When the sign went up this month, shock waves were felt as far away as Dallas and Boston.
"The Class Reunion Is Closed," it said. "Thank you for your patronage."
An era ended, a chapter finished. What's worse, a lot of reporters, politicos and other barflies are wondering where to find a congenial watering hole.
The CR (some called it that, and some called it The Class) was more than just a dark, dingy dump that served good drinks and terrible food (except during the brief tenure of two memorable chefs). It was a hangout, a neighborhood saloon, a pub, a sanctuary. It was one of the last holdouts against the fern bar invasion, its black walls and revolting bathrooms a visible rebuke to the blond-wood-and-hanging-plant set. It was a home to some, a club for many, a place where sources leaked and leakees scooped their drinking buddies and no one got mad. "It was a place for grownups," said one-time bartender Steve Daley.
But let there be no mourning at the bar. Majority owner Thomas McKeon says he is "considering several options" on reopening the place. He is also, however, consulting an architect on renovating and redecorating it. When asked if he planned to turn it into a fern bar he said: "What is a fern bar? I don't know what that means." Hmmm.
Hey, look, people wanted the holes in the ceiling fixed and the linoleum nailed down again and maybe the commode in the men's room unstopped. But an architect? How can you design a dump?
"One of the really frightening things would be if they opened the dark curtains that covered the front window and the light came in," said CBS News correspondent Terry Smith, who raised a few glasses there while covering the White House for The New York Times. " . . . This was a crowd that wouldn't be caught dead in a place with any living organism."
"When I grew up, a saloon was a dark place, furtive and sordid," said columnist Mark Shields. "So it fit the mold for my generation."
So what happened?
The socioeconomic history of a successful bar is necessarily subject to speculation, alcohol-dimmed memories, exaggeration, myth and downright lying. The Class held down its corner of H Street NW for 13 years, four presidents and three sets of owners, so any analysis is inevitably vulnerable to hoots of derision, especially from McKeon, who says this closing could be a mere vacation and that the clientele was as populous as ever even at the end. "We were even, I'm delighted to say, attracting new people," he said.
A different type of people? "Oh, no, we still attracted P.R. types," he said.
But many of the old regulars, Republicans, Democrats and reporters, say that things had changed, and that some of those things were McKeon's fault. The disintegrating condition of the place, to be exact. "That's why I've had people in looking at it," he said.
Some say it started to slide after the Carter crowd left; some say it was after Ford. Some say that if Jim Brady, once a regular, hadn't been tragically wounded in the assassination attempt on President Reagan, the new administration would have found its toehold at The Class and carried it along. Others say the toehold was found anyway, and Brady -- who has returned for festivities in his honor since the shooting -- had nothing to do with it.
Perhaps, suggest some, it was wedding bells, Alcoholics Anonymous, fitness and age that broke up that old gang of theirs, further depleted by job transfers and new offices.
"Now we all drink Perrier and talk about real estate," said Boston Globe reporter Tom Oliphant, a regular who, like Shields, has joined the roster of retired drinkers. "Bars are so specialized now. You see these places with giant television screens to watch football games, or you have to fight your way through the ferns . . . "
"Drinking has gone out of fashion," said Chris Reidy, a Washington reporter for The Orlando Sentinel. "Desserts are now the main profit-making fare in saloons. People are no longer aerobicizing their livers. All the saloons are run by Harvard MBAs."
Reidy, who married Anne Mitchell, a former Class Reunion waitress who is now a lawyer in private practice, said he still indulges in the occasional beer but is a "lapsed drinker." "I am, after all, trying to masquerade as a professional."
For some the end was at hand when Joan Grbach left as manager in June, after working there, with time out for some schooling, for 11 years. Los Angeles Times bureau chief Jack Nelson stopped going then, and so did columnist and former presidential press secretary Jody Powell. Grbach owned 25 percent of the business, McKeon the rest. "My former partner and I are not in communication," said Grbach, who is taking some time off before she looks for a job this fall. "Any restaurant needs money put back into it and that wasn't happening. Business was really falling off."
Nelson named his new sheltie Class Reunion and now he goes home to him.
Grbach was largely responsible for what passed for decor: blown-up bygone-day photos of politicians and media hero Edward R. Murrow, framed in light bulbs. The current president was always honored with a picture taken in youth. There was Betty and Gerald Ford's wedding picture ("He had hair then, so nobody recognized him"), Nixon high-fiving with Ike, Jimmy Carter in his Navy ensign uniform, and Ronald Reagan in his, from "Hellcats of the Navy." "For a while we had a picture of former senator Joe McCarthy, but we had to take it down because people would refuse to sit by it," Grbach remembered. She also hired the only fondly remembered chefs. When she first went to work there as a waitress, she said, the food was so bad "we'd put a plate down on the table and run away."
According to several reminiscers, the waitresses and bartenders were an important element of the bar's success. "A lot of them had been to Penn State with Joanie and started out to be teachers," said Nelson. "They were nice but they'd talk back," said another regular.
At least one bartender turned coat and became a reporter. ("Surely a fall from grace," said a one-time regular.) Steve Daley tended bar from 1973 until 1976, when he quit "in a huff." He now writes a column for the Chicago Tribune, having recently moved from the Sports section to the Tempo section to cover media. "I'm not sorry to see it go," he said.
Daley, who had a degree in political science from American University, had always wanted to write but was afraid to take the plunge. Surrounded by reporters and editors who encouraged him, he dove in and eventually wrote sports part time for the late Washington Star, free-lanced for The Washington Post and Washingtonian, and now in Chicago has access to at least two good newspaper bars.
But Daley, like the others, has his fond memories. "The night Nixon resigned was the most incredible night I have ever seen in any bar," he said. "It was like New Year's Eve. I couldn't get people to leave. So finally I just locked the door and they all stayed. I remember (former Post reporter) Joe Mastrangelo came in and taped the first edition of The Post to the back of the bar, and people were cheering and yelling . . . I made $160 in tips."
"That liar!" howled One Who Was There. "He must have made $800 at least!"
The mix that made the Class Reunion unusual began when a bar called Tammany Hall, an oasis for Democrats, folded and its bartenders migrated to The Class, bringing their regulars with them. The Class, opened during the 1972 campaign, was near the Committee to Re-Elect the President that Watergate year, and quickly became a CREEP hangout. The Republicans owned the left end of the bar and the Democrats the right. Mixed in were current and former CIA employes (owner McKeon, a National Security Agency alumnus, is vice president of Intertel, the world's largest private intelligence-gathering network), Secret Service agents, lawyers on the loose and assorted political/government flacks.
It was also a short walk from the National Press Building, across the street from The Boston Globe, and close to the White House, Time, Newsweek, Newhouse Newspapers, and numerous other news bureaus, so the press discovered it as well. In time, two tables in the rear, near the pay phone, came to be called the Pennsylvania Room and were reserved for press regulars.
In two dozen interviews only one person could recall a nasty argument. (This was a place for arguers, not fist fights.) "It was the night after Agnew made his 'I am not a crook' speech," said Daley. (Actually, Agnew said "It's a damned lie," but never mind.) Agnew's adviser and former press secretary Vic Gold was having a drink with Agnew aide Peter Malatesta and Nixon operative Nick Ruwe. The response to Agnew's denial had been good, and the three were happily accepting congratulations until a nearby Democrat swore "He's guilty as hell." Gold "got furious," Daley said, and fired back, " 'Maybe I should have put him in a neck brace like you guys always do with Teddy Kennedy,' and there was a big shouting match."
"I'm capable of having done that," said Gold. His wife confirmed the story. "Those were very traumatic times. I don't remember it exactly but I wouldn't deny it."
Gold attributes his own turn to temperance to the Class Reunion. "They made the greatest drinks," he said. "One of the scotches was the size of three anywhere else. One night I was waiting for my wife to pick me up and I had three on an empty stomach. As soon as I went outside -- it was a hot summer evening -- I was immediately sick, and I felt so bad I said 'I'll never have another drink.' "
Daley also remembers the post-Watergate farewell party for convicted Nixon aide Dwight Chapin, a private affair held upstairs in the even darker Bead Room. White House Republicans came and went watched by reporters downstairs longing to know what was going on. Finally, Chapin "came down and shook my hand and went off to Allenwood," Daley said. (Actually it was the federal prison in Lompoc, Calif., but never mind that either.)
One reason the bar retained its political and media mix for so long was that it was "neutral territory," said Jody Powell. "You could speak freely and kid around, and in four years there I never got burned." Indeed, a reporter from the National Enquirer was given the deep freeze because he hung around drinking soft drinks trying to scarf up juicy tidbits, according to several habitue's.
That didn't mean that reporters didn't get stories at the CR, or that aides and press secretaries didn't leak them. Terry Smith remembers the night The Washington Post agreed to print an apology to Jimmy Carter for running an erroneous gossip item about the Carter administration. "A couple of shall-remain-nameless Carter aides came in and the canary feathers were just hanging out of their mouths," he said. "They had a copy of the letter and we copied it down and slunk out of there in time for our first edition."
Steve Wermiel, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal who used to work for The Globe, once overheard Powell get a phone call from White House counsel Lloyd Cutler about a significant court decision. Wermiel waited awhile and then called his desk, but they said it was too late to make the paper. The New York Times had the story the next day.
Before Grbach turned the upstairs into expanded lunch space seven or eight years ago, the Bead Room was an infamous den of mystery, almost totally dark. There were booths where couples sat side by side, she said. "There were light switches to summon the waitress . . . you wouldn't be disturbed." It got its name from the beaded curtains that added to the privacy. "People did things up there they didn't want to talk about," said one former regular who, like everyone else interviewed for this article, insisted he had never been up there.
Roy Bode, now associate editor of the Dallas Times Herald, was a CR regular until he left Washington in 1979. He got angry when Daley left and calculated the amount of money he spent a year in the Class Reunion, threatening to take his business elsewhere if they didn't get Daley back. The figure was $7,000, "at least," Bode said. He tried a few other bars but none had the qualities of the Class Reunion.
Not a few bills were put on expense accounts, in one case leading to the bar being mentioned on television. Nelson's managing editor, having examined several of his reporter's reimbursement requests labeled "Class Reunion," is said to have bellowed, "Why do we have to pay for his class reunions?" The line ended up as a Washington reference on "Lou Grant." In similar confusion, Jimmy Carter once reached Powell through the White House switchboard and, hearing background noise, asked where he was. "At the Class Reunion," Powell said. "Whose?" asked the president.
Among the legendary parties, Wermiel remembers his 30th birthday, five years ago, when everybody brought woks and cooked a Chinese banquet in the kitchen. He remembers a few evenings on nights when the place was closed when a group would gather to put show tunes on the sound system and sing along. Powell had his book party there. The annual newspaper lead writing contest is now without a home, and organizer Mick Rood of Newhouse is "scouting around."
Smith recalled a party organized by himself, fellow Timesman Phil Gailey and Nelson a few weeks after the 1980 election for people who'd covered the Carter campaign, where Jim Wooten played the piano and Hal Bruno and his bluegrass group The Informed Sources held forth. It lasted until dawn. Bode's farewell party started at lunch and ended after 2 a.m.
There were dreary nights, too, and there were those who thought The Class crowd a clique, rather full of itself and convinced that Washington and its politics were the center of the universe. There were bar bores and rum bums, men fleeing marriages and women looking for them, and the usual contingent of people who simply drank too much and sought the protection and consolation of others who did.
But it wasn't a pickup joint, and at the very least conversation was prized instead of being drowned out by music, and the groups so often at odds in this town could meet and find that indeed they were all humans. It was a working-persons bar; the persons just happened to be working for presidents or would-be presidents, or for the media outlets that could make or break them. There were no yuppies in The Class, nor trendy people Being Seen, nor autograph hounds, and a tourist would have given it a wide berth.
The day President Reagan was shot and Jim Brady was (inaccurately) reported dead from gunshot wounds was a down one in The Class. Exhausted reporters who had been standing on sidewalks in the rain all day, staking out the hospital or the hotel or waiting in the White House, gathered after their first editions to decompress. A Reagan aide, distraught and depressed at the condition of his friend Brady, came over in late evening for a drink, just wanting to be left alone.
A reporter at the bar finally intruded, but not for a quote. He wanted to tell him that if Brady died, there was a wealthy person willing to set up a million-dollar trust fund for Brady's son Scott.
"I will never forget that as long as I live," the aide said.