Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Washington Social Diary

Viola Drath in The Washington Times, where she wrote a column (Photo: James R. Brantley/The Washington Times).
by Carol Joynt

Viola Herms Drath, a 91-year-old sometimes journalist, author, government adviser, diplomat and hostess, was found dead in her Georgetown home last Friday. It’s the talk of the town and front-page news. At first police thought the German-born woman had died of natural causes, but after an autopsy they changed the cause of death to murder. Her husband, Albrecht Gero Muth, also German, 44 years her junior, who claims to be a general in the Iraqi Army, and uses the name Sheikh Ali Al-Muthaba, last evening was arrested and charged with second degree murder.

Metropolitan Police records show their more than two decades long marriage was volatile and that multiple times Drath accused Muth of attacking her and sought protective orders against him. On one occasion he was charged with assault, but she dropped the charges.

As summer the heat and humidity sit heavy on the leafy streets of Georgetown, police and local reporters scramble to learn more about Viola and Albrecht and what went on behind the always-curtained windows of their Q Street townhouse.

The home on Q Street in Georgetown where police say Viola Drath was found dead in a bathroom.
Crime scene: police have the door taped.
I have my own story to tell, which I’ve carried around for several years, sharing it occasionally with close friends and always ending it with the same words: “It was the strangest dinner party I’ve ever attended in Washington.”

It was approximately 2005. Out of the blue I received an email from a man identifying himself as Albrecht Muth, a Georgetown neighbor, and a friend and representative of Arun Gandhi, the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi and founder of the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence. Muth said Gandhi was coming to Washington and would I like to interview him on my local talk show, “The Q&A Café.” I was intrigued, replied “yes,” and over the course of many email messages set a date. Muth then invited me to attend a welcoming party for Gandhi to be hosted by the Indian Ambassador at the Embassy and “to please bring your son.”

Spencer did not want to go but I said, “it’s a privilege to see inside these embassies and you should go.”

The party was understated but elegant. I was not familiar with most of the people. Many of the men were in uniform. Most of all I noticed Albrecht and the woman with him. He was tall and round faced and in a well cut pin-striped suit, she was handsome and elegantly dressed and reminded me of Judith Anderson as Mrs. Danvers in Hitchcock’s “Rebecca.”

While they shared a similar hairstyle and bone structure it was her deportment more than anything: haughty, severe, and not the least impressed with meeting my son or me. The chill was palpable, and maybe that’s because when he introduced her – “This is Viola Drath, my wife” – my eyes may have registered dismay. I thought she was his mother, possibly even his grandmother. We made the smallest of small talk. I met Gandhi and said I looked forward to the interview, which was scheduled to happen the next day.

The program went well. We had a nearly filled room at Nathans, where I taped the show at lunchtime. Gandhi was interesting. Viola accompanied Muth, they sat together at the head table, but again she was distant, imperious. I took it as old world reserve, or else she just didn’t like me. But after the program was over, Muth approached me and said, “Viola and I would very much like you to come to dinner at our house, and please bring your son. I will follow up.”

And he did, via email. I replied that bringing my son was probably unlikely because, at age 12 or so, he was not much interested in dinner parties of grown ups. Muth wrote not to worry, “there will be young people here.” On that basis, I talked a reluctant Spencer into joining me.
Albrecht Muth, in uniform, in an undated photo that aired on local news in Washington
It was a stormy night. Rain lashed the streets. It was so bad we drove the few blocks to the Muth home. It was a standard Victorian townhouse, pale yellow, with a nice bay window, in a block that included a bank parking lot and a service station. The curtains were drawn. We were the last to arrive and Spencer and I quickly looked for those “young people.” Well, of the 8 or 9 dinner guests the next youngest was a 25-year-old Georgetown University grad student. The others were much older couples.

Albrecht rushed to welcome us, introduce us around and to offer a cocktail. Again he was in well-cut pin stripes. Viola, in an elegant black cocktail dress, stayed on the other side of the room. I looked around. It was a cluttered room, the brown-wood décor of an earlier era, more European than American in style. There were many silver framed photos on all the flat spaces. They were impressive, but dated; a room of memories. Viola with one notable or another. Albrecht with one notable or another. Very few, if any, of them together as a couple. “Who are these people?” I wondered about the Muths.

Albrecht approached and told me he’d been a close ally of UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and would be working with him at the United Nations had Mark Malloch-Brown not pushed him out. His anger showed. As it happened Mark was a good friend of mine, and at the time number two to Annan. Much later I bought this up to Mark and he was mystified, having no recollection of Muth or the episode.
Police remain stationed across from the Drath-Muth house on Q Street just off Wisconsin Avenue.
We were called to dinner. It was downstairs in a dark dining room that reminded me of a crypt. The table was beautifully and elaborately set with good linen, silver and crystal. Large silver candelabra anchored the two ends of the table, the candles providing most of the light in the room. We were seated. Viola at one end. Muth offered my son the head seat at the other end, which prompted Spencer and I to exchange a meaningful mother-son look. I was in the middle. Muth did all the cooking and serving while Viola sat calmly and occasionally gave him directives to do this or get that. He brought out the wine, poured it all around and went to pour a glass for my son, too. I said “No.” When he sat, Muth sat between my son and a woman guest.

Dinner rolled along. The conversation was a mix of politics, international affairs, military issues and some neighborhood gossip. Spencer shot more looks at me, like “how much longer?” I felt his pain. Viola shot daggers at Albrecht. I felt his pain. The candles burned to their stubs, wax dripping, and the room got dimmer. All that was missing was tense organ music.

I kept thinking there’s something else going on here that’s not on the printed menu. Yes, they’re married, but it’s strange and she seems to be not very happy with him, at least not this night. He’s rushing about like a character in a farce, anxious, whirling in and out of the kitchen, serving, cleaning, serving, cleaning. Any time I tried to engage Viola in direct conversation she made short business of it. Otherwise everyone was affable, getting along. Not much laughter, though.

An image of Viola Drath from 2009.
Albrecht Muth as he looked on Tuesday, August 16, during an encounter with a local NBC news crew.
Albrecht Muth, Tuesday, shutting the gate on a local NBC reporter.
When we were down to one candle, and that one just barely burning, Viola announced that dinner was completed and we would return to the upstairs for cordials. On the stairs I whispered to Spencer, “we will go after a polite moment upstairs. Don’t worry. I want to leave, too.”

When we made our good-byes Albrecht was very attentive and friendly and thanked us for coming. I’m sure we said good-bye to Viola, but I don’t recall the details. I know we both wanted out the door. We dashed in the rain to our parked car, jumped inside, shut the doors and looked at each other with wide eyes, jaws gaping. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” I said. “My mistake. But was that the strangest dinner ever?” I asked. “Yes,” he said. “I just want to go home.”

I heard from Albrecht a few more times after that evening. He wrote asking if he could take Spencer to a lecture, or to the movies or to the Kennedy Center. Each time I politely declined. And then I didn’t hear from him again.

Over the years I walked by the house many times. I wondered what was going on behind those drawn curtains. Then one day earlier this year as I stood in the front lobby of Café Milano, this character marched in wearing a military uniform out of Gilbert and Sullivan. The full kit in olive green wool with colorful braid. approached the front desk, put his baton under his arm, clicked his heels, and confirmed a reservation. I stared from behind my sunglasses. Who is this bizarre individual? And then I realized it was Albrecht. This was confirmed by Laurent Menoud, the restaurant’s general manager, who said the Muths were regulars and that he often appeared in uniform.

I heard about him again a few days later when my across the street neighbors said, “We met the most amazing character last night at the bar at Martin’s Tavern.” When they started to describe the uniform I said it had to be Albrecht, but he’d introduced himself to them as Sheikh Ali Al-Muthaba, a general in the Iraqi Army. Then I saw him on the street one day, walking in front of me, going in the same direction and I hung back, slowed my pace. He was in his “uniform,” jauntily smoking a cigar. When he got to the house on Q street he got rid of the cigar and rather than heading to the upstairs front door headed instead down to the basement door. Odd, I thought. Maybe she has him living in the basement, like a tenant.

I did not see or hear of Viola or Albrecht again until the news broke of her death, and then many people wrote to ask if I knew them. Well, yes, but really no.

In an eery coincidence, the last notorious murder to occur in Georgetown happened on the same street and one block away in the summer of 2006. In that case, a young Capitol Hill volunteer, Alan Senitt, had his throat cut by assailants who attacked him in the driveway of the Bowie-Sevier mansion in what appeared to be a random act of violence. The suspects were caught, charged and sentenced.
Carol Joynt's new memoir, Innocent Spouse, can be ordered from Amazon, HERE.