Monday, December 9, 2013

Washington Social Diary

Jill Biden, with her own fashion flair, standing out in the crowd at a dinner at Villa Firenze.
by Carol Joynt

What makes a great party? It’s a question, a science, and an art form that get tested every day, everywhere, among every class, generation, and persuasion. The judging is quite personal, because one person’s winner may be another person’s bore; though I suspect a genuinely terrific party would enchant universally. The best measures, for me, are quality (guests, food, drink, setting), tone (happy hosts, no stress), relevance (what’s it about), and specialness (not the same old, same old). But the biggest measure of all is the simplest: was it fun and memorable?

Last week I wrote about galas and events in general – what makes them good, what makes them less than good. This week begins a roundup of the most memorable parties of the year, and why, as well as a place or two. Is it arbitrary? Of course it is. Absolutely.
The view from the balcony of the Hay-Adams hotel rooftop.
January brought the second inauguration of President Barack Obama. There were more receptions, luncheons, parties and balls than any one person could keep track of – or attend – but if I had to pick just one (and since I wasn’t among the guests at the President’s private inaugural after-party at the White House), it would be a Saturday seated luncheon arranged, funded and hosted by Obama insider Reggie Van Lee, and held on the rooftop of the Hay-Adams Hotel. The setting is such a kick: floor to ceiling French doors open to balconies and a breathtaking view of Washington, with the White House down in front.
An animated Jessye Norman had a good time at a Saturday inaugural luncheon hosted for her by Reggie Van Lee, chairman of the Washington Performing Arts Society.
Lee hosted the party in his capacity as chairman of the board of the Washington Performing Arts Society and it honored opera singer Jessye Norman. There were 150 guests, many from New York, and included Attorney General Eric Holder and Chief of Protocol Capricia Marshall, ten ambassadors and the elite of the DC performing arts community. Everyone seemed to know everyone else.

The wines were Champagne from Pommery, plus Cakebread Cellars Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Noir from Steele. The menu included ham biscuits, smoked salmon carpaccio with asparagus, filet mignon with morel sauce, scrambled eggs and potatoes, and strawberries with bruléed sabayon for dessert. Audra McDonald sang in tribute to Norman, who seemed to be sincerely enjoying herself.
Drinks were good and plentiful at the Hay-Adams rooftop for one of the best parties of the Obama inauguration.
Rachel Pearson, a member of the WPAS board, welcomes guests to the luncheon honoring Jessye Norman.
Smoked salmon and asparagus on the menu.
After the January pre-inaugural party, with the French doors wide open, a good look at the Hay-Adams choice view of Washington.
Also in January: a 100th birthday celebration for Richard Nixon. The former president, who resigned in disgrace in the Watergate scandal and died in 1994, was toasted and honored by the old faithful who are still with us, including Henry Kissinger, who praised Nixon’s “courage and vision,” Pat Buchanan, and Fred Malek, who told the guests in the packed Mayflower Hotel ballroom “you are among the best friends a man or woman could have.”

Also appearing on stage were Nixon daughters Tricia Nixon Cox and Julie Nixon Eisenhower. Regardless of one’s politics, there was a lot of history, and real Washington, in the room.
At the pre-dinner cocktail reception Henry Kissinger stops to take a phone call at the Richard Nixon 100th birthday celebration.
The ballroom of the Mayflower Hotel, packed with the Nixon faithful, celebrating the late president's 100th birthday. The birthday cake was in the shape of his childhood home.
A high point of the evening was the chance to introduce my guest, Harry Shearer, an actor who has portrayed Nixon a number of times, to Nixon’s younger brother Edward “Ed” Nixon, who is in his 80s. In fact, we three hung out together in the bar after the dinner. Ed even raised his hands over his head and flashed the two-handed, two-finger victory sign associated with his brother almost to the point of caricature. But he also told fond stories of their childhood.
The two actors at the Nixon party: former Tennessee senator Fred Thompson, known for "Law and Order," plus a lot of films, and Harry Shearer, one of the stars of "The Simpsons," as well as "This Is Spinal Tap."
Harry Shearer with Ed Nixon, Richard Nixon's younger brother.
February can be a long, hard month, but it perked up toward the end when “Top Chef” star Bryan Voltaggio opened his new restaurant, Range. The food and fun of the occasion transcended what was basically a party in a shopping mall, though not a run of the mill mall as it is in one of the priciest parts of the city.

The eight or more bartenders made delicious trend-forward cocktails as servers brought round wave after wave of food, including oysters, clams and shrimp from the raw bar, beef and lamb from the grill, big baskets of rolls from the bakery, as well as salad and pastas.

Washington Mayor Vincent Gray stopped by and got a personal tour from Voltaggio. On the way out, guests were offered take-home cookies and candies that were made in-house.
A party in an upscale shopping mall, the Chevy Chase Pavilion, for the opening of Bryan Voltaggio's Range restaurant.
Bryan Voltaggio gives a personal tour to Washington Mayor Vincent Gray.
Trend forward cocktails, served with a smile, at Range.
Charcuterie at Range.
The Range opening party.
At the Range opening party, guests were served whatever they wanted from the restaurant's long menu of seafood, grilled meats, pasta and pizzas.
Pasta with lobster at Range.
Since opening in February, Range has become popular in Washington, especially with families. But the good cocktails make it very adult-friendly, too.
Another engaging change of pace came in March with a Saturday luncheon that winemaker Rutger de Vink hosted at his RdV Vineyards in Delaplane, Virginia. It was intimate as 12 guests joined Rutger in a “blind” tasting of a couple of his own Bordeaux-style wines, Rendezvous and Lost Mountain, matched against two more established brands: a Chateau Lynch-Bages from France, and a Caymus Special Selection Cabernet from Napa. All were the 2009 vintage.

We dined by a roaring fire in a glass-walled room of the winery, with views of the Blue Ridge Mountains all around. We also toured the handsome facility, including the stainless steel wine vats, the dimly lit subterranean cave where the wine barrels are stored, and Rutger’s private cellar.
Rutger de Vink, owner of RdV Vineyards in Delaplane, Virginia, hosts a wine tasting lunch by the fire.
The trick (and the fun) was being able to know which wines were Rutger's and which were classic grand cru vintages from Bordeaux.
A tour of the large subterranean wine storage caves carved out of the rock under the winery.
Lest anyone doubt RdV Vineyards occupies rocky terrain, a staffer showed off an example of what's underneath the sloping green hillsides.
The wine barrels are imported from France. Our host, winemaker Rutger de Vink, above ground. He wants to prove a great Bordeaux-style wine can come from Virginia.
Tulips and wine on a late winter day.
The beautiful RdV winery at the entrance.
Looking at it from the rear. The room shown below is on the left.
Late March brings a thaw in more ways than one; social life renews as well. Helping to hasten the season was a dinner at the Italian ambassador’s residence, Villa Firenze, and hosted by Amb. Claudio Bisogniero, his wife, Laura, Elle Magazine, and Gucci. It was a happy, even robust occasion, as if we’d all just come out of a cryogenic freezer and woke up to a warm evening in Milano, enhanced by pink flowers, linens and golden candlelight.

Washington’s not a fashion-driven town but this annual event – honoring women “luminaries” – gets us at least near the subject. Two of the guests were also two of the city’s best-dressed: Jill Biden, the wife of the Vice President, and lobbyist Heather Podesta. Their signature looks, in synch with Washington, are tasteful and understated, but for this party they added some flair – Biden in backless navy and white, Podesta in head to toe, willowy mauve and yellow silk Gucci, completed by strappy yellow stiletto sandals. It appeared that other guests stepped it up a notch, too. But this underscores a good thing about Washington – no one cares what you wear; it’s what you do, where you do it, and whether you have the ear of power.
Jill Biden's backless dress, which she wore to a dinner hosted by Italian Ambassador Claudio Bisogniero, on the left, Gucci and Elle magazine. Robbie Myers, on the right, is the magazine's editor in chief.
Heather Podesta in head to toe Gucci. Again, head to toe - Heather Podesta's Gucci stilettos.
Christophe de Pous of Gucci with Jill Biden
At the Italian ambassador's dinner for women "luminaries," co-hosted by Gucci, the waiters from Georgetown's Cafe Milano were all kitted out in Gucci slip ons (and big smiles, too).
Apart from the TV screens, the dinner at Villa Firenze felt like coming out of the cryogenic deep freeze and into a warm evening in Milano.
Another delightful event came in April, again with a fashion theme and courtesy of Saks Fifth Avenue and the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation. It was a luncheon and fashion show featuring Jason Wu, who is a favorite of First Lady Michelle Obama (both inaugural ball gowns). He sat with one of the principal organizers, philanthropist Elise Lefkowitz, who lost her mother, Estelle Gelman, to Alzheimer's, and Saks president Ronald L. Frasch, as models paraded at practically the edge of their table. The honoree was public broadcasting executive Sharon Percy Rockefeller, whose father, former Illinois Senator Charles Percy, died from the disease. Making the welcoming remarks was the Foundation’s co-chair, Leonard Lauder.

It was a bright, cheerful, relaxed and chatty event. Georgia Frasch, the mother of two 8-year-olds – who remained at home – gushed about the joys of a hotel getaway with her husband. They stayed at the Four Seasons in Georgetown, where they cozied up by a fire pit on the outdoor terrace, she said, before hitting the hay. “We got such a good night’s sleep, and there were no interruptions and no one crawling in our bed.”
Jason Wu and Elise Lefkowitz. Wu said that during his visit to Washington he did spend some time with First Lady Michelle Obama. He designed her ball gowns for both Obama inaugurations.
Georgia and Ronald Frasch - he's the president of Saks Fifth Avenue -- enjoyed having a hotel getaway together in Washington.
Luncheon and fashion show in a tent, hosted by Saks Fifth Avenue and the Alzheimer's Drug Discovery Foundation.
The Saks luncheon was relaxed, chatty, and fun.
The fashion show.
Rounding out the spring, among a crowd of events, were the annual galas of The Washington Ballet and Hillwood Museum. Different in style and mode but both special and both, coincidentally, using caterer Susan Gage. Billed as an “Evening in Paris,” The Ballet gala was a big, splashy celebration at the gorgeous Library of Congress. Can-can dancers, a homage to Ernest Hemingway, flapper style on some of the guests, Bouillabaisse for dinner, crepes for dessert, and champagne and dancing that fizzed and rolled past midnight. It set a benchmark for all other galas.
The happy mood of the young dancers outside carried on inside, too, for the annual gala of The Washington Ballet, an "Evening in Paris" at the Library of Congress.
The Washington Ballet gala started with an exuberant can-can. At The Washington Ballet ball, William Paley, Jr., and Allison Paley, who added some flapper style to her look.
At the Washington Ballet gala, dinner conversation in the foreground as, in the background, gala co-chairs Chris Dodd and his wife, Jackie, pose for a photo.
Septime Webre, the Washington Ballet's artistic director, with NPR's Ari Shapiro. The gala harkened the opening of "Hemingway: The Sun Also Rises," a ballet choreographed by Webre.
Bruce Lipnick with his daughter, Olivia, one of the dancers with the Washington Ballet. The ballet's board chair, Sylvia A. de Leon, said that after the "Evening in Paris" gala she was deluged with "thank you's" from guests who thought it was one of the best parties of the year. It was.
The Hillwood gala was held at Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens, the former Washington home of Marjorie Merriweather Post. The June evening had to be the prettiest of the spring – sunny, warm but not too warm, and dry, perfect for cocktails on the circular drive at the front of the mansion and dinner out back on the large green lawn bordered by azaleas.

The mansion was open for wandering, including Post’s relatively large, and pink, bomb shelter, where rosé Champagne was served.  The flower arrangements on the tables were eye-popping and came from Hillwood’s greenhouse. The menu was a Post favorite: gazpacho and salmon fillet en Papillote. The theme of the gala was “living artfully,” reflecting a new exhibition. For next year's gala the theme is “Cartier,” so ladies and gentlemen, polish up the roller rings and Love bracelets, not to mention the diamonds and pearls.
At the start of the annual Hillwood gala, waiters were ready with wine and Champagne outside the front of Marjorie Merriweather Post's Washington mansion, now a museum.
The Hillwood gala was graced with one of the prettiest evenings of the spring.
Sophie Delattre, wife of the French ambassador, with Hillwood board member Amy Bondurant and her husband, David Dunn.
Washington's old guard are the regulars at the Hillwood gala. Here, Nancy and Richard Marriott.
John Palmer, a well-known NBC anchorman, and a Hillwood board member. He died in the summer after a brief illness.
The flowers for the Hillwood gala came from the museum's own greenhouse.
The Hillwood gala is always a family affair. Here are some of Marjorie Merriweather Post's direct descendants: Sam and George Iverson, Ellen Charles, who is chairman of the board; Ellie Rose Iverson, Anna Rose and Andrew Iverson, and Nedenia C. and Stanley H. Rumbough.
Last but not least for the spring: an amusing night out at a Washington Nationals baseball game with members of Congress. It was called “bipartisan baseball,” thought up by Republican Congressman David McKinley of West Virginia and Diana DeGette, a Democratic representative from Colorado. There were votes going on and only a small group made it to the game by bus. They were greeted by Bob Tanenbaum, whose family owns the Nationals, and Gregory McCarthy, the team vice president, and together everyone headed up to a pre-party that included general manager Mike Rizzo and Tanenbaum’s wife, Marla Lerner Tanenbaum
Rep. David McKinley of West Virginia and Rep. Diana DeGette of Colorado -- trying to help solve Congressional dysfunction with "bipartisan" baseball.
For the game, against the New York Mets, I sat with McKinley and DeGette and between sips of beer and occasional cheers we talked about Congressional dysfunction, a subject that gets under DeGette’s skin. Her biggest beef is the whining in Washington among old-timers about “how it used to be” when everybody supposedly got along. “Back then all the members of Congress were men with stay-at-home wives, and the wives organized dinners,” she said. “But now women work, including in Congress. It’s never going to be the way it was again. We have to find new ways to get together and this is one of those ways. We want to grow this, do it annually, and eventually get the whole House here.”

Not exactly a conventional party, but that was the charm and made it a memorable night out on the town. The Mets won 10-1.
On hand to welcome the House members was Bob Tannenbaum, on the right, whose family own the Washington Nationals. Beside him is DC's House delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton.
Georgia Congressman John Barrow meets Nats GM Mike Rizzo, as team vice president Gregory McCarthy looks on.
Out of the House chamber but not out of his suit, because Rep. Jeff Denham knew he had to return to the Capitol for a vote.
Watching the game but also talking political issues, Reps. Jeff Denham, David McKinley and Diana DeGette. Denham and McKinley are both Republicans, DeGette is a Democrat.
Next: Summer and Fall
Photographs by Carol Joynt.

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