The Beall-Washington House holds a special place in our capital’s lore. Built in the late 19th century by one of Georgetown’s founders and a descendant of George Washington, it slopes gently down 30th Street NW in Washington, DC, and faces the Oak Hill Cemetery where the home’s former owner, Katharine Graham, is buried. Graham, of course, ran The Washington Post Company and for many years her manse was the center of Georgetown social life. It’s where writers and politicians, blue bloods and parvenus, met in a home that walked a tasteful line, avoiding the gauche trappings of a mega-mansion and yet grand enough to host hundreds for an outdoor party in honor of a visiting dignitary.
Mrs. Graham, as most Washingtonians knew her—Kay to her intimates—died in 2001, and her funeral at the National Cathedral was worthy of a head of state. The following year, private equity titan Mark Ein—the town’s longtime most eligible bachelor, whose 2013 wedding to analyst Sally Stiebel was attended by Valerie Jarrett and Larry Summers and officiated by Senator Mark Warner—purchased her property.
For years after Ein bought the Graham house, le tout Georgetown wondered what would happen to the estate where the likes of Bob Woodward, Robert McNamara and Nancy Reagan had spent so many nights. And Ein is finally ready to answer. He’s opened the home to host a pre-party for the glitzy White House Correspondents’ Dinner—guests included Lindsay Lohan, David Axelrod and Elle Macpherson—and after renovations under the eye of architect Outerbridge Horsey, he’s set to move in. Which means, while the house might not operate as it did for Mrs. Graham (who surely never hosted reality stars alongside policymakers), it shouldn’t be long before the city’s elite gather there again.
Washington parties—where socializing and policy-making find their hazy intersection—have historically been a woman’s game, whether they were hosted by Mrs. Graham, the late ambassador Pamela Harriman or today’s social set, which includes the corporate executive Juleanna Glover, whose bipartisan buffet suppers remain a DC destination, and the writer Margaret Carlson, who favors homey dinners.
But today there’s a new breed of hostess: the host. In the 21st century, Washington’s men are increasingly the ones picking out invitations, signing off on the canapés and opening their homes to legions of well-connected guests. “Hosting,” observes veteran White House correspondent Julie Mason, “has become more of a dude thing.”
Why, after all these years, are men getting in on the act? There are a few reasons—one being the loosening of traditional gender roles. We could very well elect a female president in 2016, so is it any wonder men are free to send out invitations, whether via Paperless Post or from Copenhaver, the city’s toniest stationer? What’s more, men are marrying later—like Bill Dean, the 49-year-old bachelor electronics mogul called “Washington’s Hugh Hefner” and known for the bevy of gorgeous women who attend parties at his Georgetown and Miami homes. And then there are the men author Malcolm Gladwell has dubbed “connectors,” those who play an essential role in bringing people together. In a previous era, this might have been done over golf at the Congressional Country Club or steaks at The Palm, but today it’s just as likely to happen at a casual Christmas party or a fundraiser for a businessman’s pet cause.
“I think men have always known that business in this town doesn’t happen entirely in the boardroom,” notes Kiki Burger, a former Politico gossip columnist. “So if a deal is going to go down at a party—and let’s face it, parties are more fun than golf—they want it to go down at their party.”
In the Washington of yore, it was enough to simply open your home. Back in the 1960s and ’70s you could have a cozy spontaneous Sunday supper at the home of influential newspaper columnist Joe Kraft, where guests including Henry Kissinger would gather for pot roast and pie. But today’s parties reveal a town that’s no longer what John F. Kennedy called “a city of southern efficiency and northern charm.” The city is booming, and entertainers have had to keep up.
Dean’s annual Independence Day bash is notable for bikini-clad guests, hamburgers on the grill and Veuve Clicquot by the caseload, and is only trumped by the Gatsby-esque Halloween party he throws each year at his $5 million Georgetown townhouse. Guests, often including ambassadors and congressmen, are checked in by an iPad-wielding assistant before receiving an access-granting wristband and posing for photos in front of a Dean-branded step-and-repeat. For years, consultant Jim Courtovich’s gaucho-themed soirees were legendary for their South American food, margarita machines and guest lists heavy on politicians and Washington rainmakers. In 2009, Politico covered one party, breathlessly recounting the tented backyard festooned with roses, a buffet dinner of lamb chops and roast beef, and hundreds of guests, including White House staffers, political journalists and a pre–Today show Savannah Guthrie, whose husband, communications consultant Michael Feldman, swapped blazers with former RNC chairman Ken Mehlman. More intimate gatherings are Courtovich’s norm now.
This marks a departure from Washington’s traditionally grim procession of campaign fundraisers, charity balls and book parties, where you’re expected to pay for your 300-pager on U.S.-Swedish relations and smile for the privilege. Those affairs have long greased the wheels of the city’s social life, but in a town full of people considering the fate of the world, nobody seems opposed these days to having a little more fun.
“I want to find interesting people and bring them together,” says Dale LeFebvre, the MIT- and Harvard-educated entrepreneur who’s hosted discussions of Greek philosophy for the Aspen Institute but is perhaps better known for dinner parties—think Dover sole cooked on a custom stove—that friends say have attracted guests like Congressman Joseph Crowley, Jamaican-born millionaire Michael Lee-Chin and even Oprah Winfrey.
Lobbyist Tony Podesta also aims for intimate affairs thrown at his art-filled Kalorama home. Whether it’s dinner—perhaps for his clients, which have included Lockheed Martin, BP and the Republic of Georgia—fresh from his backyard pizza oven or his annual Academy Awards bash, entertaining at home is as integral to Podesta’s sway as what goes on in his G Street office.
Winston Bao Lord, the son of one of Washington’s best known diplomats, recounts how he’s gone from throwing blow-outs—including a marathon holiday party known as “The Twelve Hours of Christmas”—to intimate suppers at his Foxhall home. “I guess I’ve evolved,” Lord says. “It’s more likely to be a small dinner now, with no seating chart.”
In a city where bipartisanship is a rare commodity, Steve Clemons, events maven for Atlantic Media, says entertaining is an opportunity to bring together people too often divided by political parties. “Ideology has hijacked too much of Washington,” he says. “Most people want an on-ramp to something better.” Or something more light-hearted: When Joe Biden couldn’t make an event Clemons was hosting for Jewish advocacy group J Street, Clemons addressed the crowd wearing a Biden mask. As Courtovich puts it: “I never want to host a ‘business event.’ Never.”