Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Washington Social Diary

The George Town Club occupies the all of the corner at Wisconsin Avenue and Volta Street in Georgetown, including the yellow building on the left, which is adjacent to the front entrance.
by Carol Joynt

Here’s the question: When is an aging, but attractive, private social club worth saving?

The answer: When it’s The George Town Club.

The front entrance to The George Town Club.
Once upon a time, city lunch and supper clubs were the rage, even in sleepy Washington DC. But, as with elsewhere, in the '70s and early '80s their popularity leveled off, with competition from glam discos and other clubs where, with a certain amount of panache and connections, almost anyone could get across the velvet rope. Also, habits changed. People, especially women, now work all the time. And then there was the SoHo House concept, which took the mode of the exclusive club into the 21st century with a downtown (dare I say hipster?) point of view.

Nonetheless, there are two old-time survivors who are relevant to this story: Doubles in New York and Annabel’s in London. They were the models for clubs that the notorious Korean playboy and businessman Tongsun Park bankrolled in Washington in the '70s: Pisces, more like Doubles, and The George Town Club, more like Annabel’s. Both were in Georgetown and both drew their membership from the White House, Congress, the law firms and lobbying firms and the social list. The George Town Club was so confident of its clout that it bestowed honorary memberships on the President and Vice President, though there’s no record of whether any president, while in office, visited the club. 

Pisces and The George Town Club were welcoming, and racy, thanks to Park. He was a Georgetown University graduate, 40-something, with powerful friends, a true international man of mystery who became less mysterious when the federal government indicted him for bribing members of Congress and failing to register as an agent of the Korean CIA. The scandal was called “Koreagate.” In the aftermath of his fall from grace, he fled the country, later returned to face his fate, went to prison,  got out of prison and presumably is in South Korea, and almost 80 years old. His legacy in Washington is The George Town Club.
One of the rooms at The George Town Club.
I never met Park,  but during his heyday in the capital, when he publicly dated the beautiful social force of nature, Tandy Dickenson, he also privately saw a twenty-something friend of mine, who was quite the scene-maker until she headed to L.A. and a successful career as a character actress. Once, when she was packing to meet him in Cannes, I asked her to explain the attraction to Park, she said, “Outfits, trips, rings and things.” 

The Koreagate scandal did not kill Pisces, though it did eventually close. When that happened many of the members migrated to The George Town Club, following -- like a pied piper -- another social force of nature, Wyatt Dickerson, who was Park’s partner in both clubs, but much more hands on, and also the husband of NBC’s sensational and pioneering  correspondent, Nancy Dickerson, that era’s Diane Sawyer. (Nancy and Wyatt’s son, John Dickerson, followed in his mother’s footsteps; he is political director for CBS News and chief political correspondent for Slate). 
A table for two in the dining room.
The '70s in Washington was one of the last periods when the town’s powers merged in social life. Everyone dined with, partied with, and sometimes slept with, just about everyone else. In 1978, after Park had left the country, Tandy Dickerson told People magazine: "I remember one night when Hubert Humphrey stood there with his champagne glass in his hand and said, 'Tongsun, I don't know what you do, but you do it well.' And everyone just burst out laughing. It was all very, very pleasant. Very beautiful. I miss it." 

Tandy eventually parted with Tongsun Park, Wyatt and Nancy Dickerson divorced, and as friends who discovered they were actually soul mates, Tandy and Wyatt married and remain an active, socially visible and happy couple today.

And this brings us back to The George Town Club, still with a heartbeat but not sure if there’s future life. It is among Washington’s most handsome buildings -- outside and inside. If a production designer were to imagine a quintessential private club for a Washington movie it would be this cozy, wood-paneled and romantic historic corner with its grill room with a hand-carved mahogany bar and back bar, chandeliers, sconces, sofas, oriental rugs and wood floors, a similarly paneled upstairs dining room with ship’s paintings and intimate seating, a Sinatra-esque pub and disco, a Palm Beachy garden room, and a range of other well-decorated, small and large private dining nooks. Pretty linens, china and glassware, too. It’s look is classic, but to which generation?
Two members of the George Town Club's long time loyal staff.
Wyatt has guided it ably over the last 30 years. But times change, tastes change, and if new, young members don’t join the mix, a club can lose its edge and its relevance. 

A group of Georgetowners has come together to try to jolt The George Town Club into the 21st century, to make it relevant to new generations who don’t necessarily have their parents’ tastes but, as they move into their 30s and 40s, appreciate the merits of an in-town lunch and supper club that has pedigree and potential. Most of all they know that if a rescue doesn't happen, and soon, the club won’t survive much longer and very likely a cold-hearted developer will come in and gut it and turn it into something pointless. 

The committee that has formed to make all this happen sought the guidance of Washington restaurant and nightlife impresario Bo Blair. Like Dickerson, he’s definitely a force of nature. His wife, Meghan, is part of his team and opened the bakery his company owns, Something Sweet. It was Wyatt who sought out Bo to be part of the GTC’s overhaul.
Meghan and Bo Blair
Like Wyatt, Bo has a compelling Washington story. He’s a Georgetown native, went to school here, his mother, who raised him, lives in Georgetown. After college he started hosting for-a-fee social events at a Georgetown hotel. They sold out, which prompted him to open Smith Point, a bro’s and babes magnet at Wisconsin and O Streets -- with a list at the door -- that drew the preppie set and made global news when it became a favorite hang out of Presidential daughters Barbara and Jenna Bush. He was on his way. Today his company, Georgetown Events, has almost a dozen successful businesses spread around the city, and one on Nantucket, Millie’s. 

The posted new members list.
With Wyatt’s blessing Bo is the ringmaster of whatever happens next. A member of the revitalization committee said Wyatt “feels very strongly that for the club to survive it needs a younger generation to take it there. He is a big ally of this effort.” Presumably older board members are supportive, too. 

One of the first things Bo did was meet with the existing general manager, executive chef and head of the food and wine committee. They tackled essentials: weeding the menu of tired food (though saving the Dover sole), bringing dinner entrees under $29, slashing the price of cocktails by 20%, bringing in a sommelier to freshen the wine list, and proposing a “take out” concept for members. That’s not necessarily superfluous, because given GTC’s location, in the heart of Georgetown’s residential area, it could fill an untapped market for locals who crave access to to-go restaurant-quality meals.

There are plans to create an enhanced children’s menu, to hire a new bartender to make the grill room more like a true Georgetown pub, and to revamp the special events rules for members so that hosting private lunches, dinners and other events will be more streamlined and affordable. There’s talk of a screening room. 

Bo was enthused by his meeting with the existing management team. He said they want to jump on board and feel the changes are long overdue. On the other hand, we hear, the long-time staff are worried. The challenge for Bo and the group who want a revolution is to woo new members, but also -- as with the staff -- keep existing members in the fold, especially those who are active, and who want the club to thrive, and who are open to change. 
Among the potential recruits for the new George Town Club.
To that end they hosted a party on Friday night that was billed as “Come Celebrate The George Town Club ... and see everything this gem has to offer.” The guest list was mostly new but mixed in some of the old. Tucker Carlson said it was his third time as a “new” member. 

The party started at a civilized 8 o’clock, there were bars and buffets throughout the rooms, and a jazz band with a singer. Waiters in black tie passed canapés. The turn out was strong and represented a good swath of the mover-and-shaker thirty and forty something power and social set, meaning money, law, media, business, society, government. 

At the outset, they are making a membership offer they hope most can't refuse. For a limited time, new members pay a reduced initiation fee of $2,000 with monthly dues of $150, plus a quarterly minimum of $240; so-called “young professionals” under the age of 35 can join for $750, but with a higher quarterly minimum. The club is open every day but Sunday, with lunch daily, and valet parking. There’s also reciprocity with about 150 private clubs across the U.S., and in Europe, Asia and Canada. 
Susie and Tucker Carlson.
The singer in the band.
Annie Lou Berman, Elizabeth Powell, and Todd Newnam.
Mary Kathryn Steel, Luke Russert, and Michael Steel (photo by Kyle Samperton).
With its colorful backstory, its historic and attractive setting, its reputation for good food and service, and the involvement of Bo Blair and Wyatt Dickerson, The George Town Club may succeed. One of the most involved committee members, who moved to Washington from New York and Chicago, said “Rome wasn't built in a day, but I feel like we are gaining speed and the response has been really positive.” They would be wise to look at the SoHo House model. At the New York outpost, the building may be old but the interior spaces feel of this era, and the vibe is fresh. A Yelper called it "posh without being swanky."  At The George Town Club the rooms have the bones, all they need is an updated look - sort of Restoration Hardware meets old brown wood.
The chocolate king of Washington, Chris Edwards, who with his siblings owns Edward Marc Chocolatier (the only chocolate shop in the Pentagon!)
Constance Chatfield-Taylor. Page Evans.
Sarah Cannova and Jeff Powell.
JT Taylor and Brian Baker.
They should also be mindful of the recent saga of the venerable City Tavern Club. A few blocks down Wisconsin Avenue, for decades it was Washington’s “old money” club, in contrast to GTC’s “new money.” To its charm and detriment it was the hub of the “cave dwellers.” But too often the dining room was mostly empty and some of the older members looked like they could pass during the soup course. The decor, too, bordered on tea room. A younger group was recruited to the board, they went aggressively after their friends to become members, and it seemed to be working until it hit a rough patch with the abrupt termination last year of the popular manager. It’s still there, still open, still promoting events for members, but the gossip is that some defectors from City Tavern, who were major players there, are involved now with The George Town Club effort. 

Timing is everything. An improving economy would help. Also a styling kick start into modern times. Who the players are is key, too, and for Friday night’s party the “host committee” list was impressive -- but to succeed the members of that committee must recruit their friends, and their friends’ friends, and so on and so on, as well as a good chunk of the club’s Georgetown neighbors. 
Elizabeth Miller.
Ashley and Matt Bronczek. Cameron Pastrick.
Miriam Warren and Pam Brown.
The host committee, in alphabetical order: Lauren and Robert Aiken, Georgeine and Frank Anton, Annie Lou and MJ Berman, Judy and Leland Bishop, Meghan and Bo Blair, Jessica and Todd Boulanger, Blair and Josh Bourne, Ashley and Matt Bronczek, Sarah and chris Cannova, Susie and Tucker Carlson, Brookie and Stephanie Carnot, Marybeth Coleman, Sherry Cox, Andrew Farrell, Liz and Phil D’Angio, Kelley and Doug Davenport, Alyssa and Tom Davidson, Meg and Chris Ferguson, Yardley and Burton Gray, Mae and Ande Grennan, Amy and Taylor Gross, Kateline and Frank Haney, Sophie and Val Hawkins, Mary Anne Huntsman, Sass and Chris Jacobs, Cherie Jones, Andrew Law, David Rattner, Helena and Trent Lehman, Michelle and Victor Maddux, Cathie and Kevin Martin, Diana Minshall, Leslie and Paul Maysak, Megan and John Paleologos, Natalie Wilkison, Andrew Parmentier, Kier and Justin Peterson, Steph and John Polis, Elizabeth and Jeff Powell, Colman and Richard riddell, Mary and David Ritchey, Luke Russert, Elizabeth Miller, Don Sallick, Jill and Hayes Smith, Maryann Surrick, Scott Popma, Carrington and Jake Tarr, Elena and Bob Tompkins, Kendal and George Vincent, Jill and Burton White. 
Kyle Samperton and Chris Edwards. Paul Maysak goes in for the kill.
Follow Carol on twitter @caroljoynt