It was a simple enough idea: Let's start a club.
Six young women, full of ideas and energy, set out to make their mark on Washington by founding a private club for themselves and their friends: professional single twentysomethings. It would host lively parties, do good works and codify the social lives of bright, fun-loving transplants to the nation's capital.
On Labor Day weekend last year, they sat around a restaurant table in Maine and finalized their plans on a cocktail napkin. They named the club the Madison in honor of Dolley Madison, the legendary first lady and hostess. They mapped out social events and designated a charity to sponsor their first year. Membership would be limited to 100 women, which would give the Madison both a manageable size and a certain cachet. "When we started the club, we were so excited and so optimistic about what we were doing," says 24-year-old Megan Taormino, one of the founding members.
These women were ambitious, educated, pretty, confident and unapologetic -- no false modesty in this crowd. They were young, female and playful in a town that worships mature, male and serious. And they unwittingly broke one of the unspoken rules of Washington: Never display elitism. Then one foolish remark at a martini party sealed their fate. Overnight, they became objects of scorn and gossip; an easy mark for media stereotypes and Internet ridicule.
Consider it a cautionary tale: The Madison had become fair game in an unfair town.
Many young professionals arrive in this city as Nobodys with a degree and the expectation that they will be a Somebody, preferably sooner rather than later. They throw themselves into entry-level jobs, work hard and grab drinks with co-workers at the end of 12-hour days. The more organized create buddy lists, which allow them to gather friends via e-mail or text messaging and party the night away.
The Madison women -- officially nonpartisan, but many Republicans -- took it several steps further. The concept of "hanging out" wasn't enough; they liked to make things happen. They were comfortable with structure, the neat hierarchies of clubs and organizations. Many came from college sororities, including a number from Vanderbilt, where they had honed their social skills in the safety and collective power of "we."
"This is a big city," says Madison President Caroline Butts, a former sorority social chair who came to Washington two years ago, landed a job on the Hill and is working on a master's degree in government from Johns Hopkins University. "It's very easy to get lost and it's very transitional. While you're here, it's good to have a network."
"A lot of us are organizers and leaders," says Brigitte Donner, a former junior high president, high school water polo team captain, college sorority president and Red Cross volunteer. She was all for making the club a social and service machine: "Let's make what we're doing more legitimate, more substantial, more organized," she encouraged her friends.
They had considered joining the Junior League, but it seemed too big and they wanted something more intimate, something they could call their own. They modeled themselves after San Francisco's 75-year-old Spinsters Club and on Washington's 25-year-old Capital Club, a male-only private membership for young (mostly Republican) professionals. "I think they saw the camaraderie and the fun and decided to create their own," says Capital Club President Tripp Donnelly.
So the women set to work. They came up with bylaws and a mission statement, and invited friends and friends of friends to join, including about 15 congressional staffers, graduate students, lawyers and other young professionals. Members had to have a college degree, be 21 to 30 years old, never married and live in the Washington region. Annual dues were $100. They selected Prevent Child Abuse Virginia and Walter Reed Army Medical Center as their charities, which would receive any profits from their parties.
They created a Web site, where they posted information about the club and pictures of their activities. They hosted a "Mad in Plaid" party at F. Scott's and made valentines for patients at Walter Reed in February and hosted a black-tie fundraiser at the City Tavern Club in April. The parties were open to anyone who paid the admission fees. And although the events barely broke even, the buzz about the club was growing.
What they didn't realize is that buzz in Washington is not always a good thing. Sometimes it arouses jealousy, suspicion and competition. A critical survival skill is self-deprecation, the ability to deflect the envious by downplaying advantage. Beauty must be publicly dismissed as "good genes," brains a "good memory," promotions "timing," connections, money and privilege as "luck."
Individually, the Madisons were not that different from the thousands of attractive, driven young women who seek fame, fortune and love in Washington. Collectively, however, they had the aura of golden girls: blond, ambitious, cliquish and full of the bubbly self-confidence that comes from a lifetime of hearing "yes." All that and more were reinforced when they banded together, looking for all the world like a pack of homecoming queens who got all the cute clothes and the cute guys.
All their detractors needed was a reason to strike, and the Madison gave it to them when they invited a reporter to their summer party.
Shaken and Stirred
When the Madison was still in its infancy as a club, a member sent an e-mail to The Hill newspaper inviting coverage of its summer fundraiser. It wasn't discussed, wasn't part of a media strategy, but seemed like a good idea after the paper ran an article about trendy hot spots.
Reporter Peter Savodnik got the assignment, a light break from the numbing legislative stories. Newspaper staff members were already aware of the club from gossip among congressional staffers -- and frankly, were already slightly put off by the idea of them. The Madison women, he said, gave off a certain kind of sheen: "Blond Republican Southern women who hearken back to a pre-Roe-v.-Wade, pre-19th Amendment America."
Washington loves to talk about facts, but increasingly trades in perceptions and spin. The Madison women were vulnerable before they said a word.
Savodnik and a couple other staffers headed to the trendy Blue Gin bar for the "Shaken . . . Not Stirred" soiree, where they found women in flirty summer dresses and men hovering close by. It was, in most respects, no different than hundreds of Georgetown parties that take place every weekend. The mood was light, the crowd tipsy: Blue Gin created a special Madison Martini for the party.
Savodnik spent three hours interviewing the guests for his story. The women were eager to talk, proud of their club and its members. One Madison told him that a local news personality characterized the club as "trophy wives in training," then added that she would be the "ultimate" trophy wife.
It may have been said in jest, but it proved to be deadly. Washington is full of young (and not so young) men and women who believe, deep down, that they are quite the catch -- but saying the words out loud is a fatal admission of superiority. She handed Savodnik the perfect quote for the perfect stereotype. He had his theme and variations; a Capital Club member sealed the Madison's fate when he boasted to Savodnik at the party, "We're starting a breeding program. We're going to maintain the blue-blood line."
Sex, elitism, booze and blondes. The resulting article, with the "Trophy Wives in Training" headline, was blasted across e-mails and cyberspace, accompanied by a picture of three winsome Madisons.
Savodnik was astonished by the reaction -- more than any other article he has written for the newspaper. His phone rang off the hook; he asked callers their names and political affiliation. "The Republicans -- almost to a person -- thought it was great," he remembers. "The men wanted the women's numbers, the women wanted to join. The Democrats, by contrast, were merciless. They were repulsed by what they viewed as the objectification, and it struck them as grossly homogenous and conservative."
It went from bad to worse. Politics may be local, but gossip is now global. Ana Marie Cox, best known as Wonkette (Washington's best-read blog) discovered the Hill article and ran with it on her Web site: "You may wonder if it's possible to retch with disgust and laugh with nihilistic abandon at the same time . . . It is!" she wrote. Cox went on to characterize the Madison women as pampered trust-fund babies worthy only of contempt.
There are no rules of blogging: no requirement for fairness, accuracy or facts. Cox's job is to opine, which she often does with razor-sharp dismissals; her only rule of thumb is that it's okay to ruin someone's day but not their life. So she says she felt no obligation to actually speak to a Madison member before posting her reaction.
Another unspoken rule of Washington: The more you have, the bitter a target you are. The powerful, the rich, the famous and the beautiful are all fair game, regardless of their actions, merely for existing.
Cox recently defended a Hill staffer who accepted money after sex, because she saw her as an underdog. She admits that she was probably too harsh on the Madisons "only because I was a nerd in high school, only because I was the kind of person they wouldn't let sit with them. I'm just jealous."
"Washington is high school with nuclear weapons and a trillion-dollar budget," says Cox, the self-appointed Class Snark.
As their names and likenesses were hashed and trashed in chat rooms, the Madisons were surprised and clearly hurt. A few laughed the whole flap off as foolish, but most found themselves written off as superficial, retrograde and predatory. "I think we are an easy target," says Butts. "All of us, in my opinion, are extremely bright, have bright futures, and are very well-rounded in every aspect."
But even Capital Club members were unhappy: The men had spent 25 years cultivating their reputations and weren't thrilled about being compared to the Madisons. Tripp Donnelly sent an e-mail to the Madison board praising their efforts but expressing his concerns, and received an apology. "They felt they had hurt us as well as themselves," he says. The e-mail was, not surprisingly, leaked and printed gleefully by Wonkette.
Jeff Kimbell, a former president of the Capital Club, was disappointed but not surprised by the article and the fallout. "Washington just feeds on this type of thing," he says. "It's unfortunate. That's why the image of this town is a bunch of stiffs."
Wiser, If Not Older
If there was a saving grace, it was that the debacle occurred in the dog days of summer. The Madisons went on their respective vacations, licked their wounds, then came back to Washington a little tanner, sadder and wiser.
They went ahead with their plans for the October event, a patio cocktail party at the Third Edition. This time, no one invited reporters and no one wanted to talk to one who showed up anyway. They were polite but kept their distance, like a kid afraid of dogs after a nasty bite. But it was a balmy autumn night, and before long the party was in full swing, with three men to every woman. Life was almost back to normal.
They've survived their first year. A week ago, the Madisons voted to downsize their board from 15 to 11 women, each with a defined task and title. The Christmas project and fundraiser are just around the corner. There's a bunch of applications for new members to go through. They have plenty to keep themselves busy.
And yes, even knowing what they know now, they'd do it all again.
"Definitely," says Butts with a laugh. She pauses, then adds, "We still have a lot of learning to do."