By Donna Evers
Parties of the good old days seem to have disappeared, like a bird that lingers on the endangered species list and is finally gone for good. Betty Beale, a gossip columnist who covered eight administrations from Truman through Reagan and attended some 15,000 parties, lamented that they had all but died out by the 1990’s. In her book “Power at Play,” she recalls one day in 1954, when she covered a wedding at noon, two parties in the afternoon, a dinner cruise on the Sequoia, and finally an embassy supper dance at 11:00 PM. She said her overflowing schedule was nothing new, and quoted a Virginia belle who wrote that in the Washington social season of the 1850’s, she often attended three balls in one evening, ending with a breakfast party at daybreak.
Diana McLellan, renowned social reporter for the Washington Star’s “The Ear” column, said that for a typical party evening in the early 1900’s, one was expected to “gobble, gabble, and git”. People would take leave by telling their hostess, “I must go on”, meaning to the next party.
Because she had such a long life and career, Betty Beale’s social history spanned two different eras in Washington. She grew up here when everyone in society knew each other. She started her career when the “Three B’s”- Mrs. Robert Bliss, Mrs. Truxton Beale and Mrs. Robert Low Bacon, held a tight rein on social Washington, and invitations to their parties defined who was “in”. But in recent years, Washington has become a meritocracy instead of an aristocracy, where people can rise to social prominence because of the job they have, or even the money they make. Added to that, everybody works, including women, and they do it with a vengeance. Emily Heil, feature writer for Roll Call who was also their gossip columnist for Heard on the Hill, says that today, “No one is ever not working”.
The demise of the lavish private parties of the past was partly due to the enormous change of women in the workplace. They went from squeezing into ball gowns to closing multi-million dollar deals and negotiating international relations. It’s not surprising that the role of hostess began to seem frivolous. Betty Beale recalls a reporter challenging Buffy Cafritz with “You don’t want to be described as a hostess, do you?” Barbara Howar, a Washington party-giver in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s said, “If I thought my epitaph would read “hostess”, I’d refuse to die”.
Roxanne Roberts, co-writer of The Reliable Source in the Washington Post, calls Sally Quinn’s articles in the 1970’s Style Section of the Post the tipping point in social reporting. She says,” Instead of the usual flattering commentary about a party, Sally Quinn was truthful.” But Ms. Quinn’s critiques of parties could be downright scathing, and this may have scared off many hostesses from the expense and effort of entertaining.
More and more, charitable and political fundraisers and parties with a business focus have replaced parties for their own sake. It used to be considered bad taste to talk business at a party. Not any more. Business gets done at these events and if you leave without making contacts or sealing a deal, you’ve blown a whole evening. As Diana McLellan says, everybody is “on the hustle”.
In this era of 24-hour news coverage and perpetual connectedness, parties seem too time-consuming and irrelevant. There is always the chance that you may miss something if you don’t check your Blackberry every few minutes, even while seated at someone’s beautifully appointed dinner table. Emily Heil recalls a recent annual “big dinner event” where the guests spent the entire evening texting each other about the dinner they were attending. She said it was like going to a live concert and watching the whole show on the JumboTron.
Maybe this is why Buddhism and yoga have become so popular. We know we have lost the pleasure of living in the moment and we’d like to get it back. So, as a start in the right direction, let’s turn our cell phones to the “off” position, take a liberating deep breath, and go to a party. Just for fun.