If there was a collective emotion that defined the night it’d be a mix of joy and pain. Everyone involved in the Obamas’ last black tie gala felt it. From guest chef Mario Batali, who said that knowing this dinner is the last adds its own brand of pride and pressure, to the president himself, who called the swanky swan song “a bittersweet moment.”
At the arrival ceremony earlier in the day Obama told the gathered crowd that the administration had “saved the best for last.” A tall order for the 14th of the Obamas’ diplomatic galas. So did the night live up to the hype?
First of all, they went big with an out-sized guest list of 382 VIPs that was light on the famous faces but stuffed with Obama insiders, particularly the first lady’s personal retinue.
There was White House interior designer Michael Smith and the first lady’s former “chief of stuff” Kristen Jarvis. We imagine the Mrs. O’s entire glam squad had to high-tail it downstairs from the residence to the cocktail reception just moments before the first couple make their grand entrance. Represented from that intimate crew were the first lady’s hair stylist Johnny Wright, her colorist Yene Damtew, her make up artist Carl Ray, her stylist Meredith Koop, and even her personal trainer Cornell McClellan. This is the last state dinner, after all, and the Obamas highly value (and reward) loyalty.
Perhaps the real star of the night, then, was outsize personality and superstar chef Mario Batali, the dinner’s guest chef. The orange-Crocced TV star practically stole the show at the White House’s preview event on Monday. “I’ve got about 12 Navy SEALs helping me out, so I’m pretty sure we’ll be fine,” he boasted when asked if he and his team would be ready for the well-heeled stampede. (Actually, we’re told the dozen guys are from the Navy mess in the White House, not the elite SEAL team).
The chef’s swagger was clearly warranted. As the guests began to trickle into the White House on Tuesday almost everyone said they were most looking forward to trying Batali’s four-course America-meets-Italy meal, not, you know, meeting the president of the United States. But politics did end up on the menu.
Actor John Turturro, who starred in the recent HBO hit “The Night Of” and “Do the Right Thing,” the movie the Obamas famously watched on their now-beatified first date, said America and Italy “have always, well not always, but they’ve had an intimate relationship.” He added that Italian Americans have been a big part of American politics. So did he have thoughts on the current race for the White House?
And they are?
“I hope Hillary wins … by a large margin,” said Turturro who was wearing a Tom Ford tuxedo. His wife, Katherine Borowitz, was wearing fellow dinner guest Giorgio Armani.
And, of course, the first lady wore Italian. For her grand entrance Mrs. O made her grand fashion reveal on the North Portico with the president in tow, wearing a floor-length, rose gold chainmail gown designed by Atelier Versace that was both retro and modern. Other big name Italian designers such as Valentino and Cavalli also made sartorial cameos that night.
TV host and food personality Rachael Ray had no clue who she was wearing, which might have been a good thing.
“I just tripped coming up the stairs,” said Ray, who suffered every woman’s red carpet nightmare on her way into the White House with husband John Cusimano. She was rescued by a pair of scissors and admitted to being “wildly nervous” on Tuesday.
One last question: So who are you wearing? “I honestly have no idea, but I just ripped it.”
And there goes Good Morning America co-host George Stephanopoulos and his wife Ali Wentworth. Stephanopoulos was in a hurry to get inside, but before ducking into the cocktail hour Wentworth stopped to chat, particularly because this was “the last one.” The comedienne described the night by echoing President Obama’s sentiment.
“It’s a bittersweet thing. It’s a historical event,” said Wentworth, whose mother, Mabel “Muffie” Brandon, served as Nancy Reagan’s social secretary from 1981 to 1983.
“This is my first state dinner as an adult. This is a big milestone for me,” said Wentworth, pointing out that she was wearing fake diamond earrings and her husband, who she couldn’t get to answer questions about his wardrobe, was in “Baby Gap, probably.” Ba-dum-bum!
Funny guy Jerry Seinfeld, who the president chatted and cruised around with for “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” said he had a few punchlines under the sleeve of his black tuxedo. “Some pizza stuff,” he said, “a couple of cannoli one liners.”
Johnny Wright, the first lady’s hairstylist, was feeling both excited and nostalgic. The last state dinner would be his first. The man in charge of getting the first lady red-carpet ready for 14 state dinners was all smiles on Tuesday night as he tried to pick his favorite of Mrs. Obama’s state dinner looks. “They’re all my little babies,” said Wright, who eventually landed on Obama’s side-swept hair for the China state dinner in 2015.
Held in a tent on the South Lawn dripping with chandeliers and dotted with mirrored tables to conjure up the Italian “fresco” technique, the evening featured a stroll through the first lady’s kitchen garden, hung with lanterns for the occasion, a four-course meal prepared by Batali and a performance by Gwen Stefani of “No Doubt” and “The Voice.”
But despite the night’s obvious symbolism as a denouement the dinner’s guests probably took the opening lines of the president’s traditional toast to heart: “In the immortal words of a great Italian American, Yogi Berra, ‘It ain’t over ’till it’s over.'”
See photos from the Obamas’ final state dinner