The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ballgowns, tuxedos, champagne: The last real ball in Washington is a relic of the past

Presidential adviser Kellyanne Conway chats with fellow guests at the 50th annual Meridian Ball on Oct. 12. (Kate Warren/For The Washington Post)

A first-time guest to the Meridian Ball might be forgiven for thinking this is what Washington is really like behind the scenes: men in tuxedos, women in ballgowns, wealthy and powerful people sipping champagne and dancing by candlelight in a historic mansion.

More than 800 people attended Friday’s 50th annual ball, which traditionally attracts a bipartisan crowd of administration officials, members of Congress, ambassadors and philanthropists. Yes, that was Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein surrounded by well-wishers and a notable security detail. In the garden, presidential adviser Kellyanne Conway huddled in a cozy tete-a-tete with Republican Rep. Mark Meadows, with Democratic Rep. Don Beyer just out of earshot. Fox News anchor Bret Baier and HuffPost’s Howard Fineman lightly opined on the midterms. Everyone seemed relaxed and congenial — except, perhaps, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who mocked the “fake news” media covering the evening.

“You throw a great party!” one guest shouted at a very happy Meridian President Stuart Holliday. The sold-out fundraiser raised “well over” $1 million for Meridian International Center, which promotes nonpartisan, diplomatic collaboration on global issues.

Others balls have come and gone, victims of changing tastes and economic realities. Who wants to waltz, even if they know how?

Meridian is the last ball of its kind. It is a survivor of a bygone era, a vision of Washington less as it is today and more as it would like to imagine itself: elegant, serious, sophisticated and united for important issues and causes. That image transcends party lines, even in these fraught times, and explains a great deal of the ball’s enduring appeal.

And, although most of the guests would never admit it, everyone still wants a little glamour in their lives.

The first ball in 1969 was the brainchild of Jane Sloat Ritchie, then known as Mrs. Elliott Dodd DeGraff. The 28-year-old, who volunteered helping diplomatic families settle in Washington, lived near the ambassador of Saudi Arabia. "What can I do for you?" the ambassador's wife asked her. "You've been so helpful to the people in our embassy. Would you like me to give you a dinner?"

DeGraff had a better idea. What if the embassy hosted a dinner to benefit Meridian House, a center created nine years earlier to assist the diplomatic community? And what if other embassies did the same, and everyone came to the historic mansion after dinner for dancing?

She brought the idea to the all-male board, who listened to the proposal and said, “Janie, dear, you can wait outside and we’ll get back to you.”

The board decided the ball could work but debated whether to sell advertising in the program or seek corporate underwriting. And the men were concerned that allowing the party to spill into the garden would “present a security problem since the entire neighborhood would be attracted by the sound of such an activity.” Riffraff!

DeGraff was named chairman and recruited Adele Rogers, wife of Secretary of State Bill Rogers, to serve as the ball’s honorary chair. Rogers was part of a tightknit group of Cabinet wives who came on board and whisked DeGraff to the White House for Pat Nixon’s blessings. A team of volunteers — mostly stay-at-home wives of socially prominent men — went into high gear.

The ball, with the theme “Washington: Gateway to the United States,” was held on a Wednesday in October; tickets were $50 — expensive at the time. After dinner at more than two dozen embassies (a rare experience unavailable to any other fundraisers at the time), the guests, wearing tuxedos, ballgowns and their best jewels, arrived for dancing to a live orchestra.

The Saudis provided a midnight supper complete with a belly dancer. “She was getting her master’s at American University,” remembered DeGraff. “That added a lot of spirit to the party.”

Fifty years later, all of this seems quaint and close to impossible to pull off today. The idea that A-list Washington would don formal wear on a weeknight — much less stay out until midnight — is laughable. The stay-at-home wives who volunteered in the past — stuffing envelopes, draping 39-cents-a-yard fabric as decor — are more likely to be working professionals today, using their formidable organizing skills to further their careers.

But the 1969 ball was a huge hit, both financially and socially, and DeGraff was asked to chair it again the following year, then mentor other chairmen for the next decade. The Meridian Ball established itself as one of the most glamorous events in Washington.

At the time of its rise, the city’s most prestigious social event was the annual Symphony Ball, a white-tie ball full of old money and run by the socialite and heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post. The event was always held on the first Friday of December, complete with big diamonds, waltz contests and raffles for Cadillacs, foreign trips and other luxury goods.

There were other beautiful balls: the Corcoran Ball, a night of priceless art and extravagant flowers; the Opera Ball, which followed the formula of embassy dinners and dancing, and the Cancer Ball, an over-the-top ode to the excess of the 1980s with movie stars, elaborate themes and the best of the best food and drink.

All except the Meridian Ball are gone or transformed into a shadow of their former selves. The Cancer Ball ended in the early 1990s, a victim of the declining real estate market and, therefore, its big donors. In 2003, the Symphony Ball moved to a post-performance dinner following the season-opener. The Opera Ball, once underwritten by wealthy chairwomen, was changed to a stripped-down gala, and the beautiful Corcoran Ball, no longer held in the museum, continues in name only.

Even the term “ball” is a relic. Some of this is the natural byproduct of a less formal Washington: Plenty of men own tuxedos in this town, but they hate the fuss of renting a white-tie get-up. Others would rather not change into black tie when a dark suit will suffice. We live in a more casual world, day and night.

But most of this comes down to pure economics: Balls can be expensive. Orchestras are expensive. Flowers are expensive. The symphony and opera calculated that their fundraising dollars are better used on streamlined on-site galas — beautiful parties, but nothing like an old-fashioned ball.

In many respects, Meridian is lucky.

The emergence of a global economy made the ball particularly attractive to corporate donors and ambassadors looking to entice business to their countries. Embassies are happy to donate dinners for the ball’s A-list guests and top donors — a perk that not only adds a level of sophistication to the event but adds a huge amount of money to the bottom line. They also own their venue, which makes it possible to host the ball in one of the city’s most beautiful settings without breaking the bank.

The house just off 16th Street NW, designed in the style of 18th-century French townhouses, was built in 1922 for Irwin Laughlin, ambassador to Spain and a well-respected diplomat. Meridian acquired the property and gardens in 1960 and, soon after, the White-Meyer house next door, where Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham grew up.

“The setting can’t be underestimated,” said Holliday, noting the linden grove and mansions designed by John Russell Pope, the famed architect who built the National Gallery of Art and Jefferson Memorial. “I always thought the ball had an elegance, almost a European feel and quality to it.”

In the 1970s, Meridian moved the ball from a weeknight to a Friday — a practical nod to the fact that more women worked outside the home. And then it turned to recruiting younger donors. In 1998, Meridian added a pre-ball dinner at the White-Meyer house for young patrons at a reduced price. Heather Florance attended that dinner and then the ball with a group of friends.

“For us, in our 20s, to be with Supreme Court justices, Cabinet secretaries — we were in awe. Star-struck,” Florance said.

She also realized the difference between a fancy party and a ball: “Back then, we had casual Fridays, which morphed into casual workweeks. I remember our dresses, which were all short, and then going to the ball and seeing gowns.” The next year, she wore a long dress.

The ball has modernized over the years — adding a tent with a DJ, a dessert buffet and other nods to younger patrons — but the allure of it remains. Friday’s guest list ranged from ages 25 to 85, many of them on the dance floors, all having some version of their own Cinderella moment.

“Look at what people are wearing,” said philanthropist Adrienne Arsht. “Their best duds.”

Those guests included 30 former ball chairwomen, including its first. “It’s a blast,” the former Mrs. DeGraff said. “Happy faces everywhere you look.”

A piece of Old Washington endures — at least for one night.