Friday, September 26, 2014

Keep the Gloves On

You can imagine how well I fit in in a room full of banking types. At the Jefferson, no less.

Not that it mattered because a friend had invited me to be his stand-in date (his beloved was working) for an evening with Doris Kearns Goodwin.

Yes, that Doris, the one who wrote "Team of Rivals" on which "Lincoln" was based.

So many Dorises this week.

My friend suggested we arrive fashionably late to the cocktail reception, making us the exception since the banking revelry was in full swing as we descended the grand staircase to the rotunda.

First came name tags (magnetic, of course, so as not to have to put a pin through anyone's expensive ensemble) and seating cards so we'd know which table would welcome us upstairs.

Everywhere were dark suits with drinks in hand, a sea of navy and black broken up only by their accompanying female guests.

Before we could even order a drink, a functionary informed us that we could stand in line to have our photograph taken with Doris.

We opted out of that nonsense, scored glasses of Barboursville Pinot Grigio and found a place to stand and chat.

I'm 99% positive that Doris has no interest in having her picture taken with me.

Once we roosted, some sort of invisible bat signal went up to the roving waitstaff who immediately zeroed in on us to offer bite-sized hors d'oeuvres.

A fat little crabcake. Tomato bisque with a sliver of grilled cheese. Ham biscuits. Corned beef roll-ups.

The roll ups caused some consternation because they came mounted on little metal stands shaped like an inverted "V" and nobody was quite sure how the food was attached.

No fear here, so I took one, bit the meat off and went to return the stand to her tray.

"Don't you put that there!" the server barked before remembering herself. "Oh, I'm sorry, miss, that was rude," and scuttled away.

I put my metal stand on a nearby table.

A man came over to chat with us, sharing that Doris had been taken in a limo up to St. John's church today to see it and hear some of the Patrick Henry re-enactment. When she climbed out of the car, a cluster of tourists immediately recognized her.

Call me a historical nit-wit, but I wouldn't have recognized Doris from Adam on the street. Okay, from Eve.

Not long afterwards, a man appeared on the grand staircase and began ringing a bell like the town crier. Apparently it was time to withdraw to the grand ballroom for dinner.

"This is the cattle call part," my date whispered, leaning down as the slow-moving crowd began the trip upstairs, not everyone happy to leave the open bar behind.

The first to arrive at our table, we took the best seats facing the stage and subsequently met the remainder of the table's occupants as they arrived.

Up there, our libation choices had been reduced to a couple of Californians, Stag's Leap "Karia" Chardonnay and Belle Glos "Meiomi" Pinot Noir.

Two of the men had dates who looked decades younger than them, but it wasn't our place to judge (although we did discuss the disparities once we left), so instead we left the conversational ball in their court.

You know what everyone wanted to talk about? Richmond restaurants. Even without any prodding, this is a town obsessed with food.

Speaking of, our mesclun greens with pears, Feta, candied walnuts and sesame pomegranate dressing were already waiting for us, so once we had a quorum, I dove in.

Polishing off my greens, I looked around to see that most people had taken only a token bite or two before pushing their plate away.

But the real issues came with the meat course.

At our table we had one gluten-intolerant and one vegetarian, meaning they had to have special plates brought to them while the rest of us just wanted to dig into our beef tenderloin, pumpkin-encrusted salmon, sweet potato dauphinoise and petite squash and asparagus.

The eating world used to be such a simpler place.

Over that course, people started conversing across the table, one guy talking about his move to Vistas on the James after his sons left for college, another about his 18 grandchildren.

I was asked by a man if I was a native (no) and a woman told me I looked familiar. "Are you famous?" she inquired (no).

"You have great dimples," another man said, always one of my favorite compliments.

Dessert was a trio of miniatures: bourbon chocolate pecan pie, red velvet opera torte and Jefferson banana pudding (which apparently meant whipped), my date's favorite because it reminded him of the banana pudding his mother had made for him as a child.

Finally it was time for the woman who needed no introduction, not because she won a Pulitzer prize, not because she wrote the book that got a movie filmed here but because (drum roll)...

She was the first female to enter the locker room at Fenway Park.

So, yes, there was baseball talk (never forgave the Dodgers for leaving Brooklyn but eventually became a Red Sox fan when she moved to Boston), mainly about how her father had her listen to the game and take notes so she could report it back to him play by play, thus planting the seed for her love of retelling history.

Her talk was focused on lessons learned by three Presidents, coincidentally three that she's written mega-selling books about.

Beginning by saying it was good to be back at the Jefferson after a half dozen previous times, she said, "It's probably the most graceful hotel in the country."

Recalling her time with a White House fellowship under LBJ and the many conversations they had then and later when she helped him write his memoirs, she said he was a great storyteller and she turned out to be  great listener, only later realizing that not all his stories were based in truth.

Why let the facts get in the way of a good story?

Explaining that the best presidents had traits in common, she went on to illustrate those traits using Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and FDR as examples.

Because of his humble beginnings and his mother dying, Abe wanted to do things that would make him live on to future generations.

Teddy's life-threatening asthma motivated him to become a mega-athlete who could ride a horse for 50 miles a day or walk 20 miles.

FDR's polio-induced paralysis made him expand his mind, reaching out to other people and empathizing with the poor and underprivileged.

Talking about how brilliant Abe was to put his top three rivals in his cabinet, she quoted LBJ on the subject.

"Better to have your enemies inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in." Don't know about you, but a man who can turn a phrase like that and has beagles is my kind of man.

There was a terrific story about the first black motorman hired for Philly's mass transit system. When he showed up for work, transit was at a standstill because no (white) drivers had shown up as a way of protesting his hiring.

FDR had letters sent to all the men telling them that if they didn't show up for work, they would be considered non-essential to the city and drafted immediately.

Guess who all returned to work the next day?

She told how on the morning Abe was to sign the Emancipation Proclamation, his hand was tired and sore from shaking 1,000 hands that day.

Rather than sign the important document in a shaky hand, he waited, aware that posterity would see his shakiness as tentativeness.

For stress relief, FDR instituted nightly cocktail hours where war was not to be discussed.

The soirees became so popular, people moved into the White House ("the most exclusive residential hotel," Doris called it) for weeks, months and years to make it more convenient to attend them.

Teddy just made people go on walks through Rock Creek Park with him, insisting on a point to point walk. Ergo, if they came upon a rock, they had to go over it.

Once when he and a French diplomat came to a stream, the man was sure they'd turn back.

Instead, Teddy insisted they strip down so as not to get their clothes wet crossing.

The Frenchman insisted on keeping on his violet kid gloves, "In case we run into any ladies."

Put that kind of thing in the history books and kids will be a whole lot more interested, I'd wager.

During the Q & A, Doris made the point that partisanship has gotten worse because the members of Congress didn't always leave town every weekend as they do now.

According to her, because they stayed in Washington more, they had more chances to socialize, play poker and drink with fellow House and Senate members week in and week out, making it easier to forge alliances when necessary for voting issues.

While her lecture had the sing-song quality of an oft-repeated one, her stories were compelling and the obscure stuff she dug up in old journals and letters was wonderful to hear about.

Abe was a card. Eleanor liked to argue. Teddy could laugh at himself.

As if food, wine, compliments and the past weren't enough for one night, everyone got a goody bag with an autographed copy of Doris' latest book, "The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and the Golden Age of Journalism" on the way out.

Moral of the story: Better to have bankers giving you books than pissing in your tent.

Even so, I think they figured out I wasn't one of them.


  1. a history major i appreciate your attention to detail. by the way what were you wearing... at the Jefferson?


  2. Yellow cropped jacket over a black dress. Why?

  3. curious,, just that attention to detail. The Jefferson is nice this time of year...from now until x-mas it becomes increasingly so...don't you think?


  4. complementary colours...i'm sure you looked nice.


  5. I do. I overheard some people already talking about the Christmas teas that they do and how quickly they fill up.

  6. drinks in the afternoon, the tree, the spirit of the season is so contagious in the lobby... well aren't we gettin' a bit ahead of ourselvers here !! don't want to wish Fall away...our favorite season. cheers!