Monday, September 20, 2010

Washington Social Diary

The standing ovation for Barbara Conrad Smith at the National Archives for a Washington screening of “When I Rise."
by Carol Joynt

Amid rumors and reports that the marriage of Warren Beatty and Annette Bening is on the rocks, there’s news out of Washington that counters the speculation. Next week the fall social season here lights its after burners with an event honoring Bening, and the organizers have been told Beatty will attend. If it turns out to be their first side-by-side public appearance since the split reports, at the very least expect a paparazzi invasion in pursuit of the money shot.

Using the term “fall social season” feels archaic, because the suggestion it has a beginning and end, at least in Washington, has become meaningless as fundraisers increasingly drive social life, and they happen year round. Once upon a time the opera set the demarcation lines, but it doesn’t anymore as it is perceived as the cult of the elders.

Socially, the seasons blend into each other, especially for the young, with every kind of promo party, book party, theater opening and screening to keep the flow going even in the doldrums. Maybe there’s a week in January and a week in August when it’s full stop, but that’s about it.

Social peaks do happen. For example, in the highbrow sense, any State Dinner and the December Kennedy Center Honors, and still hanging on is the January Washington Antiques Show; for the lowbrow there’s the springtime White House Correspondents Association Dinner, which started as a one-night affair and has become a weeklong marathon drawing reporters, talk show hosts and every grade of celebrity.

That said, if there must be a fall starting moment, then it is upon us as this week winds down. In terms of Washington at its most private, social and powerful – and again, I repeat private – this week Buffy and Bill Cafritz and Vernon and Ann Jordan will host a cocktail buffet at a downtown hotel. No media coverage, which is remarkable and refreshing; in a TMZ world it's as rare as hen’s teeth.

But, as I said up top, the after burners ignite the following week with two of the city’s best fall parties: The Meridian Ball and the Sidney Harman Center for the Arts Annual Gala. They may be fundraisers, starting at about $1000 a couple, but patrons get a strong return on their dollar. Last year the Meridian Ball was memorably off the hook, and since this year is the 50th anniversary celebration, it's expected to top that, with dozens of glam embassy dinners followed by dancing (and I don’t mean waltzing) into the wee hours at the Meridian International Center.
The Meridian Ball invitation, among many, for the so-called "fall social season."
The Harman Center gala is both an entertaining benefit show on behalf of the Shakespeare Theatre Company at the Center, followed by a lavish dinner at the National Building Museum with more entertainment and dancing. This is the event where Bening will be in the spotlight as honoree, receiving the William Shakespeare Award for Classical Theatre. The 2010 gala is called “Shakespearissimo” and includes performances by René Auberjonois, Paloma Herrera, The Juilliard Jazz Artist Diploma Ensemble, Bronson Pinchot and Frederica von Stade.

As if having Bening and Beatty in town isn’t wattage enough, right off of that weekend is the annual Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Gala at the Kennedy Center, where the honoree will be none other than the “Queen of Soul” herself, Aretha Franklin.

I would say to the lucky party animals invited to Meridian, Harman and Monk: pace yourselves, people.
Ar archival photo of Barbara Conrad from the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History. The film's poster.

In the 1950s, when she was a music student at the University of Texas, gifted African American mezzo-soprano Barbara Smith Conrad was cast in a school opera. Because the male classmate cast opposite her was white, all hell broke loose in the state legislature. Conrad was kicked out of the cast, and made into a national news story, but she didn’t let the drama or racism kick her future to the curb. Instead, with the support of Harry Belafonte and others, she resolved to stay in school and get her degree. Ultimately, she built a career that took her to the heights of the opera world.

Conrad’s story is now told in a documentary film, “When I Rise,” which last week had a Washington screening at the National Archives.
News coverage of the incident the shook Texas, from the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History.
Actor Jeffrey Wright was the Master of Ceremonies, and Conrad was there to enjoy the affection and acclaim of a number of notables, including Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shuan Donovan, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, Sean Kennedy from the White House Office of Legislature Affairs; Reps. Jim Clyburn and Eddie Bernice Johnson, BET Networks Chair Debra Lee, Tom Daschle, Communications Workers president Larry Cohen, the NAACP’s John Payton, AT&T Chairman Randall Stephenson, and the film’s producer, Ramona Kelly.

Wright told the audience that Conrad’s strength reminded him of his mother, Barbra Whiting Wright, and his aunt, Naomi Whiting, who were also in the audience. Conrad, who spoke after the screening and before a dessert reception, said making the film allowed healing she “didn’t realize” she needed. She ended with a cheer for her alma mater, “Hook ‘em Horns” and got a standing ovation.
John Payton. HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, Secretary of Commerce, Gary Locke, and Barbara Conrad.
Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (in the middle) with friends.
Harry Alford and Kay Debow. Yebbie Watkins, Barvetta Singletary, and Dave Grimaldi.
Barbara Conrad hugs a young fan. HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan with his family.
William Clyburn, Lyndon Boozer, Ceci Rouse, and Ford Morrison.
On the right, Tom Carter. Yolanda Caraway and DeDe Lea.
Jeffrey Wright, Barbara Conrad, and James Clyburn.
Randall Stephenson, Barbara Conrad, and Debra Lee. Jenine Liburd and Marcus Johnson.

There was a pretty little garden party last week for J. Roderick Heller, who finds the time to be a venture capitalist, historian and biographer. He’s chairman and CEO of Carnton Capital Associates in Washington and is past founding chairman of the Civil War Trust, vice chairman of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and chairman of Washington’s public radio and television station, WETA.

But, even with that resume, Heller found the time to write Democracy’s Lawyer, a well-received biography of Felix Grundy, a late 18th, early 19th century political and legal figure known as the Old Southwest’s greatest criminal lawyer. According to his biography, "Of the purported 185 murder defendants that he represented, only one was hanged."
The book.
Heller comes to his subject with a sound background. He’s a graduate of Princeton and the Harvard Law School; Harvard is also where he earned a master’s degree in history.

The book party was held at the Spring Valley home of his good friends William and Eve Lilley and co-hosted by other good friends, Beverly and John Fox Sullivan. The guests were a few dozen more good friends. Lilley declared the book a “great biography,” praising it for providing “a living, breathing, real-time individual, a so-called ‘New American’ in the flesh.”
The Lilley's Spring Valley home at twilight.
The book party for Rod Heller in the Lilley's garden.
The Lilley's dog, lower right, comes to check out the photographer.
Rod Heller's good friends celebrate publication of his book, "Democracy's Lawyer"
Book party co-hosts, Beverly and John Fox Sullivan. Eve Lilley.
Rod and Kay Heller with Beverly Sullivan and John Fox Sullivan.
Bill Lilley, John Sullivan and Rod Heller.
Listening to the speeches.
Photographs by Carol Joynt (Heller) and Kyle Samperton and Abby Greenawalt ("When I Rise"). Carol is the host of The Q&A Cafe in Washington, D.C.

Visit her at: Follow Carol on Twitter.