Monday, May 3, 2010

Washington Social Diary

Outside the Hilton: cops, Secret Service, media, fans, curious onlookers.
WHILE ROME BURNS, THE ELITE MEDIA BOOZE, SCHMOOZE AND STARGAZE
by Carol Joynt

What can you say about an event that has evolved into the opposite of what its founders intended? In other words, a once serious-minded, sophisticated black tie soiree where Washington’s elite journalists entertained their sources as guests, with an off-the-record dinner and some light entertainment and a few chatty, scotch on-the-rocks after parties? That concept is deader than Kelso’s you know what’s.

Instead, what we had here these last several days in your nation’s capital was an unseemly orgy of media self-love and groupie-style fawning that questions the social judgment of the nation’s major media corporations. Are they unaware of the recession, the strife and heartbreak of two wars, the overall economic uncertainty, and the divisiveness that is crippling our political culture? Obviously they are; therefore the only explanation is gross arrogance and insensitivity.
Lining up for the shot at the National Journal's pre-dinner cocktail party.
In Washington I’m alone on this, but there’s something not right about black tie and evening gowns, back-slapping and expensive joke-telling, the gush of money, and a general attitude of “let Rome burn,” from a media class which itself is on hard times, not to mention in a nation that’s on hard times.

Even the Oscars have toned it down. The White House Correspondents Association, on the other hand, chose this year to ramp it up. What they earlier fancied as their “prom” was newly anointed as their “Super Bowl” – six days of invitation-only boozing, schmoozing and stargazing. The Super Bowl, however, makes gazillions of dollars, is open to anyone who can buy a ticket, and ends with a champion being declared.
Everyone likes to post with everyone at the WHCA dinner.
It would be another matter if the White House Correspondents Dinner were a “media gives back” event, a fundraiser for important charitable causes; the war wounded, for example, or a fund for laid off journalists. But the celebrities who attend – fresh off the covers of US, OK, In Touch, People and The National Enquirer – are not brought into town to help WHCA raise money.

Their singular role is to provide starpower, reflected glamour. In return they get some political cred, a fleeting moment in the same room with the President of the United States, and not a little bit of free publicity. The WHCA does use ticket sales and other funds to give out $133,000 in scholarships, and another several thousand in reporting awards, but those funds pale in comparison to the money spent by media companies to entertain for six whole days around the main event.
James Packard Gomez self-pics himself with Bill Maher and Maher's date.
As a break from the generally mundane Washington social landscape the dinner has a certain garish fun house appeal, where all at one party I can bounce pinball like from Ryan Seacrest to National Security Advisor James Jones to Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow, to quarterback Tony Romo to Rupert Murdoch to White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel to Katie Couric to Kim Kardashian to Jimmy Fallon, Gabourey Sidibe, Padma Lakshmi and The Jonas Brothers. Seriously!

The imported celebs smile and wink at each other, not sure what to make of it all, while the media “hosts” pull them into one photo op after another, and breathlessly tweet and report on every moment.

But it beats me what any of this nuttiness even remotely has to do with reporting on the important business of Washington. By contrast, I know what the Oscars, the Emmys and the Grammys are about: celebrating the work of a particular industry.
The WHCA pre-dinner cocktail parties in largely in the basement of the Washington Hilton. This is the scene.
What does the White House Correspondents dinner have to do with journalism and the White House? Once upon a time it was about only that, and it helped to make the Washington press corps appear as serious journalists, not groupies.

If you’re wondering who’s footing the bill for the media “Super Bowl,” flying in the stars, putting them up in hotels, providing 24/7 drivers and other services, plentiful food and wine, making sure they are “on the list” at every party, just look to your favorite newspaper, network, cable channel, glossy magazine or all-news website. Here’s only some: ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Newsweek, The New Yorker, Wall Street Journal, Washington Times, Time & People, Huffington Post and Politico.

Now I ask: Wouldn’t the lavish spending have been better used on reporters who right now might be unearthing the truth of what went on at Goldman Sachs, or giving fresh compelling insight into how we get out of two wars, or simply digging at some well-hidden government secret?
A vid of guests at pre-dinner cocktail parties at the 2010 White House Correspondents Association dinner in Washington. This was shot in the hallway that crosses from the parties to the entrance to the Hilton ballroom.
There are too many WHCA-related events to list, and most are social mosh pits - food and booze troughs, day or night – where everyone is jammed in cheek by jowl. But there were a couple of civilized stand-outs that deserve mention.

The poolside dinner David and Katherine Bradley gave at their home was, as it is each year, an oasis of calm and sophistication. It was Friday, on the eve of the WHCA gala. David is chairman of Atlantic Media Company and the guest list pulled from his friends in publishing, for example Jason Binn of Niche Media; and the advertising class, Guy Forestier-Walker of MPG; and various and assorted moguls, including, for example, “Sex and the City” creator Darren Star, plus execs from Audi, AstraZeneca and Shell. Each year the Bradley’s dinner has a food focus with culinary commentary by Atlantic Senior Editor Corby Kummer. This year’s theme was “green.” His collaborator was caterer Susan Gage, who he praised as the “nicest and most competent” of all Washington’s caterers. Many would agree.

Party favors included little pots of herbs or Lily of Valley, which were part of the table décor, and small boxes of artisan chocolates.
Guests enjoy cocktails outside the Washington home of David and Katherine Bradley
From the inside looking out. The view from the Bradley living room out to the terrace and tent.
The dinner's wines were from Freemark Abbey.
Andrew Schneider of Monument Fine Wines and Corby Kummer of Atlantic magazine.
The wait staff, ready to perform.
A poolside table setting. The herbs and Lily of the Valley were to take home.
Guests taking their seats.
The wine is ready to be poured.
Katherine Bradley listens to her husband's toast.
David Bradley listens to Corby Kummer describe the "green" menu.
Clockwise from above: The menu; Tile Fish in fresh herb spring pea broth with new potatoes; Warm Strawberry-Rhubarb Croustades with Vanilla Ice Cream.
Jason Binn. Jason Binn and Darren Star.
Guy Forestier-Walker, Haley Binn, Jason Binn, and Susan Gage.
Dinner underway.
Looking from the house out to the party.
The other notable social event was the after-party hosted by French Ambassador Pierre Vimont at his Kalorama residence for the second year in a row. The sponsors were Vanity Fair and Bloomberg, who covered the costs and determined the guest list, which was distilled to a glossy Who’s Who of entertainment, business, media and Washington society. Oh, and some politics, too.

This particular fete is reliably well cast and grown up, though this year it felt bigger, more crowded. That’s the risk faced by any quality annual party. It can grow too large, collapse on itself and have to reform and start again. Vanity Fair had that happen with its first generation of WHCA after-parties in the 90s.
French Ambassador Pierre Vimont and David Deckelbaum
There’s no terrace like the French Ambassador’s terrace, with the towering trees glowing in a wash of light, the beautiful pool down below, waiters at the ready with cold bottles of good champagne, and on this particular night, handsome and well-dressed men and women in every direction: Julianna Margulies, Kristin Davis, Chace Crawford, Scarlett Johansson, Dennis Quaid, Matthew Morrison, Jessica Alba, Donovan McNabb, Adrian Grenier, Ashley Judd, Morgan Freeman, Anna Kendrick, Alec Baldwin ...

It was only when I got home and tuned into the news of the failed New York car bomb, that I could safely sigh, “ah, reality.”
At the French Ambassador's, Morgan Freeman and Richard Johnson of Page Six, who said to Freeman, "I've never written anything bad about you."
Chace Crawford and Pamela Brown
On the Ambassador's terrace.
Another view of the terrace.
The trees were washed in light. Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow graciously signed autographs. To her left, screenwriter Mark Boal.
Take your pick. Of the champagne, that is.
The view from the terrace down to the pool.
Headed home, but what a swell party it was: Robert Higdon, Bob Colacello and David Deckelbaum
Georgetown’s Gala in a Supermarket

This week Georgetown will experience the sad and happy sides of the new economic reality. On Wednesday its failed behemoth shopping mall goes up for auction in a foreclosure action while that same evening the so-called “Social Safeway,” a new behemoth itself, re-opens with, of all things, an actual gala. Yes, a gala in a supermarket. Arguably it proves that in a duel for the consumer dollar, the shopping essentials beat out the shopping whims.

For many people, particularly those from elsewhere, Georgetown is remembered as the Washington hub of the Kennedy’s Camelot, all chic and charm. It’s a nice memory, but increasingly it’s only a memory. Georgetown is still wonderful Georgetown, especially in the residential area, but like other historic villages it has been overwhelmed by chain stores that more commonly reside in malls. At the moment, these stores aren’t doing all that well. In fact, the numbers of closings and boarded up storefronts is alarming. Lackluster sales, and other problems, tanked the mall.
Up for auction May 5: the bankrupt Georgetown Park mall.
The Georgetown Park mall at high noon on a week day: not busy.
A hall of closed stores in the Georgetown Park mall.
The busiest business at the Georgetown Park mall is the DMV.
Civic officials are aware of the problem. They hired a Virginia consultant to “re-brand” Georgetown, interviewing all kinds of business and community leaders. The hour-long sessions include word games and questions like, “If Georgetown were a color what color would it be?”

The gala reopening of the Georgetown Safeway is the biggest thing to happen in the village in quite a while. People are actually clamoring for invitations to the party, where Safeway will unveil state of the art features like freezer doors that won’t fog, house-roasted nuts, home-baked bread and pizzas, a sushi bar, and an extensive wine and beer collection and a wine bar for Thursday “happy hour” wine tastings. Also, it will be open 24 hours. Given that the old store was known as a “singles” destination, I’m waiting for them to install a “hook-up” concierge. Talk about one stop shopping.
It may look like just another brand new supermarket, but in Washington its known as the "social" Safeway, and it opens this week with a gala.
The aisles are wide and feature state of the art lighting and cooling.
Where nuts are roasted to order.
The new Georgetown Safeway has a special emphasis in mirco breweries.
Cheese lessons in advance of opening. The store will feature a cheese "sommelier."
The temperature controlled "wine cellar" will have lots of wines to go with the cheeses.
The frozen food freezer doors are designed not to fog.
This will be in the in-store sushi bar.
The Starbucks staff get coffee lessons.
New Safeway staff practice making pizzas.
In advance of the grand-opening: baking lessons.
A huge flower department.
Many check out stations.
It may be a new and state of the art Safeway, but it still features classic checkout counter reading.
Those Wentworth Girls

It’s easy to tell that Sissy and Ali Wentworth grew up relying on each other. They have an obvious sibling bond, but their intimate and amusing manner together suggests real friendship. Sissy as an adult became Sissy Wentworth Yates, wife, mother and jewelry designer. Ali grew up to be Alexandra Wentworth Stephanopoulos, wife, mother, comedian, actress and talk show regular. (I think I’ve listed the priorities the way they would, too.)

If you noticed the jewelry that Ali wore on her hilarious Starz series, “Head Case,” and on regular appearances on “Oprah” and “The View,” the beautiful pieces are designed and hand made by Sissy. Ali likes to show off her sister’s work, and to that end hosted an open house last week with rooms full of Sissy’s necklaces, bracelets, rings and earrings. They both flitted about, welcoming friends, modeling pieces, writing up sales. The most popular item: a pair of gold earrings featured in this month’s “Oprah” magazine.
Sisters Sissy Yates and Ali Wentworth.
The occasion was bittersweet for the sisters. Ali’s husband, George Stephanopoulos, has a new job co-hosting ABC’s “Good Morning America,” which required a move to New York. The Georgetown house has been sold and will soon be packed up; Ali’s only waiting for their daughters’ school terms to end. They’ve found a New York apartment, “which of course needs to be renovated,” said Ali, with emphasis on the “of course.”

But all’s not lost. Expect big things from Ali, who may soon have an enhanced role in the Oprah empire. And Sissy’s thinking about the crystals, stones and shells she plans to use in her new pieces.
A pair of Sissy Yates earrings foreground, a potential buyer in the background.
Sissy writes up a sale. Part of the profits from the open house went to local charities.
Customers and jewelry.
Eden Rafshoon finds a keeper.
Ali, the actress, portrays an eager saleswoman.
On the Stephanopoulos' bookshelf.
Among Sissy's favorites, necklaces made from geodes and agate.
Sissy and Ali listen to a customer. The most popular style, as seen in "O" magazine.
A closer look at the so-called "Oprah" earrings.
Sissy Yates bracelets.
Sissy favors seasonal colors, like this opaline necklace suited to summer.
Sissy Yates necklaces.
Outside the Stephanopoulos house, which has been sold.
Photographs by Carol Joynt. Carol is the host of The Q&A Cafe in Washington, D.C.

Visit her at: caroljoynt.com. Follow Carol on Twitter.