The Watergate complex had seen plenty of scandals long before the break-in that made it infamous — and the shenanigans continued long after President Richard Nixon’s “plumbers” had left the building.
Joseph Rodota recounts all the drama under the Watergate roof in his new history of the building, “The Watergate: Inside America’s Most Infamous Address,” from the initial investment from the Vatican that funded its construction to the tenure of chef Jean-Louis Palladin at the complex’s restaurant.
But it’s the stories of its denizens that are the juiciest. The Watergate has long attracted high-profile Beltway types as well as imported celebrities, who often stayed at the hotel.
A sampling of fly-on-the-wall observations, drawn from an interview with a longtime concierge: Bette Davis spotted, drunk, in the lobby, clutching a paper bag of flight-sized booze bottles; playwright Tennessee Williams leaving behind the only copy of his latest work, which was retrieved by hotel staff from behind a headboard; Keith Moon, drummer of the Who, trashing his room; and Katharine Hepburn whipping up her own breakfast with steak and eggs from the Watergate supermarket.
Boldface residents included Monica Lewinsky, who lived there with her mother as she attempted to weather her own White House scandal. Rodota writes that Lewinsky’s next-door neighbor, former Republican senator Bob Dole, once sent boxes of doughnuts to the media staking out her apartment.
Parties in the Watergate were often swanky affairs, including annual holiday gatherings at Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s apartment, where her husband, Marty, prepared dishes from game caught by Ginsburg’s colleague, Justice Antonin Scalia. But former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice’s soirees weren’t nearly so well catered: Former White House adviser Karl Rove recalled “opening the Triscuit boxes to find something to put the cheese on.” (The music, though, was of better quality — Rice, an accomplished pianist, often played for guests, as did “competent pianist” and former attorney general John Ashcroft and cellist Yo-Yo Ma.)
Rodota said he was inspired to write the book after taking a fresh look at the building one day on his way to the Kennedy Center, and realizing it was a worthy subject “hiding in plain sight.” Plenty of books had been written about the Watergate scandal, he discovered, but none on the building and the people who called it home. “It struck me that it was part freshman dorm and part pressure cooker,” he said. “You have all these immensely successful people living next door to one another. You have lawyers and lobbyists and ambassadors on the co-op board.”
And the book contains an enduring mystery: Lewinsky’s mother eventually left, and their apartment was sold to the Doles, who combined the two units. The former senator recalled touring the apartment Lewinsky had just vacated and finding a photograph of “a man — Dole would never identify him by name.” Below the image, someone had written a “vulgar word.” Though Dole wouldn’t divulge the identity of the photo’s subject or the caption, they were apparently significant. “We probably should have kept the picture,” Rodota quotes Dole as saying. “And showed it off.”