Monday, December 13, 2010

Washington Social Diary

Former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing with Ambassador Vimont.
by Carol Joynt

Washington has lost one of its most popular players, French Ambassador Pierre Vimont, who quietly had the virtues of being powerful, smart, attractive, interesting and well mannered. What’s more, a rarity among men here; when he talked he didn’t talk about himself. Mention that trait to any woman in town and she’ll say, “No, not in Washington. Not possible.” Nonetheless, the soft spoken and self-effacing diplomat has been reassigned.

After three years in residence on Kalorama Road, Vimont moved to Brussels to an even bigger job. He’s is the first Secretary-General of the European External Action Service, making him number two to the European Union’s effective foreign minister, Catherine Ashton. Though the appointment was made in October, and he reported to his post in Brussels a few weeks ago, Vimont makes a brief return to Washington this week for an official farewell.
The official residence of the French Ambassador.
Vimont, on the right, with Roland Celette at the Kalorama residence.
Naturally, Washington being Washington, among the first mournful reactions was, “What happens to the Vanity Fair party?” For the past couple of years Vimont hosted the reliably star-studded party Vanity Fair tossed after the White House Correspondents Association Dinner, the capital’s answer to the Golden Globes. The after-party outshone the dinner both years.

While unquestionably a gifted host, Vimont’s more cerebral side is what many of his friends will remember and miss. He got involved in the town—diplomatically and politically, of course, but also culturally and intellectually. He opened his doors and welcomed in everyone, and not solely the social and the titled. He and his press counselor, Emmanuel Lenain, created the monthly Kalorama Lecture series that drew the city’s smartest thinkers to hear a talk by a French notable (for example, former President Valery Giscard d’Estaing) followed by a lovely dinner. In his off hours Vimont walked the city, literally, and enjoyed getting to know the community behind the official façade. He liked to pop into Martin’s Tavern in Georgetown for an all-American hamburger.
After the White House Correspondents Dinner, the Vanity Fair party at the French Ambassador's residence.
Pierre Vimont and David Deckelbaum at the Vanity Fair party.
“To transcend official diplomacy an ambassador has to be game to participate in typical American habits. They want to see how our tribe operates,” said Kathy Kemper, a well known Washington networker and host of a public affairs breakfast forum that includes diplomats, public officials and media. “I am always weary of diplomats that have a full house of socialites at their residences for dinners and receptions.” That was not Vimont. He didn’t eschew the social crowd but they weren’t his identity, either. For Kemper, it was simple: “Vimont is a dream.”

Here’s the thing about the diplomatic corps in Washington: it is an entrenched part of the landscape but no one is permanent, or even close. Where once upon a time a typical tour in the capital could run a decade, today ambassadors come and go through a revolving door spun hard by the accelerated pace of global vicissitudes. They come, they go, having little impact. Vimont used his time here wisely. And while he didn’t manipulate the social scene for his own ego, like some, he also did not stand on the sidelines.
James Hoagland and Ambassador Pierre Vimont at a ceremony honoring Hoagland.
Syndicated columnist James Hoagland, a regular at the Kalorama Lectures — which he called “the most innovative development in social life on Embassy Row in years” — said he is impressed with the astute way the Ambassador did his job. “Distinctive to Vimont's approach is his willingness to follow with great skill the Washington dictum that you can get anything done here as long as you don't mind who gets the credit for it. He deftly deflected credit onto others while he went about getting the job done.” Hoagland also praised the way Vimont performed in earlier roles, also with the EU, and serving French foreign ministers. “We will all miss him.”

Vimont got to know the people who live here, but by “here” I don’t mean only Washington, DC. He traveled as much of the United States as his duties and time would allow.

Good friends sharing a laugh: Vimont and British Ambassador Nigel Sheinwald.
Google him and his name pops up at appearances from one coast to the other and lots of towns to the north and south and in between. He went to the presidential debates, the political conventions, and he monitored the mid-term elections. He took a summer holiday in New Mexico, and has a special fondness for New Orleans.

In Washington, he was the patron of many charitable events and not only lent his name but also showed up. Perhaps it was the advantage of being essentially a bachelor ambassador that made him every hostess’s ideal dinner honoree, dinner guest, dinner partner, extra man. No one else came close.

He is well liked among his diplomatic peers, too. The French and British have had a “special relationship” for centuries, but in the case of Vimont and British Ambassador Nigel Sheinwald there is genuine mutual affection. They are friends off the clock, too.

“This is the third time Pierre and I have worked together. We were Europe Directors in our Foreign Ministries in the 1990s, Permanent Representatives to the EU in Brussels a decade ago, and took our posts in Washington at much the same time,” Sheinwald wrote in an email. “We’ve been friends and close collaborators in the US – with the Administration, on Capitol Hill and on the election campaign trail. Pierre has an exhaustive knowledge of world and European affairs, acute political antenna and an exceptional talent for collegiality and calm handling of difficult issues. We’ll miss him, but European/US relations will be in even better hands now!”

We met for the first time in October of 2007, soon after he arrived, when Ellen Charles hosted a dinner on behalf of Tudor Place, where she was head of the board.
Ellen Charles and Pierre Vimont at Tudor Place, one of his first public appearances after arriving in Washington as ambassador.
Ellen Charles and Ambassador Vimont at Hillwood, by now a seasoned Ambassador.
Last week she said, “He’s such a bright and interesting man, but his love of our country made him special.” Coincidentally, the Tudor Place dinner was my first column for NYSD. The dinner celebrated the 250th birthday of the Marquis de Lafayette, who dined at the historic house. Most everyone at the dinner was meeting Vimont for the first time. He charmed them. “For those of you who did not know, I arrived on September 6, which is the actual birthday of Lafayette,” he said in a toast. “Since I arrived I have been living with (him), but that’s okay because in every Frenchman there is a little bit of Marquis de Lafayette.”

Two weeks later I was invited to a small luncheon at his residence — only six of us — and it was an unusually lovely and relaxed repast. I wrote: “He understands he’s in for an interesting time here, as we embark on a highly charged political year and the eventual transition from one administration to another. He beamed at the thought.” In fact, probably his only regret about the new job is that he likely won’t be here to experience the next general election, though I expect he’ll find an EU excuse to come and observe.
In time lunch for six at the French Ambassador's residence in October 2007.
Ambassador Vimont's dining room before a dinner.
In early 2008 he appeared on The Q&A Café, a talk show I host for DC Cable. He talked about his youth in Washington when his father was a diplomat, his love of film and James Taylor, but certainly didn’t give away any state secrets. His well honed Gallic shrug settled queries that went where he diplomatically didn’t dare go (subjects like French First Lady Carla Bruni). Nonetheless, it was an SRO audience of Washingtonians who came because they were curious about the man.

Which brings me to the gossip that greeted his arrival in the capital, gossip that derived from his having an estranged wife, Catherine Verret-Vimont, and a long-time companion, Colette Cova, back in Europe. Ooh la la, the sensation. The Washington Post’s “Reliable Source” column ran the headline: “How Do You Say Love Triangle In French?” How did Vimont handle it? He did nothing. He never said anything about it, went about his life, and the curiosity quietly subsided. Well played.
Pierre Vimont and Carol Joynt at The Q&A Cafe
There are a few candidates under consideration to replace him, names that are whispered but none made public. Tough shoes to fill but also an unbeatable career opportunity. For example, Vimont’s predecessor, Jean-David Levitte, was recalled to Paris from Washington to be diplomatic advisor to President Nicolas Sarkozy. Whoever gets the job will have two political pulses to read, because Sarkozy, like President Obama, is up for re-election in 2012.

It was impossible to write this story and not have it come out like a puff piece. Mention Vimont’s name to anyone, ask for a quote, and the response is nothing but gush. Since he harbors an ambition to one day be a university professor — possibly in the U.S. — he could come back and teach the secrets of success in Washington on all its key playing fields--diplomatic, political, media and social — though I suspect he’d prefer to lecture on foreign policy.
Vimont in October speaking at a State Department dinner hosted by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Pierre Vimont in a familiar spot, welcoming guests to his residence. This was a party for the Congressional French Caucus.
Vimont, surrounded by staff, listens to a speaker at a Kalorama Lecture
The French Embassy's Cultural Attaché, Roland Celette, with Ambassador Vimont at a Hillwood Museum dinner in December 2008.
Rep. James Oberstar, and Renaud Dutreil of LVMH, at a party hosted by Vimont for Dior.
Vimont fans, James Hoagland and Jane Stanton Hitchcock
What Washington had in Vimont was a man for all seasons. The city’s dean of party reporting, Kevin Chaffee of Washington Life magazine, cited Vimont’s “wonderfully gentle manner,” and “great aplomb,” as what will be missed. NYSD contributor Ned Brown mentioned his “charm, style and intellect.” Novelist Jane Stanton Hitchcock recalled with levity that when she broke her hip at the British Embassy he helped “wheel me out of the embassy in a wheelchair. That's what I call Entente Cordiale!
Here are some clips of my interview with Pierre Vimont from february 2008, during his first year as French Ambassador:
Here he talks about his family, his past career and living in Washington:
Here he is talking about Nicolas Sarkozy and his role as the (then) new President of France:

Thursday evening there were a couple of events in Georgetown that were well worth a drop by to enhance the holiday spirit.

Georgetown University President John DeGioia and is wife, Theresa, welcomed guests into the handsome Riggs Library for a reception that featured the Holy Trinity School Choir. This party, which the DeGioias have hosted for several years, is one of the sweetest of the season—the combination of the beautiful room, the beautiful voices of the children and the camaraderie of the Georgetown community.

The Riggs library is in Healy Hall and was once the university’s only library (now there are many). It has quite a history, dating back to the late 1890s.
Georgetown University's Healy Hall, lit up for Christmas.
Theresa and Jack DeGioia.
The Holy Trinity School Choir, getting ready to sing Christmas Carols.
The children singing.
Looking down at the guests.
Homes have history, too, especially in Georgetown. From the campus we walked three few blocks to 34th Street and what was for many years the home of the late Ambassador David K.E. Bruce and his wife, Evangeline. Today it is home to Deborah and Curtin Winsor, who hosted a book party for interior designer Campion Platt. The house is massive, which may explain why the Winsor’s had three Christmas trees. I liked them all, but the one in the living room (which used to be the Bruce’s ballroom) was the best.

Platt signed books for guests while Curt greeted friends and waiters served champagne cocktails and passed trays of canapés. The Winsor’s co-hosts included Susanna and Jack Quinn, Jamie and Dave Dorros, and Sarah and John Talcott.
Campion Platt listens to a fan. Campion Platt's Made To Order.
Frederica Valanos with the book party's host, Curtin Winsor.
At the Winsor's, tree #1 in the living room.
Tree #2, in the den. Tree #3, in the dining room.
Bob Gabriel peruses Platt's book in the dining room, where it was selling quickly.
Photographs by Carol Joynt. Carol is the host of The Q&A Cafe in Washington, D.C.

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