When Gérard Araud arrived in Washington last September, he heard one question over and over, usually in the first five minutes of any conversation: “When are you moving back into your residence?”
The French ambassador was living temporarily in a $6 million house on Foxhall Road that everyone agreed was lovely. But it paled in comparison with the official ambassadorial digs, a 1910 Tudor Revival mansion in Kalorama that was closed for a two-year renovation. The loss of the iconic house and its elegant parties had deprived Washington of one of its most glamorous social settings, and the city’s elite wanted it back — tout de suite, s’il vous plaît.
Araud was both amused and a little touched.
“I discovered what my real value was,” he says with a self-deprecating grin. But he also realized that he was sitting on an important piece of real estate, literally and figuratively: “I concluded that this beautiful house had a real significance for Washingtonians.”
The truth is that embassies have become increasingly important social centers in the nation’s capital. We need them — not just for traditional diplomacy, but also for charitable, cultural, business and other networking. The legendary Georgetown dinner parties are long gone, killed off by changing times and partisan antipathy. The only place you run into politicians these days is at campaign fundraisers, and how not fun are those? And charity balls, no matter how worthy the causes, always suffer from the rinse-and-repeat of hotel ballrooms and familiar faces.
But embassies? Their job is to promote their countries and engage with the locals. Some ambassadors live in big, gorgeous houses. They give numerous parties, and you’re never sure who might walk through the door.
So there was an impressive collection of A-listers Friday when Araud hosted the first of several parties celebrating the return to Kalorama. Limos snaked up the wide circular drive and out poured more than 200 guests, including Justice Stephen G. Breyer, IMF head Christine Lagarde, White House social secretary Jeremy Bernard, Vernon Jordan, publisher David Bradley, Alan Greenspan and Andrea Mitchell, former chief of protocol Lucky Roosevelt, Wayne and Lea Berman, and Inn at Little Washington chef Patrick O’Connell.
They drank fine champagne, nibbled on hors d’oeuvres, and admired the new mix of modern art and classic French paintings and furnishings.
“I think it’s beautiful,” said Jefferson Hotel owner Connie Milstein, who also happens to be a French countess because of her marriage to Comte Jean-Christophe de La Haye Saint Hilaire. “I love everything French — except my bad accent.”
It was, she said happily, good to be back.
There’s a mystique about embassies, forged by countless movies and television shows with sophisticated guests dressed in formal gowns and black tie. And ballrooms — there’s always a big ballroom with glittering chandeliers. That’s so Hollywood, but also kind of true: Other countries snapped up many private mansions during the Depression and turned them into grand ambassadorial residences.
The most popular embassies have always been those with close ties to U.S. history: Britain, France, Italy, Ireland, Israel. Occasionally, there’s an exceptionally charismatic ambassador, a lavish budget or both: Recall Iran’s Ardeshir Zahedi, the dashing bachelor who had Washington in thrall in the 1970s, thanks to endless parties with Caspian Sea caviar and Dom Perignon. He dated Elizabeth Taylor, and Henry Kissinger, Liza Minnelli, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Andy Warhol lounged on his Persian carpets.
Those days (and nights) are over, replaced with a more discreet approach to global affairs. But many people are still clamoring to be part of this exclusive world — not just scoring an occasional invitation from an ambassador, but also making embassies a part of the city’s cultural and social life.
“I think Meridian International Center was the first institution to build embassies into its annual fundraiser,” says Stuart Holliday, its president. Meridian’s mission is international understanding, so it was a no-brainer to ask diplomats to host private dinners for the organization’s annual ball, a tradition that has continued for decades.
“It’s not only glamorous, but ambassadors are important people in their own right,” Holliday says. “Many have been the foreign minister or will become one.” Donors — especially those not based in Washington — jockey for seats at one of the popular European embassies, but Holliday says that he’s getting more and more requests for access to embassies representing key markets such as India, China and Turkey.
The Washington National Opera borrowed from the same playbook for its Opera Ball and upped the game. In 1975, officials not only persuaded ambassadors to host pre-ball dinners, but they also asked another embassy to host the ball. “This is the only city in the United States where we can do an event of this format,” says Matthew Porter, WNO director of special events.
Each year, more than 600 guests attend small dinners held at 20 or so embassies around town, then descend on the host embassy for dancing and dessert. Ambassadors donate the dinners, but the Kennedy Center pays all the expenses — catering, valets, decor, musicians, set-up and clean-up — for the elaborate ball itself. The gala takes six months of planning, but ambassadors have eagerly stepped up: Japan hosted in 2014, Italy in 2013 and (we’re just guessing, based on the WNO’s upcoming Ring cycle) probably Germany this June.
Rima al-Sabah, wife of the Kuwaiti ambassador, gets a dozen or so requests to host charitable fundraisers every year but limits her list to just three. “My husband and I are drawn to causes that really touch our hearts and where we feel the need is great,” she explains. Most of these events are seated dinners for 140 guests; the couple underwrites the entire cost, and all the money raised goes to charities benefiting primarily women and children. “It is the least we can do for the causes we support,” she says.
So how do you land an embassy for your soiree? Occasions, one of the city’s top caterers, gets calls all the time from people hoping to rent out an embassy for social events. The answer is probably no. But maybe yes.
Wedding or private party? No dice, says co-owner Eric Michael. But many embassies, as part of their diplomatic mission, allow arts and cultural groups to use their buildings. Organizations typically pay all the costs plus a usage fee to cover embassy security, cleaning and other maintenance — an arrangement that complies with State Department guidelines for approved use but allows diplomats with limited entertaining budgets to welcome a wide variety of organizations.
The new Italian chancery near Massachusetts Avenue was designed specially for that kind of outreach. “The space was conceived as an open door to Washington civic society,” says an embassy official. The building, opened in 2000, boasts a two-story atrium surrounded by offices — a nod to the classic Italian piazza. In 2014, more than 20,000 people attended parties and other events in the space.
Signature Theatre has held its annual Sondheim gala there for the past five years and will do so again in April. When the development staff first looked at venues, they weren’t necessarily looking for an embassy, but they knew that they didn’t want a hotel. They wanted someplace that felt like the theater — modern, warm, unfussy — and fell in love with the Italian space.
Not every embassy party is a James Bond fantasy. Greg Bland, chief executive of Things To Do DC, puts together embassy visits for young Washington professionals. It started in 2000 as he was preparing for a trip to Bali: He called the Indonesian Embassy and was invited to attend an event. Now he puts one together almost every week — the Valentine’s Day dance at the Italian Embassy featured local wines, desserts and an opera excerpt from “Romeo and Juliet.” This month, Nicaragua’s ambassador will host a reception with traditional music, drink and food.
Members typically pay a small fee, which covers the embassy’s costs and introduces 20-somethings to global culture. “The idea of traveling the world fascinates a lot of people, but they don’t have the time or resources,” says Bland. “So we bring the world to them.”
Talks about renovating the French property in Kalorama, which was built in 1910 for a Philadelphia paint magnate and has been the official residence of the French ambassador since 1936, began about four years ago. François Delattre, who was the French ambassador in Washington from 2011 to 2014, persuaded Paris to spend about $4 million for a complete update and facelift for the 27,000-square-foot property (19 bedrooms, 2.5 acres) now worth an estimated $25 million to $30 million.
“Residence” is a bit of a misnomer: The private quarters are tucked away on an upper floor, but as is the case with many embassies, the bulk of the space is designed for entertaining. There are five spacious formal rooms on the main level, a large industrial kitchen in the basement, and offices and guests rooms on the upper floors for visiting officials and VIPs. “Now I’m in charge of a bed and breakfast,” Araud says. “Any Frenchman who comes to Washington tries to be invited.”
The embassy hosts about 10,000 people a year. How many events are held is largely up to the ambassador — the space easily holds 60 for dinner and 250 for cocktails or receptions. Araud asked a friend for creative ways to use the huge house; his friend suggested finding a way to bring polarized Washington together. That turned into “Kalorama Conversations,” a series of bipartisan discussions followed by dinner. “I’m really trying to have a civilized place where both sides can discuss issues of substance,” Araud says.
You’re more likely to score an invitation for supporting French culture or history — say, American Friends of the Louvre — or women’s empowerment and gender equity. Another in: “I am a bit of a foreign affairs geek,” Araud says, which means more parties with think-tank types, businessmen and fellow diplomats. Mostly, he wants to mix it up and get beyond what he calls Washington’s “gilded circle.”
“When I was giving parties in New York, the most successful were where you had ambassadors from the U.N., artists, young people, old people, all coming from different backgrounds,” says Araud, who was France’s permanent representative to the United Nations before becoming ambassador. He introduced a Park Avenue billionaire to a punk musician, and the two got along famously.
In April, he will host the ultimate mash-up of celebrity, politics and money: the Vanity Fair party following the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner, arguably the hottest ticket of the year.
At the end of the day, he says, it’s his residence, but it’s not his house. “It’s the house of France,” and an invitation is just “a small token of gratitude.”