In 1949, Joe Alsop bought a parcel of land in Georgetown and began to build a house in a style he christened “Garage Palladian.” The cinder-block exterior of 2720 Dumbarton Avenue was unprepossessing—its hideousness led to a revision of Georgetown’s building code—but behind the garage-like façade lay an epicure’s delight, rich with Louis Quinze furniture, curious folios, and jade and lacquer from Asia.
The rooms were spacious, their walls painted shades of vermilion and peacock green. Gilded birdcages were suspended from the ceiling, and ancestral faces glowered in their frames on a scene that reproduced—though on a smaller scale—something of the Palladian opulence of the Whig houses of 18th-century England, in the history of which Alsop was well versed.
“José and Maria,” Alsop said of his house servants, “thought nothing of producing very good dinners for anywhere up to twenty people.” The wine was first-rate; Alsop preferred Bordeaux vintages, and he was partial to his friend Alain de Rothschild’s Château Lafite.
The caviar aux blini and the terrapin soup were as good; the belligerence of the caged toucan (it once spat its food on Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s bald spot) was complemented by the humor of José, whose services became, during the course of an evening, entertaining in their own right as he consumed the heeltaps in discarded glasses.
Behind the garage-like façade lay an epicure’s delight, rich with Louis Quinze furniture, curious folios, and jade and lacquer from Asia.
Bores were kept to the obligatory minimum; it was Alsop’s “rule of thumb that with eight people at table you cannot have so much as one bore; with twelve a whole bore; with fourteen a bore and a half, and so on.” (A half-bore might be a “very dull but powerful man or a very stupid but pretty woman.”)
Yet even people who were not naturally dull might feel themselves so in unpropitious settings, and the artistry of 2720 Dumbarton Avenue had less to do with luxury than with counteracting dullness. The Palladian stage, the recherché props, were as necessary for the elaboration of Alsop’s genius as the Adam interiors of Georgian England were for Gibbon and Dr. Johnson, or the masque and intermezzo for the magnificos of the Renaissance.
Like a prima donna given the right music, Alsop came alive, on his stage in Georgetown, in all his baroque complexity. Seated at the head of the table, he led his guests through the gossip and innuendo of the day to the larger questions of war and peace, which he was apt to illustrate with an allusion to Herodotus or a classical Chinese poet.
But the elegance and frivolity of 2720 Dumbarton Avenue—the high learning and gin-fueled revelry—reflected something more than the whims of an idiosyncratic personality. The Garage Palladian style was Alsop’s hedge against the despair in which he and his class had been born.
When, in the Gilded Age, power in America passed to party bosses and newly rich plutocrats, WASPs whose forebearers had long run the country found themselves with little to do other than collect their dividends, lounge in their clubs, and, very often, drink themselves to death, as Joe Alsop’s great-uncle Elliott Roosevelt, the younger brother of Theodore, did.
It was a funk WASPs knew as neurasthenia, the hell of lacking a purpose in life, and as a young man Alsop seemed likely to fall into it. At Groton, where he was a bookish, ungainly boy, he “thought seriously” of killing himself.
At Harvard, he drank. His club, the Porcellian, had a great copper still of gin, and Alsop was looking forward to “another three jolly years” of “drinking too much” at Harvard Law School when his family intervened and got him a job on the New York Herald Tribune.
Like other WASPs, Alsop found sanity in a civic humanism which, roughly, required you to pretend that you were a latter-day Athenian living in holy terror of mental sloth and dullness: you read poetry, collected art, mastered languages ancient or modern, wrote a book or two, knew your wines, and interested yourself in public affairs.
Dean Acheson, Learned Hand, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Edmund Wilson were among those formed in the school of WASP humanism; Henry Adams was its pontifex maximus.
Alsop was in many ways Adams’s successor as oracle of WASP neo-Athenianism in the capital: epicure and Cold Warrior, patriot and connoisseur of rare art traditions, master of the technique of the syndicated column—“a debased version,” he said, “of the trick of writing sonnets”—and composer of books notable for their sinuous prose, he worked hard to make use of his powers along Aristotle’s lines of excellence.
The very martinis themselves were consumed in ironic homage to the symposia or “drinkings-together” of Athens, the dinner parties described by Plato and Xenophon.
But like other fantasies, the WASP-humanist cure required a focal point in which the magic was concentrated. Adams had his H. H. Richardson house on Lafayette Square. The Garage Palladian theatricality of 2720 Dumbarton Avenue in Georgetown allowed the fantasist in Joe Alsop to find the sunlit places in his own soul.
Michael Knox Beran’s WASPs: The Splendors and Miseries of an American Aristocracy publishes next week from Pegasus