savor. "Party Politics" has it all: Dropped names, dangling modifiers, fawning and genuflecting, exclamation points, brand names, gee-whizzes, flashes of humility. Not since Frances Spatz Leighton last set pen to paper has the literature of Washington been so uniquely enriched.