It’s not. It’s a social mosh pit. A collision of two self-obsessed industry towns, L.A. and D.C., in the biggest and easily the least gracious hotel ballroom in town.
The profusion of cocktail parties prior to the dinner itself—which no one really enjoys attending more than once—are crammed into tiny meeting rooms at the hotel where, owing to some twisted catering contract, all the food and liquor must come from hotel-approved sources. The result is unimaginative canapés, cheap rail liquor, and barely-chilled chardonnay that’s so buttery you could baste a turkey with it.
Granted, you’re not there for food and drink. The real fun of the Correspondents’ Dinner is seeing how many B-list actors you can conscript into a selfie. And then moving on.
This is precisely the problem with calling the dinner a social event—there is practically no socializing. It’s a transactional evening, prime territory for gawkers. But if you’d never attended any other formal affair in Washington, you might think this was always how we behaved when we put on tuxedos and ball gowns. And then you’d think, how very sad.
But over the past few years, an actually elegant party, with people not treating each other badly, has been growing into one of the more sought-after tickets in town.
It’s the Meridian Ball, which takes place in mid-October, and somehow almost always on a clear, crisp fall evening. This year’s took place on Friday, and it was my fourth time attending. From the moment I arrived, I was reminded of the many reasons why this party is everything that that unfortunate affair at the Hilton is not.
Waiters passed ice-cold champagne and bartenders mixed cocktails to order. The theme of the evening, “Marrakech,” loosely played out in a parade of passed hors d’oeuvres, including cinnamon-spiced chicken wrapped in filo dough, beets on citrus purée, and eggplant pide.
While officially the main fundraiser for the Meridian International Center, a nonprofit education group that runs exchange programs for world leaders, the party has become an important confluence for two currents of social Washington: the official/local crowd (your lobbyists, journalists, lawmakers, socialites, etc.) and the diplomatic set, composed of ambassadors and their staff, as well as expats who are calling Washington home for maybe just a few years.
The night moves in two waves. First, ambassadors across Washington host intimate dinners in their residences. A friend of mine dined with the ambassador of Luxembourg and a party of just 12 guests. She arrived 15 minutes late and wondered, when she didn’t see crowds streaming in, if she hadn’t come an hour too early.
Two dozen embassies threw parties, spanning the globe from Canada to Barbados to Turkey. It wasn’t all smooth sailing. A friend who I almost only see in a tuxedo complained that the Turkish ambassador had served “some kind of beans” for an entree and that he hadn’t even shown up for dinner.
“Probably off bombing the Kurds,” my friend’s wife suggested. (She didn’t like the beans, either.)
The parties are usually no more than 30, which is really small for a ball. But after dinner, everyone converges on Meridian’s Washington headquarters, a pair of gracious mansions perched on a hill—the White-Meyer House and Meridian House. Meridian House is decked out with overflowing buffets of sweets, cakes, and chocolates. The tree-lined patio is festooned with lights. There’s a tent set up with a dance floor and DJ.
White-Meyer hosts its own, rather large dinner, which I’ve attended the past four years. That’s where I’ve always dined. You might feel the ghosts of history gliding past you as you hunt for your table.
Georges Clemenceau, Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge, and President Warren Harding all visited the house, which was designed by John Russell Pope, the architect behind the Jefferson Memorial, the National Gallery of Art’s West Building, and the National Archives.
The house has long been a gathering spot for world leaders.
In 1917, the State Department asked the house’s then-owner, Henry White, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Italy and France, to lend the house to the visiting delegation of Marshall Joseph Joffre, then the former commander-in-chief of the French forces on the Western Front.
Joffre later wrote that plans hashed out in that house sowed “the seed of military and naval cooperation” on the battlefields of World War I months later.
White died in 1927, and his son, John Campbell White, inherited the property. Eugene Meyer, later an owner of The Washington Post, rented the house for several years and then bought it, and some of his guests included Eleanor Roosevelt, Adlai Stevenson, and John and Robert Kennedy.
Katherine Graham, the longtime Post chairwoman and the city’s legendary hostess and social connector, lived there as a teenager. Her granddaughter, and former Post publisher, Katharine Weymouth, was a guest on Friday.
One of the things that makes the Meridian Ball so pleasant is that, unlike the Correspondents’ Dinner, it’s not overrun with celebrities, which means people tend to focus more on the human being standing opposite them while talking. This is also known as conversation.
The only people I spotted who could be called not-Washington famous were Jayne Atkinson and Michel Gill—and they attracted practically no attention because no one really knew who they were. (I’ll save you the IMDB check: They play the secretary of state and the former president on House of Cards.)
That’s as close to Hollywood as the Meridian Ball got. And that was lovely.
You can actually make friends at this party. My first year, I sat next to a woman from London who had worked for the Conservative Party and was in Washington on a six-month sabbatical.
We became fast friends and danced until 1 o’clock in the morning. A few weeks later, she came to my house for Thanksgiving.
The next summer, my husband and I visited her house in London. When she was in town last summer for a wedding, she came straight from the plane, horribly jet-lagged, to meet me for drinks.
It’s so rare that you make a connection like that at a dinner in Washington. Partly that’s because we just don’t do intimate dinners in this town much anymore.
As my reliable party companion, and consummate social observer, Carol Joynt wrote recently, “Washington is a working town…Many people having parties here get labeled as social hosts and hostesses when, in fact, they are lobbyists. It may be glossed up and passed off as something else, but let’s be clear: the entertaining of friends for that sole purpose is not the same as entertaining a guest list of White House, Capitol Hill, Pentagon and other government officials with the sole purpose of procuring U.S. financial aid for whatever and wherever, or promoting a client, or their own company. That’s work.”
I really, really want the Meridian Ball not to become about work. I need it to be the kind place where Carlos Gutierrez, the former secretary of commerce, is hanging out by the fruit bar and talking to complete strangers, as he was on Friday night.
Or where Ambassador Capricia Marshall, the former head of protocol for the State Department, dances to Gangnam Style, as she did on the dance floor a few years ago.
Or where once, Ina Ginsburg, one of the city’s most prominent hostesses and Andy Warhol’s unofficial Washington trail guide, spent a night chatting up a relative nobody at the dinner table. (Said nobody told me the whole story when we were seated next to each other this year.)
There’s magic in a party where, at least for the night, everyone feels special just because you’re all there, together.