Thursday, September 25, 2008

Washington Social Diary

Shakespeare's first Folio, circa 1623: Comedies, Histories and Tragedies (which could be the stories of Washington).
Prose Over Politics at the Pen/Faulkner Gala
By Carol Joynt

The scene some might expect from a Washington insiders dinner at this moment in time is a blow-up between McCain and Obama surrogates over the bailout vote while the last standing Hillary supporter slams through the social scrum to bring the peace. Well, dream on. Even in Washington the mood is eerily subdued. In the olden days the political disagreements were worked out after office hours over white tablecloths and rare roast beef, cognac and cigars. That scene is so out of date it could be a diorama at the revamped Smithsonian American History Museum.

The truth is today most of the legislators barely live here, and when they’re out on the town it’s to find dollars, and then it’s back to the home district or state to find more dollars. There are a few who do show up and embrace the social graces. A good example is Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont and his wife, Marcelle. They were among the 254 lovers of the written word who gathered Monday night at the Folger Shakespeare Library to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Pen/Faulkner Award for Fiction. It was about as civilized and well spoken as it gets here, especially at the outset of such a politically volatile week. It was also, at times, as quiet as a family dinner after everyone has run out of talk. But the hot topics these days – the markets, the bail out, the campaign – are difficult to make into light conversation.
Henry Clay Folger. Mr. Shakespeare surveys the library's New Reading Room.
Final touches on a table in the Folger's Old Reading Room.
The guests paid upwards of $400 per person for an evening of mental and culinary stimulation, if not heated political rant. After cocktails in The Exhibition Hall, twelve writers of “excellence” appeared on the Folger’s Elizabethan stage to read personal essays on the theme “Promises, Promises.” No, these weren’t tutorials in how to write the bail out bill – though, come to think of it, not a bad idea.

Terry McMillan
did veer to the political in her discourse when she invoked former beauty-contest runner up, and now Republican superstar Sarah Palin: “McCain’s running mate finally got a chance to wear her tiara.” McMillan claimed McCain just wants to fight another war, but she promised, “I’m not drinking the Kool-Aid.” As for the promises that endure, McMillan said, “Twenty four years ago I promised my son I would be the best mother he ever had.” All these years later he told her she kept the promise.
The table settings had flowers, candles, birds, apples and julep cups of sharpened pencils - just in case a guest got struck with a muse.
The other noted authors and poets who gave their time to appear included Melissa Bank, Amiri Baraka, Richard Bausch, Sylvia Brownrigg, Christopher Buckley, Alan Cheuse, H.G. Carrillo, Andrew Sean Greer, Anthony Grooms, Joseph O’Neill and Patricia Volk. The warmest applause was for the two high school students who beat out 125 competitors to read their essays at the gala – Isabella Copeland of School Without Walls and Liz Mills of National Cathedral School. According to Garland Scott of the Folger, over its 20 years, 280 writers have read at the Pen/Faulkner Gala – too many to mention here but you’d know the names. Proceeds from the evening go toward the $15,000 Pen/Faulkner Fiction Prize, and other related prizes, which are handed out in May.

Dinner was held in two handsome rooms, the Folger’s Old Reading Room (done up in shades of peach) and the New Reading Room (shades of green). Busts of Mr. Shakespeare were in this nook and that, and I don’t know if it’s the times or what, but the resemblance to “Mad Money” madman Jim Cramer was startling. Dinner, on the other hand, was just plain rich - perhaps on purpose for poorer times?
The ceiling of the library's Exhibition Room.
Design Cuisine produced a filling meal that moved from a Roasted Vegetable Tower to Champagne & Peach Glazed Poussin to insanely creamy Coconut Cake Timbale with Chocolate Ice Cream, and then for good measure, plates of Brittle, Florentines and Chocolate Glazed Ginger. The wines were a Pinot Grigio and a Rosemount Shiraz.

Just before we sat down to dinner, a woman switched my place card away from her husband to the other end of the table. When I mentioned it to him he said, “We want to spend more time celebrating our 25th anniversary.” Sweet.

My new seat was between architectural photographer Maxwell MacKenzie and “Sam the Cat” author and Pen/Faulkner board member Matthew Klam. Like others at the dinner, we didn’t talk much about money or politics. We talked about schools and Googling. Klam, who was host of our table, knew a little bit about each of us because, he admitted, he’d Googled us before dinner. I told him when I got home I’d do the same to him. It’s the new intimacy.
The host of Table "8," Matthew Klam, Folger Shakespeare Library board member. James Alefantis, Beth Dozoretz, David Brock, and Washington Ballet Artistic Director Septime Webre.
Among those at the gala, in addition to those mentioned, were Mai Abdo, James Alefantis and David Brock, Joan Biskupic and Clay Lewis, Elizabeth Gere and William Causey, Jane and Calvin Cafritz, Ludmilla and Conrad Cafritz, Jane Rosenthal Cafritz, Ambassador H.E. Chee of Singapore, Patrick Butler, Sen. Thad Cochran and his daughter, Kate; Bill and Ruth Coggeshall, Annie Demarest, Greg Gaddy, Debbie Dingell, Cynthia Howar, Katharine Neville, Rebecca Cross, Robert and Mary Haft, John Sward Gleiber, John Harbert, Kay Kendall, Lucky Roosevelt, Patrick and Rosalinda Raher, Harvey and Saree Pitt, Beth Henley, Alice McDermott, Frazier O’Leary, Clarence Page, Barrett and Noreen Prettyman, Susan Richards Shreve, Deborah Tannen, Roxanne Roberts, Stephen and Andrea Weiswasser, James Wickett and Becky Relic, Michael and Mariella Trager, Eileen Shields-West, Katherine Field Stephen, Yolanda Young, Tracy Woodard, Lou and Di Stovall, Dominique and Francoise Thormann, Kevin Chafee, Jackie Zins, Gerson Zweifach, and Scott Becker.
Clockwise from top left: A room where Shakespeare might feel at home, the Old Reading Room; The flowers; Service of the Champagne and Peach Glazed Poussin with Asparagus and Parsnip Potato Mash; Coconut Cake Timbale with Chocolate Ice Cream for dessert.
Kevin Chaffee, Christopher Buckley, and Debbie Dingell (wife of Cong. John Dingell) Kay Kendall, Meena Ahamed, and Catherine Bradley
Young author Liz Milff, Annie Demarest, and author Isabella Copeland Nissan North America's Scott Becker, chair Mary Haft, Senator Patrick Leahy, and Nissan North America's Tracy Woodard
Richard Bausch, Noreen Prettyman, Amiri Baraka, and Barrett Prettyman Mary Haft and David Bradley
Rebecca Fishman and Ludmilla Cafritz Michael and Susan Pillsbury  Andrew Sean Greer and Roger Mudd
Melissa Bank and Christopher Buckley applaud a reading H.G. Carreo and Terry McMillan get a good laugh at an author's reading
Photographs by James R. Brantley & Carol Joynt. Carol Joynt is the host of The Q&A Cafe, a talk show at Nathans Restaurant in Washington, D.C.