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'Georgetown' fails to impress locals

November 03, 2003|Roxanne Roberts | Washington Post

WASHINGTON — There are lies, damn lies and statistics ... and autobiographies, biographies and books by C. David Heymann.

Heymann writes unauthorized exposes packed with names, dates, drinking and sex. In his new book, "The Georgetown Ladies' Social Club: Power, Passion and Politics in the Nation's Capital" (Atria Books), Heymann claims former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara had an affair with Katharine Graham, the late chairwoman of the Washington Post Co. McNamara says the two were great friends but denies a romance.

"If Robert McNamara told me the sky was blue and the grass was green, I wouldn't believe it," Heymann said. "He's a notorious liar."

Heymann was in Washington to promote the book, an under-the-covers peek at five prominent Washington women: Graham, Democratic fund-raiser Pamela Harriman, ambassadorial spouse Evangeline Bruce, senatorial wife Lorraine Cooper and journalist Sally Quinn, the only surviving member of the quintet -- dubbed the "dowager queen of Georgetown" by Heymann.

First stop: Nathans in Georgetown with 73 local ladies, many of whom live in the historic, tree-lined enclave and knew the players.

So in the ladies streamed to hear the author of bestselling tell-alls on Barbara Hutton, Jacqueline Kennedy, Elizabeth Taylor and Robert Kennedy dish on their grande dames.

The idea for profiling these Georgetown ladies came while Heymann was researching the book on Jacqueline Kennedy more than a decade ago. At that time, Bruce spoke to him on condition of anonymity. Years later, he called her for his book on Robert Kennedy and she suggested that he explore a book about the social and cultural history of Georgetown, an upscale neighborhood in northwest Washington.

During lunch, Heymann cheerfully admitted that he was not a Washingtonian, which gave him the freedom to write unfettered by social pressure.

"I felt it made me more nonjudgmental not to know the inside dope of Georgetown," he said.

Also unfettered by live subjects. Cooper died in 1985. Heymann met but did not interview Harriman before her death, and his research with Bruce consisted of an extended late-night telephone call before she died in 1995. Graham, he said, refused to participate but later spoke to him by phone for a half an hour ("Nothing quotable," he said). Quinn declined to cooperate.

This makes it harder to determine what is true and what is not, assuming one cares about those things. "When you write about people who are dead, you're libel-proof," author Kitty Kelley says.

Kelley, a Georgetown resident and bestselling author of unauthorized biographies, skipped the luncheon but said she was sent an advance copy of Heymann's book. "I didn't see footnotes; I didn't see chapter notes," she said. "I don't think you can write a book like this without documentation."

An unapologetic Heymann told the crowd he interviewed 400 people for the book, including a few who questioned Quinn's inclusion. "She's not in the same class," Heymann said they told him. But then, that's the way of the expose.

Not surprisingly, Quinn did not attend the luncheon. "I've only read the part about me," she said. "He makes me out to be much more powerful than I am."

The ladies who lunched were largely unimpressed by Heymann's presentation. The stories were a rehash of old facts and rumors, they said. He mispronounced a number of names. "I have no sense that he understands the social-political history of this area," Dorothy McGhee said.

Frida Burling, 88, has lived in Georgetown for 75 years and knew all the women in the book, some better than others.

Heymann, she said, is correct that social Georgetown has changed since these women were queens but way off about the nuances of the time and place. Then she brightened. "The good part is that I had a little nostalgia."

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