Thursday, October 11, 2007

Washington Social Diary - Cave Dwellers

Oak Hill Cemetary, at the top of Georgetown: Clustered on this knoll around the chapel are Cave Dwellers such as Trains, Achesons, Grahams, and Bruces, among a select few others.
By Carol Joynt

Cave Dwellers
. You see those two words and it’s natural to conjure Pueblo Indians in some dimly lit museum diorama, weaving rugs or pounding corn into meal. In Washington, however, the Cave Dwellers in my reference are a subset of the Washington social order, who neither weave nor pound. They have someone to do that for them. 

No one’s really sure when the Cave Dwellers got named, but references go back to the 1920s. Their names (and maiden names, and children’s names, and home and summer home addresses) are strewn through Washington’s musty social register, “The Green Book.” But having one’s name listed is not a must for Cave Dweller status. Nor is wealth, pedigree, race or religion. These things matter to a degree, but not as much as being somewhat quietly social, respectably generous, and most of all here.
Clockwise from top left: Joe Alsop's house before his death; The home of Senator and Mrs. John Sherman Cooper; Katharine Graham's stately mansion in dire need of a renovation; Susan Mary Alsop's house.
They are seldom seen, known mostly to each other, and prefer it that way. In a city of transients and impermanence, they are firmament. Their fulltime address is Georgetown, Cleveland Park, Wesley Heights or the environs of Foxhall Road. Although, a weekend place in Middleburg or Upperville, and a summer place in Maine or Montana, is okay.

Being a Cave Dweller is not something to which one becomes enlisted, or can join. There is no clubhouse, though some may argue, then, to what purpose is served by the clubs whose names are Sulgrave (women), Metropolitan (mostly men), or Chevy Chase (golf, kids and cocktails in white Adirondacks chairs on a clipped green lawn).
The main gate of Oak Hill Cemetary.
If I told you about the Alibi Club, catering since the 1880s to an elite membership of cave dwelling men in need of an “alibi,” they would have to kill me. Before ever considering a commercial restaurant the whole clique likes their meals and socializing at one of the clubs, or one another’s homes, or just plain at home,. Yes, they do go out to eat, but since the Jockey Club closed (our city’s “21”) there really hasn’t been a restaurant for them. Maybe Martin’s or La Chaumiere in Georgetown, or the Hay- Adams Hotel dining room.

The David and Evangeline Bruce house — it fronts half a block.
But a really big splashy night out for our Cave Dwellers is the opening of the opera, dinner at The National Gallery of Art, or the State Department (but only in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms).

Members of the official city – Congress, White House appointees, cabinet members, the military establishment and the attendant lawyers, lobbyists and political specialists – were once upon a time included in the ranks of the Cave Dwellers, only because they lived here and the media didn’t have cable and a 24/7 news cycle. Media did have one notable modern crossover: the late Katharine Graham.

Now the only “government” people who qualify with the Cave Dwellers are the Supreme Court. The Supremes, as we call them here, live a Cave Dweller-like lifestyle -- keeping to themselves, not exposing their private lives in the columns and social glossies; knowing how to keep their opinions relegated to the proper forum. For everybody else -- including the media -- the Cave Dweller lifestyle runs counter to why they are in Washington.

As for White House occupants, the Kennedys’ Camelot spawned many later Cave Dwellers, who got that way by remaining in the capital long after Jackie pulled up tent and moved back to New York.

The Alibi Club.
Think Lorraine Cooper (the widow of longtime Kentucky Republican Senator John Sherman Cooper), Joe Alsop, the WASPish political pundit and Roosevelt cousin who with his wife Susan Mary hosted the Kennedys and their crowd). There was also David and Evangeline Bruce (he the former Ambassador, Presidential adviser); and of those still with us, Martha and Charlie Bartlett, Robert McNamara, and Ethel Kennedy – all from the Kennedy era, now more than forty years later.

Of recent Presidents, only “Forty-one,” George and Barbara Bush, walked comfortably among the Cave Dwellers. But that probably has a lot to do with the fact the Bushes lived here for a long time as he matriculated through Congress, the Republican National Committee, CIA and the vice presidency to the White House. They also fit within other social parameters, such as: schools, clubs, WASP, money, and Maine.
Clockwise from left: The Alibi Club (it looks decrepit on purpose); Two views of The Sulgrave Club ... nothing trendy but great popovers; The Metropolitan Club (up close and from across the street), one block from the White House.
Are the Cave Dwellers still relevant on anyone’s radar? Is a younger generation coming up? The tipping point is always Who goes and Who stays when a particular White House Administration comes to a close. That is what is happening right now with the Bush White House. Everyday there is a farewell party or two. But are these people headed home whence they came, or are they going to become part of the permanent community of Washington?

For what it’s worth, I shot an email to one of the city’s younger and on-top-of-it observers, Patrick Gavin, who writes both a daily column in the Washington Examiner that often gets picked up by Drudge

“Patrick, do the Cave Dwellers still exist? Do you mingle with them?”

He wrote back, “Cave Dwellers? Don’t even know who they are.”
Martin's Tavern's exterior, interior, and Booth "3," where Jack Kennedy proposed to Jacqueline Bouvier.

Photographs by Carol Joynt
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