Another in a biweekly series of stories about the people and events that shaped Washington in the 20th century.
The guest of honor arrived late.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy left the last of his five inaugural balls at 1:46 a.m. on Jan. 21, 1961. His wife, still weak from the Caesarean birth of their son two months earlier, had retired hours before. Instead of heading to the White House, the new president made one more stop: 2720 Dumbarton St. NW in Georgetown.
Joe Alsop opened his door that snowy night to find Kennedy on his stoop with policemen, reporters and television lights filling the street behind him. Alsop, arguably Washington's most influential columnist and social arbiter of the time, later claimed that he was pleasantly surprised when Kennedy dropped by his post-inauguration bash. But that seems unlikely: Alsop orchestrated his soirees like Toscanini.
The president stayed about 90 minutes, enjoyed champagne and some terrapin soup, and perhaps -- according to several memoirs of the time -- a brief liaison with one of the young women present that night. The details and guest list of the party have been muddied by decades of revisionist spinning. But this was Alsop's triumph: an acknowledgment by the president on this, of all nights, that Alsop and the liberal elite who gathered in these historic old houses mattered.
"The long, festive night and the Kennedy visit reflected for Joe the transformation of Washington," writes Robert Merry in "Taking on the World," a biography of Alsop and his brother, Stewart. "There was a new spirit in the city, a political and social ferment, as well as the prospect of imaginative leadership in the executive branch. Georgetown was once again fashionable."
The New Order
Ever since the first tent was pitched in 1703, Georgetown has attracted the rich and famous -- or those who wanted to be near them. "We know of no place more eligible than Georgetown as a residence," said an 1809 real estate advertisement touting the village as a place of "elegance and substantial comforts of life."
Cozy little houses popped up next to veritable mansions. Those of a certain set were inevitably shocked and dismayed by the appalling behavior of newcomers. "Society is wretched," complained Rosalie Calvert during the Jefferson administration. "All the people employed there are Democrats and of low origin."
After the Civil War, free blacks joined the aristocrats, politicians and merchants. Washington grew larger, and other parts of the city -- with detached houses and big yards -- became fashionable. Georgetown's small, Colonial-era houses didn't seem . . . well, modern.
Which was just fine for the young liberals who came to Washington during the New Deal. Georgetown was the place for cute, cheap housing and it stayed that way through World War II, when all those bright young people from good families and good schools came to do their part. Many stayed after the war, including a community of old OSS -- Office of Strategic Services -- buddies who joined the CIA and fought the Cold War.
Georgetown reminded the blue bloods of New York, Boston; the tree-lined streets reminded them of their home towns: historic, beautiful, charming. Wisconsin Avenue and M Street NW were lined with little boutiques and shops operated for and by the carriage trade. You could walk to the grocery or get your newspaper and neighborhood gossip from Harry "Doc" Dalinsky's corner pharmacy.
Joe Alsop came to Georgetown in 1935 and built his Dumbarton Street house in 1949. It was stark, even ugly, but it was designed for entertaining, and the young journalist invited the smartest people in town. His guests were witty, privileged, stylish. Most were Democrats eager to bury McCarthyism and everything it represented. They were too young to find satisfaction in the staid social conventions of the Eisenhower era, too restless to be content with the quiet affluence of the bright new suburbs.
"They didn't think of themselves as snobs," says Evan Thomas, author of a history of the CIA, "The Very Best Men." "They thought old cavedweller Washington was stuffy, and they didn't really like country clubs. They considered themselves more liberal, more fun, more relaxed. They were the New Order."
In 1957, a young Newsweek reporter named Benjamin C. Bradlee bought a house on the 3300 block of N Street. A few months later, the junior senator from Massachusetts bought one just down the street. The Bradlee and Kennedy families met strolling their respective baby carriages down the street.
The senator turned out to be a charming dinner guest. Then suddenly "Jack" was the president-elect. Joe Kennedy Sr., the family patriarch, took a house on the corner of P and 31st streets; JFK's brother Teddy got one across the street. The rest of the Kennedys found places within a few blocks. Reporters camped out on N Street. "Kennedy was running potential Cabinet officers in and out of his house, only a few yards from ours, and holding sudden front-door press conferences to announce his choices," wrote Bradlee in his memoir, "A Good Life."
It is hard, after Watergate and a generation of scandal-gates, to imagine the lack of cynicism that welcomed Kennedy and his crowd.
"They literally swept into office, ready, moving, generating their style, their confidence -- they were going to get America moving again," David Halberstam wrote in his history of the Vietnam era, "The Best and the Brightest." "Everyone was going to Washington, and the word went out quickly around the Eastern seacoast, at the universities and in the political clubs, that the best men were going to Washington."
When they reached Washington, they chose Georgetown. "The people I knew so well at that time all lived in Georgetown," says Kennedy's secretary of defense, Robert McNamara. "It was a very, very exciting environment; the place to settle at the time."
Their names are the stuff of history books, figures of government, media, society: McNamara, Bradlee, former New York governor Averell Harriman, former secretary of state Dean Acheson, national security adviser McGeorge Bundy, Secretary of the Treasury Douglas Dillon, Washington Post publishers Phil and Katharine Graham, historian and Kennedy adviser Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Sen. John Sherman Cooper of Kentucky, columnist Rowland Evans, Ambassador to Britain David Bruce and his wife, Evangeline, CIA deputy director Dick Bissell, CIA covert action chief Frank Wisner and his wife, Polly, Ambassador to France Charles "Chip" Bohlen.
"We were no longer acquaintances of the older generation constituting the government. . . . Now our generation was running the country," Katharine Graham wrote in her autobiography, "Personal History."
They were invited to the White House, of course. But the amazing thing was that Kennedy kept coming back to Georgetown, to their dinner parties, throughout his presidency. He came in part because of his craving to know what was going on: He loved gossip and current events. And he loved other things as well -- in the process feeding rumors, reported in several accounts of the era, that Alsop and perhaps others opened their homes for presidential assignations. Alsop had every reason to protect the president's privacy -- not the least being Alsop's own homosexuality. There were plenty of secrets to keep, and no good reason for anyone to talk.
On the surface, the Georgetown social circuit seemed a heady mix of glamour and power. Even those who never expected to receive an invitation pored over the social columns to find out who went to which dinner.
"It was a kind of far-off, almost mythical Oz," says journalist Elizabeth Drew. "There was a tight-knit elite, far removed from the lives of most of us. There's nothing quite like it now."
There were other hosts, other parties. Grande dames and embassies. But Alsop was the absolute center of Georgetown's social scene.
He was brilliant, arrogant and opinionated, a product of what he called the "WASP ascendancy." Educated at Groton and Harvard, related to the Roosevelts, he created an off-the-record salon for the men who ran governments and the few reporters aristocratic enough to be taken seriously. He bullied, he flattered, he scared many people to death.
"Joe was not my dish," says Betty Beale, then a social reporter at the Washington Star. "He was so rude to people, and he had that chichi quality about him. But he gave good parties."
Everybody came. There were no decent restaurants in Washington yet, no high dining. So people entertained at home.
"It was wonderful," says Susan Mary Alsop, who married Alsop in 1961 and presided as hostess for more than a decade. "I think in a happy period people get on very easily. It was ebullient."
The Alsops hosted a dinner party every couple of weeks. Guests arrived at 7:30 p.m. Drinks were served in the garden or in the reception room lined with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves.
Dinner -- prepared by a cook and served by staff -- began just after 8. The guests sat at two tables: one for 10 people, the other for six. There were three courses -- soup, main course and dessert, accompanied by fine wines. Alsop took his wines very seriously. After dessert, the men retired to another room for cigars and liqueurs until Katharine Graham finally persuaded Alsop to drop the practice in the late '60s.
The dinners were small and intimate. "Georgetown dining rooms don't hold a lot of people," says former National Gallery of Art director J. Carter Brown, an old friend of Jackie Kennedy's and a frequent guest of the Alsops. "That was the fun. There were usually a couple of Cabinet members, an ambassador from a major country and some media. There was a lot of mental firepower in this crew."
Alsop took credit for only one contribution to the architecture of a Washington party -- the "bore factor." His rule of thumb: No bores allowed with eight or fewer people, half a bore with 10, one bore per dozen.
"The bore factor is important in Washington," Alsop wrote in his memoir, "I've Seen the Best of It," "because most dinner guests there wish to see men in high office, and men in high office have a tendency to retain the wives, often very boring, whom they married when they had no office at all."
The penalty for being a bore was swift and cruel. Alsop would silence the room and set a topic. Everyone was expected to say something intelligent.
They debated -- and argued -- the vital issues of the day. "They drank much more, they stayed up later and they yelled more," says Thomas.
The Beginning of the End
Valentine's Day, 1963: The president and first lady were again guests at Dumbarton Street, cementing the Alsops' standing as undisputed social leaders of Georgetown. "Their social standing had never been higher, and Joe's access to top-level administration officials had never been easier," wrote Merry.
It all ended less than a year later. After Kennedy's assassination, Jackie and the children moved back to Georgetown, but left soon for New York City and never returned. Alsop and his crowd began to tear apart over his support of the Vietnam War. The Georgetown party, perfected by Alsop, disappeared long before he died in 1989.
There were still grand dinners -- hosted by the likes of Pamela Harriman and Sally Quinn -- but Washington was never quite the same. Shortly after Kennedy's death, Alsop wrote, "Politics in this city will not be exciting again in my lifetime." His words were hyperbolic at the least, but true in a sense: It's unlikely there will ever again be such infatuation and intimacy between a president, the press and Washington's establishment. Or that there will ever be quite the sense of possibility that existed one snowy night on Dumbarton Street, when the world glittered.