We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
After decades of serving D.C. through his successful restaurants, charity benefits, and patronage of individual artists, Herb White died on June 8 at age 71. Those who enjoy the arts in D.C. might not recognize White’s footprint, but those who knew him don’t mince words.
“Herb White was the Paul Mellon of Adams Morgan,” says Gay Glading, who worked as a waitress in the early ’80s at Herb’s, the P Street NW restaurant for which White is best-known. She also mentions arts organizations like the District of Columbia Arts Center (DCAC)—which White founded—and others that owe their success to White’s generosity. Washington Independent Writers, the Washington Ballet, theaters along 14th Street—you name it, White fundraised for it. A restaurateur by trade, White made his fortune in real estate, and he cemented his reputation as a major arts patron in the ’80s.
“He was never formally employed by any of the nonprofits he was involved with,” recalls Bill Warrell, director of District Curators Inc., a nonprofit that booked national arts events in D.C. But White had a hand in them all, including Warrell’s group. In that capacity, he was key in producing Phillip Glass’ operas, bringing Laurie Anderson to D.C., and getting the Japanese dance troupe Sankai Juku to the U.S., says Warrell. “But my guess was that his first love was the visual arts.”
More likely, his first love was artists. For people like Joe White (no relation), Noche Crist, and Al “Big Al” Carter, he opened doors throughout the region, whether at his houses in Baltimore and Washington (which he made his home in 1963) or through his Adams Morgan and Dupont Circle restaurants. He perpetually organized and hosted benefits. Even the jukebox money at Herb’s went to the Washington Sculpture Center.
White’s in-kind donations of rent and venue spaces easily add up to tens of thousands of dollars; the annual Winter Cast Bash, for which White paid all costs and hosted, raised upward of $20,000 for 14th Street theaters such as Source and Wooly Mammoth.
“Herb had an uncanny knack for that, going into a place just before it turned,” says John Kaiser. Kaiser, whom White let live in and maintain his Fells Point home in Baltimore for more than six years in the ’90s, recognizes White as a forerunner to the gentrification that has sparked a surge in the arts in D.C. today. “He always seemed to see beyond the present circumstance.”
White retired from the restaurant business in the mid-’90s, dividing his time between a home in Miami’s South Beach neighborhood, where he spent his winters, and a place in Montevideo, Uruguay, where he planned, but never realized, a “Herb’s Too” location for Punta del Este, the Hamptons of the Southern Hemisphere. According to family members, it was disgust with the Bush administration that prompted White to make Uruguay his home for good.
Globe-trotting came easily to White. After studying economics at Georgetown, he found work running a coconut plantation in Panama in the ’50s. He was drafted during the Korean War and served as a correspondent for Stars and Stripes. After the war he worked as a freelance reporter and travel writer, stopping in Afghanistan, Vietnam, and points in between.
That may explain his interest in international arts efforts. He raised money for the 1991 Washington/Moscow Exchange, in which the former Cold War enemies swapped shows at the Carnegie Library at the University of the District of Columbia, and at Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery. Around that time, White traveled with Senator Jack Gordon of Florida, Washington Post reporter Myra MacPherson, and others on a tour of Cuba, where White heard Fidel Castro speak.
White’s parents were socialists—his mother worked for the International Refugee Committee, and his father worked as a director of the sanitation department in New York City. But he found little dissonance between his left-leaning politics and the well-to-do social circles in which he traveled. “He loved class, he loved society,” says friend and painter Joe White. Herb’s daughter Lissa agrees: “He loved nobility.” In the ’60s, White, then in his mid-20s, worked under the real-estate magnate Leo Bernstein on the restoration of the Wayside Theater in Middletown, Va., where Susan Sarandon would get her start. A photograph from 1984 shows John Waters at a birthday party for William S. Burroughs at White’s house.
The site of one of his best-known celebrity run-ins, though, was Spain. White was living in Europe after the Korean War, and he let the producers of Lawrence of Arabia use his rural pad in Spain on the condition that he could still come and go as he pleased. Soon enough, White was serving as a stand-in for Peter O’Toole. “Herb White was very tall, very good looking, and had steel-blue eyes,” says White friend Bobby Lennon. “Peter O’Toole had steel-blue eyes and was drunk as shit.” One day, Lennon recalls, White was hitchhiking home from town when O’Toole pulled up in a limousine and offered him a ride and a bottle of what he had been drinking.
White married Claire Racine and had two children, Lissa and Jessica; he dated women after his divorce in 1970, including Rebecca Davenport, an artist whose sensual nudes still hang in White’s home. But many believed he was gay. “Straight people knew him as straight, gay people knew him as gay,” says local sculptor David Mordini. “He loved gay culture, he loved gossip,” says Manon Cleary, an artist and friend who says that White was instrumental in bringing about her own marriage. “It wasn’t a ‘kept’ thing, though a lot of people supposed that,” says John Kaiser about his domestic arrangement in White’s Baltimore home.
The best memorial to White may come in the art collection and arts organizations that survive him and testify to his generosity. The list below surveys a few of the D.C. places where White had the greatest impact.
Cafe Don1721 Columbia Road NW
White opened his first restaurant in D.C. with two lawyers in the ’70s. Renee Butler, an artist who frequented the place, calls it “Washington’s first art bar.” Regulars called it “Cafe Dog,” referring to the stuffed mastiff that hung over the bar. Al Jirikowic, owner of Chief Ike’s, calls it “a taxidermied heaven,” recalling the stuffed mountain lion, rams’ heads, and other exotic fauna that lined the walls. (The Dog was located where El Migueleno now stands.) Local artists Carolyn Landon and Greg Hannan worked there as a cook and a bouncer, respectively. Gay Glading says that, even when White’s place was an arty dive in a nightmarish neighborhood, signs of White’s genteel disposition were apparent. “He cooked a fresh turkey every day so he could make turkey sandwiches,” she says. “Here is a man—every day is Thanksgiving to him. He liked to feed people.”
Herb’s2121 P St. NW
Icons from Joe Jackson to Gene Roddenberry knew to stop by Herb’s on P Street NW when they came to town. Established in 1982, the place was frequented by local actors, artists, and writers, too, as well as folks from the arts industry: Ira Lowe, a lawyer who represented artists, and Paul Richard, the longtime Washington Post art critic, to name some regulars. Black-and-white pictures of all of them hung on the walls. White’s restaurant was nicknamed “Algonquin South,” by Barbara Raskin, a novelist and member of a writers’ organization that met there. White often used his restaurant for fundraisers. A 1984 event was typical: To celebrate the birthday of Tennessee Williams, who had died the previous year, White hosted a costume party where guests were invited to dress as their favorite Williams character; the party doubled as a benefit for the League of Washington Theaters. In the late ’80s, White relaunched his restaurant at 1615 Rhode Island Ave. NW after his plans to open a place in the emerging 14th Street NW theater corridor were frustrated by red tape.
DCAC2438 18th St. NW
The original deal that Herb White struck for DCAC in 1989 had the fledgling nonprofit paying $1 in rent for its first year. White never bothered to collect any more than that. In fact, his patronage of the skinny Adams Morgan art space precedes even the arrival of DCAC. Joe White met Herb White in 1975; a friend of Joe’s had suggested that Herb, a rising real-estate guy who by that time had opened a restaurant and disco in Baltimore but hadn’t yet made his entrepreneurial mark on D.C., might have studio space for the painter. “Herb said, ‘Yeah, great idea. Paint portraits of my family for rent,’” recalls Joe. So he did—paintings of Herb’s two daughters hang in his home today—and Herb let Joe stay in the paint-supply garage that now serves as DCAC’s theater. Every year, DCAC mounts a show, “Herb’s Choice,” featuring shows curated or conceived by White.
Washington Project for the Arts400 7th St. NW
After its building was sold out from underneath it for a second time, the Washington Project for the Arts packed up in 1988 for its new home: 400 7th St. NW. But not everyone made the move. There had been disagreement about funding and the degree of coverage being granted to local artists, but “the issue of substance was the building,” recalls Don Russell, WPA programming director in the ’80s and WPA director in the ’90s. The new location came with a hinky lease, a complicated deal that involved the WPA loaning money to the building’s owner. White, a WPA board member at the time, balked. “Herb, especially, as a real-estate developer, didn’t approve of the deal,” Russell says. “He thought it was locking a small arts group into an onerous lease arrangement. The developer eventually reneged entirely on the loan, including the principal. So, Herb was right.” A member of a dissenting group of board members, White went on to found DCAC, an organization he hoped would focus on local artists.
White’s home1651 Fuller St. NW
Measuring nearly 12 feet from foot to outstretched submachine barrel, Tom Mullany’s Angel With an Uzi rises nearly to White’s ceiling. The sheet-metal sculpture is one of many works in the living room. Similarly, the kitchen, bedrooms, and bathrooms of his Adams Morgan home, where he settled in 1970, are chockablock with art on walls and coffee tables. There’s an art book by Keith Haring on a desk; a Mao by Andy Warhol hangs alongside an abstract work by White’s ex-wife. White’s collection emphasizes local artists and friends; a portrait of White by Sidney Lawrence, a nude by Rebecca Davenport, and drawings by Bill Newman hold positions of prominence. White supported most of these artists by collecting their works, but a few he helped more directly—by giving them shelter. Among others, David Mordini and Carol Dyer, a painter, both lived for a spell at White’s.
City Hall1350 Pennsylvania Ave. NW
Marion Barry nominated Herb White for the Mayor’s Excellence in Service to the Arts award in 1983; White was nominated again and won the award in 1989, honoring his continued patronage of the arts and in particular the founding of DCAC. When White moved back to D.C. this year after being diagnosed with bone cancer, Councilmember Jim Graham began planning an event to honor him. “I’d known him for 25 years; I’d visited him in Uruguay,” says Graham. “I wanted to have the whole council acknowledge his contribution to D.C.” Hence, the Herb White Recognition Resolution of 2007, which declared July 3 “Herb White Day.” White wasn’t especially taken with the notion at first, but David Mordini recalled that the arts patron had a change of heart regarding the hoopla: “‘If the DCAC can benefit from it, I really want to do it.’” That was typical Herb, says B. Stanley, director of DCAC. “He never really wanted to do his own sort of accolades,” Stanley says. “He would always want to include other artists, or us…he didn’t care much about personal attention.”