Monday, October 19, 2015

Washington Social Diary: The Capital of Transactional Society

It's the fall social season in Washington, and here's a pair of killer hosts.
by Carol Joynt

A request came in recently for a list of the best hosts and hostesses in Washington for what will eventually be a published list of the 100 best hosts and hostesses in the U.S. There were parameters: the nominees could not be “professional event planners,” or individuals who entertain to “raise funds,” nor should they be people who entertain “with an agenda.” They had to be the real deal, genuine party hosts. Well, damn. That made it a challenge.

Parties that are just that, parties (luncheon, cocktails or dinner) are hard to find here. They have been replaced by “events,” gatherings that center on an agenda, a theme, and that may be seated and with food and wine, but the guest list is in the dozens or hundreds and the main attraction always is talk, in the form of a panel discussion, on-stage interviews, or lectures. They rely on corporate sponsors and as such they are profitable. They are popular, too. The event business in DC is huge and growing.
Party time, but there's a difference between entertaining for friends and entertaining with an "agenda."
Real parties – no corporate tie-in, no promotional agenda, admission is free, no swag on the way out -- are such a rarity that it’s also rare to come upon generous, gracious and natural party givers. Washington is a working town. WORKING. It is the capital of transactional society -- you do something for me; I’ll do something for you. 

Many people having parties here get labeled as social hosts and hostesses when, in fact, they are lobbyists. It may be glossed up and passed off as something else, but let’s be clear: the entertaining of friends for that sole purpose is not the same as entertaining a guest list of White House, Capitol Hill, Pentagon and other government officials with the sole purpose of procuring U.S. financial aid for whatever and wherever, or promoting a client, or their own company. That’s work. 
Party food? Sometimes.
Party essential: regardless of the purpose — Champagne.
Nonetheless I came up with a list and I’m pleased with it. I graded on a strict curve – people who like to host their friends, most often at home, and who do it with sincerity and style. It spans generations, features men and women, a few couples, and is diverse. With the exception of President and Mrs. Obama, I know the people on my list. Having money wasn't a requirement; actually, for me, it's a higher bar for millionaires and billionaires. After it was submitted I was told it did and didn’t synch up with other lists of nominees. Hmmm. C'est ça, la différence! It will be interesting to see the end result, and it won’t change anything about the way the world turns.
Entertaining at home can be formal or casual.
Social life in Washington shouldn’t be a quandary. It’s really very simple. If someone just dropped in from Mars and wanted to make it socially they need do only two things: hire Carolyn Peachy to pull together the guest list and Susan Gage to do the catering. They might have a chance. Besides, the invitation would already have cachet. Mars is all the rage right now.
Carolyn Peachy.
Susan Gage, on the right, with Guy Forestier-Walker, Haley Binn and Jason Binn.

The Meridian Ball happened this past weekend and continued its lucky run of seeming to own the prettiest night of October each year. Maybe that's because it’s such a pretty event and it’s tough to beat a setting such as the Meridian International Center, situated on a hill in two grand and elegant side-by-side John Russell Pope mansions –the White-Meyer House and Meridian House – both built in the early 20th century. This gala, more than most, inspires dowdy Washington to put on its glam for a night. 
One of Washington's best parties of the year: The Meridian Ball, here at the cocktail party before the White-Meyer Dinner.
Outside Meridian House, the night of the ball.
It wasn’t always so rocking. The ball has been around for a long time, but tended to be a bastion of Mr. and Mrs. Old Guard, think tankers and dutiful ambassadorial couples. All nice people, I’m sure, but not given to tearing it up. Then in 2009, Beth Dozoretz, a popular Democratic fundraiser, was ball chair and she steered an old franchise in a new direction, proving this party could be a splashy contender, up from the ranks of the same old, same old.  She multiplied the numbers of bars, for one thing, and imported a New York deejay, for another, and he put turbo chargers on the guests who, rather than bolting for the exits at 11pm, instead stayed and danced well past midnight.
David Stark, who designed the Meridian Ball, with ball chair Beth Dozoretz.
In 2009, changing it up, Gwen Holliday, Ron and Beth Dozoretz and Stuart Holliday.
The energy Dozoretz injected into the ball has continued and it has become buzzier, attracting younger faces from the social lists, more international men of mystery, more media folks having a dress-up night, more gays and more babes, and by “babes” I mean women not in St. John formal wear but Versace, or at least wannabe Versace – usually on the arm of an international man of mystery. It’s so refreshing. I caught a glimpse of one tall, sculpted platinum blond in a second skin of bright blue sequins and a fur stole (its okay, it was a chilly night) and thought, “she can’t possibly be from Washington,” but then maybe. I wanted to find out, but lost her in the crowd.
In 2009, in addition to Stark, Dozoretz imported NY's DJ Pitch One. There's been a deejay every year since.
As the flash has grown so has the size of the guest list; 650 at my first in 2009, more than 800 this year, and none batting an eye at the ticket prices -- $100,000 for the top tier, with 16 seats at a pre-ball dinner. DC has become a money city. What’s different from before is it’s not your money but their money – tech, private equity, development, corporate, law, and medicine. Mostly 40-somethings, and here and there some who are a little grayer at the temples. They live in high-end residential enclaves such as Potomac, McLean, Spring Valley, Wesley Heights, but have been migrating to Georgetown and Dupont Circle, too.
Two shots from my first Meridian Ball, in 2009, with James Spellman, and snapped on the dance floor by The Washington Post.
And all these many balls later, 2015, CJ with DC City Council Member Jack Evans and Shane Harris of The Daily Beast.
You can see changes in the appeal of the Meridian Ball, this year most pointedly in the dinners that precede the ball. Typically they are hosted by ambassadors at their residences, with the number of guests ranging from a dozen to up to 25-30. And then there’s the White-Meyer Dinner, at the White-Meyer House (one of the two Pope mansions), coincidentally where Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham spent some of her teenage years.

The White-Meyer Dinner started as the Meridian Ball dinner for younger people, with a younger people price point (this year $450 per person vs. $650 for ambassador dinners) but a few years ago word began to spread that this was the dinner. Why? First of all, its right there where the ball happens, one stop partying, very attractive for a city that works well past 6 o’clock on a Friday, and when cocktails begin at 6:30, and cocktails on the White-Meyer terrace are splendid, with a view of the city at sunset, and the October moon rising. 
Cocktails on the terrace at the White-Meyer Dinner, this year attended by a record 255 guests.
Shane Harris and William Brawner, then joined by Kevin Chaffee.
The White-Meyer terrace is lovely on an October night, with a view of the city.
At the White-Meyer Dinner people create tables of their friends, making it more like a private dinner party. The ambassador-hosted dinners tend to be a hodge-podge of generous ticket-buyers, but they often all are strangers, and the atmosphere at table can be stiff, with toasts and a small welcoming speech from the ambassador (after all, its what they are trained to do), and the cuisine served varies from house to house, and then there’s the schlep to Meridian Hill and the ball, and by the time you arrive the folks from White-Meyer have had the ball all to themselves.

This year seats at White-Meyer were more in demand than ever, so much that the event planners had to put tables in the mansion’s entrance hall. Next year they may have to tent the driveway. The menu was Red Endive with Pickled Plums, Halibut & Beef, and Lemon “Marrakech” for dessert. There was more food next door at the ball, a smorgasbord of desserts in the mansion, various buffets – fruit, crepes, savories – in the pretty, graveled garden, and this year, with a theme of Marrakech, Hookah Pipes and shisha.
A table at the White-Meyer House.
Table setting at the White-Meyer Dinner.
The White-Meyer Dinner is seated in several rooms of the White-Meyer House. This is looking from one room into the library.
Exceptional flower arrangements adorned all the tables at White-Meyer.
Inside Meridian House, as the ball began, Meridian President and CEO Stuart Holliday tried to keep a receiving line together, but it was – as they say – like herding cats. Photographers swarmed to get shots of him with the event chairs, Beatrice Welters, the former U.S. ambassador to Trinidad and Tobago, and her husband, Anthony Welters; Eric Jon Larsen and Susanne Larsen; the Congressional co-chairs, Rep. Vern Buchanan of Florida, and Sandy Buchanan, and Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, and Pat Engel; and Ali Weinberg and Josh Rogin, both in the media (ABC News and Bloomberg, respectively).
The entrance hall of White-Meyer House, with the added dinner tables.
Left to right: David Perlin, Douglas Maguire, and Omer Er.
Catherine Pitcher, left, animates a story for Robin Diamond, right.
CJ's view from table 1.
The White-Meyer library, dinner in full bloom.
The increasing number of media people who attend the ball is notable, because it is another change from the past. They bring the celebrity (for DC) sparkle that once was provided by famous public/political figures. They seem to like the social spotlight, too. CNN was represented in every direction. There was political correspondent Dana Bash, all in blue, breezing through the White-Meyer Dinner; there’s Michelle Kosinski, White House correspondent, near the dessert table, trying to protect the long train of her white gown from being trampled upon, with her husband, Kimball Duncan; there’s Jim Sciutto, national security correspondent, arriving at the ball with his wife, Gloria Riviera (she’s ABC News); on the terrace at the White-Meyer Dinner, Greta Brawner of C-SPAN, with her husband William Brawner; The Washington Post’s Roxanne Roberts, on the dance floor with a young friend; and The Daily Beast’s senior politics editor Jackie Kucinich (yes, daughter of Dennis) with her husband, Jared Allen, a former journalist now in communications, both enthused about the whole evening.
Frank Islam and Stuart Holliday.
Stuart Holliday, keeping the receiving line together, with Eliot and Pat Engel, Carlos and Edelia Gutierrez, and Lee Satterfield.
A Meridian "family" shot: Patrick Steel, Lee Satterfield, Stuart Holliday, his wife, Gwen Holliday, Clyde Tuggle and Mary Street.
Pausing on a busy night, Meridian's communications director Monique McSween with her husband, Luis McSween.
In the garden, former Washington Post publisher Katharine Weymouth, a Meridian Ball regular chatted in a huddle of pals; also a regular, Washingtonian publisher Cathy Merrill Williams made the rounds; Capitol File magazine editor in chief Elizabeth Thorp (another who chose the White-Meyer Dinner) looked out for her guests, “House of Cards” cast members Jayne Atkinson-Gill and Michael Gill; Washington Life editor Kevin Chaffee (White-Meyer Dinner), hung out with Politico’s Playbook scribe Daniel Lippman, who, charmingly, wondered if he could get invited to a pre-ball dinner in the future. Yeah, probably so.

As the clock hands neared 11pm, guests who arrived from the embassy dinners joined the White-Meyer guests and the first question asked was “where did you do dinner?” The various answers say something, too, about the changing face of the Meridian Ball.
Walking the few steps from White-Meyer to Meridian House, we passed this: Hookah Pipes getting made ready for shisha smoking. 
The Meridian Ball has two options for dancing: inside, with a dance band, or the "disco tent," with a deejay. Here is 2015, in the first minutes after dinner.
In the Meridian House garden; only some of the more than 800 ball guests.
An older man, social, veteran attendee: “Oh, White-Meyer. Wouldn’t be anywhere else. It's a great setting and after dinner you walk next door to the party.”

Young couple, media, first timers: “We were at an embassy. I’ve never been to an embassy dinner before. I always wondered what it would be like. It was so nice. There were only 12 of us and the ambassador was so gracious.”

Older couple, he’s a lawyer: “We were at an embassy dinner and it was terrible. The food was some kind of bean paste and the ambassador didn’t even show up.”
Dessert smorgasbord at the Meridian Ball.
The fruit buffet in the garden.
In the garden after dinner. Edelia and Carlos Gutierrez. He is chairman of Meridian and a former Secretary of Commerce.
Woman arriving late, rushing through the courtyard to the front door: “Oh my God. I’m late. I didn’t go to an embassy because I had another black-tie dinner.”

Last but not least, arriving very fashionably late, was Paul Wharton, who likes to call himself the “6th housewife” in the ill-fated “Real Housewives of Washington DC,” and that’s fair. He also fared better professionally than his cast mates, now hosting his own TV show, “Paul Wharton Style” on the CW network. As he adjusted his dark purple dinner jacket, touched at his coiffeur with ponytail, Paul asked, “Have I missed anything.” Oh no. “Now the party can get started,” I said.
From back when Paul Wharton, center, was a "6th housewife" with two other Real Housewives stars, Mary Amons, also DC, and Simon van Kempen, of the RHONY.
But when I said that to Paul I actually was leaving, with my friend, Daily Beast senior correspondent Shane Harris, who covers national security and intelligence but also loves to write up a good party. He noted all the media who were at Meridian and wondered if this soiree could rival the annual White House Correspondents Association dinner. I said I didn’t think so. It’s still more money than media, and more glam, and the WHCA event is not really social, but the workingest working dinner of the year. If one had to choose between the two, this what I’d suggest: pay the big bucks for a Meridian Ball ticket and watch WHCA on TV.
Michael Gill, Jayne Atkinson-Gill, Almus Thorp, Elizabeth Thorp, Spencer Pratt and Dana Bash at the White-Meyer Dinner. (Photo by Haik Naltchayan)

(When Liz Smith posted her item on a new book about Washington columnist Mary McGrory, I sent DPC this email message. He asked me to include it in WSD, and so here it is)

When I was a young, green UPI reporter out in the streets covering John Kerry’s first Vietnam Veterans Against the War march, I filed a graphic story about John leading a march up to the Capitol and his followers then dumping dog tags into a wastebasket, including one young man who took out his glass eye and dropped it in. I filed my story and it went up on the “A” wire.
John Kerry at the Vietnam Veterans Against the War March in Washington, April 1971.
Shortly after that I got a call from the desk (on my circa WWII radio phone) that Mary McGrory at The Evening Star newspaper was trying to reach me, and with a phone number. I almost fainted. Mary McGrory?!!? Wants to talk to me??!! I called her from the nearest quiet pay phone, in the National Gallery of Art. She commended my story and the mention of the veteran with the glass eye. She wanted to confirm that happened and to know more about this VVAW leader, John Kerry. I knew him well and told her what I could. When she wrote her column she mentioned my story. Again, I almost fainted. 

As I recall, Kerry fished the glass eye out of the bin and gave it back to the wounded veteran. 
Mary McGrory at work in the Washington Star newsroom in 1975. (Bernie Boston/Washington Star).
Photographs by Carol Joynt

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