Thursday, May 9, 2013

Washington Social Diary

The Embassy of the Netherlands in all its spring color
Austin Comes to Washington by Way of the Netherlands
by Carol Joynt

While the headline says Austin Comes to Washington by Way of the Netherlands it could just as easily be the other way round: the Netherlands comes to Washington by way of Austin. Either works because both directions end up with the same person: Gabrielle de Kuyper Sheshunoff Bekink.

She popped up on my radar only recently and in that way that keeps social life fresh, especially in a small town like Washington, where everyone knows everyone and the usual suspects are on the guest lists again and again. I received an invitation to a dinner she and her husband were hosting and it got my attention because it was not just any ole’ dinner. It was to honor a Queen and a King.

Netherlands Ambassador Rudolf Bekink with wife, Gabrielle de Kuyper Sheshunoff Bekink.
“You don’t know Gaby?” a friend said in shock, when I mentioned the invite and that I did not know the hostess. “Wait till you meet her. She’s something else.” That was intriguing enough, but then he added, “She’s her own person.”

While that may seem an odd comment in an era of equality it can still be novel in Washington, where women -- especially when they have the role of “wife of” -- are not typically identified as their “own person.”

I know, you’ll shout out Hillary Rodham Clinton, and a collection of so-called “power couples,” but for every HRC, and every wife holding up her half of a “power couple,” there’s still legions of quiet helpmeets who are happy in the background, or who literally stay home in another state while the husband does his job in the capital, regardless of the job.

You could call Gabrielle de Kuyper Sheshunoff Bekink a “wife of” -- her husband is Netherlands Ambassador Rudolf Bekink -- but she’s also quite definitely her own person, a businesswoman, president and CEO of Austin, Texas based Sheshunoff Consulting + Solutions, and a member of the de Kuyper family of Canada and was, before Austin, the executive vice president of John de Kuyper and Zoon B.V. Canada, Ltd. A company she co-founded in 1971, Sheshunoff Information Services, is now part of Thomson Reuters. She has dual citizenship in the Canada and the U.S.
Hello, gorgeous — flowers imported from Holland for the occasion, with the exception of the Dogwood.
Yes, there were tulips.
The upstairs cross hall at the residence of the Netherlands ambassador.
The dinner party was to honor the historic occasion of the abdication of Queen Beatrix and the investiture of her son, Willem, as the new King of the Netherlands. It was held at the Bekink’s home, the handsome Netherlands ambassador’s residence just off Massachusetts Avenue, in the heart of Embassy Row, and which on the night of the party made quite a bold spring statement, as it was framed by beds of deep blue hydrangeas. They were only a tease for what was inside -- a great patch of Holland’s best flower beds, cut and packed and shipped to Washington for the occasion, a King’s ransom of roses, tulips, orchids, amaryllis and more. Only the branches of dogwood were of local provenance.

Ambassadors residences are furnished, or not, in a basic way -- usually with state-issued pieces that are generally elegant but not necessarily statement-making or personal. I’d last been to the Dutch ambassador’s a while a go, an ambassador or two ago, and it was pleasant but not special. Gabrielle Bekink has transformed it into a very personal, warm, chic abode, worthy of Park Avenue but right here in our fair city. Add to that the feast of flowers that adorned every flat surface and the feast of food that was served to the 60 guests.
The guest list was heavy on the usual suspects but still pleasant.
The Bekink's study, resplendent with style and flowers.
The intimate touches with which Gabrielle Bekink has adorned her Washington home, proving an ambassador's residence doesn't have to be impersonal.
Sitting, relaxing, enjoying, waiting for dinner to be called.
This is where Austin comes back into the picture. Gabrielle imported a favorite flower designer from Austin, David Kurio, to work his magic with the colorful blooms. Austin is in the kitchen, too. Gabrielle lured Christina Owen away from the Austin Four Seasons hotel to be her chef at the residence. This teaming up of the bounty of the Netherlands with the talent of Austin speaks to the skills of Bekink. It all fit together seamlessly, regardless of the sourcing, into a lovely, elegant, timeless Washington diplomatic dinner.

When I watched Bekink warmly greet her guests, quietly manage her dining room and staff and affectionately attend to her husband, I couldn’t help but think of Ethel Merman in “Call Me Madam.” Not because of physical similarity, but that force of personality, and ability to navigate the diplomatic dance while also being blessed with a keen sense of self. 
The dinner, at its peak, at the home of the Bekinks
I think the same thoughts when observing Connie Milstein and Adrienne Arsht, two other social forces to be reckoned with who also are their own bosses. Yes, they have means, but they have something else, too. They are stealth personalities. That’s an essential attribute in a city whose overall tone defines “still water runs deep.” I don’t know their politics, I’m not privy to the secrets of their private lives, and we don’t hang out. I see them socially. But I know this: they could be anywhere in the world and yet they’ve chosen Washington for a chunk of their time, their attention, their generosity and to build friendships. That’s cool.  And they are fun to watch.
Adrienne Arsht at lunch in Washington with the mayor of Los Angeles, Antonio Villaraigos.
Connie Milstein, talking with White House social secretary Jeremy Bernard, at the Vanity Fair party after the White House Correspondents Association dinner.
Follow Carol on twitter @caroljoynt