WELCOME to The Irene, home of middle-aged snoops and foreign spooks, a CIA chief, the forgotten father of a Hollywood star, a senile streaker, the not-so-happy hooker, JFK's personal secretary and an 81-year-old former congressman who can't find a decent barber to style his collar-length silver wig.
"Honey, the gossip I know about The Irene is outrageous," says Della Becker, 69-year-old self-styled "chief yenta" of the apartment building that Washington Bullets owner Abe Pollin built 12 years ago and named after his wife.
The stories at this luxury high-rise just across the District line in the Friendship Heights section of Chevy Chase range from suicides to defections, from midnight visits by Henry Kissinger to Arab bomb scares. Here is a fascinating slice of upper-class Washington life, says Becker, a life that is available to "anyone who's rich, well born and able."
Which may or may not include the globe-trotting diplomats, bridge-playing widows, former dignitaries, judges and journalists who glance at Irene Pollin's paintings hanging in the lobby and ride the fake mahogany-paneled elevators in silence, thankful for the building's sense of anonymity.
"Nobody really knows who lives here," said one tenant of 12 years. "You come and go, and never see anybody."
Evelyn Lincoln, personal secretary to President John F. Kennedy from 1952 until his assassination, says she -- for one -- "would be very interested to know who lives here."
Lincoln and her husband "Abe" sold their suburban Maryland home five years ago and moved to a second-floor, three-bedroom apartment. But The Irene's long waiting list kept the couple cooling their heels in a nearby Holiday Inn for three months before an apartment became available.
Wearing a short skirt and pointtoed spike heels, Evelyn Lincoln -- now in her 60s -- says she receives about 500 letters a month from people around the world, asking her for Kennedy trivia like silver PT-109 tie clasps.She still refers to the late president's son John Kennedy Jr., now 18, as "John-John" and says she would like to campaign for the election of Teddy Kennedy. "Potomac fever," she says, is what kept her and her husband in Washington all these years.
And that story reminds Della Becker of another well known Washingtonian.
"Did you know that Richard Helms' apartment was the only one that was not marked on the outside?" she says, ordering a guest to "eat my coffeecake, or I'll kill ya!'"
Former CIA chief Helms and his wife Cynthia lived at The Irene from 1968 to 1973. That is a fact. What may or may not be factual are the following tidbits of Helmsian lore at The Irene:
His apartment was bugged.
The apartment across the hall was inhabited by a high-ranking Soviet offical, and also was bugged.
A Bulgarian diplomat in the building strolled down the hall one night, knocked on the Helms apartment door and defected on the spot.
"People like to say such silly things," said Cynthia Helms. "Our apartment was swept regularly for bugs. And it was quiet there. I think Abe Pollin hung rubber curtains in the walls to sound-proof them."
To Della Becker, the Helms were snobs who never spoke with any of the other tenants. But responds Mrs. Helms: "One never does in an apartment building."
Another tenant who now keeps to himself is 89-year-old William Perske, Laurene Bacall's father. In her recent autobiography, Bacall was less than kind to Perske. Now his wife Sally says, "the two are not on speaking terms." Nor are they on speaking terms with the press.
"They say I'm going to write a book about The Irene someday," says Charles Beckwith, who for the last five years had driven The Irene's small shuttle bus to and from Wisconsin Avenue bus stop. "It's going to be called 'Fantasies of The Irene.'"
One fantasy, according to a recently arrived tenant, is the shuttle bus itself: "It looks like a science fiction movie. The bus leaves The Irene filled with little while ladies going shopping and returns with little black ladies coming to clean the apartments."
The Irene is strategically located within walking distance of some of the area's most expensive stores: Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman-Marcus, Saks, Jandel, Lord & Taylor, as well as convenient to a Peoples Drug Store and Giant supermarket.
On a recent shuttle ride the conversation turned to challah bread and the new carpeting in the bus.
"I love my little ladies," says Beckwith, helping a tenant with her bags. "I try to respect them. Some people might call them old biddies, but they're ladies to me."
Della Becker, who claims she was recruited by the FBI years ago to spy on her foreign neighbors, says the rooftop pool and tennis court are the prime places to pick up Irene stories.
They are stories about the attractive woman tenant whose name one day appeared in the local newspapers during a roundup of prostitutes in Washington; the elderly man who was found streaking through the hallways one night; the midnight visits from then-secretary of state Henry Kissinger, whose limousine would pull up under Becker's fourth-floor apartment window.
"Who was he here to see? Who knows, Helms, or one of the Israelis," she says.
An Israeli Embassy spokesman said that the custom of housing their diplomats in The Irene began years ago. The government pays their rent, which ranges from $350 to over $1,500 a month, and when one diplomat is transferred, his apartment is automatically given to his replacement.
Luis Herrera, the Chilean ambassador to the Organization of American States, also lived at The Irene. But on Sept. 11, 1973 -- the day Chilean president Salvatore Allende was murdered -- Herrera and his wife quickly sold their belongings and left Washington. According to Becker, the family opened a restaurant in Buenos Aires.
Becker also remembers the day in August 1974 when tenant Jack Kubisch was called off the tennis courts to answer a call from the State Department. He came back to the courts and told his tennis partners he couldn't finish the game -- he had just been named ambassador to Greece.
"During the first few years," one tenant said, "Abe Pollin used to throw a huge Fourth of July party, with flags around the pool. It looked like a really bad Esther Williams movie."
In those early years, the tenant said, "we all had one thing in common. The apartments weren't finished. And of course the subway was only three years away."
Twelve years later, the subway station is still not open, but the Irene's occupants do not mind.
What they do mind is the fact that the hot water goes off periodically, and the air conditioning breaks down on the hottest days of summer.
"The Irene never tells the tenants when something happens," one apartment dweller said, citing a reported bomb scare several years ago when a wrapped package was found beneath one of the wooden benches in the front courtyard. The bomb squad was supposedly called in, and the doors of the apartment building locked. But nobody ever discovered what happened.
They did discover, however, that one of the world's leading nuclear scientists plunged to his death by jumping off the 17th floor of the building in May 1967. He creashed through an awning above the front entrance. The scientist, however did not live at The Irene.
But for 81-year-old Brooks Hays and his wife Marion, The Irene is "easy living."
The former member of Congress from Arkansas (1942 to 1958) gave up his Capitol Hill town house two years ago for a three-bedroom apartment complete with solarium and fake fireplace. Hays, who cofounded the group, Former Members of Congress (which currently has more members than Congress itself), says he loves The Irene. The doormen call him "governor."
He misses only two things; a fast food restaurant for hamburgers and a barber who can trim his silver gray wig. "What God has not wrought, I went out and brought," Hays joked, stroking his shaggy head.
Hays and his wife are like many of the older couples at The Irene. They don't want to move again. They have customized their apartment and have turquoise walls, fine antiques and priceless carpets. Like many other tenants, they live in fear of the word "condo."
At a time when Montgomery County is trying desperately to curb the growing number of apartments being converted to condominiums, The Irene seems secure as the grande dame of rental facilities.
In a letter to his tenants last summer, Abe Pollin wrote: "My present plans are to keep The Irene in my family for the benefit of my grand-daughter's grandchildren."
Pollin added, "My granddaughter is five months old."