Jane Stanton Hitchcock’s Mortal Friends is the perfect summer beach read – unless, of course, you’ve already gotten burned.
By Kevin Chaffee
There hasn’t been this much buzz about a roman-à-clef set in Washington since Alan Drury’s Advise and Consent hit the bestseller lists 40 years ago. Now Jane Stanton Hitchcock’s Mortal Friends has le tout Washington vying to decipher the true-to-life identities of an “irritatingly smug philanthropist,” an “ageless rake with military bearing … and a dark side,” and other memorable monsters – one of whom may well be a serial killer.
The author has no equal when it comes to putting the social scene under a microscope, and then dissecting it. A witty novelist, hostess, Jacqueline Onassis protégé, and media wife (she is the spouse of Washington Post syndicated columnist Jim Hoagland), Hitchcock knows from long experience that the nation’s capital is a veritable Petri dish where ambitious players fester and swirl. They may plot their way to power and riches, but only get to keep them by negotiating a minefield of political intrigue, strategic alliances, and relentless climbing, to say nothing of money grubbing, backstabbing and betrayal. Read Mortal Friends if you like mystery and intrigue. Read it if you enjoy seeing rather nasty characters get what’s coming to them. Above all, read it as a cautionary tale – because this is how Washington society really works.
Washington Life: Will you swear that your characters bear no resemblance whatsoever to any person living or dead?
Jane Hitchcock: [Laughs]. My characters are all creations of my imagination. I do hope they bear a resemblance to people who are interesting to others. In general, novelists pick out characters, incidents, and places that obsess them and provide a connection to their inner life. Does Merdle in Little Dorritt resemble someone in Charles Dickens’ time? Probably yes. I write about real people, not aliens or vampires – although I may give them a shot, too – considering that’s what sells these days!
WL: One of your leading ladies, Cynthia Rinehart, bears more than a certain resemblance to well-known philanthropist here. They both have an “achievement” foundation, make $100 million pledges to the Kennedy Center that fall through, and get caught up in a Congressional tax inquiry. They even have the same initials. …
JH: A character is a character – but that isn’t to say that people in New York, California, and all over the globe haven’t reneged on pledges quite famously or have foundations that give awards. … If I wanted to write a non-fiction book I would have.
WL: Do you feel a close personal connection to your protagonist, Reven Lynch?
JH: Let me make a blanket statement: I am all of my characters.
WL: Why did you make Reven an antiques dealer?
JH: I love rummaging around in Georgetown antiques stores and was inspired by a few of the owners, including Deborah Gore Dean and John Rosselli. Reven’s character was also a way to bridge the gap between social Washington and those on its fringes. She’s not on the “A-List” but knows all the people who are.
WL: You set many of your scenes inside carefully depicted residential settings.
JH: You can tell more how a person lives by the way their house is decorated than their résumé.
WL: You also include a lot of party scenes at local haunts: the Kennedy Center, Folger Library, British Embassy, Café Milano …
JH: In Washington, more business gets done at parties than in Congress. Behind-the-scenes alliances are formed; discord is sown.
WL: Any examples from your own experience?
JH: I attended a dinner one night where a senator had a brutal confrontation with a Cabinet secretary – who left abruptly. Four prominent journalists were there but no one broke it as a story because of national security. It was a private party and therefore off the record. That’s when I realized that social life may look like furs, jewels, and parties, but it’s really gas masks, helmets, and guns.
WL: I’ve heard tales of powerful government officials who get incensed because they weren’t invited to a dinner.
JH: Hell hath no fury like the uninvited guest. That’s especially true in Washington because social life here is much more consequential than anywhere else. Feuds and friendships forged here can affect national and even global policy. …. A war could get started over a dinner table!
WL: How has the capital changed since you moved here?
JH: It was much more provincial when I arrived in 1996. It was the twilight of the great Georgetown hostesses who ruled social life. The political types didn’t commute as much as they do now. Then people got much younger. Big money came in and intertwined with power.
WL: Does money count a lot more than it once did in Washington?
JH: It counted more, then it counted less – after the stock market crash. The Federal government is now acting more like a business, so in that sense, yes. Power may be on the upsurge again.
WL: You are pretty hard on arrivistes.
JH: I remember hearing someone saying on TV that she should get the best seats because she gave the most money. Everyone knows that’s true, but why rub it in their face? I mean, have a little grace.
WL: Has there been a ‘fashion revolution’ here?
JH: Credentials used to be more important than clothes. Women were considered frivolous if they dressed fashionably. Then, suddenly it was OK for women to dress well. Now Mrs. Obama is the epitome of the cutting edge.
WL: It is still rather outré to wear fantastic designer gowns and major jewelry in public here.
JH: Remember, “chic” and “showy” are two different things.
WL: You focus on the plight of the cast-aside Washington spouse in your novel, in effect saying they are forgotten but not gone.
JH: “Old ex-wives never die, they just fade away.”
WL: I remember the just-divorced wife of a senator who continued accepting invitations to parties that were still being sent to the both of them. It was so embarrassing. People didn’t know what to say. Finally the invitations dried up and she disappeared.
JH: Eventually they make new lives for themselves, usually somewhere else – unless they become secretary of state!