By Donna Evers
How two larger-than-life women battled it out over the punch bowls and buffet tables.
Starting in the 1920’s, the blue-blooded “Three Mrs. B’s” ruled Washington society like royalty for decades. While Mrs. Beale, Mrs. Bliss and Mrs. Bacon carefully pruned their guest lists, they were followed in the ‘50’s by two hyper-ambitious hostesses who used entirely different methods, which the “Three B’s” would certainly not have approved.
Gwen Cafritz and Perle Mesta climbed the social ladder by throwing parties for as many of the rich and powerful as they could cram into their enormous drawing rooms. Perle Mesta was portly and not pretty, but the cheerful lady from Oklahoma was rich and politically connected. The exotic and beautiful Hungarian-American Gwendolyn Detre de Surany, who bought her clothes in Paris, was adored by her older husband, self-made real estate mogul Morris Cafritz. He built her an Arte Moderne mansion at 2301 Foxhall Road NW, complete with a lighted dance floor in the lower level “supper club” and a terrace from which guests could look down on the lights of Washington beyond the treetops of the Laughlin Phillips estate. You have to use your imagination today to picture all of this, because the Cafritz mansion is now the Field School and the Phillips estate, sold to developers, is sprouting huge elaborate houses, each as big and opulent as the original Cafritz manse.
At her French chateau, “Les Ormes” at 4040 52nd Street NW in Spring Valley, Perle Mesta gave huge buffet dinners with an endless flow of good liquor, which earned her the title, “the hostess with the mostest’ ”. Critics said she packed her parties like Noah loaded his arc, but she made friends with Presidents Truman and Eisenhower and Senator Lyndon Johnson. Her fundraising efforts for Harry Truman landed her the ambassadorship to Luxembourg, where she was popular and well-liked, even though the venture was lampooned in Irving Berlin’s “Call Me Madam”. While she was honored with her picture on the cover of Time magazine, she had numerous detractors, many of whom were also hostesses; Alice Roosevelt Longworth dismissed her as “commonplace” and Lady Astor described Mesta’s galas as “enormous parties that nobody who is anybody ought to go to.”
As parallel party-givers, Perle Mesta and Gwen Cafritz were fiercely competitive. Gwen said that she got her guest list from her address book, while Mesta got her invitation list from the phone book. On the other hand, Gwen Cafritz invited Perle Mesta to her parties many times, but Perle never accepted or reciprocated. When Perle moved to Spring Valley, not far from Foxhall Road, Gwen Cafritz said to her, “Now that you’re a neighbor, I suppose I’ll be seeing more of you”, to which Mesta replied, “I suppose not”.
Fashions come and go, and the two rivals were both undone in the 1960’s with the arrival of the Kennedys. Georgetown soon became the social mecca of Washington, and Perle and Gwen no longer drew the big names to their parties. The joke around town was that they had so few guests they were going to each others parties, which in fact, never happened. But, the two women left a legacy which Washingtonians understand and appreciate. Gwen Cafritz said of her intimate dinners for 22, “With my little dinners I feel like I am helping to save Western civilization.” Perle Mesta said simply that she always had a good time, which went a long way in making her a great hostess. Even Sally Quinn, who once bridled at being described as “a hostess”, now has a column in the Washington Post on entertaining. Party-givers everywhere understand that getting together to enjoy each other’s company in a festive atmosphere- just as Gwen Cafritz suggested, is a necessity of civilization and not a frill. And, it’s the right time of year to remember that parties are good for us.