Pre-coronavirus, my counter-intuitive rule of life was this: Work is more fun than fun, and fun is more work than work. (Anyone who has shopped, cooked, set the table, and cleared up after hosting a dinner party for a dozen, unaided, will know of what I speak.) The long, long British lockdown that just ended tested this axiom to the limit.
Up until July 19, billed as “Freedom Day,” it’s been all work and no play for 16 months, but London is almost buzzing again with festivities held by the V&A, the Evening Standard, and The Spectator, among others.
It is with a very sore head, then, that I can report that the long-delayed social season (don’t forget racing—there’s Goodwood and Ascot) is in full swing under a sweltering sky. This despite Britain’s being in both mid-pandemic plus an added “pingdemic”—the name given to the fact that millions who have come in contact with an infected person are being pinged and ordered to self-isolate by the National Health Service (618,903 in one week alone).
There are food shortages and transportation shutdowns, and poor Lord (Andrew) Lloyd Webber had to close his and Emerald Fennell’s production of Cinderella after just two nights. But, hey, the rest of us could go to the ball, apart from the millions home alone under orders from the app, which included the prime minister, the chancellor of the Exchequer, and the secretary of state for health and social care.
London is almost buzzing again with festivities held by the V&A, the Evening Standard, and The Spectator, among others.
Yes, the three most important men in the country have all been “pinged”—told they had come into close contact with someone infected with the coronavirus and had to remain within their own four walls. Cheers!
Now, the U.S. may have just decided to keep its border closed to the U.K. (red-listing), which screws up holidays and travel, but the special-relationship show must go on. At Winfield House, the seat of the U.S. ambassador to the Court of St. James, the Independence Day party was held this year on July 21—better late than never, given the last one was in 2019.
Lobster rolls, marshmallows the size of a baby’s fist, and doughnuts and Negronis were on offer from quaint food carts on the rolling greensward, where Princess Diana once took her sons to see Marine One parked.
At dusk, the fireworks pressure-washed the sky with jets of gold. The rumored next U.S. ambassador–to–be, however, was nowhere to be found in the milling crowd of expats and dignitaries. She is not en poste yet. Nor was the chargé d’affaires. The placeholder, Yael Lempert, was unfortunately pinged—so she greeted guests via a laptop, equipped with Zoom, as they filed into the mansion.
Lobster rolls, marshmallows the size of a baby’s fist, and doughnuts and Negronis were on offer on the rolling greensward, where Princess Diana once took her sons to see Marine One parked.
According to several reports, the new ambassador is Jane Hartley, 71, a Biden campaign donor and former ambassador to France during the Obama administration. Hartley is married to an investment banker, and as The Washington Post reported, she was “a major fundraiser for President Barack Obama and a significant fundraising ‘bundler’ for Biden’s campaign, though not in the upper echelon.”
The first question on everyone’s lips is not “How experienced is she?” Her excellency’s credentials on that score are not in doubt.
No. It’s “But … is she beyond rich?” It takes a lot of dough to take on Winfield House and all that entails, you see. According to one guest (who pronounced the lobster rolls a bit dry as opposed to Cape Cod delicious), “I’ve heard it costs $70 million in expenses for an ambo to do a full term in style.… That’s why they intersperse, with career chargés and sponsorship.”
Money was no object to Trump’s guy, Robert Wood “Woody” Johnson IV (no relation), a billionaire thanks to earlier members of his family. Woody was great, and I say that largely because he let the prime minister and his siblings use the tennis court on the grounds of Winfield, which contains the second-largest private garden in London after Buckingham Palace.
Woody placed a Ping-Pong table in the parquet-laid main hall of the storied mansion and would invite visitors to play. “Wow! She’s competitive!” he said to his young son, who I think was called “Track”—or maybe it was “Field”—when I beat him.
Historic detour: Winfield House was bought from the newspaper magnate Lord Rothermere and rebuilt in 1936 by Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton, who lived there until the war was beginning and her marriage ending, in 1939. She later married Cary Grant and sold her London pile to the U.S. government for the use of the U.S. ambassador for the symbolic price of one dollar.
The golden age for me was the reign of Obama appointee Matthew Barzun, who came with three cute kids and cuter-than-a-June-bug Brooke, his all-American wife and an heiress to the Jack Daniel’s bourbon fortune.
They were cool, they were young, they were rich—and they knew how to have fun and pay it forward. I’ve been through my Winfield House iPhone pictures and videos and found Annie Lennox, Ed Sheeran, and the National as entertainment; hoedowns where everyone was given sliders, a bandanna, and a lesson in line dancing; receptions for John Kerry, for Independence Day, Christmas parties …
Everyone including me made it their mission to be their best friend the moment they arrived, dotting the lofty reception rooms of their new temporary residence with ironic ziggurats of Ferrero Rocher chocolates, topped by cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon. These installations were in tribute to the legendarily cheesy ad for the gold-foil-wrapped, Nutella-style crunchy orbs, where the chocolates are carried around a dressy diplomatic function by a butler on a silver salver and unwrapped to cries of “Monsieur, with zees Ferrero you are really spoiling us!”
I’m sure Jane Hartley will work hard and play hard like the best of her predecessors. We will show her a great British welcome. My secret hope is that she lets me use her tennis court, too.
Rachel Johnson is a journalist and author. Her books include The Mummy Diaries, Notting Hell, and Rake’s Progress: The Madcap True Tale of My Political Midlife Crisis