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‘Brilliant beyond all precedent’: The first White House state dinner for the king of Hawaii

President Ulysses S. Grant and his wife, Julia, held the first formal White House state dinner in 1874 to honor David Kalākaua, the king of Hawaii. (State Archives of Hawaii)

The French, food lovers that they are, have been particularly good at getting free meals in Washington. President Trump’s gala sit-down Tuesday night for President Emmanuel Macron and his wife, Brigitte, was the 14th White House state dinner for a French head of state — and it was viewed as a triumph for the president and first lady Melania Trump.

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But the first visiting foreign leader ever honored by the extravagant black-tie blowout that has become America’s highest diplo-social ceremony was not French or British, Russian or Mexican. He was David Laʻamea Kamananakapu Mahinulani Naloiaehuokalani Lumialani Kalākaua, the last king of Hawaii.

Kalākaua was reportedly the first sitting monarch to visit the United States when he made a cross-country trip from San Francisco to Washington aboard the still-new transcontinental railroad in 1874. He was seeking better trade between the United States and his Sandwich Islands, which is how mapmakers of the day labeled the Pacific archipelago that would become an American territory in 1898.

President Ulysses S. Grant, then halfway through his second term, decided to put on a display of diplomatic pomp-and-romp unlike any seen in Washington before. Grant, and more specifically, his wife, Julia, amazed the city with a White House table awash in flowers, crystal decanters and a $3,000, 587-piece set of Limoges china imported four years earlier by D.C. merchant J.W. Boteler and Bro.

“Brilliant beyond all precedent,” marveled the Washington Evening Star the following day.

Kalākaua, known as the Merrie Monarch for his well-documented love of ample food and flowing wine, was delighted. He went on to New York, caught a show (“The Gilded Age” at the Park Theater) with his old friend Mark Twain and sailed home a sated sovereign.

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And in Washington, a pattern was set that has held true from that fete to this one, which was the first state soiree hosted by the president and first lady Melania Trump. The details have shifted with times and politics: An alcohol-hating first lady reportedly kept wine off the menu during Rutherford B. Hayes’s tenure in the late 1870s; Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev inflicted a Cold War-snub on the Eisenhowers by refusing to don formal wear in 1959.

But the basic template of the American president putting on the diplomatic dog for foreign leaders was fixed for the next 144 years and counting.

In 1939, George VI became the first British monarch to visit the former colonies that had caused all that unpleasantness in the 1770s, with Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt toasting him in the dining room of the mansion his countrymen had burned in 1812.

First lady Jacqueline Kennedy — and her social secretary Letitia Baldrige — were at the center of 15 dinners that featured an explosion of postprandial entertainment, from the National Symphony Orchestra to the Joffrey Ballet.

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Jimmy Carter added his disgraced predecessor Richard M. Nixon to the guest list for Chinese Deputy Premier Deng Xiaoping’s 1979 dinner.

The White House dining room had been remodeled in 1902 and expanded to make for an even grander geopolitical mess hall. Among those who would officially consume the consommé there: Charles de Gaulle, Leonid Brezhnev, Augusto Pinochet, Haile Selassie, Jawaharlal Nehru, Ferdinand Marcos and Queen Elizabeth II. Six different presidents fed the shah of Iran (the Fords even brought in Ann-Margret to dance, in a red-white-and-blue leotard, after dessert).

All thanks to the Grants.

Grant himself was not an obvious candidate to up the White House’s glamour factor. The former general had brought in one of his Army cooks to run the kitchen when he was first elected. He didn’t love big gatherings.

“Grant was a reluctant part in these grand dinners,” said Nancy Breed, executive director of the Galena and U.S. Grant Museum in Galena, Ill. “He was a very social man, but he preferred the one-on-one or the intimate conversation to a formal ball.”

Grant had plenty of whiskey-and-cigar parties and participated regularly in what had previously been known in Washington as “state dinners”: banquets paying homage to Congress, the courts or the diplomatic corps, usually during the city’s winter social season.

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It was his wife, Julia Dent Grant, the daughter of a wealthy — and slave-owning — Missouri plantation owner, who replaced the Army cook with an Italian chef and was ready to raise diplomatic entertaining to an art.

“Julia, with her upbringing in society in the St. Louis area, loved high entertaining and was very good at it,” Breed said.

The December visit of King Kalākaua warranted daily coverage in the Washington papers. Even before he pulled into the station, where a battalion of Marines waited to greet him, a telegram dispatch revealed that the royal party had to change cars in Pittsburgh because his was too big for the tunnels approaching the capital. An “immense crowd” followed his carriage down 7th Street.

By the time of the state dinner 10 days later, Kalākaua was a well-documented celebrity (reporters wrote multiple stories on the king’s cough, picked up, apparently in Omaha — you know how train travel is).

There was equally breathless reporting on the dinner. The East Room and the Dining Room were laden with flowers, including banks of them along a framed mirror running the length of the banquet table. The Green Drawing Room featured a portrait of Grant on horseback recently given to him (“The likeness is good and the horse spirited,” the Star said.)

The Grant museum staff doesn’t have the menu from that first state dinner, but they know what was served at the many that followed. In fact, they recently held a mock state dinner, complete with impersonators standing in for the first couple and a historically correct menu of mulligatawny soup and charred tenderloin of beef.

“Grant did not like any meat that was not thoroughly cooked,” Breed said.

The original feast went on for some 30 courses. There was probably a mid-meal intermission, Breed said, with a Marine band playing. Julia Grant sat by the king, the president opposite. The chief justice, the speaker of the House, all the Cabinet members and their wives were at the table lined with glasses and decanters.

“There were no young ladies present,” the Star reported.

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