Washington social doyenne Sally Quinn has made a career out of party etiquette. She knows what food to serve, what atmosphere to create, what to wear, precisely where to seat the married couples (not together, dammit!).
The author of a new Washington Post Style section column on entertaining as well as a book on the same subject has lofty goals for her get-togethers: “I want everyone who leaves my house to leave feeling better about themselves,” said Quinn in an interview with City Desk.
Judged against her own standards, Quinn may have stumbled last Friday night.
The event was a holiday bash for Style staffers, and the venue was not Quinn’s house but the Georgetown residence of Style co-boss Ned Martel. In any event, Quinn, the queen of the party, felt compelled to play the headlining role, delivering the keynote toast. According to attendees and Quinn herself, the toast hit on the following themes:
I’ve been with Style for 30 years, and Style is back! Back to where it was in the good old days. I talk to people these days who read Style every day and it’s been a long time since I’ve heard that. There’s energy and creativity and vibrancy now. Ned and [co-boss] Lynn [Medford] are doing great work. Blah, blah.
When asked how people should have responded to the message, Quinn responded: “I think they should have been ecstatic.”
Ecstasy, though, was scarce among this crowd. “Everybody thought [the toast] was inconsiderate of all the people who’ve been there for some time, that it was a failing operation that people didn’t read,” says a source.
Another interpretation from another attendee: Quinn was singing the praises of the section decades ago, back when she was a star social correspondent—-i.e., the “good old days”—-and now, when she is again a regular contributor, via her weekly column “The Party.” “This was clearly Sally talking about Sally,” says the attendee.
No narcissism here, protests Quinn. “I wasn’t talking about me. I was talking about the energy and excitement that we had, and I see that now and it’s just thrilling.”
A couple of partygoers claim that Martel was wincing when Quinn was gushing over the turnaround in Style quality, a charge that Martel denies. “I have never winced at anything that Sally Quinn has said.” As to the elegance of Quinn’s toast, Martel took a pass: “I think it’s best for that night to exist without the host’s next-day or next-week commentary.”
Whatever the feelings about Quinn’s attempt at holiday cheer, the gossip that lingers days later attests to a number of issues:
Issue No. 1: Quinn is right that Style is improving, as City Desk has pointed out previously.
Issue No. 2: The quality and avant-garditude of the Style section is one of the great agonies of the Washington Post. Oh, it was so awesome decades ago, goes a popular refrain. Everyone loves to wax nostalgic about its classic writers. Hendrickson! Allen! Quinn! The debate about when the section was great and when it sucked is the journalistic equivalent of “Man, it’s cold outside”—-a waste of breath that’ll never accomplish anything. When the section turned 40 early this year, Style writer Hank Stuever tilted at the craziness:
There’s a kind of longtime Washington Post reader who is only too smug about informing us how great Style was in the 1970s, or the ’80s or the ’90s (the early ’90s, they sniff, like oenophiles distinguishing vintage). We are certain that by the end of Style’s first week, someone complained that it was better on Monday and Tuesday. At a Style staff meeting a few years back, art critic Paul Richard, who’s been here since the Earth cooled, said that anyone who tells you Style was so much better back-when should be condemned to crank the microfilm and forced to read it, day in and day out.
Issue No. 3: Quinn couldn’t abide a certain top editor at the Post. When asked to expand on her claim that Style is back, Quinn obliged: “I would say that Ben [Bradlee, former Post executive editor and husband of Quinn] invented Style and he really cared about it. It was priority No. 1. When he stepped down as editor, it was not the No. 1 priority anymore. And when Marcus took over, it was a big priority for him.”
Let’s see—-think there might just be a subtle little elbow in there between the lines? What do you know—-that non-priority period just so happens to coincide with the editorship of Leonard Downie Jr., who ran the Post newsroom from 1991 to 2008.
But this is one pissing match for which Downie won’t whip it out. When informed of Quinn’s analysis, he declined to comment.
Issue No. 4: Quinn is a lovely person to talk to, a true believer in fine entertaining, perky-yet-tough, a great family woman, a co-moderator of an innovative Post Web page on religion, and surely many other good things, but her “The Party” column isn’t one of the things contributing to the Style section’s resurgence. Thus far, it’s a jumble of reflections and peeves from a woman for whom entertaining is a touch too important. And if you actually read it, there’s no way to avoid the self-aggrandizing land mines that can hit you at any point. My fave thus far: “One of the nicest compliments I ever got was at a large New Year’s Eve party I had. A man came over to me and said, ‘I love this party. Everyone here looks so beautiful.’ (Candles, rose-colored walls and pink light bulbs never hurt.)”