Friday, January 13, 2012

Washington Social Diary

Portrait of Eleanor Roosevelt hangs in elegant foyer of the Women's National Democratic Club.
Parties in honor of Party Girls ...
by Stephanie Green

"And we liked to throw parties for absolutely no reason!", exclaimed actress Holland Taylor channeling Democratic party girl Ann Richards in her one woman show, Ann, at the Kennedy Center Tuesday night where the Texas State Society had found one very good reason to converge: to celebrate one of their own.

Richards was Governor of Texas in the early 1990s, the first woman elected in her own right, but was defeated by George W. Bush for reelection to her second term, but that didn't repress her vivacity, grit, homespun humor, and good ole' gal straight talk, some of the virtues (and occasionally vices) that catapulted her to stardom.

Portrait of Ann Richards on stage at the Kennedy Center.
Actress Holland Taylor as Governor Ann Richards. (Photo: Kennedy Center).
When she died after battling cancer in 2006, she was canonized like an Austin Evita: a lying in state, eulogies by the high and mighty, and three memorials drawing thousands of mourners.

The show, which was written and produced by Taylor, traces Ann's pluck and originality to her childhood home in Lakeview, where she was taught to fish by her adoring "daddy", but never seemed to win the approval of her hard as nails "mama".

After marrying her husband David at nineteen, Ann set out to be the perfect housewife and mother. "If it was in the glossy magazines, I was doing it," she says about her clinging to 1950's conventions about female roles.

David, a civil rights lawyer, introduced Ann to the rough and tumble world of Austin political life, and Ann embraced it as she did everything in life: with unbridled passion and fearlessness.

"Politics is a contact sport, "she explains in the show. "No autopsy, no foul."

Regrettably, one of her other passions was drinking, and soon after she won election to her first political office as county commissioner, she went to Alcoholics Anonymous.

Her marriage to David crumbled as a result of her new position, but Ann never looked back. By the 1980s she was the first woman elected state wide as the Texas State Treasurer, and, her years of grass roots campaigning paid off when her multitude of women supporters rallied behind her as she sailed into the governor's mansion in 1991.

After losing to Bush, she traveled the world making speeches, sat on boards, and started a new life in New York City as a corporate consultant.

Taylor's portrayal is heartfelt, funny, and captures Ann's unique blend of irascibility and softness.

After she bawls out a lowly staff member from the Governor's desk, she inquires as to his shoe size so she can pick up some cowboy boots for him on an upcoming trip.
In the audience, it was jeans, cowboy boots, lone star pins, and ... pinstripes.
She says that when Bush took office he asked staff how she addressed them. Did they prefer first names or Mr. or Ms.?

"She always just called us darling," was the response.

One leaves the theatre wondering where all the "Ann's" of the world have gone, especially in public life.

I spotted Rep. Steny Hoyer chatting with friends during intermission, Texas State Society president Doug Centilli with his Texas A & M boots, former Texas State Society president Ann Hightower with her daughter the lovely Lindley Thornburg, and lots of faces with Texas sized smiles.
Rep. Steny Hoyer and friends during intermission.
Former Texas State Society President Ann Hightower with daughter Lindley Thornburg, and Joseph Richardson IV.
Texas State Society President
Doug Centilli.
John Tinpe and Lane Luskey.
Enter Lyndon Boozer.
It was a happy night, filled with optimism and belly laughs. Ann would have been proud.

Also seen at Kennedy Center: Texan turned Washingtonian lobbyist Lyndon Boozer, the charming sisters Maxfield: Melissa and Melinda, both in federal affairs, Democratic operative Lane Luskey, and artist and restaurant owner John Tinpe.

Cissy Patteron, here on book cover, was a pioneering woman in journalism and Washington socialite in the early 1900s.
Earlier on Tuesday, it was more diamonds and Democrats as I attended a luncheon in honor of Amanda Smith, the author of the new biography Titan: The Infamous Life and Monumental Times of Cissy Patterson, another pioneering lady who loved a good time.

More about her later.

Smith is no stranger to history. She is the daughter of Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith, the surviving sibling of the iconic Kennedy clan.

Smith edited her grandfather's correspondence for the widely read Hostage to Fortune: The Letters of Joseph P. Kennedy.

The venue for this luncheon and talk was an apt one: the Women's National Democratic Club, a historic, elegantly decorated building in Dupont Circle, where portraits of Democratic First Ladies, including Smith's aunt, the late Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, adorn the walls.

I was especially struck by a massive painting of Lady Bird Johnson which seizes your attention as you ascend the staircase to the upper level where parlors with period piece furniture and charming china cabinets give the club its ladylike refinement.
Women's National Democratic Club in Dupont Circle.
Designed by architect by Harvey L. Page, the house was built between 1892 and 1894 for Sarah Adams Wilcox Whittemore. The Women's National Democratic Club purchased the house in 1927.
Portraits of Lady Bird Johnson, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and a more playful caricature of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
I'm told that nearly all of the pieces are donated, including a menagerie of adorable donkey figurines.

We are, after all, on Democratic terrain, so I wasn't surprised to see the large donkey statue by the front door.

(I think the appropriate term is "jackass", but I think the ladies probably prefer "donkey".)
The club boasts period pieces and furniture donated by members and friends.
charming donkey figurines on display
At the head table, I was seated with Smith, her proud mother who made the trip down from New York to support her, and Anna Fierst, the vice-president of the club and a descendant of Franklin Roosevelt.

It was interesting to hear the two family scions trade stories and talk about their famous relatives with such objectivity, yet with obvious respect for their place in history.
Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith with her daughter, author Amanda Smith.
Ambassador Smith with Anna Fierst, the vice-president of the club and a relative of Franklin Roosevelt.
Now a word about Smith's subject.

Cissy Patterson was a highly prominent Washington socialite during the day when being a socialite actually meant more than starring on a Bravo reality series.

She was witty, well bred, tall and graceful. The antithesis of the women you see on Bravo, but she did share their penchant for turning friends into "frenemies".
Amanda Smith chats with guests during luncheon
In the early 1900s Patterson, Alice Roosevelt (daughter of the president), and Marguerite Cassini (daughter of Russian Ambassador) were dubbed the "three lights", ostensibly because they had that rare ability to bring luminosity to a room upon entering it.

Later in life, she became known for two things: her hostile rivalry with Alice (the two women allegedly slept with the other's husbands out of spite) and her leadership of the Washington Times Herald.

The paper's success was credited to Patterson's innovative society pages with reportage of parties, party goers, and party blunders by female reporters she recruited.
Smith talking about her book after luncheon.
In the 1930s Patterson was the editor of a national newspaper, a pioneering figure for women in journalism.

But despite her wealth, glamour, and success, Patterson suffered spousal abuse, an estrangement from her child, and a mysterious death.

Smith explained she was drawn to Patterson after discovering her in her grandfather's letters.
Donkey stands watch outside the club.
Photographs by Stephanie Green.