A farewell party for Janet Napolitano was notable for the VIP guest list, an operatic salue — but mostly for timing.

The send-off at the Jefferson Hotel took place Sunday night, hours before anyone had an inkling of the tragedy that would unfold at the Navy Yard the next morning, which allowed for a light-hearted sendoff for a woman with an unusually weighty job.

Janet Napolitano and co-host Connie Milstein at a farewell party at the Jefferson Hotel Sunday. (Daniel Swartz)

“It’s a funny job because the less you hear, the better you’ve done,” David Axelrod told the former secretary of Homeland Security. “I used to say about our friend John Brennan, when he worked in the White House, that I slept better knowing that he never did. And I feel the same way about you.”

After five years, Napolitano announced this summer she was leaving Washington to become to first woman president of the University of California system. Her last day in the office was Sept. 6; she’s spent the last few days packing up for her move at the end of the week.

Valerie Jarrett and Herbie Hancock conversing at the farewell party. (Daniel Swartz Valerie Jarrett and Herbie Hancock conversing at the farewell party. (Daniel Swartz

Originally planned as a little brunch, the farewell — hosted by Axelrod and his wife, Susan, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, former Pentagon spokesman Doug Wilson and Jefferson owner Connie Milstein — morphed into a big-name cocktail soiree. Guests included Valerie Jarrett, Penny Pritzker, Susan Sher, Sens. Mark Warner and Joe Manchin, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, jazz great Herbie Hancock, and Arena Stage’s Molly Smith. In a nod to her Italian heritage, Milstein arranged for a short opera recital for Napolitano.

The guest of honor spent most of the party saying goodbye to pals and planning her last week in D.C. “I want to go see a couple exhibits,” she said. “I want to walk around Georgetown — just have the luxury of walking around without a whole security entourage. One thing for sure I will do: I call it ‘Seeing Mr. Lincoln.’ I go down to the Lincoln Memorial at night — it’s usually very quiet at night — and take it in for a few moments. To me, that’s always a moving thing.”

Next on her list: California and more of her favorite hobby, white-water rafting. “There’s phrase we use when we’re putting together a group to go rafting: ‘Is that the kind of person you’d do the river with?’ ” she told the crowd. “I must say, that in my almost five years in Washington, I’ve found a lot of people to do the river with — and many of them in this room tonight.”

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