Monday, August 3, 2009

Washington Social Diary

A team of fire department investigators outside the Cafritz home early Sunday morning. The fire was Wednesday evening. No cause had been determined as of the weekend.
Washington Mourns A House
By Carol Joynt

We had a story of race in Washington last week that didn’t get nearly the attention of a white cop and a black academic hugging it out over beers at the White House with the President and Vice President. Peggy Cooper Cafritz, the African American arts patron and collector, and former DC School Board head, was taking a holiday on Martha’s Vineyard when she got the call. Mother to the bone, she sensed bad news and feared it might involve her son.

Cafritz with Jeff Sonhouse's duo The Color of Conversion, Liberty and Progression Found on a Fast Food Menu, on wall, and a watercolor portrait by David Jamison, on floor. Photo: O, The Oprah Magazine.
No, it was not her son, but still an important part of the family. The call was about her home, in the leafy and majority white Palisades section of the city. It was on fire; the grand but intimate mansion along with all the marvelous and rare pieces of art she collected, primarily the prized work of black artists. It was out of control, and though no living thing was harmed, nothing in the home could be saved.

Not only did Peggy mourn the loss, but the city did, too, the full multi-cultural, multi-racial population, from one corner to the next, young and old, across the economic spectrum, those in the arts and those on the edges, and many others who were touched by Peggy, her generosity and welcomed into the gabled, columned frame structure she called home for 40 years. It was an exhibition space for black artists, an occasional dorm for the up and coming young, a social hub used for charitable and political benefit, and a beacon of exuberant personal expression in a city where that’s often tamped down. It was also a racial melting pot. That’s why Washington is in mourning for a house.

What is a home if it burns to the ground but there were no “living” things that died? End of story? To say there were no deaths is to deny art its due as having represented life. Art is something greater than valued personal possessions – the clothing in the closets, the sofa, papers on a desk, the framed photographs. Art is a life, and like a living thing it is irreplaceable. It becomes ashes with no grave, a memory that must be harbored by those who created it, viewed it and were moved by it. In this case more poignant because the works lost were of a minority genre that’s at the threshold of art world power.
Photo: Bill O'Leary, The Washington Post.
DC Police guard the driveway to Peggy Cooper Cafritz's home. Fire engines parked at the base of Chain Bridge Road Sunday morning, 8 o'clock. Investigators were up the road at the scene.
There is another part to this story, one that is still playing out. Peggy’s neighbors are in a rage, and city leaders concerned, because maybe the house could have been saved. It was on a lovely road called Chain Bridge, one of the last bucolic residential thoroughfares within the city. It rises and falls and twists. Though the fire department arrived on the scene within minutes of it being called in, the hoses couldn’t get enough water to stop the blaze. Some neighbors say that for too long the firemen could do little more than stand and watch the house burn as the hoses lay limp. An investigation is already underway, and Mayor Adrian Fenty plans to weigh in this week.

No doubt there will be more reports and editorials in the local media, neighborhood and city government hearings, and changes made in the maintenance of fire hydrants and the water supply, but the house, and especially a rare collection of art, are forever gone.
Five days after the fire, the scene outside the Washington home of Peggy Cooper Cafritz.
Through the woods: at that remains of the frame Cafritz home are the parts that were brick, like the chimney.

All you have to do is read her enduringly terrific book, “Heartburn,” and you’d be safe to assume writer and director Nora Ephron is not thrilled to come to Washington. Talk about returning to the scene of the crime, err, heartburn. But come she did last week, bearing gifts for The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

Museum director Brent Glass welcomed Ephron and accepted a small bit of loot from her new film, “Julie & Julia,” which stars Meryl Streep as the famous chef, author, TV star and general food enthusiast, the late Julia Child. Why the Smithsonian? Because they have Julia Child’s original kitchen from her Cambridge, MA., home, an actual working family kitchen that doubled as stage set for her PBS program.
Movie director Nora Ephron with museum director Brent Glass. Niece Phila Cousins praised Meryl Streep for an "absolutely brilliant" portrayal of her "Aunt Juju."
Ephron contributed a costume worn by Streep, as well as a script and some story boards, and matched the $5,000 gift made to the Museum by Childs’ niece, Phila Cousins, on behalf of the Julia Child Foundation.

If you’re too young to be clued in to why Washington gave Ephron legitimate heartburn, take note of the exchange between the writer and director and Stephanie Green, a brave columnist for The Washington Times. In the midst of the party outside the kitchen exhibition, Green asked Ephron, “Was Carl Bernstein a good cook?” Ephron shot her one of those looks. “You’re at this and asking me about my ex husband?!!?” I believe the conversation ended there.

A list of guests provided by the museum included Dana Allen-Greil, Susan Anderson, Paul Appeldorn, Rob Barrett, Jane Bergner, Olga Boikess, Diane Bolz, Mike Finn, Jullian Brems, Susan Poretz, Beth Mendelson, Susan Sorenko, Janet Cam, Kristen Chasse, Nick Moran, Elizabeth and Barbara Cullen, Leslee Dart, Kathleen Desmond, Patrice Dionot, Laura Duff, Victoria Duncan, Nanci Edwards, Liesel Flastenberg, Helen Quick, Karen Thomas, Annie Groer, Anthony Hesselius, Maggie Hogan, Kathy Hollinger, Michele Jacobs, Kate Jansen, Tom Huzienga, Alex Cudaback, Mary and Phil Kopper, Karril and Tony Kornheiser, Peter Liebhold, Janelle Lombardo, Nikki Lowrey, Joan Mayfield, Brian Maynard, Roland Mesnier, Tim McCullaugh, Pilar Torres, Janis McLean, Rosa Mendoza, Michel Richard, Allan Miller and Katheryn Newal-Smith, Rebecca Pawlowski, Nicholas Pileggi, Judy Woodruff, Steve Velasquez, John Todhunter, Ellen Stanley, Dan Snyder, Gigi Simone, Bill Yeingst and Ivory Zorich.
Nora Ephron surprised the guests when she announced she was "happy to match" a $5000 gift given to the Smithsonian moments earlier by The Julia Child Foundation.
The audience at the Ephron presentation. The woman to the left, in the green dress, is Julia Child's niece, Phila Cousins.
A costume worn by Meryl Streep in her role as Julia Child. A story board from "Julie & Julia."
Guests at the party examine the "Julie & Julia" screenplay.
A copy of the 2008 "Salmon Revision" of Ephron's script for "Julie & Julia," now a possession of the Smithsonian.
Spoiler Alert: a snippet of direction from the "Julie & Julia" screenplay.
Food for the party was prepared by Washington chef Ris LaCoste based on some of Julia Child's favorites like Quiche. Fondue and Coq au Vin. There were lots of glasses of Goldfish. Why? Because, according to her niece, Julia Child loved to munch on Goldfish.
As it was: the Julia Child kitchen exhibition at the Smithsonian.
Photographs by Carol Joynt. Carol is the host of The Q&A Cafe in Washington, D.C.