"This is the greatest party in Washington," attorney Robert Washington declared just after midnight at the New Year's Eve gala of the Consort Club. "Many of us go away around the holidays, but we are always back for this. We wouldn't miss it for the world."
Washington had just returned from a vacation in Antigua and was standing in the grand ballroom of the Mayflower Hotel, surrounded by men attired in tuxedos and women swathed in yards of silk, satin and sequins they had wornunder their heavier layers of mink or fox.
Though many Washingtonians have never heard of the Consorts, an invitation to their annual New Year's Eve party, with its glittering gowns and tux-and-bucks appeal, is cherished in black society.
For more than 30 years, the 20 members of the Consorts have reserved ballrooms in the best hotels in the city. This year they invited more than 400 of their closest friends to a bash that included waves of champagne and breakfast served at 1 a.m.
Consort Club members, who are mostly well-connected doctors, dentists, lawyers and government workers, are not generally newsmakers, and are not well-known outside the Gold Coast and their social strata.
Party guests included former Mayor and Mrs. Walter E. Washington, D.C. City Council member Charlene Drew Jarvis and her escort Woody Boggs, former council chairman Sterling Tucker, Sir John Carter, the former ambassador to the United States from Guyana, and his wife, Lady Sara Lou.
Also attending were Rep. and Mrs. Julian Dixon of California, D.C. Superior Court Chief Judge Carl Moultrie I, and fellow jurists William Thompson and Paul Webber.
Ron Brown, former chairman of the board of trustees of the University of the District of Columbia and Vincent Cohen, a partner in the law firm of Hogan and Hartson; IBM executive Kent Cushenberry and a host of lawyers, doctors and dentists completed the guest list.
Mayor and Mrs. Marion Barry usually attend but missed this year's party because of other commitments.
"We think we have the reputation of having the best party in the city," said Don Vernon, one of the club's founders and a retired civil rights lawyer for the federal government. "We know how to do it."
Dr. Bennetta Washington, wife of the city's first elected mayor in this century, dressed in a pale pink tea length dress and wearing a "Happy New Year" tiara, said, "We always come to this party. We've been coming since it started." Her husband added, "And it just gets better and better."
At midnight, the Bob Craig Band played a lively "Auld Lang Syne," with a snazzy saxophone segment, and red and white balloons floated down on the dancing couples from the ceiling.
"In the Midnight Hour," followed, and dancers clapped and volleyed an occasional balloon above their heads.
Betty Dixon, wife of the congressman, shimmered in a blue two-piece dress. When asked if her outfit was newly purchased for the evening, she laughed and said, "Oh no . . . this goes with me everywhere because it packs so well."
"The party is as fantastic as it always is," Jarvis said. "This is a very busy season, and the Consorts' party is the icing on the cake."
Jarvis wore a white dress purchased at "a store I'm so excited about, called The Forgotten Woman. It carries elegant styles and fabrics for women of heroic proportions," she said, with a grand smile.
"We came back from Pennsylvania for it," said Dr. Jean Sinkford, the first female dean of the Howard University dental school. "We wouldn't miss it." Sinkford and her husband have been spending New Year's Eve with the Consorts for 20 years and this year were guests of Consort member Dr. Crawford Nixon, a professor of dentistry at Howard for the past 33 years.
Gloria Massie, a social columnist for Jet Magazine, said while awaiting breakfast that the party would make good copy for her next edition.
She attended with her husband, Samuel P. Massie, a chemistry professor at the U.S. Naval Academy who chairs the Maryland State Board for Community Colleges and the Governor's Science Advisory Council.
Jackie Robinson, chairman of Howard Sanders Communications and president of three radio stations, wore a pearl-studded white floor length gown that she said she had "picked up in Paris."
Robert Stephens, an electronics engineer and social chairman of the the Consorts, said he had gone gown-shopping with his wife Blanche and had spent more than two hours helping her select a scooped-neck, floor-length gown of brown sequins that she found at a small store in Rockville.
At about 1 a.m., a breakfast buffet of eggs, grits, sausage and rolls, was served in the adjacent Chinese Room. Just after breakfast, fortified guests resumed their dancing.
The club was founded in 1952, when 10 men split from another social group and called themselves the X-Men's Club, according to social chairman Stephens. The name was later changed to Consorts at the suggestion of member Kenneth Hardy, formerly head of the city's corrections department.
The founding members include Erias Hyman, a lawyer; Don Vernon; Percy Tucker, an inspector who worked for the city's Alcoholic Beverage Control Board; Augustus Johnson, who worked at the General Accounting Office, and Carlisle Pratt, a Superior Court judge. Hyman, Vernon and Tucker are still active members.
"We do, on rare occasions, contribute money to a cause, but we are not anything but a social club," Vernon said during the party. Club membership is limited to 20 men.
The Consorts are among several black social clubs developed by the emerging black middle class in the midst of rigid segregation. The organizations, along with black sororities and fraternities, offered support and encouragement to educated blacks at a time when racial barriers denied them entrance into white society in general much less private white society.
These social clubs provide positive role models and social interaction for the black elite from Boston to New Orleans.
The tradition of having a gala on New Year's Eve began almost immediately after the club's founding, Stephens said. The party was initially held at Mrs. Neal's Place on R St. NW. But in 1969, the club moved to the Mayflower's Colonial ballroom, and then switched to the main ballroom in 1974, he said.
When asked to estimate the total cost of the party, Stephens roared with laughter. "No, no, no," he said. "That's a secret, simply because it's private."