Historical Landscapes: The Hostess Wars

by Editorial

Gwen Cafritz and Perle Mesta climbed the social ladder by throwing parties for as many of the rich and powerful as they could cram into their enormous drawing rooms. Mesta was portly and not pretty, but the cheerful lady from Oklahoma was rich and politically connected. The exotic and beautiful Hungarian – American Gwendolyn Detre de Suranybought her clothes in Paris and was adored by her older husband, self-made real estate mogul Morris Cafritz. He built her an Arte Moderne mansion at 2301 Foxhall Road, complete with a lighted dance floor in the lower level “supper club” and a terrace from which guests could look down on the lights of Washington beyond the treetops of “Dunmarlin,” the old Laughlin Phillips estate. You have to rely on your imagination to picture this now, because the Cafritz residence is now the Field School and the Phillips estate, sold to developers, and now sprouts elaborate houses, each as big and opulent as the original Cafritz manse.

Perle Mesta and friend at a 1950s charity ball.

Perle Mesta and friend at a 1950s charity ball.

At her French-style château, “Les Ormes,” at 4040 52nd Street NW, Perle Mesta offered huge buffets with good and endlessly flowing liquor – the source of her famous sobriquet “the hostess with the mostest’ ” Critics said she packed her parties like Noah loaded his arc (and invited the press inside to cover them) but she successfully charmed Presidents Harry Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower and Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson. Her fundraising efforts for Truman landed her the ambassadorship to Luxembourg, where she was popular and well liked, even though the venture was lampooned in Irving Berlin’s “Call Me Madam.” While she was honored with her picture on the cover of Time magazine, she had numerous detractors among the Old Guard. Alice Roosevelt Longworth dismissed Mesta as “commonplace” while Lady Astor derided her gatherings as “enormous parties that nobody who is anybody ought to go to.”

As parallel party-givers, Mesta and Cafritz were fiercely competitive. Cafritz said that she invited guests from her address book, while Mesta got hers from the telephone book. On the other hand, Cafritz invited her rival many times, but the gesture was never accepted or reciprocated. When Mesta moved to Spring Valley, not far from Foxhall Road, Cafritz said to her, “Now that you’re a neighbor, I suppose I’ll be seeing more of you,” to which Mesta replied, “I suppose not.”

Fashion is fickle, and the two hostesses were both undone by the time the Kennedys came to dominate the scene in the early 1960s. Georgetown became the capital’s social mecca, and Mesta and Cafritz could no longer draw so many big names. The joke around town was that they had so few guests they had to go to each other’s parties, which in fact, never happened.

The two women nonetheless left a legacy that Washingtonians can understand and appreciate. Of her intimate gatherings for 22, Cafritz said she felt as if she were “helping to save Western civilization.” Mesta always had a good time, which is no doubt why she became a legend. Even Sally Quinn, who once bridled at being described as a ”hostess,” now writes about parties in her Washington Post religion blog. Hosts everywhere understand that getting together to enjoy each other’s company in a festive atmosphere – just as Cafritz suggested – is a necessity of civilization, not just a frill. And, it’s the right time of year to remember that parties are good for us.

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