WASHINGTON — Sondra Gotlieb became a "temporary princess" four years ago when her husband became the new Canadian ambassador to Washington.
Gotlieb knew nothing about being an ambassador's wife. But she found out quickly, reading an article about the wife of the Swedish ambassador.
"I think my worst moment came," Gotlieb said, "when I read an article about Ulla Wachmeister, Countess Ulla . . . I don't have a title . . . who was having a dinner for Bjorn Borg, and she had grass that she grew herself growing out of tennis balls for table decorations.
"I burst into tears. I said, 'My God, I can't do this.' "
Chronicled Her Exploits
Gotlieb still can't grow grass out of tennis balls. But she has done very well as an ambassador's wife. So well, in fact, that she writes a humorous column about her exploits twice a month for the Washington Post. Now known as one of the premier party-givers in Washington, Gotlieb has assembled her columns in a book called "Wife of . . . An Irreverent Account of Life in Powertown" (Acropolis $12.95).
Gotlieb's book, she said, is "about the effect of temporary power and temporary status on people." Gotlieb, 48, a well-known writer in Canada, author of two novels and mother of three grown children, became simply "wife of" the Canadian ambassador and a "temporary princess," assigned the unpaid job of wining and dining the most powerful people in the place she dubs "Powertown." Of course these people are not really people but Powerful Jobs (the White House, Congress, lobbyists and the press) who "come to parties to trade information with other Powerful Jobs." This was first explained to Gotlieb, she wrote, by socialite Popsie Tribble, "who loves to get her picture in Women's Wear Daily," and used a Rolodex to keep her invitations to parties at the Republican and Democratic conventions.
Tribble, one of Gotlieb's most popular characters, advised Gotlieb to strew jasmine over her dinner tables and to get rid of the embassy swimming pool and put in a tennis court. She also informed Gotlieb that "W," the slick society newspaper, had declared that Canada was "Out."
One way to make Canada more chic, Tribble advised, would be for Gotlieb to start speaking French.
Tribble also cautioned Gotlieb early on not to go to any "fun" parties.
"You as the wife of Mr. Ambassador shouldn't waste your time with those," Tribble told "Wife Of." (Gotlieb had earlier explained that "in Washington married women are known as wives of famous jobs or countries.")
Tribble warned Wife Of that embassy parties are usually "the pits" because social secretaries give such bad advice.
"What's worse than an embassy party?" Wife Of asked Tribble.
"Dinners at the Washington Hilton where 2,000 people attend. It's like being at O'Hare Airport. There are always lines of people waiting to get through the metal detectors," which are there for security reasons. The presence of metal detectors usually means the President is attending.
Gotlieb's characters ring laughingly familiar to Washingtonians: Joe Promisall, the world's most expensive lobbyist; Lionel Portant, world-famous columnist and media star; Baron Spitte, the dusty diplomat; Sen. Pod, and more.
Everyone asks Gotlieb who the characters are in real life and they even whisper names in her ear, "of people," Gotlieb said, "I've never heard of."
The characters are "conglomerations," she said. But there is "a kernel of truth in everything" written in the book.
Following Popsie's advice, Gotlieb gave her first party at the embassy and didn't know any of the people she invited. One of the guests agreed to introduce her to the others. "It turned out," she wrote, "he was from the famous press rather than the working press (which means he eats at the Jockey Club instead of the Senate press lunchroom)." Gotlieb admitted in an interview that the guest in real life was Washington Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee.
Gotlieb finds Washington to be a "status-ridden town," but finds no group more enthralled with itself than the press.
"I think the press has a permanent pomposity," she said, sitting in the elegantly appointed living room of the embassy amid a riot of antiques.
"The press is the only permanent power, power without responsibility."
Lesson on Seating
Gotlieb learned the hard way not to seat the world-famous columnist next to the Powerful Job at a dinner because the next day, the columnist will write something critical about the Powerful Job and Powerful Job may get angry at her.
Though she pokes fun at her way of life, Gotlieb says it's no laughing matter in real life.
"It's not silly, no, no," she said. "All entertainment in an embassy is an extension of work. It is not to have fun. The system of power in Washington is so diverse, nobody knows where a decision is made. You have to touch base with everybody if you're an ambassador. My husband has told me he's learned more in the evenings than during the day.
"We know practically everybody here and we did it all through entertainment."