- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 19, 2002

"The worst social crime in Washington?" NBC's Andrea Mitchell paused thoughtfully before answering.

"Reporting on something you heard at a dinner party." The ever-polite newswoman "always" calls the next day to request permission to use any information she might have picked up at her host's table.

Social crimes take many forms, and presumably, the forms in Washington are different from those in New York. Just ask author Jane Stanton Hitchcock, who lives in both places and whose most recent book, "Social Crimes," had its Washington premiere Monday at Cafe Milano with A-list guests only too willing to interpret the above question in myriad ways.

"Asking [Saudi Arabian Ambassador] Prince Bandar or any other diplomat how much they pay their servants," offered one of the supersocials present.

"Falling asleep at any do-good or think-tank dinner, especially if you snore," impishly suggested writer and former "Ear" columnist Diana McLellan. A social grace, she noted, is "to resist mention of a previous administration when you are at a political event given by a member of the current administration." And "never comment on the morals of your host if you have accepted their invitation. Go with the flow."

"Turning down an invitation to the White House, especially one for a state dinner," philanthropist Bill Paley said knowingly.

"Nothing's too bad, short of serial killing," Deeda Blair, one of five hosts at the event, said with a straight face. The other hosts included Ms. Hitchcock's husband, international affairs columnist Jim Hoagland, who deferred to his wife on the matter.

In a conversation beforehand, Ms. Hitchcock played a modest hand, saying that before she moved to Washington five years ago, "I didn't know the name of the secretary of state, and now I can actually name all the members of the Supreme Court."

New Yorkers, she noted, can be "like 16th-century Paduans who thought they were at the center of the universe."

If not knowing names of importance locally is a minor crime, slighting them in any way at a dinner party might be worse. Nevertheless, Justice Stephen G. Breyer was cool in his response, saying the worst crime would be "not to come to this party."

"Not to buy a book at a book party," opted Georgetown's Lucy Moorhead, book in hand and stylish in a straw hat and dark glasses.

"Taking too long to answer an invitation," said Maria-Ignez Barbosa, the wife of Brazil's ambassador, adding that "you have to understand the [local] codes. Being invited for a 6:30 event, you assume it is a reception, and then it turns out to be dinner, and you have not dressed properly."

Style and clothes have very little importance in the social dance here, agreed Ms. Hitchcock, who noted how "people in New York care much more how you look than here. Here it is about what people do. In some cases, too much style can work against you to be overly concerned with furs, jewels, gas masks, whatever."

(Suffice it to say that the Manhattan socialite heroine in her novel goes through many changes as she loses her money and social standing while plotting revenge on a rival with a scheme based on a famous necklace that once belonged to Marie Antoinette.)

"Not to show up when you have accepted an invitation," said Liz Stevens, one of the "quiet" Washington hostesses praised by Ms. Hitchcock, who goes against the tide in insisting that such women still hold sway.

"Switching place cards at the table," said Kate Lehrer, another co-host, along with Ann Jordan, who eased off any judgment on party behavior out of sympathy with what she called "people's difficult schedules."

"There is a certain etiquette expected with cell phones," said Ann Hand of Power perfume fame. "You would turn off the phones no matter the occasion," Mrs. Hand noted, adding that if people are major VIPs, they have assistants at the door to inform them if a call is important.

Taking advantage of confidential information revealed at a dinner party "after several bottles of red wine" is anathema and a "political social crime" to tricity entrepreneur Gale Hayman. "Here, classified information is a serious matter."

Ditto, said co-host Polly Kraft, who weighed in on indiscreet seating at social events not knowing who are sworn enemies or who might have had serious disagreements in the past. (Paul Nitze and the late Paul Warnke were two names that came up during the course of the evening.)

"When you are introduced to someone at a party and you then give a party for them yourself, you must not neglect to invite the person who made the introduction," offered Selwa S. "Lucky" Roosevelt, a former chief of protocol who never, ever neglects the rules.

Of the 245 guests invited to Monday's party, 61 failed to RSVP the ultimate sin, according to Eden Rafshoon. On this occasion, an embarrassing contretemps was averted by hosts who inadvertently had published a wrong response number on the original invitation. It had turned out to be the answering machine of a suburban Maryland dentist. Ever gracious and schooled from childhood in the art of making friends, Ms. Hitchcock invited him to her party.

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