From the G&L Library: The Georgetown Set

The original M Street yuppies…

President John F. Kennedy and the First Lady entertain Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee and his then-wife, Antoinette “Tony” Bradlee, in the White House living room in May 1963. Ben Bradlee, who directed the Post’s Watergate coverage in the 1970s, died in October. Photo: Politico Magazine via the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

President John F. Kennedy and the First Lady entertain Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee and his then-wife, Antoinette “Tony” Bradlee, in the White House living room in May 1963. Ben Bradlee, who directed the Post’s Watergate coverage in the 1970s, died in October.
Photo: Politico Magazine via the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

n the autumn of 1945, with the United States and the world at peace for the first time in half a decade, the most sought-after and exclusive invitation was to one of Joe Alsop’s Sunday night suppers. Less formal than the capital’s prewar soirees, where decorum was dictated by a 1923 book, Anne Squire’s Social Washington—a veritableRobert’s Rules of Order for entertaining in the capital city—the suppers were an occasion for a close coterie of those Joe called his “tribal friends” and assorted guests to get together when their maids and cooks had the night off. Alsop, a political columnist for the New York Herald Tribune and a long-time bachelor, called them “zoo parties,” since the invitation list typically included a brace of prominent senators and foreign ambassadors, a Supreme Court justice or two, some young rising star in the current administration and, of course, Joe’s own well-connected friends and neighbors. As Katharine Graham, later the publisher of the Washington Post, wrote, the invitation list was strictly independent of partisan affiliation: “Within Washington there’s a nucleus of people who know each other and enjoy each other’s company and see each other no matter what’s happening politically or who is in or out of power.” It was said that the devil himself would be welcome at Joe Alsop’s dinner parties—so long as Beelzebub wore patent leather shoes and kept his tail discreetly hidden under the table.

The columnist Joseph Alsop at his Georgetown home in September of 1974. Photo: George Tames for the New York Times.

The columnist Joseph Alsop at his Georgetown home in September of 1974.
Photo: George Tames for the New York Times.

The liberal pouring of cocktails, usually dry martinis, preceded Joe’s signature dishes of leek pie and terrapin soup. Preparation of the soup was itself a ritual, involving hours of boiling turtle parts in a buttery broth flavored with sherry and cayenne pepper. The result was “an unctuous, even gelatinous stewlike dish,” Alsop recalled, adding, “Although its aroma reminded one a bit of the way feet sometimes smell, it was absolutely delicious.” The soup was, in any event, an acquired taste.

After drinks, guests gathered in the dining room for what Joe called “gen con”—general conversation. There was always a sharp political edge to the gen con, and it was understood that Joe and his younger brother Stewart, who together wrote the syndicated newspaper column called “Matter of Fact,” routinely used the information gleaned from these occasions in their reporting. During dinner, his chin cupped in both hands, peering over the tops of tortoise-shell glasses from his permanent seat at the head of the table, Joe would stare fixedly at a guest and ask archly, “So … what do you think of this?” Before the startled victim could respond, Joe himself would usually hold forth, at length, on what all should believe about the issue at hand. Making what one dinner guest described as “learned catarrhal noises”—Joe deliberately interjected a droning “ahum … ahum … ahum” between each of his sentences to make sure that he held the floor—Alsop put an unambiguous end to any discussion with a final and plosive “Bah!” But any lingering ill feelings were usually dispelled by the host’s good-natured banter, culminating in Joe’s favorite toast: “Here’s to all of us!” Despite his gruff exterior, Joe could be both generous and surprisingly sentimental. One friend called him an “emotional hemophiliac.”

Newcomers found Joe Alsop’s Georgetown salons either “exhilarating” or “terrifying.” Dinnertime discussions at the suppers, always animated and alcohol-fueled, sometimes came to an abrupt halt as the host ordered one of his guests out of the house for some offending remark. (At one supper, Phil Graham—Katharine’s husband and predecessor—was halfway out the door before he realized that the house he was being kicked out of was his.) Joe told friends that it was not really considered an argument in the Alsop family until someone had left the table and stormed out of the dining room at least twice. “He roared so that his ancestral portraits shook on the walls,” recalled Joe’s niece.

Veterans became inured to what was known as “the Alsop method”—bold assertions made on the basis of little or no knowledge, yet in hope that a denial or a contradiction would elicit real information. Joe verbally nudged reticent sources with a leering “That’s right, eh?” Silence was interpreted as confirmation. Unwary newcomers were shocked to discover presumably innocent comments made the night before transformed into the headline of the next morning’s column in the Post and the Herald Tribune. Savvy Washington politicians, on the other hand, found Matter of Fact an invaluable springboard for big ideas and matching ambitions—as well as a convenient venue for news leaks and a surefire way of settling scores with their enemies.

 

BY GREGG HERKEN

 

Read more at Politico Magazine…

 

Also check out Louis Menand’s New Yorker review of “How the Cold Ware Made Georgetown Hot”…

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