Monday, April 27, 2009

Washington Social Diary

Rima Al-Sabah presents Leonardo DiCaprio with an award on behalf of his advocacy for the environment.
By Carol Joynt

Before New York Social Diary I did not go to a lot of dinner parties. Social was not my circuit. But it’s been eighteen months in the role of observer and diarist, eighteen months of experiences, and the ride has been worth every post-midnight bedtime and extra 500 calories. Still, it has to be said, put me in a blindfold and some of the events taste and sound alike. Likewise the guest lists, which follow a “usual suspects” pattern. To be fair, that happens in any big city, but gets ramped up in Washington, where so much of the entertaining is keyed to political agendas and business goals. Nobody wants to break the mold. Nobody wants to do what hasn’t been done before. Social caution, if you will.

Then along comes a dinner where the host and hostess not only promise exclusivity, luster, quality and reward, but deliver it from eggs to apples. I arrived the other evening at the Embassy of Kuwait with a head full of skepticism and departed a few hours later impressed, seduced and grateful, strains of Marvin Hamlisch humming in my ears, my Hermes gift bag in hand.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton with Ambassador Al-Sabah.
I’d heard that Ambassador Al-Sabah, and particularly his blond wife, Rima Al-Sabah, had a gift for entertaining – not to mention the ways and means. I’d been to a few receptions at the embassy, and while they were beautiful and bountiful there was also a sense of everyone in town having been invited. Well, everyone in town was not invited to the Al-Sabah’s fifth annual gala of the Kuwait-American Foundation, this year – on Earth Day - in support of Conservation International and honoring Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Leonardo DiCaprio. Only 144 people were included at the black-tie affair, in a town where 300 or more is typical.

Dinner party veterans know the way in which tables get seated says everything about the smarts of the hostess. Imagine being able to make every table feel like the “A” table in a city where the egos can be competitive and toxic. Rima nailed it. At his table, Amb. Al-Sabah had Clinton, National Security Adviser James Jones, Tom Brokaw, Theresa Heinz Kerry, and Peter Seligmann of Conservation International, and the table across the room – on the other side of the flower-filled interior pool – where Rima sat with DiCaprio, his mother, Irmelin, White House Social Secretary Desiree Rogers, Mayor Adrian Fenty, Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood, Sen. John Kerry, Marvin Hamlisch and Tom Friedman. The Kerrys, I’m told, were privately reluctant to attend a dinner honoring Clinton – apparently still smarting over him not getting State – but if true it was not betrayed on their faces. Besides, Washington dinners tend to attract underlying tension. It’s politics.
Amb. Al-Sabah presents Hillary Clinton with the 2009 Kuwait-American Foundation Humanitarian Award.
My table included Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, Wendy Paulson, Debbie Dingell and executives from Northup Grumman and the National Bank of Kuwait. At the table to my right was Bob Woodward, Lally Weymouth.

At other tables around the wood, tile and gilded room were a well-edited mix of official, corporate and social, including Ann Jordan and Buffy Cafritz, Saudi Ambassador Adel Al-Jubeir, Brazilian Ambassador Antonio de Aquiar Patriota, Bahrain Ambassador Houda Nonoo, UAE Ambassador Samir Sumaida’ie, and Indonesian Ambassador Sudjadnan Parnohadiningrat; Reps. Howard Berman, Ellen Tauscher and Ed Markey, Capricia Marshall and Melanne Verveer, The Carlyle Group’s Ed Mathias, former White House chief of staff Mack McLarty, Sen. Susan Collins, Chris Isham and Jennifer Maquire, and executives from Chevron, Dow Chemical, Conoco Phillips, Kuwait Petroleum, ExxonMobil, Shell Oil, Boeing, Marathon Oil, Ford, GM, Goldman Sachs and Valero.

Rima Al-Sabah and Leonard DiCaprio.
What else made it special? The sweet welcoming remarks from Ambassador Al-Sabah and Rima, who swept from her table to the podium in an Earth Day appropriate leopard print Christian Dior silk chiffon. Watching Secretary Clinton blush at her table when honored in music by Hamlisch. The weight and stress of the campaign has lifted from her face and she looks sincerely happy. If anything, one of the most masculine jobs on the planet makes her appear softer. Not weaker, but softer.

Clinton’s brief but smooth speech was a polished, professional contrast to DiCaprio’s politically astute but nervous and halting remarks. Charmingly, he said, “My tablemates said I should just speak from the heart, but instead I’m going to read the prepared speech.” His tablemates were right. But then the really good actors rarely are comfortable in their own skin, which is why Reagan was so brilliant in speech making.

What else set the evening apart from the routine? The asparagus vichyssoise served in a bowl made of ice that rested in a bed of tall wheatgrass, the re-stuffed baked potato crested with a generous portion of caviar, the lamb chops on wild mushroom risotto with haricots vert, the chocolate and Clementine tart under a crown of spun golden sugar.

At the end of the dinner, Brokaw, the master of ceremonies, was, as one guest artfully relived it in an email, “surprisingly heartfelt when without a script he eloquently drew the connection between the first human view of the distant Earth made by the Apollo 8 astronauts on Christmas Eve 1968 and the responsibility each of us has for protecting the delicate world we call our home.”

Some may think these kinds of dinners happen routinely in Washington. Unfortunately for me, they do not.
Irmelin DiCaprio. Justice Stephen Breyer, Joanna Breyer, Janice Berman, and Howard Berman.
Wayne and Lea Berman. Bob Woodward and Elsa Walsh.
Susan Blumenthal, Donna McLarty, Melanne Verveer, and Mac McLarty. Sen. John Kerry and Theresa Heinz Kerry.
Diane Jones and National Security Advisor Gen. James Jones. Desiree Rogers. Michelle Fenty and DC Mayor Adrian Fenty.
Wendy and Henry Paulson with Tom Brokaw. Lally Weymouth and Buffy Cafritz.

Sunday evening at 6 o’clock Georgetown saw the end of a cultural icon. While it was linked to romantic possibility, and sold beer and food, it was not a bar or restaurant. It was a supermarket – the so-called “Social Safeway.” It’s unclear how it got the name – some say coined by students at Georgetown University – but the urban legend was that in the era before “hook up” entered the vocabulary, singles could go there to find romance in the same aisles with the sausage, hamburger buns and paper towels. I wonder if the suits at Safeway missed a marketing opportunity. (See eharmony,, etc.). Regardless, it has closed, and according to Safeway will reopen in 18 months with a more modern concept. Hmmm. I used it for years but the only approach a man ever made was to ask “Where’s the Cap’n Crunch?” Did I miss the code?
Not much to look at, but the Georgetown "social" Safeway was quite the hot spot on the inside.
The shelves almost empty as Georgetown's "social" Safeway prepared to close on Sunday. Late Friday night ... some of the last customers.
If these aisles could talk. Empty now, but where Georgetown singles would come to meet and more.
Photographs courtesy of Embassy of Kuwait. Carol Joynt is the host of The Q&A Cafe, a talk show at Nathans Restaurant in Washington, D.C.