Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Washington Social Diary

Just another chauffered SUV on the streets of DC, but not just another passenger.
by Carol Joynt

Some weeks have themes. For me this week’s themes are farewell, reunion and change, as I transition from one job to another and allow myself a “chill” week in between. A staycation, of sorts. Meaning I imagine I’m sailing in the Greek islands or savoring America’s back roads and country inns but, in fact, I’m in Washington DC, hiding out. However, the leaves are turning and it’s a pleasure to be at home. Home sweet home. I’m mixing up the tedious – cleaning closets, a tune-up of the heating system (remember last year’s endless winter?), editing the desk and bookshelves – with pursuits of enjoyment, such as seeing friends, taking random walks, sleeping late, reading and catching an afternoon movie.

Speaking of walks, you never what you’ll see. In Washington this week the streets are more jammed than usual with chauffeured SUVs and black sedans and old school limousines, because the International Monetary Fund is having its annual fall meeting. A quick glance in the back seats usually reveals the gray hair and solemn faces of the visiting dignitaries. But on M Street in Georgetown I glanced at a chauffeured SUV and got a surprise. The passenger was a dog, very distinguished, too, looked accustomed to door-to-door service, and could have stepped off the canvas of “Dogs Playing Poker.” An IMF dignitary? We’ll never know.

Friday was my last day as editor-at large of Washingtonian magazine, and coincidentally three years to the day from when I started. It was a good experience. I’m particularly proud of a series I produced each month, “Behind The Scenes,” in which we took readers to places the public cannot go. It was a prominent photo feature on which I worked with architectural photographers, including Dan Chung, Ron Blunt and Morgan Howarth.

Because we went places that are high security and even top secret we got to experience that Washington specialty of the security clearance, a dozen or more different kinds, ranging from fairly simple to extremely elaborate. I’ve been deep in the bowels of critical government agencies, to facilities that are guarded by surface to air missiles, stood within inches of the world’s deadliest viruses, been in an underground watery tunnel where warship models are tested, been dwarfed by rockets but also stepped into the beautiful private dining room of the Secretary of State, the ceremonial Office of the Vice President, a wholesale crab warehouse on the shore of the Chesapeake, and a speakeasy.

I will miss that, but I’m excited about what’s next, because change is good. My new role, as of October 20, is vice president of communications for FP Group. CEO and president David Rothkopf hired me to help him enhance the focus on the writers who cover the beats of world affairs and intelligence, and everything related, for Foreign Policy Magazine, the website and who participate in FP Events. I don’t need to explain why right now is the right time to be with an organization that scrutinizes foreign policy, ours and everyone else’s.

For my Friday evening Washingtonian farewell a large group of us went to Vidalia restaurant, where the happy hour is generous and high quality. We had top shelf drinks and lots to eat, but apparently not quite enough, because from Vidalia we trekked the few blocks to Shake Shack, for what I like to call the “after party,” the city’s earliest, because we wrapped at 10, after which I returned home while the much younger ones (in my professional life almost everyone is 20-something) went off for palm readings and karaoke. As it should be.
That old gang of mine. Washingtonian farewell at Vidalia (l. to r.) Kate Bennett, Andrew Propp, Sherri Dalphonse, Ben Freed, Paul Spella, Sophie Gilbert, Tanya Pai, Luke Mullins, and Spencer Joynt.
Pre-karaoke: Paul Spella, Sophie Gilbert, and Tanya Pai. Paul and Tanya are with Washingtonian. Sophie moved from Washingtonian to the Atlantic.
Andrew Propp is one of Washingtonian's staff photographers, Sherri is executive editor. Ben Freed covers general assignment and came to Washingtonian from
Sophie Gilbert, Tanya Pai, and Luke Mullins.
Paul Spella at the Shake Shack after party. After cocktails and party food, burgers and milk shakes. Here are John Wilwol and Sophie Gilbert (aka Mrs. Wilwol).
Saturday was a seated lunch at the elegant apartment of Gil Pimentel, who I’ve known since when we worked at ABC News together. He was a producer at Nightline and I was a producer at This Week. Somehow we found each other in the warren of floors and offices that is the ABC News bureau, and we hung out a lot in my office or his, but usually his, because Nightline was such a buzzy place to be. It was the pulse, not only of ABC News but all network news. Which is why, when Gil went off to Germany to take one of the first Humboldt Fellowships, I opted to take his place at Nightline, and how I became friends, too, with the others at the lunch: producers Kathryn Kross and Joe O’Connor and Scott Sforza.
On Gil Pimentel's balcony (l. to r.): Gil, Scott Sforza, CJ, Kathryn Kross, and Joe O'Connor.
I arrived at Nightline in late 1989 or early 1990 at the time of the buildup to the first Gulf War (Operation Desert Shield) of the Bush (41) Administration. Ted Koppel, the anchor and our leader in every way, made an executive decision that we would dedicate the nightly 11:30 broadcast to only the one subject, the war buildup. It was a singular focus unique to network news, and also an illustration of Ted’s focus and authority.

We stuck to the mandate, at least until Madonna entered the picture. The most famous woman in the world had just released a provocative and controversial video version of  “Justify My Love.” The news was that basically all broadcast outlets, including MTV, banned it. Madonna’s rep, Liz Rosenberg, reached out to Nightline to offer us that rarest of all things in the pop culture universe: an exclusive interview with Madonna.  Every network wanted that interview but Madonna wanted Nightline.
Producers trying to get organized for a photo.
Only, Ted wouldn’t do it. He was committed to keeping his broadcast focused on the war buildup. I got tapped to be the one to face Ted with the argument of why we should do the Madonna interview. We sat alone in the Nightline conference room, nibbling on our respective dinners, as I tried to make my case. But to no avail. He listened to me, he did not demean my point of view (that wouldn’t have been his style) but he could not be persuaded.

Ted opted to take that Friday night off. The substitute host would be Forest Sawyer, who Madonna had approved. They lived in the same building, she knew of him, and liked his whole general thing. That’s what I mean by “approve.” The interview was fine. It made headlines. We showed the video unedited and in its entirety. And on Monday we were back to focusing on Iraq.
The table before our memory-filled lunch.
Just some of Gil Pimentel's honors for his career as a television producer.
That was just one of the memories relived over our long Saturday lunch, which also included my son, Spencer, and Kathryn’s niece, Taylor. We elders realized neither was old enough to understand the relevance of Nightline, and how important it was, the game-changer it was in network news, and the important and sane voice Ted Koppel had in our daily understanding of the day’s top stories. It’s still on the air, but it’s different.

From Nightline, Kathryn went on to Bloomberg and CNN and to starting her own production company, Krossmedia. Joe is the general manager of Rhode Island Public Radio. Scott left ABC for the White House, where he was in the communications office first for President George H.W. Bush and then oversaw all broadcast operations for both terms of President George W. Bush. Today he advises some of the top companies in the world – Fortune 100 and nonprofits. His current project is the opening of One World Trade Center. Gil was a vice president of National Geographic TV, and then was with Smithsonian Digital, and is now freelance. Between them they have dozens of Emmy awards and shared in Peabodys and other honors. A remarkable group of friends.

I’m at the threshold of another engaging journalistic experience as I begin with FP, making more memories.
The view from Gil Pimentel's balcony. On the horizon is the Washington National Cathedral.

Remember when black tie was de rigueur?  It was especially so at such august functions as the PEN/Faulkner gala, a solid, as dependable as the setting sun and the rising moon. But no more. The sun has set on formal dress for PEN/Faulkner – changed to business suits and cocktail dresses – and if it can happen here, expect the trend to spread among other formerly formal occasions. What’s James Bond to do? Go hipster?
The class picture of all the 2014 PEN/Faulkner Foundation honorees.
It was the gala’s co-chair, Mary Haft, and other board members who made the decision to send the tuxedo to the same gala graveyard as soup and nuts. The morning after I wrote an obituary. Emily Heil at The Washington Post did, too.

But here’s the news: no one seemed to suffer. The men I asked were not in the least concerned. Most people come to these dinners from the office. For the men it makes the process less hectic. There were one or two hold-outs spotted in the crowd, but by and large the men embraced dressing as themselves rather than as fictional secret agents.
Ishmael Beah and Mary Haft. 
The dozen honored authors stepped to the proscenium of the Folger to tell tales keyed to the evening’s theme, “Danger,” after a monologue from master of ceremonies Calvin Trillin, who gave his own personal obit to the tuxedo. “I have mixed feelings about the change of dress,” he said, “partly because of the negative effect it has had on my tuxedo amortization.” He looked quite smart, though, in his blazer, blue shirt and yellow tie. The honorees included David Baldacci, Piper Kerman, Elliott Holt, Ishmael Beah, Mitchell S. Jackson, Rachel Pastan, Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Madison Smartt Bell, Adelle Waldman, Isabel Wilkerson, and two DC public school students and writers, Daniela Shia-Sevilla and Rachel Pyfrom.
Calvin Trillin with the authors on the stage at the gala, which raised $156,000 for the PEN/Faulkner Foundation.
The more than 200 guests listen to a reading at the PEN/Faulkner gala.
David Baldacci recalled "danger" as book research at Fort Benning, GA.
Student writer Daniela Shia-Sevilla.
Alert and relaxed, two ways to enjoy the readings in the Folger Shakespeare Theatre.
Baldacci recalled the deep muscle and bone hangover of three days of grueling basic training with the Army Rangers at Ft. Benning, GA. It was research, of course, for one of his best sellers. Kerman, who turned her own true Danbury prison story into a book and the Netflix hit Orange Is The New Black, said “I have carried bags of dirty money across international lines at the behest of a drug kingpin.” Her 13-month sentence taught her “the dangers, great and small, that wait for every person inside our enormous American maze of prisons and jails.”

Following the readings, the 237 guests reconvened in the Folger library rooms for a seated dinner of roasted autumn vegetables, chicken breast and apple tart.
Mitchell Jackson with emcee Calvin Trillin.
Writers Kate Lehrer and Susan Shreve stand under a painting of Henry Clay Folger.
Katherine Bradley and Septime Webre.
Katharine Weymouth and Benjamin Alire Saenz.
Isabel Wilkerson and Mitchell Jackson.
Student honoree Daniela Shia-Sevilla with her mother, Chi Shia.
Devoted to the arts, Sen. Patrick Leahy and his wife, Marcelle Leahy. They are with Folger Library director Michael Witmore.
Piper Kerman, Sharon Pyfrom, her daughter, Rachel Pyfrom, and Daniela Shia-Sevilla.
Robert Lehrman, Aimee Lehrman, Jean Cafritz, and Calvin Cafritz.
Dinner was served in the beautiful library rooms at the Folger.
Photographs by Carol Joynt and James R. Brantley.

Follow Carol on twitter @caroljoynt