The loss of Cafritz, who died Tuesday at age 91, is a loss for the thousands of friends who knew and respected her. It’s also a loss for the old-fashioned principle that informal socializing — over cocktails, over dinner, at a charitable event — was the best way to build respect and cooperation, the best way to create community, the best way go through life. In an era of confrontation and ideology, the idea that well-intentioned people can differ and still like each other is considered a relic of another time and place. But Cafritz never wavered in that belief. Nor from her red hair.
Born Anita Marie Boffa (hence the nickname “Buffy” for the rest of her life), she came to the nation’s capital from Connecticut after a brief first marriage. “I decided to make a home for myself in Washington and learn to stand on my own two feet,” she said in a 1969 interview. She met developer Bill Cafritz, part of the storied real estate family, at an embassy party and threw herself into the city’s cultural and charitable life when they married. “A human being is worthless if he isn’t involved and a dedicated doer,” said the devout Catholic. “To bask in a safe little cocoon is to live a life without meaning.”
A lifelong Republican, her best friend was Democratic power broker Vernon Jordan. Beginning in 1985, she quadrennially hosted (along with Jordan or another Democrat) the most exclusive inaugural party in Washington. Cafritz and her husband came up with the idea after the contentious battle between Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale; she wanted to have “a bipartisan gathering because the county seemed so divided,” she told me. “It was a great success, so together we said, ‘Let’s have this every four years.’”
It was invitation-only and no amount of begging got you in the door. “It was a really fun party with the most interesting gathering of people,” says Jim Free, who was a special assistant to President Jimmy Carter. Her last version of the bash was in 2017, when she brought together A-list Washington for a night of friendship, patriotism and rising above the political fray. “It’s wonderful that so many people have gathered together in such a civilized way,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) at the time. “It’s the opposite of my day job right now.”
The same dynamic played out in other events at Cafritz’s Bethesda home, where she welcomed politicians, diplomats, Supreme Court justices, academics and others. She valued charm, wit and kindness, and had little time for people who took themselves too seriously or had no sense of humor. She loved news, cards, baseball and gossip (but rarely shared any), which means she knew everyone and everything in Washington’s establishment.
She used those relationships to foster her philanthropy. Married for 55 years, Cafritz and her husband gave millions to the Kennedy Center, National Gallery of Art, Library of Congress, National Institutes of Health, Ford’s Theatre, White House Historical Association and smaller local organizations. (To recognize her work for the arts, the Kennedy Center is dedicating this month’s Honors in her memory.)
“Buffy knew how to pull a wide variety of people together in a way that no longer exists today and she did that with one essential reason in mind: to bolster support for the many causes she cared about,” says Kevin Chaffee, senior editor at Washington Life and a close friend for many years. “She was never a snob, although she could be rather caustic about people, especially those of great wealth who didn’t ‘give back’ as she felt they should."
On the other hand, he says, she was totally inclusive and had an eagle eye for spotting someone who didn’t fit in: "She’d sweep past a senator or Cabinet secretary at a party to chat with somebody’s mother visiting from Oklahoma and put her immediately at ease.”
She never liked being called anything except “Buffy,” but will be remembered as one of Washington’s grandes dames -- rich, strong-willed women of intelligence and influence like Katharine Graham, Evangeline Bruce, Susan Mary Alsop and Pamela Harriman. “Buffy Cafritz was not only one of them, she was the last of the best,” says Chaffee.
With her death and Jordan’s in March, many in Washington fear that bipartisanship, in the broadest sense of the term, is endangered. “Now it is to be seen if someone will pick up Buffy’s mantle and continue her example of bringing people together,” says Free. “It makes for better everything.”