Flash & Filigree

A NIGHT AT THE WHITEHOUSE

From the first, it was apparent that the evening was going to echo the Marx brothers.  Perhaps it wouldn’t have if I had made a more auspicious choice of taxi-drivers; one has growing cause to lament the habit some embassies have of passing out taxi permits to their nationals the minute they arrive from the steppes.

My driver was an Afghan, probably one of the few taxi-drivers in Washington who had never heard of the White House.  However, once informed of the seriousness of the occasion–a state dinner for the Prince and Princess of Wales–he raced down Pennsylvania Avenue with a will, exhibiting a good deal of impatience when the mounted police, Princess-watchers, and protestors forced him to slow down.

My invitation asked me to present myself at the East Gate.  In the process of making the White House terrorist proof, the East Gate has also been made taxi-proof, and we were forced to circle awhile.  I was unable to spot any opening at all the first time around.  While circling for a second attempt, we narrowly missed being swept into Their Royal Highness’s motorcade, the sight of which filled my driver with an unexpected rush of royalist sentiment.  “There they go!” he cried, eagerly giving chase.  Horrified at the thought of the embarrassment that would result if he somehow got ahead of Their Royal Highnesses, I jumped out and made my way on foot through the throngs.  I showed my invitation to numerous Mounties, policemen, and Marines, all of whom were completely uninterested, either in aiding me or impeding me.  The scene was thick with protestors, sporting every conceivable grievance, but no one was very interested in them, either.

Fortunately, I did reach the East Gate precisely at the assigned hour–7:45 P.M.–just in time to see John Travolta get out of his limousine and race in the door.  He, too, seemed more than a little anxious about being late, but once inside seemed even more anxious about going upstairs.

Mr. and Mrs. Michael Deaver came in behind me, Mrs. Deaver as yet blissfully unaware that she was wearing the same dress as Malcolm Forbes’ daughter.

We left John Travolta by the coatroom, where he stayed for some time.

A press gallery had been assembled, requiring one to re-enact the ritual of the gauntlet, once practiced by the original inhabitants of the region.  The press, pooling their wisdom, had settled one question for the male guests: Do you expect to dance with the Princess?

The one guest who could reasonably expect to was lingering by the coatroom.  The rest of us merely said we didn’t expect to.

Going up the stairs, four or five of us shared tidbits of protocol gleaned from USA TODAY, only to be confounded by the sight of the receiving line, which that publication had assured us would not exist.

However, the line moved briskly.  The President, looking very Irish, seemed in excellent spirits.  When I went through, both he and Mrs. Reagan seemed slightly startled at seeing an implacable face.

It remained implacable as it moved on down the line and into the long hall.  Peter Ustinov and his wife stood by a couch, concerned, as were many others, with the problem of protocol.

“I think we can sit,” he said.  “They aren’t even in this room.”

“I think I shall sit,” Mrs. Ustinov said, but she remained standing throughout the evening.

I had never met Mr. Ustinov, but we had once gone through a revolving door at the same time.  It was a slim basis for conversation, but at that better than I had with anyone else.   I had, however, read that morning that he was in Yugoslavia, and didn’t plan to come.  I mentioned that reports had him in Yugoslavia.

“Hamburg,” he said.  “My wife was in Paris.  We met in London.  We took the Concorde.  Tomorrow we have to go back.”  He was careful not to imply that it was an occasion they wouldn’t have minded missing.

Carter Brown came over and said that he had been in Montana that summer and that my novel Lonesome Dove had been obligatory reading.  Though rarely ambiguous, he was in this case.  I could not figure out whether he himself had regarded it as required reading, or whether he had noticed that Montanans felt themselves to be laboring under an obligation to read it.

Their Royal Highnesses, having done their duties in the receiving line, came in, and champagne and Chinese caviar was served.  Jerome Zipkin and Leonore Annenberg, while not precisely glued to the Princess, nonetheless took the risk of shielding her from native bumptiousness.  Such royal flank as was left exposed, Estee’ Lauder soon secured.

Clint Eastwood came in.  Either he was letting a crew cut grow out, or he had a haircut that could be described as modified punk.  He kept quiet.  Indeed, all the entertainment-world superstars kept quiet.  Tom Selleck arrived, and it was close as to whether he or Clint Eastwood kept the quietest.

A small man plucked at my sleeve.  “I’m Jonas Salk,” he said.  “And this is my wife, Francoise Gilot, as you probably know.”

I said that indeed, I did know.

After that, conversation lagged, at least for me.  Only the Secret Service men spoke less than I.  I occupied myself with the question of “on-ness.”  It seemed a vital quality at such occasions.  I was well aware of being off, but then that’s my customary state, and I’m comfortable with it, even during state occasions.

It was obvious that Their Royal Highnesses were absolutely “on.”  They were doing their jobs to perfection.  Having nothing better to do, I eavesdropped on the Princess for several minutes.  She was describing her trip, intelligently and with considerable animation.  I have a son precisely her age and could not help wondering what he would be saying if he had just flown from Australia and been plopped down in such a mob.

I wandered around the room, attempting to judge levels of on-ness.  The President looked to be about 80% on, which was more than adequate.  Mrs. Reagan, perhaps feeling the constraint of having to do everything right, didn’t seem quite so on.

I tried to judge whether the Prince or Carter Brown was more on but I had a hard time settling on a yardstick.  Both were totally casual, but in the end, I gave the Prince a slight edge, mainly because from time to time he seemed genuinely amused by the proceedings and his part in them.  The President also seemed capable of amusement.

Very few of the guests seemed on, though I suppose some of Mrs. Reagan’s friends–Mrs. Bloomingdale, Mrs. Annenberg, Mr. Zipkin–were on in their own special way.  Mikhail Baryshnikov was completely off.  He looked pale, tired, worried, depressed, a picture of Slavic gloom.  All the actors were off.  David Hockney was off.  Jacques Cousteau, on the other hand, was on.

As we were going into dinner Malcolm Forbes, ever the gruff adventurer, said, “Well, we’re finally going to get some chow.”

I found myself seated by Lady Wright, wife of the British ambassador.  On my right was Louise Shepherd, wife of the astronaut, and next to her James (Jamie) Niven, son of the actor.  Beyond him was Helen Frankenthaler, next to Jerome Zipkin, next to Edith de Montebello, next to Michael Deaver.

“You’re up one.  I know that, but you probably don’t,” Jerome Zipkin said, when we were introduced.  He was referring to the position of Lonesome Dove on the New York Times bestseller list.

“You see, I get the paper a day early,” he said.  Though he was only referring to the Book Review, which all subscribers receive a week early, he managed to convey the impression that the paper of record printed a special edition just so he would know who was up one or down one before going to dinner.

It was decided that we should all sign our menus, a process that occupied most of the meal.  Mr. Zipkin had the only pen and was reluctant to yield it.  Seven menus had to be signed by eight people, and the eighth by seven people, as one was not allowed to sign one’s own menu.  This went on for a while.

I amused myself by watching the Princess of Wales, of whom I had a clear view, across Baryshnikov’s front.  She looks more beautiful than the photographs, though she usually photographs well.  Her eyes are very striking, reminding me of the first time I saw Paul Newman’s eyes, some twenty-five years ago on the set of “Hud.”  The same blue, though hers are larger, and thus appear more eloquent.

Then the Marine violinists swept in and played extremely romantic music for a few minutes.  The meal was on the minceur side: lobster mousse with a little crabmeat, a chicken breast, some green beans and brown rice, a little sherbet.

Then came the toasts.  The President, perhaps thinking for a moment of (the absent) David Rockefeller, addressed Her Royal Highness as Princess David.  He recovered himself and swept on.  The Princess seemed just a touch flustered.  The Prince then made a graceful speech and forgot his toast.

I decided, watching him from the next table, that he contrived the slip on the spur of the moment to balance his host’s slip.  He seemed to me so professional a prince that he could smoothly incorporate a forgotten toast when the occasion required.  His timing was excellent.

A rather problematic aspect of the evening was that the Prince’s various secretaries, aides-de-camp, and equerries, as well as the Princess’ ladies-in-waiting, looked, on the whole, more distinguished than the celebrities, leading to speculation as to who they were.  I myself mistook a lady-in-waiting for the exuberant but absent Bonnie Swearingen.

Coffee was taken.  The Princess was once again ringed by First Friends.

William F. Buckley seemed more off than most.

The absence of Evangeline Bruce seemed to presage an era of instability in international affairs.

The Librarian of Congress could be observed being his usual self.

Dean Paul Martin wore a red bow tie.

Then Leontyne Price sang.  I sat by someone whom I mistakenly took to be Sir Fitzroy Maclean.  He and his wife were the only ones besides myself viewing the Treasures of Britain show as the special viewing earlier in the evening.  He looked immensely distinguished.  I still don’t know who he was.  Possibly an equerry.

After the singing, the President needlessly entangled himself in the pronunciation of Verdi’s name.  Needless, because Miss Price sang no Verdi.  He tried it a couple of ways.

Then came the dancing.

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So far as I can discover, only two people were allowed to bring dates: Tom Selleck, and Suzanne Farrell.  Most of the ladies had military escorts.  This was true of Brooke Astor, Gloria Vanderbilt, Helen Frankenthaler, and others.  Miss Frankenthaler’s was a small Marine, half her height and less than half her age.

Miss Frankenthaler, who could easily acquire the habit of command, decided I was the most likely dancing partner, a judgment she was soon to regret.  It was not easy to persuade her to wait until the President had tripped a few steps with the Princess before hitting the floor.

She was not long in noticing Mr. Travolta, to whom the President soon surrendered the Princess.  Miss Frankenthaler seemed not to know who Mr. Travolta was, or anything about his career, but she quickly decided he would make a better dancing partner than me.  However, she had to wait.  The Princess and Mr. Travolta danced a lot, mainly to the theme of Saturday Night Fever.  The Prince, with Suzanne Farrell as his partner, briefly attempted to compete in the boogieing, and narrowly avoided a Princely fall.

Then Clint Eastwood danced with the Princess.  Then Tom Selleck danced with the Princess.  Then Miss Frankenthaler danced with Clint Eastwood.  Then Neil Diamond sang.  Then Neil Diamond danced with the Princess.  Then Miss Frankenthaler danced with John Travolta.

The gloomy Baryshnikov did not dance.

Having attained this summit, Miss Frankenthaler felt it was time to repair to the Hay-Adams for a nightcap.  This was suggested to myself, and Philippe de Montebello and his wife.  It was pointed out that the doors were rather firmly closed; the only way out was along the red carpet and into an international incident.  Miss Frankenthaler, the de Montebellos and I repaired to another room where there was a fireplace.  Champagne arrived.  David Hockney also arrived.

Miss Frankenthaler asked Mr. De Montebello if he had seen the Rembrandt in the Treasure House show.  She said it was a great picture.  Mr. De Montebello demurred.  He said he didn’t even think it was a Rembrandt.  David Hockney said he has seen it and it was indisputably a great picture, whoever had painted it.  Miss Frankenthaler said not only was it indisputably a great picture, it was also indisputably by Rembrandt.  Philippe de Montebello said it was harshly painted, almost garish.

Having zipped through the exhibit so quickly that I hadn’t even noticed it, I could take no part in the discussion and went in to watch the Princess being helped into her fur.  The Prince said his goodnights.

Soon we left, myself, Miss Frankenthaler, the de Montebellos.  Cars were called.  I discovered I could probably have had an assigned car if I’d asked.  Two cars came, but their numbers were wrong.  Neither was assigned either to Miss Frankenthaler or to the de Montebellos.

The first, it turned out, was assigned to the Carter Browns.  In went Pamela; in went Carter.

Philippe de Montebello experienced a crisis of conscience.  At the last second, he raced to the car, opened the door, and said “Great show, Carter!”

Mr. Brown’s reply went unheard.

At the Hay-Adams, tensions over the greatness of the Rembrandt, if it was a Rembrandt, had not entirely abated.  We all drank Perrier.  Mr. de Montebello insisted on paying for it, which proved easier said than done.  The waiter seemed unwilling to believe that Mr. de Montebello was in the hotel.  He returned with the check three times, and finally insisted that Mr. de Montebello call his own room, to determine that he was actually there.  Mr. de Montebello tried to suggest that such an effort would be absurd, since he wasn’t in his room.  The waiter failed to grasp his point, or to concede that Mr. de Montebello was in the hotel at all.  Mr. de Montebello looked pained.

The Princess Yasmin Aga Khan, daughter of the beautiful Rita Hayworth, came in and was instantly served.

–Larry McMurtry

 c. 1985, Samizdat Press, Tucson Arizona.

4 comments

  1. richseeley

    Brings back memories. I remember being in D.C. during this era and getting into a cab and suggesting the Smithsonian as my destination of choice. The driver, recently arrived in this country, asked me for the street address.

  2. Jerome Zipkin, from the 1930s on, was a diligent collector of W. Somerset Maugham’s books, letters and related papers. Most of his collection went to Boston University Library’s Gotlib Center, though I recall reading that several items – such as the manuscript of The Moon And Sixpence – went to the Ransom Collection.

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