The day after the Big Washington Shutdown, when tourists found major monuments closed, the Friends of Art and Preservation in Embassies -- about 200 of them -- found all the big attractions not only open but welcoming them. And they got to shake the hands of President and Mrs. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker for donations, in some cases well below the price of shaking Princess Di's hand at a recent benefit!
The Friends saw a Washington rarely open to the T-shirted visitor, shutdown or no. Anyone can stand in line most weekdays and go through the White House receiving rooms. But you need considerably more than a thick-soled pair of Keds to receive a gold-embossed invitation from President and Mrs. Bush requesting the pleasure of your company for drinks and canapes. The Friends also received invitations from Baker and Protocol Chief Joseph V. Reed to luncheon and a tour of Blair House and an umpteen-course dinner (from monkfish to Design Cuisine's newest daring dessert -- frozen mousse-filled mini-pumpkins) in the State Department's gilt, faux marble and antique-embellished Benjamin Franklin Dining Room.
True, the friendly visitors did not actually get to shake the paw of best-selling author Millie. But Barbara Bush confided to one visitor that being on the bestseller list is causing Millie to put on the dog: "George says she demands a wine list with her dinner." So far, Millie has not been granted her desire, Mrs. Bush added, for the president's benefit.
Since January, the 300 or so Friends have kindly picked up the tab for $390,000 worth of paintings, art objects, preservation projects, transportation and appraisals for U.S. embassies in Tokyo, Dublin, Mexico City, Warsaw and Freetown, Sierra Leone. In the four years of the group's existence, following its founding by Lee (Mrs. Walter) Annenberg, Wendy (Mrs. William) Luers, Carol (Mrs. Charles) Price and Lee (Mrs. Dorn) McGrath, the Friends have raised $4 million to display American art and embellish U.S. chanceries and residences to show that the country isn't uncouth and uncultured. Last year the Friends renovated and decorated the ceremonial rooms in the Beijing residence.
Among new gifts are lithographs of "The Symphony," donated by artist Frank Stella and printmaker Kenneth Tyler in a limited edition of 141, one for each U.S. embassy residence. Luers, reelected Tuesday as president of the Friends, said this year's emphasis is on U.S. representational buildings in Warsaw, Bucharest and Budapest. Luers said the organization will also appraise those embassies' present holdings."Recently, we found, to our surprise, that antiques and art objects in Rome are worth $27 million," she said. Appraisal of the embassy collections by Sotheby's is an important part of the project, since the decorations and furnishings have accumulated during, in some cases, 200 years without expert examination.
The Friends flew in from Texas, Colorado, New York and, it seemed, every place in between, to see the major sites last week and be served enough food to fill up the Washington Monument. (All the women were so thin you presumed they only tasted.)
At the 5 p.m. White House reception, the guests, in black tie for the later dinner, applauded loudly when the First Lady, wearing a bright red jacket, came into the East Room. She apologized for substituting for her husband, who was meeting with the Senate leadership. (Some heaved sighs of relief that the president and the senators were still talking to each other.)
"I'm afraid," Mrs. Bush said, "it's like expecting Madonna and getting Roseanne Barr."
Then she asked her staff if the crowd had been fed. When told they had, she said they were lucky. "We had 250 people here Monday for Justice David Souter -- and they got nothing." President Bush showed up in due time and posed for pictures with his wife and each guest. Clement Conger, director of the State Department's Fine Arts Committee, recalling a general feeling that if the president doesn't make a scheduled appearance there's a serious problem in the world or the nation, said he was relieved Bush made it. "I'd be scared to death if he didn't."
At the dinner, Secretary Baker presented a citation to Lee Annenberg, the retiring chairman of the board, a former protocol chief and once doyenne of the U.S. Embassy in London, where her husband was ambassador. She paid tribute to her fellow Friends founders and introduced the new program director, Lacey Neuhaus Dorn. Luers introduced the new Friends chairman, S. Roger Horchow of catalogue fame, and Bud Smith, a Dallas executive consultant who with his wife picked up the tab for the luncheon, reception and dinner.
Now, about the prices of those handshakes: The all-day party was limited to sponsors, those who donate $1,500 or more; patrons ($2,500); corporations ($5,000); and founding members ($100,000). The 1990 donations, January to September, total $285,000, according to Friends spokesman Robert Perry. Oh yes, souvenirs -- popcorn in a box with the U.S. seal and a perpetual calendar from Tiffany.
Party of the Century (or almost): Washington's own Helen Hayes celebrated her 90th birthday Wednesday at the Four Seasons Hotel at a benefit, headed by Victor Shargai, for the Washington Theatre Awards Society. Someone asked if she was sorry she'd given up acting. "I haven't," she said, pulling herself up with all the grandeur of the First Lady of the American Theater. "I'm performing all the time. Otherwise, I would look like this," she said, and slumped over in her chair for a second. And then, she evoked with her voice and gestures a stage, a spotlight and a transcendent moment, and said, "There are times when you know you and your audience sail over the rooftops."