The Washington Hostess Has Other Things to Do These Days.

"If I thought my epitaph would read 'hostess,' I'd refuse to die." -- Barbara Howar

THE WASHINGTON HOSTESS IS DEAD. IT WAS NOT A SUDDEN death. It happened after a lingering illness over the last two decades.

Though it comes as no shock to the local cognoscenti, it may surprise many who have looked to the nation's capital as the epitome of political and diplomatic entertaining. Aren't there still parties in Washington all the time? Aren't they written about in newspapers and magazines, photographed, seen on television and in the movies? Washington parties are an institution. Somebody has to be giving them.

This is true. There are parties in Washington. And somebody or some group is giving them. But you can be sure if you're reading about them or, worse, seeing them on TV, they are not being given by a real Washington Hostess. In fact, the woman today who calls herself a hostess is merely a social climber. YOU COULD COUNT THEM ON THE FINGERS OF TWO HANDS, there were so few of them -- the real Washington Hostesses, the ones who made a difference. They were a special breed of women, reared, schooled and trained to understand the subtle arts of entertaining. They had the friendships, the contacts, the houses, the staffs, the silverware and the china to maintain a proper salon. They were attractive -- if not beautiful -- charming, intelligent, elegant, energetic and involved. In an era when women rarely worked, this was their only avenue to power and recognition. If they could bring together interesting, powerful men, those who were running the government, to exchange ideas and information in the privacy of their living rooms, that was an accomplishment in itself. And often, if they were lucky, history was made and they would have a place in it.

The women who were those hostesses -- women such as Evangeline Bruce, Susan Mary Alsop and Polly Fritchey, to name a few -- are still here, but they are no longer hostesses in the classic style, a style that began to fade after JFK was shot, took a nosedive during the Carter years and expired utterly in Reagan's second term, a victim of economics, feminism, power breakfasts, calorie-counting, teetotaling, the hick factor, tunnel vision, fatigue, computer mentality and boring politicians and diplomats.

And though this all may sound a bit frivolous, a lot of silliness about parties, something important has been lost. Perhaps forever. C H A P T E R O N E THE MENTION OF THE QUINTESSENTIAL WASHINGTON PARTY conjures up vivid images for Mabel (Muffie) Brandon, former hostess, former social secretary to Nancy Reagan and now the high-powered head of the Washington office of Rogers & Cowan, a public relations firm.

"It was black tie," she says. "The women were very pretty, very available, and there was a slight touch of flirtation. Men and women dined together with laughter and a wink of the eye. Men appreciated women. The women flattered the men. The food was delicious, the wines excellent. People sat conversing with one another. There would be journalists and politicians, the people who were running the country. You would learn a little history, you felt thrilled to have been there. People had manners. They were gracious and polite. They automatically wrote thank-you notes; they sent bouquets. Even the senators sent notes. There was a sense of well-being. We would separate after dinner. The women would go upstairs to the hostess' sitting room. We'd have a wonderful conversation. I remember reluctantly going downstairs, and, when you came down, the men would stand and beam and say, 'Shall we join the ladies?' with a wicked grin. They don't even look up now."

But there was more than grace and pleasure -- there was the sense that the running of the country, even the world, was being made possible. In his book The White House Years, Henry Kissinger writes: "Precisely because the official life is so formal, social life provides a mechanism for measuring intangibles and understanding nuances. Moods can be gauged by newspapermen and ambassadors and senior civil servants that are not discernible at formal meetings. It is at their dinner parties and receptions that the relationships are created without which the machinery of government would soon stalemate itself."

Katharine Graham, chairman of The Washington Post Co., understands this as well as anyone. "I work at having a cross-section of society," she says. "I try to include people who don't agree with us. I kept it going through much of Watergate, even though the White House told people they couldn't come. It serves a purpose. People then know they can pick up the phone and say, 'You've been unfair' or 'Here's a story.' "

The public-at-large knows very little about this world. Most people, when they think of Washington Hostesses, think of Perle Mesta and Gwen Cafritz, who were at their height in the '50s and early '60s. It was Mesta who once remarked that all you had to do to get someone to come to dinner was "hang a lamb chop in the window." But the giant impersonal parties of Mesta and Cafritz were not the stuff of inside Washington. In fact, most of the true Washington Hostesses laughed at them. They were considered nouveau, vulgar and egregiously self-seeking. The expressions NQOC ("Not quite our class") and NOCD ("Not our class, dear") were often heard in reference to both. They were never really accepted in the inner sanctum of Washington society, the establishment Georgetown group where those who were really in power gathered in the evenings to exchange ideas and information and to develop contacts with one another.

Says one former hostess, "Perle wanted to be paid money to give parties and Gwen wanted to be famous and photographed and talked about. And she was willing to do what it took to get that way."

"The period of Gwen and Perle was different from our time," says Ina Ginsburg, former party-giver and now an American Film Institute trustee and a writer for Interview magazine. "But it already had commercial aspects, like what's going on today. Mesta always got paid. She was almost the originator of the sponsored party."

Though the Washington establishment ridiculed Cafritz and Mesta in private, they still had to eat. Katharine Graham laughingly recalls the lament of the late Lorraine Cooper -- wife of the revered Sen. John Sherman Cooper and, to many, the finest Washington Hostess in memory: Cooper -- occasionally referred to as Mrs. Lightfoot Lee, after the legendary hostess from Henry Adams' novel about Washington, Democracy -- once complained that all of her friends would say they would never go to Mesta's or Cafritz's parties. So Cooper would refuse the two hostesses' invitations herself. "Then," said Cooper, "I would suddenly find they'd all gone and I was sitting home alone." "AFTER WORLD WAR II, THERE WAS AN EASTERN POWER elite," says Muffie Brandon. "They were the kind who knew everybody. A new administration would come to town, and these ladies knew them. Somebody would call and say, 'Look after Joey,' and they'd look after Joey."

The last great era for Washington Hostesses began at this time with "the wonderful tradition of the Sunday night suppers," says Susan Mary Alsop, author, editor at large for Architectural Digest and a former hostess who was known for her elegant dinners.

A new style of informal entertaining, the suppers broke away from the kind of "nonsense like Mrs. L. {Alice Roosevelt Longworth} used to do, all those long meals with terrapin and all that," says Alsop. These evenings were the province of a younger group of journalists, foreign service types and lower-echelon government people who were destined for power. They were mostly Ivy Leaguers and preppies, or "Grotties," as they were then called, after the exclusive preparatory school, Groton.

In their book The Wise Men, Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas write about those evenings, which included Chip Bohlen, later to become ambassador to Moscow, and Polly Wisner, later to become the wife of columnist Clayton Fritchey: "Once a week, the Bohlens partook in an institution known as the Sunday Night Supper (called by Joe Alsop, perhaps more aptly, the Sunday Night Drunk). It was servants' night out; the Bohlens, the Stewart Alsops, Joe Alsop, the Frank Wisners (he was later head of the CIA's department of dirty tricks and a tragic Cold War suicide), the Bob Joyces (he was a veteran FSO), and the Tommy Thompsons (he was soon to become Bohlen's and Kennan's equal as a Soviet expert) would have well-lubricated potluck dinners, often inviting the Lovetts, Harrimans, Achesons or Kennans to join them."

From the beginning, this newest of social traditions did not lack for real-world impact. It was at one of these Sunday night suppers that Averell Harriman walked into the Alsops' living room only to find a young congressman named Richard Nixon. According to Susan Mary Alsop, who was once married to columnist Joseph Alsop, Harriman walked out "after a fearful scene," during which he expressed his anger over Nixon's tactics in campaigning against California Rep. Helen Gahagan Douglas.

These casual evenings set the stage for the Georgetown dinners that were to become the Washington salons of the '60s during the Kennedy years. That was a time, everyone agrees, when the Washington party and the Washington Hostess peaked.

Artist Polly Kraft, the widow of columnist Joseph Kraft, remembers the Washington of those years: "During the Kennedy era, the dinner party was glamorous, exotic; it was written about, photographed. Everybody tried to do little Hickory Hills. The grand hostesses all had staff and money. But they loved hanging out at the little houses, too. It was all kind of cohesive and binding, which came from all of us knowing each other so well for so long. People were imported from New York and California and Boston and Europe. Politicians were mixed in with intellectuals, mixed in with academics, mixed in with movie stars. You would go to Joe Alsop's or Kay's {Katharine Graham's} and there would be all these glamorous and exciting people. Later on, people entertained not as much to have fun but to help somebody's career. The Kennedy era did have those things too, but it was just much looser. We've all been jaded, but it was so much of a new adventure then."

Says Ina Ginsburg: "In the Kennedy days, everyone felt it was imperative to be well dressed and have their hair done. Don't you remember how we all met at Jean Louis {the most prominent hairdresser of his day}?" C H A P T E R T W O The Perfect Hostess "THE PERFECT HOSTESS CARED ABOUT CONVERSATION AS AN art form," says Muffie Brandon. "She cared about creating a tableau vivant. It was very important to put people together who would stimulate innovative dialogue. These women understood group dynamics in their bones."

This perfect hostess "did not work," according to Joan Braden, writer, wife of columnist Tom Braden and former party-giver. "She was interested in politics and government. She read the papers carefully, she enjoyed talking to the movers and shakers, and she was able to be a part of things by inviting them together. And she was then invited to other parties. She was unself-conscious." Braden says the toasts at her own parties were always spontaneous. "No toast has ever been read in my house -- the way Pam Harriman used to do it." The perfect hostess "did not do what Joe Alsop did and have a token black or a token young person. Joe used to entertain brilliantly. He used to have me be the hostess, but he used to separate the men and women after dinner. It took me years to get him out of that."

"The secret to being a good hostess is understanding the elements of a party," says Evangeline Bruce, widow of statesman David Bruce. "The most important thing is the cast, which is the only thing that matters. And how they do the seating. That will tell you which ones have imagination, heart, which ones know their stuff. The seating tells so much about one. You can tell when they're not good at it. People show their prejudices, their likes, their knowledge, their understanding. It's important that it all looks pretty and that the food is good, but nothing matters like the cast." Bruce is not alone in naming Lorraine Cooper as the paragon of the Washington Hostess. "I think she had a romantic picture of herself entertaining the distinguished persons in the capital of the western world and always sustained this image. Furthermore, she invested the Congress in her imagination with a numinous quality."

"Lorraine Cooper had a quality of being a personal friend of each guest," says party-giver Jayne Ikard, wife of Frank Ikard, former head of the American Petroleum Institute. "She was a very knowledgeable woman politically. She may have understood this city better than anyone. Going up the steps to her house, you were on a personal high. You felt you looked great; you were smart, intelligent and clever. Some hostesses have one person as the star; everybody else is a prop. I go to some parties, and I feel it's about the hostess and the guest of honor and why are you crowding their act?

"Lorraine Cooper's house was always a safe house. You had to run a safe house. The things that were said in your house were not out on the streets the next day. It died there. If people knew it was a safe house, then they wanted to be invited back. People have to be able to tell the truth in order to have a really good conversation." Ikard concedes the traditional Washington Hostess is a thing of the past, but she likes to give parties anyway: "I like to run a safe house. I couldn't believe it when the White House told me I would have to tell the press that the Reagans had been here."

In the old days, when The Washington Post and The Evening Star had women's pages, some of these parties were covered by the press. But the press was respectful, often worshipful. The hostesses were always beautiful, the parties glittering, the guests scintillating, the table settings exquisite. No guests were ever embarrassed by aggressive reporters and some hostesses felt free to allow a select few understanding society reporters as guests at their parties.

All that changed in the late '60s and early '70s as the press, in an anti-establishment atmosphere marked by the Vietnam protests and the women's movement, took a more adversarial position. Suddenly reporters couldn't be trusted. They saw themselves not as public relations agents for the hostesses but as journalists covering a story, much the same way a city reporter would work the crime beat. Sometime around Watergate, the columnists and reporters who had been part of the inner sanctum began to feel that nothing was off the record. Whereas before, members of government, Congress and the diplomatic corps could speak their minds with impunity at the grand houses, it suddenly became unsafe. After several years of humiliations and damaged reputations at the hands of certain reporters, most ambitious hostesses, who had enjoyed so much flattering publicity for so long, called it quits.

Finally, so did the press. Ironically, too little proved as harmful as too much.

"Nobody writes anything up anymore," says Ina Ginsburg. "There's no buildup for a party. In the old days, even the dinners where the press couldn't go, they still knew about it and you read about it."

Actually, there were two kinds of "safe" houses. One was the above-mentioned private house. The other was a house where you could always count on getting a good seat at dinner. Once someone in the inner sanctum had been burned twice with a bad dinner partner, that was the end of the hostess. (Toward the end of Iranian Ambassador Ardeshir Zahedi's tour in Washington, Joe Alsop finally proclaimed: "One is never safe at the Iranian embassy." And the shah fell.)

For the ambassadors in the old days, parties were the mainstay of their jobs. The glittering embassy does not exist in Washington today, as it did in the '60s and '70s.

The embassies that have always been powerful and influential are the British, the French and the Italian, depending on who the ambassadors are. Occasionally other nations' embassies will rise to prominence: a few of the Arab countries' in the '60s, Sweden's under Ambassador Wilhelm Wachtmeister and his wife Ulla, or Canada's under Allan Gotlieb and his wife Sondra.

The Gotliebs were so clever at it they almost single-handedly managed to resurrect the Golden Days. During the first four years of the Reagan administration, they were able to pull in most of the members of the administration, the Congress, the hot diplomats and the press. They instinctively knew how to put together a powerful Washington crowd, unlike so many who just keep passing down their outdated guest lists from one ambassador to another.

The Gotliebs are a good example of the true significance of "the Washington party," and how it can make and break you. Shortly before Brian Mulroney was elected prime minister of Canada, he made a trip to Washington, and Gotlieb, who had been appointed by Pierre Trudeau, gave a dinner for him. Gotlieb called in all his chips; he even phoned people at the White House to tell them how important this one was to him. The guest list was impressive by any standards, with stars from every major category. Gotlieb's toast to Mulroney got right to the point -- he recited the guest list, ensuring that the future prime minister would be aware of the power collected before him. When Mulroney came into office, Gotlieb kept his post.

(Of course, what the Washington party confers, it can also take away. At another dinner party, in the spring of '86, which featured the Mulroneys and George Bush, Sondra Gotlieb slapped her social secretary in the face. Since then, the Gotliebs have been very quiet, and the only really socially viable embassy in town has basically gone out of business.)

Taste-maker and former host Joe Alsop doesn't give many parties anymore. "I'm 77 years old now," says Joe Alsop with a chuckle. "I'm out of the business. But I enjoyed doing it." Alsop feels that one of the most useful purposes a Washington party can serve is that "it's very important for officials to get to know people in Washington. Then, if they run into trouble unjustly, they know the right people to stand up for them."

One example of how this works can be found in Joan Braden's much-publicized and controversial book proposal about Washington life: "When our friend Richard Helms, the former CIA director, was in trouble over his testimony to Congress -- he later pleaded nolo contendere to criminal charges relating to it -- we threw a party for him, and the caliber of the guests showed best how well loved he is. Robert McNamara and Henry Kissinger both praised him in speeches, and those present included Sen. Stuart Symington, Averell Harriman and Barbara Walters. The press had some snide things to say about it, as can be imagined."

"There should be some underlying reason to have a party here," says Jennifer Phillips, wife of Laughlin Phillips, director of the Phillips Collection. "Parties that work are those with a combination of atmosphere in the house, plenty of liquor and excitement in the outside world, like the Iran-contra hearings or the stock market crash. In Washington, people love to rush in, get the latest. I have a better time at Washington parties than I do at others where all they talking about is whether Annette Reed is going to marry Oscar de la Renta. In Washington, you know you'll get your fix."

A great Washington party, according to Susan Mary Alsop, "is a question of electricity. It's also luck. If you're fortunate enough to get the secretary of state and the head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the night of an international crisis . . . It sounds ghoulish, but it's something you want to have."

"The perfect dinner party is given on the night of an incredible crisis," says Jayne Ikard. "I'm really lucky. I had one Ollie North week and I had one {Douglas} Ginsburg week. If it's a good news week, it's going to be a good dinner party. Even if the souffle' falls, the roast burns and three senators are late, it's going to be a good party."

Good luck and good timing are great, but ultimately, a Washington party rises and falls with its power quotient. This has always been the case.

"You had to start with power," says Jennifer Phillips. "It was not enough to have a broiled lamb chop to hang out the window. You had to have something to offer other than a cook and a house."

"A Washington party should have a focus," says Joan Braden. "When Henry was here, the Kissingers didn't have a house to entertain in, so they asked us to have dinners. He was the centerpiece. I used to ask people from New York like Kitty Carlisle. I'd have one or two favorite ambassadors, certainly one or two from the Senate. It was here that Bill Fulbright and Henry got to be friends. It was always fun if Kirk {Douglas} or Greg Peck could come, and people from the media, columnists mostly, if not intellectuals. The party was the business of Washington. It was not to talk about clothes. Even the women understood that, though there were always women you didn't know what the hell to do with. The rule of thumb was, an ambassador you knew well like Rabin or Nicko Henderson, someone from the administration, from Congress and always someone from the print media."

But who said you had to know your guests well? "Some people," says Jayne Ikard, "you would never have met if you hadn't invited them."

Power and style, background and connections, crises and excitement, money and staff were the things Washington parties were made of, but there was another more elusive element that allowed those aspiring to a salon to do their best work. It was, according to Muffie Brandon, "leisure. People were not in a hurry, they could dawdle over brandy and coffee. None of this running out the door after dinner in a panic. People took naps in those days; there was a charm, an ease. Great minds interacted at these parties, and you listened and sometimes you participated -- if your husband didn't kick you under the table. One Sunday lunch, we had {English philosopher} Isaiah Berlin and Henry Kissinger and they talked until 3:30. Nobody moved, nobody raced off to tennis. It was a great romp through the history of Western philosophy. We just sat there spellbound. It was pure gold." C H A P T E R T H R E E The Demise IN THOSE DAYS, WHICH PEAKED DURING THE KENNEDY

years and began to seriously hit the skids during the Carter years, it was the highest compliment one could pay to say that someone was a great hostess. All that has changed.

"No one wants to be known as just a hostess," says Ina Ginsburg. "When people say that about me, I think, well, I do other things. Then, it was a compliment. You didn't need to do anything else. It wouldn't be enough today."

In the days when it was a compliment, the old Ina Ginsburg would never have missed a chance to cultivate a rising star. Times have changed. Ginsburg recounts a conversation with a friend who said to her two years ago, "If you know Bork, you'd better start asking him to dinner, because he's going to be the next Supreme Court justice." But, says Ginsburg, "I never got around to it."

Even Jayne Ikard, who recently entertained the Reagans, admits that the really great hostesses are no longer alive or in action. She doesn't mind being called a hostess, though, because "in this day and age no one does only that. I'm easy. If you got pregnant by being a hostess, I'd have 45 kids."

Pamela Harriman, widow of statesman Averell Harriman, is now a powerful force in Democratic fund-raising. Many point to Pam Harriman as someone who once gave the kind of exclusive insider dinner parties that made reputations for many a Washington Hostess. She demurs.

"I have lived in Washington 17 years," Harriman says. "I arrived at the time when the women's movement was starting, and I wasn't brought up with the Washington thing. The women's movement finished all that. It was obviously time for it. It finished without a ripple. I don't entertain except for political things."

Katharine Graham is cited by the Washington establishment as giving some of the city's most interesting parties. Yet nobody refers to her as a hostess. However, when Graham's invitations began to read "informal" rather than "black tie" years ago, it changed the standards for Washington entertaining. She can't remember when she stopped asking people to wear black tie, but "I just stopped. I thought, what a bore to go home and change. The women still wore long dresses for a while. Then everybody went short."

Evangeline Bruce was once well known for her intimate, elegant dinners in Georgetown. But she no longer does them. Instead, every so often she will have a stand-up Sunday brunch, where bite-size food is passed by waiters and guests are free to drop in and out as they wish.

("Evangeline started with those Sunday lunches because of the difficulty of getting an equal number of men and women," says Joan Braden. "But at her parties, you don't really talk to anyone or get any lunch. I find it difficult to talk and eat and kiss at the same time.")

The brunches, Bruce says, "came from laziness at the thought of matching sexes. It became too time-consuming. It became so boring to even think about it." The idea of having to deal with senators' being late because of a vote or not showing up at all was "too depressing . . . to have to reseat. You have to have a buffet now."

In the old days there would have been "deepest apologies" from the no-shows and late-comers, but not anymore, Bruce says. Which is another element. "Manners. A congressional secretary called to say that the senator will come and will bring a lady. I said, 'Are you telling me or asking me?' As though I were a motel."

"Manners have gone by the board," says Ina Ginsburg. "When someone met someone at your house, then they invited your friend, they included you. Now it's amaaaaaazing what's going on. And you can't count on anyone anymore. How many seated dinners are there where people don't bother to cancel?" And of course there is the problem of catered food. "Most people don't have anyone in their houses who can do it anymore. And if it's all catered, it takes something away. People had cooks in those days. And if it was catered and you recognized it, you'd feel superior."

"Everything is catered now," says Pamela Harriman. "It's all so expensive. It's just been a total erosion of life immediately after World War II. And when you had to pay for a sandwich during the Carter years if you were invited to the White House, that was going too far. But it's a much more global trend now. There's absolutely no place for formality. Getting staff is too expensive. In those days you paid $100 a week for a maid. Now it's $500. All those things pushed it over the cliff."

There was a time when many in the Washington establishment thought that Liz Stevens would be a possible successor to the great hostesses. But Stevens, political activist, publisher and wife of filmmaker George Stevens, also had better things to do. "Anything we do now is either for the American Film Institute or a fundraiser for the Women's Campaign Fund," Stevens says.

Jayne Ikard has several theories about why the Age of the Great Hostesses ended. For one, schedules. Husbands and wives often can't come together, she says. "I invited both McLaughlins the other night. John was in New York and by the time Ann came, she was secretary of labor. I had another dinner with 22 people, and there were only three actual couples."

It's a disaster, Ikard adds, when people have out-of-town visitors. "They can't be absorbed into a Washington dinner. They don't know what the hell is going on. They're either slackjawed over the guest list or they think we're kind of mean. They think they've fallen into a bunch of vipers, a snake pit."

Diet is another problem. "Nobody wants to eat or drink anymore. It's the calories they don't want. Nobody eats hors d'oeuvres. I only serve hors d'oeuvres if I have more than two senators on the list. And the conversation is not very interesting if people don't have a couple of belts. Parties end earlier. Do you remember how much good conversation there was over the nightcap? That doesn't exist."

And lest we forget the advent of the power breakfast, Jayne Ikard has not. "That is the destroyer of the Washington dinner party. Do you feel relaxed in the evening if you're going to have to do mental gymnastics with five other guys at 7 in the morning?"

The art of conversation seems to have died too, everyone agrees. "I worry more about that than people not having parties," says Ikard. "It has been dying for quite a while. There are not many renaissance people. Maybe they all talk to computers. They're all single issue. You can't walk around quoting Shakespeare if everyone else is talking economic jargon."

Even now, Polly Fritchey still has parties that guarantee the presence of members of the administration, an ambassador or two, several senators, lots of journalists, people from New York or abroad, and always some surprises. No one would turn down her invitation. And yet, when you talk about her being a hostess, she laughs. "The city's gotten so big, you can't do it night after night," she says. "It's all so tremendous." She recalls the late Pauline Davis, "who used to be able to have the whole government in her living room," and Laura Curtis, who used to own the F Street Club, now one of the Washington establishment's elegant private clubs, "who had a day staff and a night staff."

There were a few men who qualified as hosts in the early to mid-'70s, among them Ambassador Zahedi, Argentine Ambassador Alejandro Orfila and a young lawyer named Steve Martindale. There was hardly a week that went by that Martindale wasn't having an eclectic group of people -- almost always famous and/or powerful and almost always chronicled by the newspapers -- for some cause or other to his house. Today he rarely entertains.

"The press scared everybody off," says Martindale. "It {entertaining} backfired. It cost a lot of money, and you got nothing. You were perceived as being too ambitious. And I began to say, 'Christ, I've had these people 20 times, and they don't really care about me. Why bother?' I'm not going to kiss any more -----."

And of course, as most who are schooled in the ways of Washington parties acknowledge, the social tone in Washington has traditionally been set by the White House, except during the "bleak" Johnson and Carter years when black-tie dinners yielded to down-home barbecues, corn pone and grits. When the Reagans arrived with their rich California friends, at first the establishment hoped that the Washington dinner party might be revived. And for a while there was some life in the capital. But sooner than expected, the pulse weakened and all but stopped. The clothes, the jewels, the limos, the hairdressers, the glitzy New York and Hollywood friends were, well, nouveau riche. They flaunted their money in a way that nobody in Washington would ever think of doing. Ostentation, not elegance, was the order of the day. Some of the ladies of Georgetown made an initial effort with Nancy Reagan, inviting her to private little lunches. But in the end, they say, they found her boring, superficial, not very intelligent, not embracing the same values . . . "NOCD."

Ina Ginsburg actually thought about being friends with Jerry Zipkin, Nancy Reagan's escort in New York City, "but then I decided it was too much of a sacrifice, even to get in with the Reagans."

One former hostess, who asked not to be named, had this to say: "The people in Congress and the administration are well-meaning, conscientious people, but lots of them don't have the social graces. They don't show up, they bring their kids. The Carters set a new social style and brought in a lot of hicks. There are no conversationalists. You can put bread on the table and light the candles, but they're not educated to talk, they are educated to do. You can't have a salon unless you can have people who can talk."

And another high-powered former hostess laments, "There are only five or 10 dining-out senators, fewer congressmen and maybe the same number of ambassadors."

Those who really understand Washington and how it works know that the old ways of entertaining are over. Particularly during the final year of a lame duck administration. "The whole city is in suspension for a year," says Muffie Brandon. "Nobody knows who to back. There is a lot of hedging. It's really Russian roulette, very unnerving for an aspiring hostess. It's too unpredictable. I have a friend who devoted two years to Gary Hart. She thought she would come here as The Hostess. When he dropped out, she had to go to the Golden Door for two weeks for a total rehab." C H A P T E R F O U R What Next? SO WHAT IF THERE ARE NO MORE PARTIES, NO MORE HOST-esses?

The Nixon people asked the same question. So did the Carter people. But as Henry Kissinger has written, "The disdain of the Nixon entourage for this side of Washington complicated its actions and deprived it of the sensitivity to respond to brewing domestic anxieties."

The kind of intimacy that is created over a dinner table cannot be measured. But this, at least, is certain: It is difficult to hate somebody with whom you have had a pleasant conversation at a party.

It was the Washington Hostess who was able to provide this setting, on neutral grounds, because, regardless of her own or her husband's politics, she had a more lofty agenda -- to bring important minds together. Many of those minds were her relatives or friends. Democracy has killed her off -- and it has rendered those members of her circle, the small power elite that once ruled the country, obsolete as well.

This means there is a vacuum. "It's hard to think of anyone today taking the place of the really great hostesses," says Jennifer Phillips. "That group -- Evangeline, Susan Mary, Polly Fritchey, Mrs. Longworth, Joe Alsop -- had the background and the experience and a certain kind of exposure, either through diplomatic service or connections with government or family. They led a kind of life which gave them the breadth of acquaintance, plus the money. They brought to entertaining a complete personality, which very few of us have now. Women of my generation and younger don't bring that kind of background to the arena -- even in terms of the command of language, beautiful French, some Italian. They had traveled abroad widely and their ideas about entertaining and why it's done were formed in a more sophisticated way. Who has sprung up to take their place? No one. This group is unique."

"These ladies are getting older," says Muffie Brandon. "And people like the Cabots and the Lodges are terrified of going into public life, because of the press. Nobody wants to see their lives under a microscope. Which leaves it to the self-made people. Which is our democracy. If you feel you're in a room where the decor has been done to the tune of umpteen million dollars, it's not the same as being in someone's library where the books have been read."

To Martindale, the new generation has no interest in carrying the torch. "Look at Sharon and Jay {Rockefeller}," he says. "She's over it. They find it boring. She'll come by for a Coke with me, but, basically, people have lost interest in it."

What more and more people see as the wave of the future are corporate, institutional events put on by professionals like Brandon and Carolyn Peachey of Campbell, Peachey & Associates, a public relations firm. "Corporations began to view Washington as a place where they ought to entertain," says Peachey. "That gave rise to those of us who do this kind of work. I never do private entertaining. I don't think it's necessary. And it's a big mistake in Washington. People from out of town want it, they want to know where to go, what invitations to accept, how to get on the right list. But Washington is too small a town, and that kind of thing implies insincerity."

"Maybe parties exist now, and I'm just not being invited," says Ina Ginsburg. "People look at me and say, 'Don't you like us? We're not invited anymore. What's going on?' I say 'Relax. There aren't any dinners.' "

"You'll give a lot of pleasure to people who read this story," says Susan Mary Alsop. "They'll feel less left out. I'm so glad it isn't just me sitting at home alone watching 'Dallas.' "

There are still those who entertain, of course, but parties are not their raison d'etre. "I think," says Brandon, "there are in Chevy Chase and Bethesda a whole group of socially active women -- wealthy and in charity but not in politics. These are not political salons. The arts have become a meeting ground. Ladies can happily work in the arts experience, gratify their social inclinations but feel they have a more serious existence. Most modern women -- the would-be hostesses -- have incredible obligations to work and family. So the bottom line is -- running a political salon is not that important. It's hit the floor. The question is not where have the hostesses gone, but how has the country, the city changed? That part of our city has changed and the hostess is obsolete."

Then again, maybe she's just evolving. "The Washington Hostess was like the invisible Washington monument," says writer Barbara Howar. "Maybe it's just closed for repairs." :: Sally Quinn, author of Regrets Only, is writing a sequel on Washington's power elite.