Friday, May 3, 2013

Washington Social Diary

The French Ambassador's residence, lit up and ready for a party.
by Carol Joynt

The past week in Washington was about being "all aboard," and if you were not on the flight you were not in for the high stakes, high flying journey that annually mixes social ambition in all its forms with moneyed clout, official power and plain old fashioned celebrity of the Hollywood variety. Like it or not, this week defined who's a player. It's a fantasy ride for the capital's wonks and workers who otherwise shove bills through Congress, for media who endure long hours in the White House press room, for titled staffers who pick up the pieces for anointed bosses who get all the glory, and for the party planners and celebrity wranglers who keep score.

Yes, it’s exhausting, but also entertaining. All in one three-day weekend we transform from boring to glamorous. We love it and hate it. We say we’ll never do it again, and then next year arrives, and it’s the eternal sunshine of the spotless mind: we can’t resist what we can’t remember.

"Conan O'Brien worked hard to sweat out a routine, but it’s not about the head table or a late night talk show comedian anymore."
But whooosh. At last, it's over. Our exclusive charter jet descends softly onto the tarmac, coming in for a landing. We’re bleary, weary and ready for bed. This journey of the annual White House Correspondents Association dinner included the high and the low, the known and unknown, restrained elegance and cloying extravagance, some fine meals and some forgettable meals, an endless bath of booze and wine.

On board with us were people who run Washington, New York and Hollywood, and a glitzy boldfaced manifest made up of movie stars, media, socialites, operatives and diplomats. We're in need of a week on a beach. But what it proved is that if it wants the honor, the WHCA dinner can be the East Coast Golden Globes. 

Overall, the weekend turned out to be better than expected, and the reason may be that some of the members of the organization, and even its leader, were in the mood for revolt, or at least significant change. Possibly by this time next year, when WHCA celebrates its 100th anniversary, we’ll have a fresher landscape, with the parts that are old being over and the elements of the new setting a course for the future. The long-time power players aren’t down for the count, yet, but they should watch their backs and also remember that good manners make a difference.

The only real drama of the weekend also helps make my point. This WHCA event has moved out of the realm and ownership of the media people who started it long ago, well-meaning but still closer to being amateurs than pro's, and into that bigger orbit of global “red carpet” events — not quite Cannes, but, seriously, a lot like the Golden Globes. A comparison with the Hollywood Foreign Press Association is apt. Over the years the HFPA saw their quiet, also-ran awards dinner turn into one of Hollywood's brightest nights, a noted preamble to the Oscars, and a TV ratings winner.

The view from the Hay-Adams rooftop.. Hey, folks, this is your Washington Monument ... under repair after that earthquake of a while back. Big bucks billionaire David Rubenstein stepped up to pay for the job.
In other words, it’s time for the WHCA to bring an A-game to their weekend, and not just Vanity Fair’s Graydon Carter and Sarah Marks winging in for their one party, though what they do so well is a template for the bigger picture. Keep an eye on BuzzFeed. It is a truly buzzy website, fun to read, chock with items, but it could also become, if it wants to, a breakaway renegade social force.

They hosted an impromptu “alternate” party this year — counter to the WHCA dinner — and it got traction. They have it within their reach to go bigger next time around. BuzzFeed and anyone else who wants to go rogue.

The WHCA Dinner weekend is not going away. No matter how much hand-wringing is done by moldy old-guard media. It’s here to stay and it will get bigger each year, and eventually it will be sold by Disney as a fantasy package or be given away by the Price is Right as a coveted prize. I'm kidding, but hey, it’s already covered live on E and C-Span.

Next up is a prime time network special. Why not? There's big money to be made. Look what it did for the HFPA? And like the HFPA, the WHCA could stand to become more colorful and interesting (see BuzzFeed). It's so much less about journalism now and so much more about the the social carpetbaggers and movie stars on the circuit who land for a few days, and make the whole town brighter (especially the eager media people and wonks) with their glow. That's called a ratings winner.

It’s nice that the President and First Lady attend the dinner, and that Conan O'Brien worked hard to sweat out a routine, but it’s not about the head table or a late night talk show comedian anymore. They are ornaments on the tree. Keep them, of course, but for true prime time wattage the bill has to ramp up to the levels of a Justin Timberlake or Beyoncé, and with (Golden Globes vet) Ricky Gervais or Jerry Seinfeld doing jokes. Again, think Golden Globes, with a little Super Bowl on the side.
After a fair amount of drama, LA's Gavin Keilly can still as he opened his GBK "Thank you Lounge" at the Madison Hotel. It was a new feature at the White House Correspondents dinner weekend.
The change I'm talking about was illustrated in the drama of the so-called “gifting suite.” If you have any kind of role in the entertainment industry the gifting suite is old news. They pop up at the Oscars, the Golden Globes, Sundance, Cannes, Fashion Week, a marketing venue where invited celebs and others can go to pick out — literally — free stuff and take it home.

This may not look elaborate, but what it offers is a free trip to the St. Regis on Bora Bora. Celebrities can say "Yes," but DC journalists had to say "no."
The quid pro quo is an endorsement of the product, which can be given in as subtle a way as posing for a photo beside an item or, more pronounced, recording a video endorsement. Not all celebs partake of the free stuff, but if they do it doesn’t break any professional ethics code. 

This year in Washington the Creative Coalition and LA's GBK Productions joined up to co-host a gifting suite, called the “Thank You Lounge,” where celebs and journalists could get free stuff for themselves or in the name of a charity. The initial invitation made reference to the White House Correspondents Association dinner and weekend, and that’s where it got bumpy.

The WHCA did not want to be associated with a gifting suite. Talk about fighting the tide. Nonetheless, Ed Henry, the group’s president, had their lawyer intervene with a letter seeking removal of the name and logo. Toot suite. Out on the West Coast, GBK’s co-founder, Gavin Keilly, was dismayed. He had no idea he’d be involved in this kind of blowback when he agreed to co-host the lounge. For charity.

Keilly didn’t rant, he didn’t balk, he immediately complied with the request, removed the WHCA name and logo, apologized, said he had no idea it would be an issue, and rather than retreating into a corner, he still came to DC and, with his head held high, set up his gifting suite at the Madison Hotel. Which means the gifting suite is here to stay at the WHCA weekend, and next year there could be two, maybe three. 
The gifting suite looks much like a trade show, but with free stuff. Also, fine wine and Champagne and a "step and repeat" for those who want to pose for a photo with their swag.
At this table, the swag is a free "Secret Service" watch designed by Jorg Gray. President Obama's security detail gave him an engraved version of this watch.
That was the drama. Everything else rolled along as it always does. David and Katherine Bradley hosted their annual Friday night eve-of dinner at their Embassy Row mansion. It’s now so solid in the firmament it’s just called the “Bradley Dinner” the same way people refer to the “Vanity Fair party.” The Bradley's had corporate people, some media names, and friends as their guests for a seated meal that paid homage to The Ballet Russes exhibition about to open at the National Gallery of Art. (That was the high-minded part of the weekend).
Cocktails before dinner at Katherine and David Bradley's.
Every year the "Bradley dinner" features a high-powered guest list, good food and beautiful flowers.
Since the French Ambassador's residence is under renovation, Vanity Fair made an effort to fill it with decorative distractions, such as beautiful flowers.
Vanity Fair/Bloomberg's after-party included so many celebs it was eventually desensitizing. Meaning, it was possible to eventually not be thrilled to be in a pod the could include Nicole Kidman, Jeremy Renner, Bradley Cooper and Michael Douglas. Look to my right and its Sofia Vergara, Jon Bon Jovi, Jessica Paré, Amy Poehler, Julia Louis Dreyfus, and the crew from Saturday Night Live; look to my left and its Chadwick Boseman, who plays Jackie Robinson in "42", Harvey Weinstein, Tony Romo, Willie Geist; in front of me is Katy Perry, Mike Bloomberg, Andy Cohen, Paul Rudd, Olivia Munn, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen. See what I mean by desensitized? I would have had more photos, but Vanity Fair sent a member of the Embassy staff to tell me that if I took one more photo I was out the door.
A smoldering Jeremy Renner, on the right, with Dave Grimaldi of the FCC. Where do they teach that look?
Hello, I'm Nicole Kidman and that's Harvey Weinstein over my right shoulder. Sofia Vergara.
Vanity Fair's Maureen Orth with ESPN's Tony Kornheiser.
Kevin Spacey, in character as South Carolina Congressman Frank Underwood, with Michael Douglas, in character as President Andrew Shepherd.
French Embassy social secretary Francesca Craig with happy, handsome members of the French securité.
Paul Rudd pays serious attention to Carrie Brownstein.
Bravo's "Real Housewives" impresario, Andy Cohen. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg arrives at his own party.
The evening's other host, Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter.
Connie Milstein, sporting a few rocks, in conversation with White House social secretary Jeremy Bernard.
Debbie Dingell in serious conversation with a friend. Tony Kornheiser dishing Matt Lauer with Willie Geist (gently, nicely, seriously folks.)
Canadian musician John Kastner with girlfriend, Mad Men star Jessica Paré
Vanity Fair parties mean a preponderance of pretty people.
It's good to be invited to the Bradley Dinner or the Vanity Fair Party, but ideally both. Then you're set. I would like to say the so-called “Haddad brunch” qualifies, but each year it has an aura of chaos, that even though well meaning it is about to run off the rails, and with lots of rules and regulations it unavoidably prompts bad press. That can’t be what the hosts want. It’s held on the Saturday afternoon of the WHCA dinner, at the home where Katharine Graham lived in Georgetown, an iconic estate now owned by Mark Ein.  All good, but still they played a non-pro hand. For example, I don't usually get invited, and this year I was invited, but on the Wednesday before the Saturday brunch, when I still had not RSVP’d (not unusual 4 days out), I got an email saying the list was “now closed” and there were “no exceptions for security reasons.” Was this a party or a gambling cruise? I laughed and moved on.

Actually, I took Saturday lunch on the terrace at Cafe Milano, with Kevin Chaffee of Qorvis and Francesca Craig of the French Embassy and John Fox Sullivan of Atlantic Media, and was rewarded with a nonstop parade of interesting people — Tina Brown, Harry Evans and Kathy O’Hearn anchored a corner table, Charlie Rose, frenetic as always, breezed in; Adrienne Arsht was having lunch with Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa; MC Hammer was with Raul Fernandez, The Washington Opera’s Francesca Zambello arrived with her wife; Wyatt and Tandy Dickerson at a table for two;  Ron Dozoretz having lunch with Nnamdi Asomugha of the San Francisco 49ers, and nearby, we were told, the foreign minister of Jordan. That’s enough to call it a good show, eh? 
MC Hammer, Todd Bradley, Raul Fernandez, Ron Dozoretz, and Nnamdi Asomugha.
Adrienne Arsht with LA Mayor Antonio Vilaraigosa.
John Fox Sullivan, Francesca Craig, and Kevin Chaffee.
John Fox Sullivan with Tandy and Wyatt Dickerson.
Tina Brown, Kathy O'Hearn, and Harry Evans.
There was another piece of news out of the weekend. For years the pundit John McLaughlin hosted a Sunday morning-after brunch at the Hay-Adams Hotel. It was called the “McLaughlin Brunch” and it was the place to be. Then Politico came along with its own brunch, held at the home of its owner, Robert Allbritton, and that brunch, with its “no press” policy, knocked the McLaughlin brunch to its knees and basically out of the game. Last year Thomson Reuters co-hosted with McLaughlin, propping it up a little. This year, though, McLaughlin was off the invitation and nowhere to be seen at the brunch. Sad, really. We get the change, but couldn’t a more gracious transition have been arranged? And go for big name guests, too.
The "stars" of the Hay-Adams Rooftop brunch formerly known as the "McLaughlin Brunch" -- stars of Bravo's Top Chef, Mike Isabella, Spike Mendelsohn, Bryan Voltaggio, and Bart Vandaele.
Anyway, in the place of McLaughlin, providing the celebrity spark, were a quartet of DC area “Top Chef” contestants, all of them charming and talented. Instead of John's biting one-liners about the sorry state of government, we were entertained with bites, literally, prepared by Mike Isabella, Spike Mendelsohn, Bart Vandaele and Bryan Voltaggio. They not only starred on the hit Bravo food show, but they each have successful restaurants in DC, and are opening more.

Having them at the brunch was a good idea and it worked. Because, truthfully, by the Sunday of this celeb infused weekend most sane people don't need another brush up with icons such as Barbra Streisand or Kevin Spacey or media starlets such as Piers Morgan and Arianna Huffington. All that's needed is a good drink and some tasty food, and that’s what we got, plus the splendid view of the city from the Hay-Adams rooftop. And then home, to shut and lock the door on all of it.
Bart Vandaele tries a deviled egg prepared by another Top Chef, Bryan Voltaggio.
Mike Isabella cannolis from Kapnos with father and son.
Any gathering that involves serious chefs is about tasting the food. For example, here, at the Thomson Reuters brunch on the Hay-Adams rooftop.
Fans tune in to Spike Mendelsohn of Good Stuff Eatery.
So much going on in this photo; it was irresistible.
Guests at the Thomson Reuters party arrive to be greeted with a choice of sparkling wine or Bloody Mary's.
Camaraderie at a bar serving premium booze. All hail premium booze.
Follow Carol on twitter @caroljoynt