Monday, February 11, 2008

Washington Social Diary

Halcyon House in Georgetown, a private home that's also one of Washington's most popular for-hire party locations, where Washington Life magazine held their annual soiree for the city's top young socialites.
By Carol Joynt

It’s tough to be strictly a socialite in Washington. It’s not what we do best. No matter how perfect your table, how chic your affair, or how charitable your intentions, socialites can suffer a bit of Rodney Dangerfield syndrome – they don’t get any respect.

Why is this so?

The reason is simple: the industry here is politics and government and the sober (one hopes) distribution of the public’s tax dollars. Appearing to be too social is a potential liability, just as with appearing to be too fashionable or too rich. If high profile Washington appear to be “too” anything, they want it to be their dedication to and upholding of the people’s business and trust. This applies equally to the adjunct power “estates” of media, law and public relations. And that is why most men and women run away from having the word “socialite” put before their names. Here, flash is not cash, nor power.

That said, there is an active social class. It comprises, in large part, families who have been here a long time, making their money in old-school industries or vital services (cars, real estate, medicine), with a considerable boost from the diplomatic community. In an era of swift global communication, Heads of State who talk to each other and ambassadors, have a harder go at being relevant. Thus, effective diplomats are generous with their embassies and residences for all kinds of events, particularly social.
Clockwise from top left: The first arrivals off the shuttle busses storm Halcyon House; The velvet rope that divides the public rooms from Dreyfuss' private upstairs domain; One of the bars, with a French carnival theme designed by party planner Andre Wells; Sculpture by Halcyon House owner, John Dreyfuss.
We do have a share of trust-fund babies, but even those who have a guaranteed lifetime income still seek something to do. It’s impossible to thrive here, or even survive, on a routine of lunches, shopping, and ball gown soirees. Note: the first paragraph of the late Pamela Harriman’s official biography cites her role as ambassador to France, not as a socialite.

All these threads intersect in the person of
Nancy Reynolds Bagley. She personifies the aspirations of social Washington. Entitled, but not idle. Nancy is an all-caps heiress (Reynolds tobacco), with strong connections to the town’s chief industry (her family are long-time Democratic players), who publishes Washington Life, a glossy magazine that is the diary and Blue book of Washington society. Her mother, Vicki Bagley, founded the magazine in 1991, after her divorce from Smith Bagley.

Vicki handed it over to Nancy, who is editor-in-chief, editorial visionary, as well as spotter and arbiter of who’s in and who’s out. In a profile of the capital’s power players, the politically minded Washington Monthly magazine called Nancy the city’s “doyenne” of social life, our “premiere hostess.” That’s because she and her husband, Soroush Shehabi, not only draw up the annual roster of who counts here on the social scale, but they also host some of the city’s best parties.
Champagne, martinis, margaritas, and more.
Two musicians in the big band "Ray and the Cool Cats." The studio/party room.
We have a multi-tiered A list in Washington, much of it decided by rigid protocol, but to the extent that there is a purely social A list, Nancy and Soroush have the field. Jason Binn brought Capitol File to Washington to compete with Washington Life, and the competition is robust, but even with Binn’s own showy parties, WL continues to be the glossy that everyone publicly claims they don’t read (this being Washington) but do, in fact, read from cover to cover and usually the moment it lands on their doorstep, hoping to find their picture or name in its pages.

While invitations to Nancy’s parties typically are prized, one of the most sought after is the over the top annual bash for Washington’s young social crowd. It coincides with the publication of the magazine’s list of the city’s 150 most “in” men and women under age 40.

It was held last Thursday, and the guests included the listees, plus another 200 favored individuals, and the invitation was such a hot ticket Nancy opted to keep the location secret until the last minute. That probably had as much to do with potential crashers as its location, Halcyon House, in the city’s most parking-challenged neighborhood, Georgetown. The guests were bussed from a pre-party at the downtown St. Regis Hotel and then bussed again to the after-party at Josephine nightclub, also downtown.
Just one of the $22,000 in flower arrangements designed by Janet Flowers, complementing the lavish spreads of food from Design Cuisine. The stairs leading from the Halcyon House main floor down to the sculptor's studio and largest party space.
We attended only the main event, which was party enough, given that Halcyon House is a glorious place for a party. It is a historic 225-year-old Georgian mansion that was originally home to Benjamin Stoddert, the nation’s first Secretary of the Navy. Architect and sculptor John Dreyfuss renovated the 22,000 square foot building and its many large public rooms. It is also his home and studio and cash cow, because he rents it out regularly for weddings, anniversaries, birthdays, community events - whatever rocks your partying heart. A velvet rope keeps revelers from exploring his private quarters upstairs.

Nancy and Soroush filled it to capacity with a big band, a deejay, luscious flowers, Mardi Gras characters, stilt walkers, jugglers, buffets with food for a hungry army, gallons of Veuve Cliquot, plus all the ingredients for top shelf martinis and margaritas, and dozens and dozens of good looking 20- and 30- somethings. Washington Life’s “swag” is legendary and the haul for Thursday’s night’s party, valued at $500, weighted down a shopping bag with giveaways from Clarins, Tom Ford, Kiehls, Tea Forte, Bloomingdales, Prescriptives, local spa’s, boutiques and restaurants. Like the party and its list, the swag gets an A.
One half of the Washington Post's Reliable Source column, Roxanne Roberts, with Kevin Chaffee
The other half of the Reliable Source, Amy Argetsinger
Among the glamorous young Washingtonians who made the Washington Life party cut were Lauren Mason, Paige Speyer, Brian Bissell, Joe Kildea, Iman Tyson, Philippe Cousteau, Pamela Brown, Erika and Carlos Gutierrez, Jr., Nat Fogg, Ashley Taylor, Brook Johnston, Princess Iman al-Hussein, Hockley Stevenson and Sarah Meyer Walsh, Mary Barth, Joelle Myers, Tripp Donnelly, Alexandra Cousteau, Clara Brillembourg, Donnell Kearney, Megan Sharp, Michael Clements, Katie Tarbox, Charlotte Grassi, Patrick Gavin, Bo Blair and Meghan Simonson, Garrett Graff, Debbie Fine, Michael Allen, Juleanna Glover, Winston Lord, Coventry Burke, Becca Glover, Quinn Bradlee, Alan Harrington, Rebecca Canan, Anne Bracken, Will Thomas.

A few other social stars added some seasoned gloss to the party: Mark Ein, Joe Robert, Roxanne Roberts, Alex Barth, Amy Argetsinger, Kevin Chaffee and Jeff Dufour. Two who made the list but didn’t make the party were First Daughters, Jenna and Barbara Bush. Maybe next year, when they will have their private lives back.
Washington Life editor-in-chief, Nancy Reynolds Bagley, with her husband and business-partner, Soroush Shehabi. They decide who's "in" and "out" socially in Washington.
Lauren Mason, Washington Life executive editor, Michael Clements, Mark Ein, and Paige Speyer
Much of the party was bathed in salmon hued lights; here in the glow, Brian Bissell, Joe Kildea, and Iman Tyson
Society chronicler Kevin Chaffee, Pamela Brown, and Jon Jefferies
Michael Allen and Juleanna Glover
Adrian Loving, Adimu Colon, Eric Clay, and Marquis Perkins
Brian Komar and Debbie Fine
Washington Examiner columnist Jeff Dufour and Erik Huey
Sculptor John Dreyfuss, owner of Halycon House, slipped out the door as the party was just getting started
Becca Glover and Coventry Burke
Oceanographer and adventurer Philippe Cousteau
Adam Stifel and Andrew Reese
Washington Examiner columnist Patrick Gavin with Anne Bracken, who was visiting from Chicago
Nesrin Abaza and Pirooz Sarshar
Mary Barth, Joelle Myers, and Donnell Kearney
Keith Huffman and Winston Lord
Schuyler Haynes, Jonathan Novak, and Crosby Haynes
Megan Sharp gets her fortune told by Charley of the Psychic Shop
Amanda Carpenter and Lorraine Dorrow
Meghan Simonson and businessman and nightlife mastermind Bo Blair
Valentina Adeler Armour and Wendy Adeler Hall
Mardi Gras revelers
Jeff Dufour with Erik Huey and John Loving
Alana Harrington, Quinn Bradlee, and Rebecca Canan
Hockley Stevenson and Sarah Meyer Walsh

Two separate Mardi Gras parties held sway recently in Washington – one, an annual fete at the National Gallery of Art, and the other a first time jambalaya feast at the new Newseum, which also served as a Super Tuesday viewing party.

The Newseum is not officially open yet. They hope to announce this week that the grand opening will occur in early April.
The view of the party floor from six stories up.
Until then, what parties they host are under the radar, or “soft,” as was the case Tuesday night. No overwrought guest list.

The top tiers of management invited “friends of” and a few others to have drinks, grab plates of seafood gumbo and jamabalaya, followed by King Cake and pralines.
The Newseum's giant screen at the beginning of the returns on Super Tuesday.
The focal point of the evening was the news museum’s giant HD TV, which Programs Producer Paul Sparrow changed regularly from one network to the next. The crowd of 150 or so guests was mostly subdued, which reflected the complex and uncertain messages of the primary returns.

When the gathering wound down after 10 o’clock it was still unclear who had the strongest showing in the Democratic contest, and, as for the Republicans, seasoned observers scratched their heads about the significance of Mike Huckabee’s performance at the expense of Mitt Romney.
The party scene at the Newseum.
This being Washington, where politics is business, there was no cheering, clapping or jumping up and down when one candidate or another won a state.

It was just a lot of staring at the big screen, sipping a cocktail, or taking a tour of those parts of the Newseum that were open to guests.
Sarah Mashek and husband John Mashek, a four decades veteran of covering Washington politics
Barbara Landes and Boyd Matson, the long-time host of National Geographic's Explorer and now host of Wild Chronicles on PBS
Chris Core and Chris Plante broadcast their local Super Tuesday radio talk show "live" from the Newseum
Tricia Messerschmitt and Chris Berry
A lowkey spread of jumbalaya, and corn bread at the Newseum. Plus, King Cake.
Susan and John Bennett
Robert and Mary Haft learn how to use one of the Newseum's inter-active displays
Shelby Coffey illustrates the same display to another Newseum guest
Chuck Manatt, of Manatt, Phelps, and former chairman of the Democratic National Committee
Mary Kay Blake, senior vice president of the Freedom Forum
Richard Strother and Nina Benton
Meredith Simpson, Julie Marx, and Antonia Ferrier
Amos Snead with Meredith and Nick Simpson
Beth Tuttle, deputy director the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, with Mary Kay Blake, senior vice president of the Free Forum
Over the previous weekend, National Galleryof Art director Rusty Powell and his wife, Nancy, a New Orleans native, held their annual Mardi Gras extravaganza in the Gallery’s West Building. This is always a fun party: guests are adorned with beads, feather boas and masks as they arrive, and then have a potent Big Easy cocktail in their hands soon after. It’s a very private affair, with a “no photos” rule, but I pulled out my little camera on the down low because it seemed worth the risk of getting caught just to show you how pretty the place looked. Sorry, no face-on head shots. There was a band and a load of food and some very good gumbo. The King Cake was tasty, and the Bananas Foster were quite irresistible, but the real draw, as always, was the chance to linger in the virtually empty French galleries with prized works from Manet, Monet, Degas, Renoir, and Van Gogh. Bon ton roulet!
Clockwise from top left: The view of the party from one gallery to another; Roast beef, etouffe, jambalaya and other Mardi Gras tastes at the National Gallery of Art; Rows of shrimp gazpacho; Mardi Gras revelers at the National Gallery of Art.
The band blows some New Orleans jazz. The National Gallery of Art's annual Mardi Gras party.
The all-important King Cake. Baskets of Mardi Gras beads, everywhere.
Springtime flowers in the National Gallery's center court of the West Building. Among the works of priceless art on view at the NGA's Mardi Gras party, Van Gogh's "Roses," giving by Pamela Harriman in memory of her husband, Averell.

I would like to end this week’s WSD with a nod to a friend and neighbor who died soon after the holidays and who was memorialized last Thursday at the National Gallery of Art.
  Philip Conisbee (Courtesy of National Gallery of Art).
Though quiet of manner and voice, you still would have noticed Philip Conisbee, and you certainly would have wanted to know him. Tall and good-looking in a professorial way, he had about him an aura of being the smartest man in the room.

He usually was, even in the exceedingly smart world of priceless, museum-quality art. Diagnosed with lung cancer last year, he succumbed to an infection January 16. Philip was 62.

His specialty was French paintings of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries and he shared his talent and creative vision with the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art before joining the National Gallery of Art here as one of their top curators. That was 1993.

In the last almost fifteen years he produced some of the museum’s most popular exhibitions, including “Vah Gogh’s Van Goghs,” “Cezanne in Provence.” “George de La Tour and his World,” “Degas at the Races,” and “Toulouse-Lautrec and Montmartre.”
Dozens of friends and colleagues gathered at the memorial service for Philip Conisbee in the West Building of the National Gallery of Art.
A native of Ireland, educated at London’s Courtauld Institute, where he earned a doctorate in art history, he was revered and respected all over the world by the top curators, collectors, dealers and educators. International dealer Richard L. Feigen called Philip “one of the great curtorial talents in the world.” His most important fans, though, were the hundreds of thousands of visitors who lined up for his shows.

His friends and colleagues gathered Thursday evening after closing in the East Garden Court of the NGA’s West Building, the 60 year old neoclassical landmark designed by John Russell Pope. They stood in the dozens among ferns and tall palms as tributes were spoken by board of trustees president Victoria P. Sant, who talked of the “sadness and loss;” the gallery’s deputy director, Alan Shestack, who called Philip “an integral part of my personal and professional life,” curator Ruth Fine, who talked about his “sweet smile” and love of John Coltrane; followed by senior curator Franklin Kelly and the gallery’s director, Earl A. “Rusty” Powell.  
Outside the National Gallery's West Building at the time of Philip Conisbee's memorial service.
After their remarks there was a reception, which Philip’s widow, Faya Causey Conisbee, herself the head of NGA academic programs, called a first step toward closure for “a lot of people who are hurting.” In addition to Faya, Philip is survived by a son and daughter, a stepson, his father and a brother.

Personally, I will most of all miss seeing him in the neighborhood, walking the leafy sidewalks, stopping for a chat, and always joking with me about the “Vernet” I inherited, and that he spotted through my front window, but that turned out to be “the school of Vernet” rather than by the master’s hand, a tutorial Philip gave me one night during a long candlelight dinner under the painting. “It’s still a lovely picture,” he assured me, in the soothing tones of a knowing voice.
Photographs by Carol Joynt. Carol is the host of The Q&A Cafe, a talk show at Nathans Restaurant in Washington, D.C.