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Night Life in D. C. Moves From Formal to Functional

November 26, 1987|BETTY CUNIBERTI | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — One hundred Washington luminaries clad in tuxedos and shimmering evening gowns finished their supper. A marble-top table was cleared of flowers and candelabras, making room for the singing belly dancer.

The ambassador leaped up to join her, doffing his tie, unbuttoning his shirt to the waist, and soon he was leading a conga line of the nation's elite through the embassy halls.

The scene took place about 15 years ago in the glory days of "dancing diplomat" Ardeshir Zahedi, the caviar-slinging Iranian ambassador to Washington.

Decline of a Decade

Decades of glamorous and competitive party-giving in Washington--where one wore the label hostess with pride--seemed to climax like a fireworks finale with the bashes thrown by Zahedi, who thought nothing of pinching the breast of a female journalist at one of his barbecues, saying, "Yum, yum!"

It had been an impressive run: Perle Mesta dueling Gwenn Cafritz in the 1940s, '50s and '60s, Marjorie Merriweather Post, Alice Longworth and Zahedi. But for a multitude of reasons, the art of glamorous, imaginative, enjoyable party-giving has been on the wane in Washington, tumbling in a steady decline for more than 10 years.

Parties are less formal, more functional and bigger--obese, in fact. Post-Watergate changes in campaign laws, limiting individual contributions, have made political fund-raisers as prolific as they are bland.

The Reagan Administration's tilt toward greater private sector participation throughout society means that Washingtonians are increasingly receiving elaborately scripted party invitations from the Ford Motor Co., Philip Morris Tobacco Co., Stuart Pharmaceuticals or some other behemoth corporate concern out to improve its image by funding an art exhibit, a movie premiere, a press conference or a social event.

More Corporate Funding

J. Carter Brown, an A-list guest who is director of the National Gallery of Art, said that more and more social events are taking place at the gallery, funded by corporate sponsors.

"That is only because Congress has asked us to rely more and more upon the corporate sector for funding of exhibitions," Brown said.

Author parties thrown by publishers to promote Washington books are also multiplying at a surprising rate.

World economic problems have brought cuts (or, perhaps sanity) to embassy entertainment budgets. A reception for 400, thrown possibly with some corporate sponsorship, is now much more common than a small, formal dinner party, a luxury indulged in by only a very few embassies.

Washington's growing population has also found other places to go than to an embassy or private party. Washington has drastically expanded its menu of night life, adding theater and good restaurants to what had once been a rather small, culturally retarded town forever dwarfed by the unnamed city to the North, saved from terminal boredom only by the likes of Zahedi. (Since the fall of the Shah, Zahedi has been in exile and is now living outside Geneva, Switzerland.)

Even the runaway expansion of the congressional workload has been blamed, as party-givers have grown tired of having prominent congressmen and senators show up to dinner late or not at all as some floor debate drones on to the midnight hour.

Women Went to Work

But perhaps the death blow to wonderful Washington parties was finally leveled by the women's movement, which hoisted even rich wives and widows out of the kitchen and into the workplace. Some of Washington's loveliest, most intimate, formal dinners were planned by Mesta, Cafritz, Post, Longworth and their imitators, stay-at-home wives who made careers of party-giving.

Now only a precious few, such as Washington Post Chairman Katharine Graham, throw the kind of intimate dinner parties that everyone from President Reagan on down wouldn't think of missing. Even these parties must reek of serious purpose, gathering poobahs of the moment or raising money for some worthy cause.

There are a few scattered Washington parties that have a certain charm. Dinners given by Lois Herrington, wife of the energy secretary, have been known to collapse happily into poker games. But there are no more star hostesses, devoting full attention to it.

"No one wants to be known as a hostess any more. There's a stigma attached to it. It says you're worthless, not a person," long-time Washington journalist and social scene observer Sandra McElwaine said. "In the Perle Mesta days, there was a great cachet attached to it. Now you don't want people to think that all you do is spend time at the hairdresser and arrange flowers."

Joan Braden was working for the State Department and throwing parties along with her husband, columnist Tom Braden, in the 1970s.

Hated 'Hostess' Title

"I was working when I had that horrible title of Washington hostess and I hated it, because it didn't make any difference how important a job I had," said Braden, who has travelled in Washington's inner social circles since she moved here in 1968.

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