There is a scene in the new play “The City of Conversation” where the ladies go upstairs for demitasse and the men stay downstairs for brandy and cigars, a custom that seems so quaint now that it’s hardly believable. The soon-to-be daughter-in-law of the hostess decides to stay with the men, and accepts a brandy and a cigar. Another guest observes, “The last time a woman did this, refused to leave the gentlemen to their post-prandial drinks — I think it was Sally Quinn, before she got it, before she learned Washington.”
The anecdote is true, mostly. After a dinner in the ’70s honoring Sen. Frank Church (also mentioned in the play), hostess Pamela Harriman announced to the assembled power brokers that the women should head upstairs while the men stayed downstairs to discuss Church’s potential presidential run. I was working on a profile of Church for The Washington Post, and I wanted to stay to hear what he had to say. Unfortunately, Gov. Averell Harriman was not pleased and ordered me upstairs. I refused and left. (My poor husband not far behind.)
At another dinner several weeks later, Katharine Graham, owner of The Post and a formidable hostess in her own right, similarly refused to retire with the ladies, and the custom died almost overnight. I’d prefer to say that I got Washington back then. It just took Washington a little time to catch up.
Playwright Anthony Giardina has a pretty good understanding of Washington, too. He has written a brilliant account of the role of the Georgetown hostess, from the end of the Carter administration through the Reagan era and into the beginning of the Obama presidency. Giardina told me he got the idea from a 1996 New Yorker piece called “The Ruins of Georgetown.” He wanted to know, he said, “why did this world die? It seemed so wonderful. It was the notion of going from a hostess in the ’70s to more of an operative that I wanted to track.”
In his main character, Hester Ferris, I recognize aspects of Kay Graham, who was unrivaled in her ability to draw the powerful and the famous; along with Evangeline Bruce (wife of Ambassador David Bruce), who hosted something of a European salon; Lorraine Cooper (wife of Sen. John Sherman Cooper of Kentucky), who had a gift for creating a cozy atmosphere in which people could talk openly; and Susan Mary Alsop, a scholar and writer who was able to draw a more powerful crowd in the short while she was married to columnist Joe Alsop.
The character, though, seems most like Harriman, in that she has a serious political agenda that she puts above almost everything and everyone in her life. Harriman alienated herself from other Georgetown hostesses and from members of her own family by being too bold in her ambitions. Likewise, one of the most heartbreaking moments of the play is when Hester has to choose between fighting against Judge Robert Bork’s nomination to the Supreme Court, about which she feels strongly, or ruining her relationship with her conservative son.
The play offers an unflinching look at the fierceness with which women like these cultivated Washington’s social scene to wield power and promote their agendas. It illustrates how they tried to foster intelligent, informed and cordial conversation, which could in turn forge friendships and improve the workings of government. “We’re an arm of the government, you might say. Georgetown. Dinner in Georgetown. Or we were. And will be again,” Hester says.
The conversations in the play are very much like those I’ve heard in Georgetown drawing rooms, including my own, over the years. And seeing a performance at New York’s Lincoln Center this past week brought back a flood of memories.
In a scene set during the Carter administration, Hester, in her mid-50s, bemoans the fact that “President Seatwarmer, the Emperor of Malaise” has “appointed a federal judge by all accounts decent except that he refuses to resign from his all-white country club.” She has thrown her support to Teddy Kennedy and is planning a small dinner to advance his path to the White House. “Say what you will about the Kennedys,” she says. “They know how to use us to move a social agenda forward. And that is what we are all about. So if dinner is sometimes tense with a purpose, you do get used to it.”
That line about tension made me think immediately of a formal seated dinner in 1982 at the Georgetown house of the late senator John Heinz and his wife, Teresa (now the wife of Secretary of State John Kerry). I was very pregnant and had begun labor, but my doctor said it would be morning before I’d need to go the hospital. I hoped that dinner would be a distraction, and I instructed my husband not to mention that I was having contractions. Of course, as soon as we walked into the house, he blurted out that I was in labor — at which point everyone backed away. Unfortunately, I was seated between my friend the eminent columnist Joseph Kraft and Sen. Scoop Jackson (also mentioned in the play). Both were sweating profusely and visibly disturbed by my every groan. But did that stop them from discussing the future of Boeing aircraft (in Jackson’s state of Washington)? No way. They persevered as if I weren’t there.
In another scene of the play, Hester inadvertently insults the intelligence of the wife of a senator from Kentucky. The woman defends herself by mentioning that she and her friends from outside Washington have a book club. “We started it, congressional ladies from places like Kentucky, Iowa and Nebraska, to defend ourselves from people like you, Mrs. Ferris, who might think that because we come from backwater places, that we are backwater people.”
I couldn’t help but be reminded of a Washington dinner I went to during the Clinton years. Among the guests were Deputy White House Counsel Vince Foster and his wife. I was standing with three high-powered female journalists, and Lisa Foster was telling us how nervous Washington made her. What, I asked, was the scariest thing she’d encountered here since she arrived? She looked at us and, with disarming sincerity, said, “Y’all.” (Her husband committed suicide soon afterward, reportedly in despair over the poisonous atmosphere in Washington, and I have been haunted by that conversation ever since.)
The play doesn’t get it all quite right. I had to laugh at one scene where Hester’s son wonders why her affair with a married senator hasn’t been written about. “Darling,” she says, “it’s still a small town in one sense. When you find yourself seated next to Don Graham at dinner every two weeks or so, you don’t have to worry about your affairs turning up in The Washington Post.” Any Georgetown hostess worth her salt would know that Don, Kay Graham’s son and until last fall the owner of The Post, would prefer to be at Washington sports events rather than at Washington dinner parties every two weeks, and that as publisher, the last thing in the world he could do was keep a friend’s name out of the paper. Certainly not all the stories The Post wrote about me over the years were the most flattering.
“The City of Conversation” is nostalgic for the days of the Washington hostess. I declared her dead in a 1987 article in The Post Magazine. And I agree with the common refrain that our government hasn’t worked as well, and civility in this town has suffered, since the personal connections that hostesses facilitated have been lost. In the play, fictional Sen. George Mallonee explains: “It’s all about one guy leaning over another guy’s shoulder, his hand on your shoulder, breathing close to you. Maybe you’ve been fighting all day about some pissant provision in some damn bill that can’t move out of committee. . . . Suddenly he’s familiar. . . . He’s just, goddammit, he’s just a guy. You almost love him.”
The parties I host now are different from back then. I don’t have many seated dinners, for instance — people don’t always RSVP promptly or show up reliably these days. But my most important goal remains creating a community of friends. About seven years ago, around when I started the religion Web site OnFaith, I invited some notable religion scholars, plus a lot of my friends, to a buffet supper honoring British author and comparative religion scholar Karen Armstrong. At one point I pulled up a chair to introduce a guest to Elaine Pagels, N.T. Wright and Dominic Crossan, who were deep in conversation. “We were just talking about the last days of Christ,” one of them said. It may be one of my favorite moments in Washington. As people were leaving, journalist and religion scholar Leon Wieseltier kissed me goodbye. Surveying the room, he said, “This is the weirdest Georgetown dinner party I have ever been to.” I was thrilled.