The Georgetown Ladies’ Social Club

The Georgetown Ladies’ Social Club: Power, Passion, and Politics in the Nation’s Capital is deliciously gossipy. It worms its way into the lives of the makers and shakers of Washington politics—almost exclusively male—focusing intensely upon the women behind the men who essentially ran government during the last two-thirds of the twentieth century. It peers behind the facades of the stately houses in Georgetown where they lived, exposing to public view their machinations and assignations, mercilessly naming names and revealing warts and blemishes, moral and physical, that only insiders could know.

C. David Heymann focuses on five doyennes of Washington society—Katharine Graham, Evangeline Bruce, Lorraine Cooper, Pamela Harriman, and Sally Quinn—who were the magnets that attracted Washington’s brightest and most sophisticated luminaries irresistibly into their elite, cohesive in-group. Most of them existed in their husbands’ shadows, although Katharine Graham and Pamela Harriman both eventually emerged as forces in their own rights.

The social lives of these five women were stringently structured, involving carefully orchestrated luncheons, dinners, garden parties, and even group cooking classes with Julia Child. Their social events sometimes bristled with controversy, occasionally ending just short of fisticuffs and resulting in the abrupt departure of an opinionated guest who disagreed passionately with the host or with the other guests. Some left voluntarily, others were ordered to leave. But the Georgetown ladies generally rose above holding grudges. Frequently guests shunned one week returned the next.

Heymann presents a beguiling, well-written account of how the Georgetown women affected the course of government. He understands his subject thoroughly and presents it vigorously and imaginatively.