Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Washington Social Diary

The Potomac at twilight from the Georgetown Waterfront Park.
by Carol Joynt

Summer is over and now what? Parties? Hoopla? Money spent on premium liquor and new dresses? Given the general financial stress and political frustration that prevails across the country, it's hard to believe Washington would consider a full bore fall social season. A little too Marie Antoinette, don't you think, even for the hosts and hostesses in this insulated city?

Of course there will be some socializing, but it will be private, off the grid, friends among friends, eschewing cameras most of all, as it should be. On the other hand, there will be loads of fundraisers because fundraising has come to pass for social in the capital, and the good causes can barely get by without charity. Also, the diplomatic corps will pull out some stops, because they don’t get much scrutiny. They play to a different audience and don't really have much else to do here but lobby and entertain. 
The autumn leaves of Washington, soon to fall.
If anything defined the Washington summer socially it was a debate about what is social and who is a socialite, even making it into the newspapers. This got kicked off by the sex scandal involving Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who flew way under the radar in DC even though he had a big job, the murder of Viola Drath and subsequent arrest of her husband, who also flew under the radar; and then the news last week of the arrest in Georgetown of former New York Deputy Mayor Stephen Goldsmith, charged by police with "simple assault" against his wife. Again, the Goldsmiths were not well known.

The local media, in many instances, referred to these individuals as "socialites," and largely because they lived in Georgetown.
L. to r.: Dominique Strauss-Kahn; Viola Drath; Stephen Goldsmith.
The term "socialite" has become meaningless, because the era of the last great Washington "socialites" ended with the deaths of Evangeline Bruce, Lorraine Cooper, Susan Mary Alsop, Pamela Harriman and a few others of their time; and Deeda Blair, before she left town. What set them apart was the pedigree of their backgrounds, where they went to school, who they married, their clubs, of course, and that they entertained with grace and glee and didn't charge at the door.

Well, Harriman did eventually, when she caught onto the value of political fundraising. But before that, when Washington did have "socialites," that's what they did. They were social, virtually as a job. They tended to have big houses, big budgets, adept social secretaries, and awesome intuition about who was who. Society was their power and they wielded it powerfully. (Read C. David Heymann's The Georgetown Ladies' Social Club.
Clockwise from top: Susan Mary Alsop with Dominick Dunne; Evangeline Bruce in Vogue with her husband, Ambassador David Bruce; Pamela Harriman.
Now, regardless of background and marriage, women have jobs, all kinds of jobs, many with a lot of power, and while they still entertain and do it well, it is not the reason they get out of bed in the morning. They get out of bed for their families and their jobs. I should include men here because there are men, too, who eagerly combine work and social life. Most aren't married, though that's changing because they (those who go that way) can marry each other, creating a whole new entertaining force.

But you'd have a hard time finding anyone in Washington today who would list "socialite" on their resume, and I include Strauss-Kahn, Drath and Goldsmith on that list. 

When I think of what has replaced "socialite" as a role it's about hosting events with a knack for combining work and friendship in the same room and in an effortless way. To that end, I always return to two people, Katherine and David Bradley. They are the modern embodiment of Washington social life. Here is a reprise of the profile I wrote of them last year. Click here to read.
David and Katherine Bradley.
Carol Joynt's new memoir, Innocent Spouse, can be ordered from Amazon, HERE.