- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 6, 2001

Only the rare hostess can put together a flawless at-home dinner for 60 with no outside help other than the odd extra barman or waiter.

Count the indomitable Marie Ridder among them. Her gathering in McLean to celebrate the publication of a longtime friend´s book was perfection of the art last Thursday night.

That started with the weather, which cooperated by being bright and clear after days of rain. How delicious to stand outdoors on a promontory overlooking the Potomac, sipping champagne with a wonderfully cool breeze and a luscious garden in full bloom.

The out-of-doors setting was an integral factor, it turned out, because the book, "Notes From an Italian Garden," (William Morrow), tells the story of guest of honor — Joan Marble´s — 30-year struggle to transform a large parcel of rough Italian hillside near Canale, just north of Rome, into a tree- and flower-filled oasis.

Her humorous account of a gardening obsession was sure to be must reading for many in the crowd, especially those with their own green thumbs. The hostess, for example, whose roses, peonies, Canterbury bells and about-to-bloom orange and day lilies soon drew Ms. Marble´s approving glances.

"A great mix, but a little too big to describe it as a 'cottage´ garden," she said, searching for exactly the right term to describe a marvelously colorful and fragrant area just aft of the swimming pool. "Let´s just call it a 'villa´ garden."

Mutual friends turned up early to catch up with each other and discuss old times. One was feminist author Betty Friedan, who was one year behind Ms. Marble in the class of 1942 at Smith College, where both women´s experience as editors of the school newspaper helped prepare them for distinguished writing careers.

Mrs. Ridder and Ms. Marble met in 1946 when both were junior newspaper reporters covering the Washington scene, Mrs. Ridder for the old Philadelphia Bulletin and Ms. Marble at United Press International.

"We met when our ocelot coats got switched at an event," Mrs. Ridder recalled with a laugh, adding that fur coats were "what mothers gave their daughters to run around in" back then. The two colleagues soon became fast friends and ended up sharing a house in Georgetown.

After 45 minutes or so of cocktails and conversation, guests were called into the dining room to serve themselves from a buffet before sitting down at uncarded tables of 10 on the adjacent covered terrace. The Peking duck with fresh plum chutney sauce, prepared by Mrs. Ridder´s cook, Fernanda, was a gourmet hit, of course, along with the orzo and shrimp and mixed-greens salads. Not a morsel of the strawberry tart was left on anyone´s plate, which was hardly surprising; the hostess had picked all of the berries herself.

Next-door neighbor Sam Donaldson elicited a major chuckle in the mostly Old Guard crowd when his after-dinner praise of Mrs. Ridder as another "hostess with the mostest" drew predictable results.

"Let´s not talk about her," the grimacing widow of Knight-Ridder publisher Walter Ridder said, referring to the late Perle Mesta of "hang a lamb chop in the window" fame, whom she termed "a very vulgar woman" in a later aside.

The veteran ABC correspondent nimbly and humbly recouped with great aplomb in his toast, of course, which was very much appreciated by a notably mannered audience that does tend to notice such things.

Here´s who else was there: Najeeb and Libby Halaby, Eric and Mary Weinmann, Pat Oliphant, Robert and Louisa Duemling, Dr. Thomas and Jane Nigra, Finlay and Willee Lewis, Annie Groer, Helen Thomas, Philip and Cecelia Geyelin, Walter and Didi Cutler, Arthur and Joan Gardner, Arthur Hartman, Stanley Karnow and Townsend Hoopes.

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