A first-time bedfellow to the Meridian Brawl ability be forgiven for cerebration this is what Washington is absolutely like abaft the scenes: men in tuxedos, women in ballgowns, affluent and able bodies sipping albino and dancing by candlelight in a celebrated mansion.
More than 800 bodies abounding Friday’s 50th anniversary ball, which commonly attracts a bipartisan army of administering officials, associates of Congress, ambassadors and philanthropists. Yes, that was Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein amidst by well-wishers and a notable aegis detail. In the garden, presidential adviser Kellyanne Conway awash in a comfortable babble with Republican Rep. Mark Meadows, with Democratic Rep. Don Beyer aloof out of earshot. Fox News ballast Bret Baier and HuffPost’s Howard Fineman agilely opined on the midterms. Anybody seemed airy and adapted — except, perhaps, White Abode columnist secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who mocked the “fake news” media accoutrement the evening.
“You bandy a abundant party!” one bedfellow shouted at a actual blessed Meridian President Stuart Holliday. The sold-out fundraiser aloft “well over” $1 million for Meridian International Center, which promotes nonpartisan, adept accord on all-around issues.
Others assurance accept appear and gone, victims of alteration tastes and bread-and-er realities. Who wants to waltz, alike if they apperceive how?
Meridian is the aftermost brawl of its kind. It is a survivor of a ancient era, a eyes of Washington beneath as it is today and added as it would like to brainstorm itself: elegant, serious, adult and affiliated for important issues and causes. That angel transcends affair lines, alike in these abounding times, and explains a abundant accord of the ball’s constant appeal.
And, although best of the guests would never accept it, anybody still wants a little attraction in their lives.
The aboriginal brawl in 1969 was the abstraction of Jane Sloat Ritchie, afresh accepted as Mrs. Elliott Dodd DeGraff. The 28-year-old, who volunteered allowance adept families achieve in Washington, lived a the agent of Saudi Arabia. “What can I do for you?” the ambassador’s wife asked her. “You’ve been so accessible to the bodies in our embassy. Would you like me to accord you a dinner?”
DeGraff had a bigger idea. What if the admiral hosted a banquet to account Meridian House, a centermost created nine years beforehand to abetment the adept community? And what if added embassies did the same, and anybody came to the celebrated abode afterwards banquet for dancing?
She brought the abstraction to the all-male board, who listened to the angle and said, “Janie, dear, you can delay alfresco and we’ll get aback to you.”
The lath absitively the brawl could assignment but debated whether to advertise announcement in the affairs or seek accumulated underwriting. And the men were anxious that acceptance the affair to discharge into the garden would “present a aegis botheration back the absolute adjacency would be admiring by the complete of such an activity.” Riffraff!
DeGraff was called administrator and recruited Adele Rogers, wife of Secretary of State Bill Rogers, to serve as the ball’s honorary chair. Rogers was allotment of a tightknit accumulation of Cabinet wives who came on lath and aerated DeGraff to the White Abode for Pat Nixon’s blessings. A aggregation of volunteers — mostly calm wives of socially arresting men — went into aerial gear.
The ball, with the affair “Washington: Gateway to the Affiliated States,” was captivated on a Wednesday in October; tickets were $50 — big-ticket at the time. Afterwards banquet at added than two dozen embassies (a attenuate acquaintance bare to any added fundraisers at the time), the guests, cutting tuxedos, ballgowns and their best jewels, accustomed for dancing to a alive orra.
The Saudis provided a midnight supper complete with a abdomen dancer. “She was accepting her master’s at American University,” remembered DeGraff. “That added a lot of spirit to the party.”
Fifty years later, all of this seems bizarre and aing to absurd to cull off today. The abstraction that A-list Washington would don academic abrasion on a weeknight — abundant beneath break out until midnight — is laughable. The calm wives who volunteered in the accomplished — capacity envelopes, draping 39-cents-a-yard t as adornment — are added acceptable to be alive professionals today, application their appalling acclimation abilities to added their careers.
But the 1969 brawl was a huge hit, both financially and socially, and DeGraff was asked to armchair it afresh the afterward year, afresh coach added chairmen for the aing decade. The Meridian Brawl accustomed itself as one of the best alluring contest in Washington.
At the time of its rise, the city’s best celebrated amusing accident was the anniversary Symphony Ball, a white-tie brawl abounding of old money and run by the socialite and almsman Marjorie Merriweather Post. The accident was consistently captivated on the aboriginal Friday of December, complete with big diamonds, flit contests and raffles for Cadillacs, adopted trips and added affluence goods.
There were added admirable balls: the Corcoran Ball, a night of priceless art and absurd flowers; the Opera Ball, which followed the blueprint of admiral dinners and dancing, and the Cancer Ball, an over-the-top ode to the balance of the 1980s with cine stars, busy capacity and the best of the best aliment and drink.
All except the Meridian Brawl are gone or adapted into a adumbration of their above selves. The Cancer Brawl concluded in the aboriginal 1990s, a victim of the crumbling absolute acreage bazaar and, therefore, its big donors. In 2003, the Symphony Brawl confused to a post-performance banquet afterward the season-opener. The Opera Ball, already underwritten by affluent chairwomen, was afflicted to a stripped-down gala, and the admirable Corcoran Ball, no best captivated in the museum, continues in name only.
Even the appellation “ball” is a relic. Some of this is the accustomed byproduct of a beneath academic Washington: Plenty of men own tuxedos in this town, but they abhorrence the fuss of renting a white-tie get-up. Others would rather not change into atramentous tie back a aphotic clothing will suffice. We alive in a added accidental world, day and night.
But best of this comes bottomward to authentic economics: Assurance can be expensive. Orras are expensive. Flowers are expensive. The symphony and opera affected that their fundraising dollars are bigger acclimated on automated on-site galas — admirable parties, but annihilation like an ancient ball.
In abounding respects, Meridian is lucky.
The actualization of a all-around abridgement fabricated the brawl decidedly adorable to accumulated donors and ambassadors attractive to attract business to their countries. Embassies are blessed to accord dinners for the ball’s A-list guests and top donors — a advantage that not alone adds a akin of composure to the accident but adds a huge bulk of money to the basal line. They additionally own their venue, which makes it accessible to host the brawl in one of the city’s best admirable settings afterwards breaking the bank.
The abode aloof off 16th Street NW, advised in the appearance of 18th-century French townhouses, was congenital in 1922 for Irwin Laughlin, agent to Spain and a well-respected diplomat. Meridian acquired the acreage and area in 1960 and, anon after, the White-Meyer abode aing door, area Washington Post administrator Katharine Graham grew up.
“The ambience can’t be underestimated,” said Holliday, acquainted the linden bracken and mansions advised by John Russell Pope, the acclaimed artist who congenital the National Gallery of Art and Jefferson Memorial. “I consistently anticipation the brawl had an elegance, about a European feel and affection to it.”
In the 1970s, Meridian confused the brawl from a weeknight to a Friday — a applied nod to the actuality that added women formed alfresco the home. And afresh it angry to recruiting adolescent donors. In 1998, Meridian added a pre-ball banquet at the White-Meyer abode for adolescent assemblage at a bargain price. Heather Florance abounding that banquet and afresh the brawl with a accumulation of friends.
“For us, in our 20s, to be with Supreme Court justices, Cabinet secretaries — we were in awe. Star-struck,” Florance said.
She additionally accomplished the aberration amid a adorned affair and a ball: “Back then, we had accidental Fridays, which morphed into accidental workweeks. I bethink our dresses, which were all short, and afresh activity to the brawl and seeing gowns.” The aing year, she wore a continued dress.
The brawl has avant-garde over the years — abacus a covering with a DJ, a ambrosia cafe and added nods to adolescent assemblage — but the attraction of it remains. Friday’s bedfellow account ranged from ages 25 to 85, abounding of them on the brawl floors, all accepting some adaptation of their own Cinderella moment.
“Look at what bodies are wearing,” said philanthropist Adrienne Arsht. “Their best duds.”
Those guests included 30 above brawl chairwomen, including its first. “It’s a blast,” the above Mrs. DeGraff said. “Happy faces everywhere you look.”
A allotment of Old Washington endures — at atomic for one night.
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