• U.S.

The Capital: New Frontier’s New Order

7 minute read

In Washington’s Colony Restaurant sat raven-haired Gwendolyn Detre de Surany Cafritz, all but unnoticed as she toyed with a martini, chain-smoked Kools, and lunched with her sister. Just four china-crammed tables away sat another longtime queen bee of Washington society, Perle Skirvin Mesta, the old hostess with the mostest. She had with her a single friend.

At that same time last week, out on a rolling estate at McLean. Va., Attorney General and Mrs. Robert Kennedy were having a luncheon in honor of Poet Robert Frost. The guest list was an exclusive nine people, and the bright talk ranged from Francis Thompson’s The Hound of Heaven to Astronaut John Glenn’s identity with God in outer space.

The contrast between the Bobby Kennedy function and the glittering Coventry into which Gwen and Perle found themselves was perfect evidence of the fact that the old order of Washington society has changed, giving way to the New Frontier’s New Society.

Presidents’ wives and presidential families can always dominate Washington society. But they often haven’t wanted to bother. Perle Mesta nailed down the top hostess title in Harry Truman’s day because Bess Truman abdicated; in the Eisenhower years. Gwen Cafritz reigned because Mamie Eisenhower didn’t care to. But Jacqueline Kennedy does care. Not since the time of Frances Cleveland, 65 years ago, has a First Lady cared nearly so much. And what she and Jack Kennedy care about is not the money and power that mattered in the Mesta-Cafritz days, but brains, wit, accomplishment, and that favorite New Frontier quality—”vigah.”

New Pecking Order. Gwen and Perle are not surrendering without a struggle. To housewarm her new apartment, Perle threw convention-sized receptions three evenings in a row. But alas, about the biggest names she bagged were Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater. Among the few White House officials who came was Jack Kennedy’s physician, Dr. Janet Travell. Gwen Cafritz has not done much better. Last fall, at her annual Supreme Court party, not a single justice snowed up. More recently, she did manage to snare Commerce Secretary Luther Hodges for an evening “just in the middle of that steel crisis.” But her party honoring the Duke and Duchess of Windsor was a real bomb; the Maxwell Taylors and Ormsby-Gores were there, but the affair was mostly populated by people like the ambassador from Iceland. So bad have things got that the old rivals, Perle and Gwen, now attend one another’s parties.

Under the New Frontier, there is a whole new social pecking order. At the very top. of course, are the Kennedys. Jack and Jackie. Bobby and Ethel. Sarge and Eunice. Steve and Jean. Then comes a coterie of close friends: Mr. and Mrs. Charlie Bartlett. Mr. and Mrs. Chuck Spaulding. Mr. and Mrs. Rowland Evans Jr.. Sir David and Lady Ormsby-Gore. Senator and Mrs. John Sherman Cooper (he is a Republican, but Lorraine Cooper is expert at holding the intimate, 20-person, candlelight parties that the New Society is fond of). Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Alsop. William Walton. Mr. and Mrs. Paul Fay. the Radziwills. Mrs. John R. Fell. Mr. and Mrs. Earl E. T. Smith. Next come some of the Administration’s working stiffs: Defense Secretary and Mrs. Robert McNamara. Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Schlesinger Jr.. the Walt Rostows and the McGeorge Bundys.

“Je te baptise.” In the New Society, the big affair—except for White House receptions—is out, and the little dinner party is in. Black tie is favored over white tie Dancing is back and Lester Lanin is hot. The Washington Star’s veteran society columnist, Betty Beale, is in deep disfavor; she once wrote that Jackie had done the twist, and nowadays any New Frontiersman who gets over-mention in her column is likely to be left off the next guest list.

Boat rides on the Honey Fitz, where Jack Kennedy sits in an easy chair in the stern and white-jacketed stewards serve daiquiris, are pure gold. So are tennis and swimming invitations at Bobby’s Hickory Hill digs. There, the parties sometimes get a little boisterous. Guests have been pushed into the pool, and Teddy Kennedy, in an outburst of youthful exuberance, last year dived in fully clad (when Old Joe heard about it he raised a ruckus ).

There is no question whatever about the brightest star in the capital’s social sky: Jackie Kennedy. Mr. and Mrs. Paul Fout recently rose several pecks in the order because they ride at Middleburg with Jackie in the Orange County Hunt.

And last week Jackie put all her social skills on display in a calendar of events that was, to her, delightfully French. Flying to Groton, Conn., she christened the 7,000-ton Polaris submarine Lafayette, first of the “nucs” named for a non-American. Jackie laid aside her bouquet of roses, smartly smashed a champagne bottle on the boat’s bow. “I christen thee Lafayette,” she whispered as the unchecked vessel glided into the Thames River. And: “Je te baptise la Lafayette.”

The occasion of the week, indeed of Washington’s season so far, was a formal White House dinner honoring visiting French Minister of Cultural Affairs André Malraux. On the day of the dinner, Jackie shepherded her guests for an hour through the capital’s National Art Gallery. At a new gallery acquisition. John Singleton Copley’s The Copley Family (circa 1776), Malraux commented: “Some paintings are here because they belong to humanity, and some are here because they belong to the U.S. I am glad to see that this one is here for the second reason.” He had also enjoyed Domenico Veneziano’s Madonna and Child, a pair of El Grecos, and Rembrandt’s Girl with a Broom. Asked about her favorites, the First Lady replied: “Mine are whatever his are.”

Seating Science. A secret of Jackie’s success is that she takes immense pains with her parties. Before the Malraux dinner she asked for suggestions from the French embassy and the State Department, scattered seating charts across the floor of her sitting room, knelt among them to work out an arrangement. Two weeks before, at the Nobel laureates’ dinner, science held the White House spotlight. For Malraux, Jackie marshaled the arts. Playwrights Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams and Paddy Chayefsky were there, along with Actresses Julie Harris and Susan Strasberg. The Kennedys also scored a real social coup by the presence of reclusive Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh. When the White House sounded them out to see whether they would like to come, Lindy was delighted.

Eventually 168 guests were seated at 17 tables in the White House State Dining Room and the adjoining Blue Room. French Chef René Verdon whipped his staff into a frenzy, served up lobster en Bellevue, stuffed bar Polignac, pheasant aspic. French wines were poured, including a superb 1959 dry white guaranteed to palpitate even a Frenchman. In the dining room John Kennedy leaned back, lit an Upmann cigar and smiled. In the Blue Room, Jacqueline Kennedy, brilliant in a pink strapless Dior, chatted in confidential murmurs with Malraux.

“Eating Place for Artists.” Because Kennedy and Malraux were in separate rooms, the Army Signal Corps had rigged a two-mike public-address system for their toasts. The system failed—but the toasts went on. “This is becoming a sort of eating place for artists,” quipped the President, “but they never ask us out.” In more serious vein he saluted Malraux for being among those “who travel the far horizons of human destiny.” Responding in French, the Minister congratulated the U.S. as “a country which has become the leader not through conquest but by seeking justice.”

Following dinner, Violinist Isaac Stern picked up his Guarnerius, and with Pianist Eugene Istomin and Cellist Leonard Rose played Schubert’s Trio in B-Flat Major, Opus 99. On that musical note the evening ended. The guests drifted into Washington’s midnight while around them the great White House fountains shot prisms of lighted water into the darkness. For the New Society, it had been another marvelous evening.

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