WASHINGTON — In less than a month, Nancy Reagan and Raisa Gorbachev will sit down to tea in Geneva, marking the first meeting of American and Soviet first ladies in 24 years.
Coinciding with their husbands' summit Nov. 19-21, this get-together promises to be decidedly different from the last time Soviet and American first ladies talked face to face.
That was June, 1961, in Vienna.
Jacqueline Kennedy was "exquisitely dressed and bejeweled," Letitia Baldrige, Mrs. Kennedy's press secretary, later wrote in a book. Mrs. Kennedy was something of a contrast to Nina Khrushchev, "the plainest of dark dresses hanging apologetically on her square frame, looking schoolmarmish and self-conscious."
So popular was Jackie that when she joined Mrs. Khrushchev and a few other women for lunch at the Palais Pallavacini, about 3,000 people gathered outside and started chanting "Jac-kie!"
Mrs. Kennedy "handled the crisis with great diplomacy," Baldrige wrote. "She took Mme. Khrushchev gently by the arm and led her to the window." She held up Mrs. Khrushchev's hand "and then the Russian began to wave on her own." The crowd responded by altering their chant to "Jac-kie! Ni-na!"
This time around, Mrs. Gorbachev is the one who has captured the curiosity of First Lady-watchers around the world by simply being the most modern and visible Soviet First Lady in memory. The most avid of this small but devoted cult of First Lady fans would like to see the American and the Soviet square off in a shop-off, as both are famous for their leanings toward high fashion.
But tea it will be, twice.
Because President Reagan is the head of a nation, while Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev is the head of a government, protocol ranks Reagan higher than Gorbachev, and dictates that Mrs. Reagan extend the first invitation.
The First Step
That she did, writing to Mrs. Gorbachev on Sept. 10. In her letter Mrs. Reagan referred to the summit meeting and added, "I'm sure that we, too, want to do all that we can to improve the understanding between the people in our two countries." She suggested simply that they meet, and Mrs. Gorbachev wrote in reply, accepting the offer.
Later, the venue of reciprocal teas was established. Mrs. Reagan's tea will be held first, on Nov. 19, at Maison de Saussure, a residence where the Reagans will be staying during the summit. Mrs. Gorbachev will have Mrs. Reagan to tea the next day at the Soviet Mission.
To prepare for the meetings, Mrs. Reagan is "reading newspaper and magazine articles about the summit," said her press secretary, Elaine Crispen. So far, no other kinds of briefings or preparations have been planned, according to Crispen. There is, as yet, no set agenda of what the women will, or won't, talk about.
"I'm sure," Crispen said, "that Mrs. Reagan is probably as curious as you and I are about the conversation."
Mrs. Reagan has been put on the spot to comment on her husband's policies before and will no doubt be prepared to defend him in generalities next month, if Mrs. Gorbachev should take her to task on his arms policies--which are expected to be the main topic of discussion between the two leaders.
At her First Ladies Conference on Drug Abuse at the United Nations last Monday, Mrs. Reagan was put in a delicate spot when Rosario Maria Murillo, the wife of Marxist Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, elected to attend and talk to Mrs. Reagan briefly about the bad relations between their countries.
President Reagan has called Ortega "the little dictator who went to Moscow in his green fatigues" and Reagan has supported U.S. aid to the contras, the forces trying to overthrow Ortega's government.
"I know," Murillo said of Mrs. Reagan, "that she works closely with her husband and I work closely with my husband too. I told her that I hope through this (UN drug conference) we could find a better understanding and work towards a better relationship between our two countries."
Mrs. Reagan, who has become an expert at sidestepping even a hint of controversy, said that she wants "better relations with all countries."
Tidbits of Information
For the summit, observers will be anxious for nuggets of information on Mrs. Gorbachev. The Soviet Embassy here, asked by a reporter where Mrs. Gorbachev was schooled and how many children she had, reacted typically. A spokesperson said that if such information were available, it would be obtained at another phone number, which rang with no answer. So, even obscure bits of information on Mrs. Gorbachev have become precious.
Washington's Dossier magazine, the bible of the capital's social set, gushed that on a trip to Great Britain Mrs. Gorbachev "posed for photographers, smiling seductively in a silver fox-trimmed coat. It had to be an optical illusion, or else some kind of commie disinformation plot. Russians don't act like this. At parties and banquets, the Soviet couple surprised everyone by proving to be pros at high-level chitchat."
Mrs. Gorbachev speaks English, the article went on, and upon hearing a plane fly overhead she joked, "Is that a missile?"
Mrs. Reagan has said that she is intrigued by the new ways of the Soviet First Lady.
"Isn't everyone?" she told a reporter.
Next month she'll get to see for herself.