WASHINGTON PARTIES, for those who attend them, are commonly a chore; and yet they have their moments, delicious in retrospect and often awesome at the time.
The National Gallery, famous for the imagination and excellence of its occasional suppers (all of them rehearsed, the dishes prepared and sampled) has the honor to this day of offering probably the worst dinner ever served in Washington. Roughly a hundred guests were on hand and the first course was raw scallops. (It is thought they were supposed to be marinated in lime juice, but take my word for it, they were simply raw).
The second and main course was a slab of raw veal. Not marinated in anything, not warmed in anything, just a hunk of raw veal. Diana Vreeland, the New York fashion authority, made the bravest show of trying to cope. She actually cut it and ate a bite. But in the end, 100 slabs of veal went down the gallery chutes.
The French Embassy always had good food. They also did not like to fling money around for no good purpose, so the place cards were leaves off an aucuba bush, written on in white ink. Worked fine. Saved beaucoup.
Once the Egyptian ambassador had a party for the
1.6>new American ambassador to France. At least half of
diplomatic Washington was present. Things were
going swimmingly, when Lady Ramsbotham, wife of
the British ambassador, realized she had dropped an
earring. This object hung somewhat like a chandelier. It had been made for her in Persia, and it had
.9>great value to her as a memento, so when she saw
it was missing she cried out (very delicately, I assure you) and people tried to find it on the floor.
Well she could not have chosen a worse place in
the world, since the drawing room was packed
with everybody standing and moving about very
slowly. And the floor was covered with Sarouk
rugs, on which you could easily drop two omelets
and a small turkey without anyone's noticing, so
lively was the design. She clutched her throat and peered down. Every consequential diplomatic rump in the capital upended, as ambassadors bent down to help the lady find her jewel. It was one of the most purely enchanting scenes ever beheld at a Washington party.
Nobody found the earring, a fragile thing of gold with turquoises, but it was later found in a gutter, smashed; it was sent back to Persia and repaired and you'd never know anything had ever happened to it.
A MASSACHUSETTS AVENUE hostess of no official position but a woman at whose house things always went peculiarly well, I thought, had got everyone seated in the dining room and the first course had passed in that ni of friendly conversation that is so desired (especially by hostesses at whose houses it does not happen). The second course was a platter of small broiled lobsters. As one was served to the wife of the chief of protocol, it slid off the platter or out of the tongs -- I know not how -- but she caught it with her own sweet paws in midair. She had been in the middle of a sentence and never missed a beat. Nobody saw a thing, though everyone of course saw it and wished to clap. A low murmur of awed congratulation did, however, arise.
NOBODY COULD SAY what was the "best" party of recent years in this town, since nobody has been to all of them. But my nomination is for the party given by the British ambassador for the queen of England when she visited. The food was glorious, the music lovely, the rose garden at a peak of bloom, though it was July (the ambassador had sacrificed the early crop and cut the roses back to ensure their perfection in July) and after supper the queen and President Ford strolled about the garden greeting guests. Toward the last, the lights were low, people were happy and a bit tired, and the tone was subdued and quiet as guests were thinking of going home. Then a lone bagpipe sounded a mournful tune. People paused and turned, on the terrace under the fine Palladian pediment of the garden front, above the masses of roses. It was beautiful and a vast assortment of folk began to cry. Extraordinary.
Earlier, however, things had not been so calm. The president approached the embassy and (in the way of these things, with Secret Service people notifying the embassy of his approach by wireless phone) the queen had not arrived. She is commonly late. It does not do for the queen not to be present to receive her guests, and it does not do for the American president to arrive with nobody to receive him.
So they just told the president to ride around for a bit and come back. The presidential limousine set off down Massachusetts Avenue heading east, the direction of the White House, to kill time. This permitted some to say, "Good grief, there goes the president to supper with the queen of England, and naturally he's heading the wrong way."
In time, however, the queen arrived, the president turned around and all went well. This was the dinner at which the actress Elizabeth Taylor asked to bring a date and was tactfully told no. Her assigned date was John Warner -- the first time the two ever met. Later they married. Later still, they divorced, of course. Never mind, it was very romantic and wonderful the night Queen Elizabeth came to town.
Not all parties, needless to say, are state functions; most parties of the city are private affairs, though often with some ax to grind, as you might say if you were not as polite as you should be.
One of these was a party given by Pauline Innis at the elegant Sulgrave Club to celebrate publication of a book on protocol, and this was attended by any number of former chiefs of protocol and an assortment from the diplomatic community. The senior diplomat of the capital at that time was a gentleman from Central America who had an unfortunate habit of speaking endlessly whenever addressed. The hostess asked him to speak to her guests, he being the senior diplomat in rank. When she said this, every experienced guest ran for the window seats. There were no chairs.
Those who didn't know what they were in for, or those who weren't quick, simply stood while the senior ambassador spoke. Some said for 40 minutes. Some said for three hours. I did not time him myself, but am here to say he did speak at length.
AT ONE POINT the Japanese moved to a new embassy, and at a great party, one of many they have given, guests discovered there was a classic tea house out in the garden. People thronged out to see it. Some had martini glasses in hand and roared into the tea house chattering and making merry. The Japanese said nothrified. A tea house is a place of great modesty and almost sacred simplicity. One enters quietly, reverently, the mind and soul composed to think of ultimate and beautiful things. Alas, a lot of us dumb Americans simply didn't know this. No offense was meant, but much was given.
In the time of the shah of Iran, his embassy gave great bashes, if the word may be used for events so polished and grand. One night a lady fainted dead away, probably at the glory of it all; that was wonderful. On all nights the Iranian ambassador circulated about the dining room and kissed every woman present. Women protested this was utter nonsense, but I observed this on several occasions and know for a fact the ambassador's kissing was a huge success.
So were the little retirements to the Dome Room, the dome lined with mirror mosaic. The lights went out, a match was lit, and in the dome thousands of reflections of the single match always brought oohs and ahs. Then dim lights came on. Guests sprawled about the floor on cushions and pillows. A Grade-A harem, one thought, must have looked like this. As I say, the lights were low.
One dinner was for the new Chinese delegation in town, following the opening to China by President Nixon. As often happened, caviar was served as an early course. The Chinese, watching their hosts, took a good tablespoon of the near-priceless stuff and later stirred it about on their plates, put it on their forks, lifted it and set it back down. They pretended to eat but did not. Americans present at this suffered considerably, having themselves taken only a teaspoon. They all but wept to think of those Chinese plates laden with caviar going out to be dumped.
A Smithsonian official entertained for a British duchess one night in his office up in a tower on the Mall. It was very smart. The trouble was the only way you could get up there was by means of a spiral iron staircase, the sort they have (or used to have) in gyms. The desire to meet the duchess contended with the desire not to break all one's bones fall- ing off the absurd stairway. The duchess won, but watching the huffing and puffing up and down was most agreeable.
There is a goodly batch of White Russians in Washington, most of whom seem to have worked for the Central Intelligence Agency or the Library of Congress. They tend to have warm emotional lovely parties. A group of three young Russians who lived together in a house had grand New Year's Eve parties. If you left at 2 a.m. they always protested things had not really begun.
They had a dog named Violet or Clubs or something of the kind, who kept coming home drunk. All three disapproved, but did not want an open confrontation among themselves. It turned out the mutt had learned to go to a neighborhood tavern where she became a great favorite, and got an extra jerk of the beer pump. She'd stagger home when the bar closed.
One night as she waddled out she crawled into the open door of a truck making meat deliveries. The driver came out, slammed the door and drove off. Violet ate steadily all the way to Hagerstown, the next stop, by which time she was a very sick pup indeed. Fortunately she had a tag. The Russians were phoned, drove up and got her in the middle of the night and were relieved to find out it was not one of the three of them who kept getting the dog tight.
She was put on a regimen of Perrier water and lived happily, or at least soberly, ever after.