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The Belle Époque “Hostesses” of Washington

Those who have taken my Wives Who Won the Cold War tour have heard me talk about how the women of the era exerted power through their roles as masterful organizers of cocktail hours and dinners. The term “hostess” had a somewhat diminutive, sexist overtone that makes it sound like all they did was throw parties. Even back in the 1950s and 60s, Evangeline Bruce, wife of Ambassador David Bruce, hated the word and never liked that the magazines and articles written about her referred to her as such. What they did was much more than that. These women were pros at social engineering, an art form that their husbands generally didn’t deign to learn, with one or two exceptions. A dinner party was a tool in a toolbox that was considered firmly in the realms of women when their entrée into the “official” chambers of policy or law making was blocked by their gender.

In the Belle-Époque era of Washington, which is generally described as being between the end of the Civil War and WWI, there were several "hostesses" whose names became infamous for not only for their prolific party-throwing, but their intellect, wit, and political and social savvy. I would like to devote this blog post to three: Alice Roosevelt Longsworth, Evelyn Walsh McLean, and lastly Mary Foote Henderson, a somewhat eccentric character who defined the 16th Street Corridor.

I’ll begin with the feistiest of the three. Alice Roosevelt Longsworth was a controversial figure practically from the start. She was Teddy Roosevelt’s first daughter, born to and named for his first wife who suffered from an untimely death only two days after Alice was born. As a member of a political dynasty raised in the halls of power, she was naturally headstrong, fierce, and opinionated. After her father was elected to the Presidency, she would terrorize the White House staff with her unconventional ways and flouting of protocol. She smoked on the roof of the White House and kept a green snake “Emily Spinach” in her purse. She apparently would unceremoniously burst into the Oval Office when her father was in meetings, to sit in and offer her opinions on current events. President Roosevelt famously said, “I can do one of the two things. I can either be President of the United States or I can be control Alice. I cannot do both.” To take advantage of her fame and insistence on being a part of everything, and to get her out of his hair, Roosevelt started sending her on official delegations, the first First Daughter to act in that capacity.

As she grew and matured, she became known for her style and her savvy as much as for her sharp tongue. She married Nicholas Longsworth, a House Representative from Ohio, and they lived in a mansion in Dupont Circle (2009 Massachusetts Avenue NW). There she would host hundreds of dinners and tea parties. The papers followed her every move, as well as her every word, and she leveraged this to her advantage and the advantage of those who she favored. She famously had a pillow embroidered with the words “If you can’t say something good about someone, sit right here by me.” She did what most savvy “hostesses” did of the day, and invite a mix of people to her parties to make for an interesting soup of voices and ideas, though she was most definitely often the loudest voice in the room. But her irreverence and ability to mess with people is what made her one of the most intriguing people of the day. In one particularly funny anecdote, she was listening to a woman who was a hypochondriac and spent a whole dinner party complaining to Alice about her ailments. So, Alice advised the woman to stand on her head once a day. The woman didn’t know if she was serious or mocking her, so make her point Alice demonstrated in front of everyone at the party, placing a pillow against a wall and doing a headstand right there in the dining room. I’m sure no one forgot that particular evening. She became known as the ‘other’ monument of Washington, DC. The only person outside of her family who could call her “Alice” was Lorraine Sherman Cooper, who I talk about in my Wives Who Won the Cold War Tour. She lived in her house until her passing in 1980 at the ripe age of 98. All hail Princess Alice.

Evelyn Walsh McLean was a somewhat tragic figure in the Washington social scene during the Belle Époque era. She and her family lived in the beaux arts mansion on Massachusetts Avenue that is now the Embassy of Indonesia. Evelyn Walsh was the daughter of a western miner who struck it rich, and she went on to marry Edward McLean, heir to the Washington Post. While on their honeymoon in Turkey, Evelyn would meet the Sultan and his favorite wife, who was wearing a jewel that would bewitch her. That jewel would become known as the cursed Hope Diamond. Not understanding what she was taking on, Evelyn set out to purchase the jewel as soon as she heard that the Sultan had been dethroned and his wife murdered. The stone had a long and fraught past, bringing terrible luck and death to any and all who touched it. Though not superstitious, he must have had some concerns because she brought a priest to the house to perform a blessing ceremony. Legend says that during the ceremony a great storm blew up. After the ceremony was over, everyone thought that they were out of the cursed woods. They were wrong. Two of the first women to handle the stone were Evelyn’s mother-in-law and her friend. Both were dead within a year. Most tragically, Evelyn’s son Vinson, who she took extensive pains to protect, was nonetheless struck by an out of control vehicle at only 9 years old.

Despite these terrible losses, Evelyn was a prolific party thrower. Like Alice she liked to put people of differing viewpoints and perspectives together. During one particular soiree one of her guests, a Senator, remarked as he observed the room “it’s this kind of thing that brings on a revolution.” In another account by Olive Ewing Clapper, who wrote about Washington Dinner Parties in “Katherine Graham’s Washington”, she recounted how Walsh would bring people of “divergent views to a more rational attitude towards each other.” Evelyn believed that if people would just get to know each other, that they could have civil conversations and end up more sympathetic to others’ perspectives. However, that didn’t always work. Clapper also accounts a dinner in which she was seated next to a man who professed racist views and who believed the south should try again to secede. They ended up in a violent argument during which Clapper confessed she found it difficult to be polite (and rightfully so!). She ended up seated next to this man at a few more dinners and finally entreated the diner sitting on her other side to engage her in conversation so she could avoid the racist pro-seccesionist. Walsh had good intentions, but some disagreements you just can’t solve through familiarity.

Sadly, Evelyn and Edward’s marriage suffered and it was rumored that they bickered endlessly. Some say that the Hope Diamond’s bad luck extended even to those the couple supported. For example, they campaigned and threw parties for Warren G Harding’s Presidential run, which he did win. However, two men in his administration died violently, one by suicide, one by gunpoint. Warren himself would die of a blood clot in his brain two years into his presidency. Edward slowly was drinking himself to death and Evelyn tried to have him committed and would die of a heart attack. Her daughter Evelyn was chronically depressed and would overdose on sleeping pills. Finally Evelyn Walsh McLean would suffer from a fall and broken hip, and die of unrelated causes. Jeweler Henry Winston bought the Hope Diamond from the estate, but wisely decided to lend it to the Smithsonian, where you can see it at the Museum of Natural History. Her family would eventually sell the Post, which was in perpetual financial trouble, to Eugene and Agnes Meyer, parents of Katherine (Kay) Graham. Kay would of course go on to take over the paper and become the queen of journalism.

Despite this run of terrible luck, McLean was still remembered by many as being one of the most effective and memorable hostesses in Washington during the Belle Époque era. She was also known for her sense of charity, and many of those parties were thrown as benefits and fundraising events for veterans, orphans, and other causes. Unfortunately, the good she did for DC did not save her from a life fraught with loss.

Lastly, let’s talk about Mary Foote Henderson, otherwise known as the “Empress of 16th Street.” Mary Foote was from New York, and married Missouri Senator John B Henderson in 1868. John Henderson was famous for getting the 13th Amendment (banning slavery) passed through Congress, which would sadly doom his career to a single term. During their time in Washington, Mary had a great interest in the development of DC post-Civil War. She became intent on turning 16th Street into the “Champs Elysee” of Washington, DC, and even tried to turn Meridian Hill into the new seat of the Executive Branch. She lobbied Congress to have the top of the hill (now Meridian Park) the new site of an expanded, grander complex for the White House. Congress turned her down. She then worked with a couple of famous architects of the day to have several mansions built up and down 16th Street and part of 15th. This included an enormous castle for her and her husband at the corner of 16th and Florida Avenue, which at the time was still called Boundary Road. The residence would become known as Boundary Castle or Henderson Castle. It was a Romanesque Revival masterpiece that would expand to encompass the land just north and west of Florida Avenue and 16th Street. The other structures would become the residences and Embassies for several countries. She originally wanted the busts of all the presidents to date to be set up along 16th and have it renamed “President’s boulevard.” She was successful, but it last only a little while in 1913. She left town for a trip, and then Congress changed it back.

She also held plenty of parties, but she was known for her very particular dietary restrictions. She was an early proponent of what we would today call “clean living.” She eschewed alcohol and meat, and was a evangelist for vegetarianism. She even wrote a cookbook of recipes that were she considered to promote good health and long life called ““Diet for the Sick, A Treatise on the Values of Foods” in 1885. Despite these particularities, an invitation to the Henderson’s castle on Meridian Hill became one of the most coveted invitations in the city. One menu included fruit soup, mock salmon, an early version of Seitan called Protose, and a gelatin dessert. Sounds appetizing. ;) In another famous event, she and her husband emptied his well-stocked wine cellar onto 16th Street, with their servants literally breaking so many bottles into the street that there was a river of wine flowing down towards the White House.

Her influence as a hostess and developer in DC was not always the most sensitive however. In her pursuit to turn Meridian Hill into the literal “height” of DC society and graciousness, she displaced a few hundred African Americans who were living in what became Meridian Park. There was a struggle to have that community recognized in later years.

So there you have it, three complex and fascinating women who all made their mark on DC in varying ways. Many of them had connections to the generation that I discuss in the Wives Who Won the Cold War tour, and even mentored a couple of them. For example, Mary Pinchot Meyer, the artist who was close with the Kennedys and would pay for it later, was a good friend of Alice Roosevelt Longsworth. So was Lorraine Cooper, who would become one of the most well-connected and powerful women of the Georgetown Set.The Meyers (Kay Graham’s parents) would go on to buy the Washington Post from Evelyn Walsh McLean, setting up Kay to become the eventual owner and master of the journalistic universe. They would also buy the Boundary Castle, but would tear it down to built an apartment building.Interested in knowing more about these amazing people? My next Wives Who Won the Cold War tour will be held on Sunday, November 21st at 11am. We’ll walk to the former houses of these incredible women, strolling through the beautiful Georgetown neighborhood. Tickets can be purchased at!

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