This story is one of nine that has been republished to commemorate the 50th anniversary of The Washington Post’s Style section.
Steve Martindale, all of 28 years old, was a quintessential D.C. social climber, and this account set a Style standard for profile-writing and cultural anthropology. The article moves with the tendons of New Journalism and the joints of Balzac. “Sally Quinn’s piece,” Washingtonian magazine declared the following year, “ended the romanticism of social reporting.”
This is a story about a young man from Pocatello, Idaho. But more than that, this is a story about how to make it in the Washington social whirl.
Before we talk about the young man, we should begin by discussing what is meant exactly by “the Washington social whirl.”
Everyone has his or her own idea of what this city is all about, but there is one aphorism with which most will agree. Washington is a company town. It has one industry: government. What happens socially in Washington revolves around the administration, the Congress, the courts, and those who report and comment on them.
Social prominence in Washington has little to do with traditional social credentials or wealth.
It has to do with power. If you have power, you are in. if you haven’t, you are out.
If you have power, you don’t need to try to make it. You already have.
All is not lost, however, for those who have no power but still long to be a part of it.
There is an alternative role. The powerful have egos. They need them fed. They have appetites. They need them fed too.
This is where our story begins.
Two years ago John Lennon and Yoko Ono were trying to establish residency in the United States and were being denied it because the ex-Beatle had been busted for possession of marijuana. They were especially anxious to stay in this country because Yoko Ono was searching for her daughter who had been taken away by her former husband. They were desperate. They had appealed for help to every powerful person in New York they could meet, including John Lindsay.
Then one night they met a nice young man named Steve Martindale at a party. “He told us that he lived in Washington, that he used to work on the Hill for Sen. Charles Goodell and that he could introduce us to a lot of important people who might be able to help.” John Lennon said later. “If we came down to Washington he said he’d have a party for us to meet them and invite the press so we’d get publicity for our cause.”
Martindale, then 28, did just that. The Lennons came and everybody else who was invited came to meet the Lennons. Sen. And Mrs. Charles Percy (R-I11.) were there, Sen. And Mrs. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) came, (the Javitses couldn’t get there at the last minute but had accepted) Margot and Gilbert Hahn (former City Council chairman) were there, Joan and Tom Braden (the columnist) were there and the press was there.
“That,” says Martindale’s friend and colleague, Liz Carpenter, former press secretary to Mrs. Lyndon B. Johnson, “put him on the map. Before that nobody had ever heard of him. But after that they all sat up and said, ‘Who is this?’”
Then there was the party for Daniel Ellsberg, the party for Adlai Stevenson, the party for former North Carolina Gov. Terry Sanford, the party for Arnold C. Weissberger, the photographer, the mammoth party for the cast of “Jumpers” — then playing at the Kennedy Center — the party for dancer Martha Graham and the intimate party for Joan Braden’s birthday. Those who are really in the know say it was that one that really put him on the proverbial map. Alice Longworth came. Henry Kissinger came. Evangeline and David Bruce came. Joe Alsop came. Art and Ann Buchwald came.
It was what you might call a Royal Flush. There were hostesses in this town who would have scratched Steve Martindale’s eyes out for that guest list.
Telephones buzzed all over town for days. “Who is this 30-year-old kid who can draw that kind of a crowd? What does he do? Where does he come from? Does he have money?” they asked. It was just too much.
“I’m from Pocatello, Idaho,” Martindale will tell you right off. “And I don’t hide it.”
But Steve Martindale wasn’t your ordinary kid from Pocatello. He had ambitions, aspirations beyond those of his schoolteacher parents and his disc jockey brother.
That’s why he was head of the Idaho Teenage Republicans, why he went to Stanford University and graduated with honors, why he spent his first summer in college working in Washington for his congressman, and his second summer at Stanford’s extension in Italy.
Because he wanted to be a success he worked for the House Republican leadership and became close to “Charlie” Goodell, “Jerry” Ford and “Mel” Laird. That’s why he became a Rockefeller fellow at Harvard in preparation to be in divinity student. And that’s why he didn’t become a divinity student. It is why he quit his first year of law school at the University of Idaho to work on Nelson Rockefeller’s presidential campaign.
Focusing on his future, he came to Washington to work for Sen. Goodell as his executive assistant, then later became his deputy campaign manager. When Goodell lost his reelection bid, Martindale enrolled in night law school and while working days for the Drug Abuse Council, he graduated.
Martindale understands that meeting people and making contracts come from a variety of experiences and ventures. This is why he is a member of the Governor’s Club of New York, active in the Ripon Society, a member of the Board of Washington’s Choral Arts Society and head of the Men’s committee for Wolf Trap Farm’s Charity Ball, why he is vice chairman of the Board of Trustees of the New York Studio of Drawing, Painting, and Sculpture, on the board of the Martha Graham Foundation and works closely with Roger Stevens at the Kennedy Center.
And just to keep his hand in he’ll help out at a fundraiser for Rep. Wayne Owens from Idaho at the Averell. Harrimans’ starring Robert Redford — even though Wayne Owens is a Democrat. He shrugs and smiles about paying $150 to go to an event like that and wonders if it “will ruin my Republican credentials.”
The reason Martindale didn’t go to divinity school. (he’s a Mormon dropout and feels that he is “very religious, and good Christian person, but not tied to any religion”) was because he had made a decision.
“I decided what you do in life is pick an institution that has the greatest and most lasting impact on society and work there.” The Church, he felt, was not that institution.
So when Steve Martindale graduate from night law school in 1973, he went to work for Hill and Knowlton, the oldest, and one of the most prestigious public relations firms in America. After one year, he has become a registered lobbyist and has just been promoted to vice president.
A good cross section of social Washington recently showed up at Steve Martindale’s for a seated dinner for 24. There were people from the press, Capitol Hill and the administration. The dinner was catered. There were four round skirted tables set up in the library. The food was simple and good. The flower arrangements were daisies. Candles burned on the tables, and the wine champagne flowed. The atmosphere was relaxed, and after dinner the guests toasted their host, he toasted them and they toasted each other. Everybody seemed to have a good time. Most of them were pleased to have gotten a rare chance to see people from different circles. Steve had done it again. He had a put together another party which was a success.
Never mind that many of the people he had invited, some for the fifth or sixth time, had turned down the invitation. Never mind that some of those who were present apologized to others for being there or made excuses. Never mind that Martindale hadn’t ever been invited to many of his guests’ houses himself, nor probably ever would be. From his point of view he had achieved what he wanted that evening.
Steve Martindale is getting to be a controversial figure in Washington among those who make things move. To some he has emerged as the leading host in town. To others he is, well, a social climber.
Martindale is aware of this. It embarrasses him a little to talk about it, but he will. And he did recently at a luncheon interview at his Wesley Heights house.
He lives in a rich neighborhood — large houses with a big shady trees — in a house that would seem unattainable to most anyone of his age and financial situation. But he shares it with three other bachelors. That way he can live and entertain in the style to which his acquaintances are accustomed, and he and his housemates can afford to have a full-time, live-in housekeeper who cleans and cooks for them.
Still, the house is furnished bachelor style, with pieces of unmatched furniture, no attempt at decoration, a toilet seat cover with a peace symbol on it, a hodgepodge of china and silver, and a door handle that keeps falling off.
He greets you at the door and leads the way to the sun-filled study, offering a glass of white wine. He seems nervous, and has a difficult time relaxing for a photographer.
Steve Martindale is handsome in a clean cut way. He looks like a young Republican, Only is sculptured haircut, a perpetual tan and a rather flashy manner of dressing keep him from looking like all those nice young men in the White House. He has an open, friendly manner. Likable, you might say. He seems bright but not brilliant, pleasant but not a wit, interested, which makes him seem interesting, and, above all, attentive. He has the manners of an older man, more gentlemanly that anything else. He also has an eye for detail, a knack for remembering names, a sharp instinct for who and what are important, topical, trendy, relevant. He is most agreeable, and he creates and atmosphere of sympathy — harmony almost — in which, if he were to disagree, which he seldom does, he would make it seem only that he was wondering out loud.
He turns red when the subject of social climbing comes up in relation to entertaining. He goes on the defensive a bit. “In this town if you give parties you’re always open to accusations of being a social climber or a power grabber,” he says. “I don’t think that I am but a lot of people will tell you I am. I could give you a whole list of them I’m sure. But I don’t think about it. I’ve repressed it. I do know, though, that I have gotten some negative feedback. I think it relates back to the question of, ‘Is he a serious person or isn’t he?’ But I’m comfortable with it. I’ve decided that the pros of meeting interesting and powerful people, and growing and learning the way you can only in Washington for outweigh the cons of worrying about what people call you.”
Martindale doesn’t like to be called a successful host. “I don’t want to be, nor can I afford to be, the great host of Washington,” he says. On the other hand, “I don’t think anyone comes to this town to be a recluse.”
The powerful react to him in various ways. Some people feel he is using them. Others feel they are using him. A lot of people like him and think what he’s doing is fine, that he livens up an otherwise uneventful social scene. Other people are angered, embarrassed, annoyed, even revolted by his methods. Some of the people he says are his friends are embarrassed to say anything either nice or unkind about him for the record, yet they don’t want him to feel that they refuse to talk about him, especially if they regularly go to his parties.
Martindale lists among his two closest friends in Washington Joan Braden and Margot Hahn.
He met Joan Braden while he was working for Goodell in New York and she was working for Nelson Rockefeller’s gubernatorial campaign. When Martindale came back to Washington the Bradens entertained him often at their Sunday night salons where people like Alice Longworth and Henry Kissinger are regulars.
As Martindale will tell you, “I met Joanie and Henry through Nelson.”
Having met most of Washington through Joan Braden, Martindale began to entertain himself, inviting those he had met at their house. Because he was a friend of hers, they went. Joan Braden is what one would call a recherché hostess. She never permits her parties to be covered, so she gets only the most desirable kind of publicity — little mentions here and there in columns when the word leaks out. It was Joan Braden who had the first party for Henry Kissinger and his bride Nancy when they got back from their honeymoon and she lunches often at the Sans Souci.
Margot Hahn, the wife of former city council chairman Gilbert Hahn, is a better known party giver. Her evenings are casual and fun, but she distinguishes herself by her cooking, which some say is the best in town. She also has a flair for entertaining in amusing and different ways, where Joan Braden is more conventional in her approach. Margot met Steve through Joan.
Both women helped Martindale out in the beginning, Joan Braden giving him tips on caterers and Margot Hahn giving him ideas on how to entertain inexpensively and cleverly.
“My family never did any entertaining at all,” says Martindale, “so I didn’t know how to do anything. Margot and Joanie pretty much taught me everything I know. They’re both terrific teachers. It’s quite an art to learn to entertain well and it takes a long time to gradually pick it up. But one thing they’ve taught me is that the best way to have a successful party is to have people who know how to go to parties. Margot and Joanie are fantastic. They both know how to make a conversation work, how to make it interesting and bright.”
When asked about Martindale, “Joanie” at first said, “I don’t think I have anything to say.”
Asked how she met him, she offered this, “He was working for Goodell and I was working for Rockefeller. When he first came he was nice to my kids and I played tennis with him occasionally. He once had a birthday party for me and to tell you the truth I almost didn’t even go. I don’t go to his parties anymore. I haven’t been for a year and a half. To tell you the truth I’m not very interested and I don’t know much about him.”
Margot Hahn, on the other hand, finds that Martindale’s interests in meeting the people that make things happen in Washington “is so blatant that it’s disarming. People say he uses them but I can’t see it. Being my friend is getting him zero. You know, the social life in Washington is sort of dreary these days. I always have fun there and where else can you go to meet people from a whole cross section as a host as a funny phenomenon of Washington. Sort of the way I felt about Gwen Cafritz. But if he can do it and do it well, more power to him.”
Do it well. That’s the key the remains of many a would be host or hostess lie dwindling on the bottom lines of endless dull party stories, buried on back pages of old feature sections.
They didn’t do it well. Alright, then, who did do it well? Gwen Cafritz did it. Perle Mesta did it. But since then there has been a vacuum. And entertainment gap. People have tried and failed, over the past few years. Dropping along the way from lack of interest, lack of money, lack of time, or lack of the proper instinct for how to make it work.
The few who have succeeded have many attributes in common, readily identifiable by the top Washington social observers, those who are really “in,” and who have watched this town over a long period of time.
It must be pointed out that this is a comparatively small group of people in Washington’s power structure who like to work behind the scenes to make this town move. They are important and powerful people, often people you also read about on the front pages of the paper every day. Occasionally you will read about them attending social events too, but at these times they are working, really working — like the scores of other well-known names who make up the daily fare of this city’s newspapers’ regular coverage of receptions and benefits.
When people are really working socially they are doing one of several things. They are involved in a testimonial, they are helping to raise money for a charity, they are helping to raise money for a political campaign, they are helping to publicize a cause they a consider important, they are attending or giving political or diplomatic receptions.
In all of these cases it is not only proper and accepted, but de rigueur to invite the press to cover. These are the “social” events in Washington that one reads about in the papers.
But they are not the “social” events where most people truly socialize.
There has been heavy media coverage, for example, of such recent “social” (read “political”) events as the Averell Harriman testimonial dinner which was a fundraiser for the Democratic Study group. Jackie Onassis came. Then there was a reception for Rep. John MacGregors’; Ethel Kennedy’s annual Hickory Hill pet show, the Saudi Arabian Embassy buffet for Fahad Ibn Abdul Aziz; the barbecue at Polly and Jack Logan’s to raise money for the Hearing and Speech Clinic; the reception at the British Embassy for the Leukemia Society of America attended by Joseph Alsop; Kennedy Center Director Roger Steven’s party after the opening of “Jumpers” attended by 2,000, “intimate” Golden Circle parties on other opening nights at the Kennedy Center.
This is not to mention White House dinners, invitations to which not so long ago produced intense passion and enthusiasm.
So who we are dealing with, then, are those people who don’t pop up regularly in “social” news accounts.
Washington is about the only town in the world where the word “nouveau” is laudatory, where the least known people often have the greatest chance of making it.
And it all depends on what crowd you want to make it with. If it’s the inner sanctum, the behind the scenes circle, it is a treacherous venture at the least. And one must meet the necessary requirements and requisites. That includes Steve Martindale.
Martindale and others must subscribe to what might be called an unwritten “Law of Twelve”:
To begin with there must be a social hole to fill, a host or hostess role to be filled.
“My theory,” says NBC newsman Dough Kiker, a favorite on the party circuit, “is that people who entertain go through a cycle in this town. An age passes. Perle Mesta and Gwen Caftiz are out of power and so are the limousines chauffeured to mansions. Then a lot of people who started out being host or hostess get tired of it. So periodically there’s an entertainment vacuum. That’s what’s happening now.”
A famous columnist, who preferred not to be quoted, put it this way: “Every town has one of these people. You just have to put up with the Steve Martindales in Washington. It’s the kind of thing where everybody shows up and says, ‘Why am I here?’”
“I’m glad to open up my home whenever I can be useful,” Martindale will tell you. “If someone comes to town with a book or a play, if I can help them I will.”
“Gwen could do it, Perle could it,” says another columnist. “Then the Arabs took over. Now there’s a vacuum. The average person just wants to see his friends; he doesn’t want to give a party. This town is really ripe for a guy like that. And you always feel in Washington that you better go or you’ll miss out on something. But you’ve got to lay it on the system, not the guy. You can always get people to come out for a free meal, even if at the end, you kind to say, “Gosh why was I there?
What baffles a lot of people around town is that nearly all the contenders for the vacated position of “hostess with the mostest” are men. True Davis, former ambassador to Switzerland, Peter Malastesta, former aide to former vice president Agnew, Alejandro Orfila, ambassador from Argentina, and Ardeshir Zahedi, the Iranian ambassador, are all giving Martindale a run for his money.
Martindale isn’t particularly interested in them. “I’ve never been to True’s and I’ve only been to Peter’s once or twice. I don’t know what their trip is but it’s not mine. I’d like to get to know Ardeshir better, though. He succeeds. How do you account for that? I hope he’ll come here.”
Martindale is very curious about Perle Mesta and Gwen Cafritz, “I don’t know Gwen and I never met Perle. But did anyone really go to their parties? I mean did they really get the good people like the Alice Longworths, the Alsops, the Polly Wisners? I can’t believe it.”
Once one has established that there is a need, it must be filled. To do that one needs a sponsor. In Steve Martindale’s case, it was Joan Braden.
“Joan was the key,” says Liz Stevens, wife of American Film Institute director George Stevens. “Certainly we and most people we known met him through her.”
But there are bad vibes these days.
A well-known columnist who is a frequent guest of the Bradens says, “Joan launched him. But I think she’s turned a little sour on him. I think she feels she’s been used. Or maybe,” he added, “she thinks he’s stealing her act.” No matter, Steve Martindale has been launched.
The third thing one must have to succeed is an innate understanding of who’s in and who’s out, who to cultivate and who to stay away from. To have a finger in every pie. To make a point of knowing and meeting people in different circles. Being totally au courant. Reading the paper.
“He’s got taste and nothing but guts,” says a well-known newspaperman. “How he contrives to get Martha graham there I don’t know but I don’t get that many whacks at meeting Martha Graham so I go.”
Another well-known columnist says, “You go, maybe with misgivings, but you go because maybe there’ll be someone you will meet that you need to know for your work. That’s the technique.”
“People in Washington have a high level of responsibility,” says former New York senator Charles Goodell. “They don’t shed it at night and they like to be with others who don’t shed it. Some really important political and business contacts are made at affairs like that.”
“Steve understands that this is the most democratic town there is,” says Liz Carpenter.
“He knows somebody can pick his teeth but if he’s a Supreme Court Justice people will want to see him.”
“When I gave the birthday party for Joanie,” says Martindale, “the first things I had to figure out was who liked her and who would come. And of course, for Joanie, they would all come.”
And Martindale makes a point of knowing who to ask. “I know practically everybody in this town. I get around. There’s hardly a night that I don’t go out somewhere. Oh, I’m sure there are people I don’t know that I should, but I’ve been very lucky. It’s a small town.
“The fact that the Nixons don’t entertain makes a big difference in Washington. There is Kissinger, though. He does go. But he’s the only one. The Saxbes go out a lot and I knew them in the senate. I see a good deal of them. I haven’t even met the rest of the Cabinet. Who the hell are they? Oh well, I’m sure when Jerry Ford gets to be President, that will all change. I know them fairly well. They are not great friends but she’s fun to dance with. I like the Percys a lot. If Chuck Percy were President things would really be different. Sharon and Jay Rockefeller are friends. I knew Sharon at Stanford, have known her for a long, long time.”
The Kennedys present more of a problem. “I know Ethel. I see her once in a while but I don’t know them well. I’ve been to Teddy’s for dinner. But I think you have to be a Buchwald or something. You have to have grown up with them to like to make new friends. I’ve gotten to know Ethel but I don’t think she’d count me as one of her closest friends.”
But that doesn’t mean he’ll give up. Though a Mormon, Steve is often seen at early mass at Holy Trinity Church Georgetown, otherwise known as the “Kennedy Church” or the “celebrity church.”
“I’ll say one thing for him,” says a frequent invitee. “He knows the difference between Holy Trinity and St. Matthew’s.”
And of course he knows who his guests don’t want to see. “When I suggested an attractive couple I knew to him,” said the wife of a television personality, “he said he thought they were awfully nice but he didn’t have room for them.” Everyone knows what that means.
“I never have anybody because I think I ought to,” says Martindale. “And I never go to somebody’s house if I don’t want to have them back.
“I’ve never had the diplomatic types. I’m not on many embassy lists and I really don’t want to be.”
One must have grasped the technique. Once you’ve established who you want, the problem is getting them there. This is where the “pyramid theory” comes in. what this means is that you get a big name and use it as a building block. As in, “I’m having Henry Kissinger to dinner, won’t you come?” Then you build on it. Say you’ve called Alice Longworth and tell her you’re having Kissinger or vice versa.
Then you’ve got them both to build on any nobody will refuse. There is also the “guts ball pyramid theory.” That is to have no name to build on, call Alice Longworth and lie and say you’ve having Kissinger. Then when she says yes you call him and say you have got her. Or vice versa.
“I’ve heard terrible stories about Gwen and Perle,” says Martindale, “calling the Secretary of Transportation and saying they’re having the Transportation.”
“When Steve calls and says he’s having a birthday party for Joanie,” says a prominent hostess, “then ticks off five or six names like Henry and Mrs. L. it just sounds like too much fun to miss.”
“Steve’s a notorious name dropper,” says a columnist. “He’ll call and say, he’s got the so and so’s and ten other good people and you just can’t stay away.”
Persistence. Without persistence forget it. “Steve has a persistence that’s unreal,” says a partygoer. “And gall. He’ll call five and six times and then I go and then I say I’ll never go again and then he keeps calling and I go.”
“Most people,” says one columnist, “are sort of cowards. If a guy’s persistent enough and asks you nine times you get the guilt’s. I used to dread coming home from work at night because I know there would be an invitation from Steve Martindale. So you begin to feel awful and then you finally accept and go.”
“He drives us crazy with invitation,” says the wife of a senator. “He calls or sends notes and says he’s having all these interesting people and you keep saying ‘no’ but finally you just give up and go.”
“If I meet someone at a dinner then I’ll feel free to invite them to my house,” says Martindale. “But only if I feel we have a particular rapport or that we’ve connected. I have to have the feeling, though, that they know who I am.”
A very thick skin is an essential in this game. “I know instances where I know he’s not been invited to something and then when I show up, there he is,” says a Martindale observer. “Whether he manages to get himself invited or just crashes, I don’t know, but there he is.”
“He has no sense of pride,” says a newspaper man. “He’s not sensitive about being turned down.”
“People are using him as much as he’s using them.” Says the wife of a columnist. “But he seems to understand that.”
“People like Steve understand that they may not get invited back and they may get turned down a lot but that’s part of the territory,” says a prominent columnist. “People save their faces for going by laughing at him behind his back.”
“Who? Asks Alice Longworth when asked about Martindale. “I don’t know who he is. I can’t remember ever going to his house but perhaps I did. I haven’t the least recognition.” When told he was a leading host in town, she replied, “My Lord, is that still going on?”
“I wouldn’t want to hurt his feelings,” says Mrs. Longworth, “I don’t want to be rude, but I just don’t know who he is. He probably thinks he’s very recognizable.”
One must have the ability to mix the right people, the flair for giving a good party, the instinct for knowing how to see that people have a good time.
“I must admit,” says one television personality. “that we end up having a really good time. All our friends are there so we enjoy ourselves. He’s very smart that way.”
“When Steve first called and asked me to a party I couldn’t remember who the hell he was,” says dough Kiker. “But I figured what the hell and I went. Since then I’ve always had a good time. The parties are pleasant, there’s a good food and plenty of wine, a pleasant host and here are all your friends.”
“The food is awful good and we always have terrific fun,” says Liz Stevens.
“Everybody always has a good time and everybody gets something out of it,” says a political wife. “Rose Marry Woods goes and he gets a lot of publicity out of it and all our crowd gets to meet Rose Mary Woods which we would never ordinarily get to do.”
“Why do I like to go?” asks Liz Carpenter. “Talk is a feast in Washington and anybody who can serve it up will be success. Conversation is the major course. You miss a great deal if you don’t go around town and see things through different glasses. Washington is a smorgasbord and Steve feasts on it. There’s no reason for living in this town if you’re not going to pick its heart and soul.
Steve does it with a very easy manner. I think Perle used to work at it.”
Martindale says his secret is that. “I always put two press people with two politicians and you can’t lose. I generally seat my dinners. Eighteen to 24 works well in this house at tables for six. I always have people that I like. That way I find nobody is ever a disaster. I have a good cook that I use and a good caterer. Unfortunately, the way things are now, politically, you can’t mix people the way you used to be able to. You do it at some risk. One can’t be quite as comfortable mixing people of divergent political persuasions these days.”
Styles of entertaining change in Washington but they change subtly and gradually so one day you may give the best parties in town and the next, for seemingly no reason, you can’t get a soul to come. For those who want to succeed, an instinct for, and a sense of what people want is vital.
“I wonder if the party circuit and party giving isn’t a perishable attraction.” Says Bob Grey, Martindale’s boss, head of Hill and Knowlton’s Washington office. (His constant companion is Rose Mary Woods. Liz Carpenter is also a Vice President at Hill and Knowlton.)
“It used to be that everybody went out every night. That’s gotten to be a real bore. Times have changed. The social side of Washington is to much more business oriented now, but it has to be done by cutting down the barriers in terms of formality. So when I receive an invitation I think two things. Is it going to be fund an interesting and is it going to be productive, Steve manages to make his parties both.”
“I think with the party thing that there is more attention to seriousness today,” says Martindale. “I don’t think you can really give a party for party’s sake. If I just had a lot of money and nothing else, nobody would come. It’s important to get people who will create an interesting or serious discussion. I want to be taken seriously in this town. I don’t want to give big cocktail parties. All my friends are horrified by that sort of things.”
What Martindale has figured out is that the lavish parties of yesteryear are out out out. Chauffeurs are basically out; lots of servants are out; black tie is out; elegant crystal and china are out; 10 course dinners are out; finger bowls are out; 10 course dinners are out; finger bowls are out; huge parties are out; decorations are out; huge parties are out; decorations are out; mansions are out. Informal is in. casseroles and salads are in.
“In the old days, hostesses like Nancy Dickerson would have elegant dinners and coordinate the color of the borscht with her dark read peonies,” says one party goer. “Nobody does that anymore. The chicest thing you can do now is have carryout Chinese.”
The more informal, the more relaxed the guests are, then the more successful the party is.
But the most important change is this. Having your party covered by the press is out. When those in the inner sanctum arrive at a party and see a reporter and photographer it is the kiss of death for any would be host, or hostess. “It simply is not done,” said a leader of Washington social whirl.
“I gave a big cocktail party for the photographer Arnold Weissberger,” explains Martindale. “The point of the party was to get attention for his book. “Mary Martin, Celeste Holm. Anita Loos and Rose Mary Woods were there. I invited the press. A lot of people came and took me aside and asked me, “What’s going on?” I explained to them, but it was different. I could tell. They stayed for me because they were my friends, but I know I was pushing them and I couldn’t do it again. It’s the kind of image they don’t want to be associated with and frankly neither do I.
“Betty Beale calls me all the time and bawls me out for not inviting her to my parties,” he admits. The reason, as Martindale sees it, is that “the New Frontier set a bad tone by pushing people in the pool and it had bad repercussions for politicians back home.
“Now people are much more guarded about their private lives. And social reporters are much more sophisticated. They ask tougher questions. One doesn’t have dinners and have them covered because then your guests don’t have to freedom to know they can say something and not have to read about it the next day.
“Joanie Braden,” says Martindale, “is particularly sensitive to press write-ups, maybe because this is such a public town and it doesn’t look to good to read about how we’re all raising hell while a lot of Americans are standing in unemployment lines.”
Still, Martindale thinks this whole sensitivity to publicity has gone a little far. “Everybody was appalled, for instance, that Henry Catto wanted to be Chief of Protocol because you have to go to all those horrible public parties. The taint is that pervasive.
“I think this anti-publicity thing has swung too far. I think we need a little balance. They say people who go after publicity are on the make but I think it’s a question of style and how you do it. If you’re on the society pages you become well known and it’s an entree into Washington life.”
“I want to be taken seriously in this town but you have to be careful about getting reputation of not being a substantive person of being just a party boy.”
Apparently, however, regardless of “style” or “how you do it,” those who have succumbed to the lure of publicity haven’t made it.
Over the last 10 years or so, the treacherous climb to the social pinnacle has been attempted by many.
They all have failed. One answer is clear: too much publicity.
Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Zlotnick have opened their home for years to the great and powerful. They specialize in embassy row. But the Zlotnicks are often not asked back and their involvement is mostly one-sided. Allison Laland, the public relations representative from the Hilton Hotel, has had small soirees as well, with senators, ambassadors, and members of the administration. But one rarely sees Miss Laland at the intimate little dinners that are given in return. In both cases, the Zlotnicks and Mrs. Laland have overexposed their guests.
This is not to say that no one else in Washington entertains. Nor is it to say that those who do entertain are necessarily socially ambitious.
Several of Georgetown’s most sought-after salons are the never-publicized evenings of socialite Mrs. Frank (Polly) Wisner, Gov. and Mrs. Averell Harriman, columnist Joseph Alsop, and Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham.
These people, and indeed, most of those who attend Steve Martindale’s parties, entertain only sporadically, and for pleasure.
Their wariness of publicity may stern from the fact that many of those in the “in” crowd are members of the press themselves; columnists, editors, and television personalities. And they don’t want to be covered by their own.
Party giving is a lot of planning and work. One must be wiling to put in the time and effort and thought. Martindale is.
“Washington is one big PR con game applied to power and politics,” says the wife of the columnist. “Somebody with no qualifications at all except a great drive to do it can make it.”
“Steve is willing and able to make a commitment to the time involved and that’s what it takes,” says Charles Goodell.
“One of the qualities Steve has,” says Bob Grey, “and the primary requirement, is energy and willingness to do it. I don’t know how to say this without being demeaning. But I remember Perle once telling me that the way to become a successful hostess was just to hang a lamb chop in the window. That’s literally true. You just have to make the effort and Steve has a voracious appetite for being a host.”
How often does Martindale entertain?
“I knew you’d ask that question,” he says, hurriedly, pulling a list out of his pocket. “So I wrote it all down. I think I average about two a month. Not very often really, when you think about it.”
The emotional need and the gratification from party giving is as uplifting to some as professional success. It must be there for one to have the drive to do it.
“Steve is a guy who obviously starts with the basic attributes,” says Charles Goodell. “He’s attractive and intelligent but he enjoys the entertaining, the toasting and the details that go with it, the association with interesting people acting in roles on higher levels is very stimulating to him.”
“I guess,” says Greg Mendenhall, one of Martindale’s housemates, “you’re dealing with the personal needs of Steven as a person and his basic drives. Party giving fulfills him.”
“When I get really depressed,” says Martindale, “I give a party. I know having great people will cheer me up.”
Parties cost money. How do you do it on no money? Martindale has inherited no money at all. He probably makes a good salary though he won’t discuss it. This are two way he can entertain the way he does.
“Don’t forget, he’s in public relations and it helps his business so he can write it all off.” Says Mendenhall.
Both Martindale and his boss Bob Grey insist that he gets no expense account of any kind for entertaining. “If he takes a client for lunch,” says Grey, “of course he can get it back. But we don’t foot the bill for his parties.”
It is the style and manner of entertaining today which makes it possible to do it on little money.
“I do the cooking myself quite often,” says Martindale. “I try to have good food and good cheap wine. There’s no good crystal or china. People can’t expect to come to the bachelor’s house and be impressed with that kind of thing. Nobody’s awed by their surroundings here. They can be comfortable. But Joanie and Margot have taught me how to do it inexpensively. When I gave that birthday party for Joanie it cost me $1,000 for 32 people. Knowing what I know now, I could do it for $400 or $500. But I thought I had to have a good wine for David and Evangeline Bruce. But the hell with that.
“David Bruce can just drink good old Almaden like everybody else. He probably wouldn’t know the difference anyway.”
Finally, there is an intangible element — a characteristic which cannot be acquired just because someone aspires to being a successful host or hostess. That is, having the right kind of personality. A pleasant personality. Not being offensive in any way. Being attentive. Flattering people but not fawning. Putting yourself out for people in little ways. Helping with favorite charities or political campaigns. Befriending the wives of powerful men so that the wives will make their husbands go. For example, acting as an escort when the husband is out of town. But the most important part of this personality characteristic is this: The successful host or hostess must never be a treat to his or her guests. For the men, this means that the host not be too powerful or famous, must not be potential block for the guest in any way. For the women, this means that a hostess must not be too beautiful or too sexy. Neither one may be a professional or sexual threat to any of his or her guests. One should have no fear about offending the host or hostess. One should feel secure in the knowledge that the host or hostess is lucky you are there.
“I love Steve,” says a frequent guest. “He’s such a baby. He really has nothing to offer, but in my stomach I feel sorry for him and I have hurting people. I feel quite duped by him and yet I like him.”
“He’s so sweet,” says another. “He’s everything my husband can’t stand about this town but I just hate turning him down.”
“I think he’s the head of the CIA,” says Art Buchwald.
“He’s a mystery to everybody,” says another columnist. “He’s not cruel, he doesn’t hurt anybody but he’s on the make and he makes people nervous because he’s so nice.”
“When I first met him I thought, who’s this,” says Doug Kiker. “But I like him. He’s a sweet, open friendly guy. And what the hell. All he’s doing is inviting people to his parties. What’s wrong with that.”
“He’s so darn nice and friendly,” says Liz Stevens. “You can’t help but like him.”
“Somehow he puts you in the position of feeling guilty and defensive because he’s so nice,” says the wife of an official.
“A lot of people say he’s a social climber,” says Teresa Heinz, wife of Congressman John Heinz. “But if he is, he’s the nicest one I know. He canceled his plans for the weekend to help my husband with his campaign and when I had a baby he stopped by the house and brought me a present. He writes notes and sends little arrangements at Christmastime. He always treats me very kindly and I have a nice time at his house.”
“I’m not a great power in this town that’s going to make or break you,” admits Martindale readily. “That’s why people feel comfortable here. They can let themselves go and not worry.”
There is one small problem however. The problem of being a lobbyist and being in public relations and the possible conflict.
“I was nervous at first,” says Steve, “that my friends in the Senate wouldn’t want to see me. But I find that they’re always glad to see you if you’ve got hard information about your subject and I always do.”
Martindale’s clients are Weyerhauser Lumber, The Wine Institute, Miles Laboratories and the Loral Corporation.
He says that he does not entertain his clients at his parties, unless, of course, they happen to be in town.
“When I have an evening at home,” he says, “I don’t ever think of it as a business evening. If the chairman of the board of one of my companies were in town I would include him the same way I might include an out of town houseguest of one of my dinner guests.
“But let’s not kid ourselves. I was in part hired because I do know people. I can represent their interests better that way. But I think parties that are strictly for business usually aren’t fun anyway.”
Martindale says he deducts some, but not much on his expense account. “Maybe I’m an idiot. I guess I could deduct more but I just haven’t done it.”
He says he thinks the company feels his entertaining is good. “They’ve never objected to it, but then they’ve never raised my salary to pay for it for sent over a case of wine, either.”
Bob Grey, his boss puts it this way:
“We did not hire Steve because he has a yearning for social publicity. We hired him because he’s a liberal Republican and we needed one. I have others here who are higher ranking than Steve who’ve never given a party.”
Steve does make up for excluding a lot of clients from his parties by talking them to lunch at Sans Souci. Nearly every day he can be seen sitting at a key table in Washington’s most exclusive restaurant . . . with a telephone on the table.
“His entertaining is a mixed blessing for us and him at Hill and Knowlton,” says Bob Grey. “It’s fine for him to mix and be on a social basis with people who can help us. But there’s tremendous danger that he may be labeled as a male entertainer, a playboy, or that he may acquire a Perle Mesta image. That gives people the impression that he’s less substantive. Then maybe people won’t take him seriously or won’t see him in their offices as readily. Then too there is the delicate problem for him of asking himself when is he imposing on a friend on behalf of a client.”
There is hardly a person in Washington with any power or cachet who has not been invited to Steve Martindale’s. Some go, some don’t. But Martindale knows who to invite.
“It’s too early yet to see what he wants out of it or what he’s going to get out of all this entertaining,” says an observer.
“By God,” says Martindale, “I am a serious person and I intend to make a professional impact on this town one day.”
Like how. “Well, I plan to go into politics.”
Doesn’t that mean going back to live in Pocatello?
He pauses, takes a deep breath and then he finally says it.
“Then maybe I’ll do something which is related to politics. I guess once you’ve in Washington you can never go back to Pocatello.”
Memorable pieces from 50 years of Style
“New Hampshire is a Fraud” by Henry Allen, Feb. 11, 1988
“Clark Clifford: The Rise of Reputation” by Marjorie Williams, May 8, 1991
“The First Father: William Jefferson Blythe and the back roads of fate” by Gene Weingarten, June 20, 1993
“He Speaks” by Martha Sherrill, September 7, 1995
“White Girl?” by Lonnae O’Neal Parker, Aug. 8, 1999
“The Couch That Warped Space-Time” by Hank Stuever, Feb. 23, 2000
“Dick Cheney, Dressing Down” by Robin Givhan, Jan. 28, 2005
“A Butler Well Served by this Election” By Wil Haygood, Nov. 7, 2008