- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 21, 2002

Throughout much of the first half of the 20th century, high society in the nation's capital was synonymous with Mrs. Truxtun Beale, who hosted exclusive parties attended by foreign dignitaries and powerful political figures, including then-Vice President Richard Nixon, Sen. J. William Fulbright, Clare Boothe Luce, Gen. Omar N. Bradley and Gen. George C. Marshall.
"Marie Beale entertained on a level most private residents can't do anymore," says Sarah Tapper, curator at Decatur House on Lafayette Square, where the "formidable" grande dame once held court.
The Federal-era house, which has been turned into a museum mostly dedicated to its first resident, Adm. Stephen Decatur, the War of 1812 naval hero, will feature an exhibit titled "Marie Beale: Antiquarian, Ambassadress and Adventuress," starting Wednesday.
Mrs. Beale threw as many as four dinner parties a week, but the event for which she was most famed was her annual white-tie-and-decorations extravaganza for the diplomatic corps.
"The diplomats would have an evening reception at the White House, and then they would cross over the square to Decatur House," says Betty Beale, a distant relative and reporter who covered the social and political scene in Washington from the late 1930s to the mid-1980s.
Marie Beale's skills as a hostess were so widely known that she was featured on the cover of Life magazine in 1938 as Washington's "first lady of parties," Ms. Tapper says.
She was also known as one of the "Three Mrs. B's," a triumvirate of wealthy, old guard "power hostesses" that included Mrs. Robert Wood Bliss, the chatelaine of the city's grandest estate, Dumbarton Oaks, and the wife of a prominent diplomat; and Mrs. Robert Low Bacon, the very Republican widow of a patrician New York congressman.
Marie Beale was certainly "formidable," but could often be imperious, as well.
One Decatur House legend has it that she firmly reproached a young Sen. John F. Kennedy in front of all her other guests for having the temerity to arrive late to one of her seated dinners.
Those who remember her note that she also wasn't above a bit of social climbing herself, especially in the case of royal or aristocratic personages she wanted to meet.
Betty Beale tells the story of a Spanish grandee, the Marques de Zahara, who once telephoned her after receiving an invitation to a Decatur House event. He didn't know who the hostess was and declined the invitation.
Later, he inquired of the reporter, "Who is Mrs. Buxom Veal?"
Miss Beale promptly put the story in her column, causing a "ripple of pleasure across town." As she noted in her 1993 autobiography, "Power at Play: A Memoir of Parties, Politicians and the Presidents in My Bedroom," Marie Beale was "not known for warmheartedness."
The exhibit, however, also shows the inveterate hostess in a different light. A relentless traveler and avid student of history, Mrs. Beale was dedicated to the preservation of Decatur House, and before her death in 1956, she had started restoring much of it to its original state.
When she realized it probably would be torn down after her death and replaced with a modern government office building, she went directly to then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
"She talked to FDR about it, and he supported her efforts to save the house," Ms. Tapper says.
Mrs. Beale realized her wish by bequeathing the house and an endowment for its upkeep to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
"She seemed very pleased that her house was going to be given to the National Trust once she died," says Richard Howland, who served as the trust's president from 1956 to 1960. Mr. Howland was a guest in Mrs. Beale's house in 1956, a few months before she died.
"She was very cordial, and I guess she served some tea," Mr. Howland recalls.
Tea was far from all that Mrs. Beale served her guests. Old party-planning binders, which will be on display in the exhibit, show menus, guest lists, seating charts, names of servants and their duties for the evening, and a budget for the food and wine.
At one reception, which started at 10:30 p.m. on April 4, 1951, she served 216 guests Stratford Virginia ham at $1.25 a pound. The dinner also included 22 quarts of J. Perrier Champagne for a total of $110 and nine bottles of Glen Garry Scotch for $49.
When she wasn't entertaining, Mrs. Beale traveled.
"She made an annual trip to Europe, often without her husband, who was much older," Ms. Tapper says. (Truxtun Beale was a career diplomat who served as minister to Persia and Greece. He married Marie, his second wife, in 1903, when he was 47 and she was in her early 20s. He died in the early 1930s.)
Mrs. Beale loved Italy, and in particular Venice, which she visited at least once a year and considered a second home.
"She even received an honorary citizenship of Venice," Ms. Tapper notes.
The exhibit will feature a picture of Mrs. Beale in a gondola a rarity inasmuch as she rarely allowed her photograph to be taken.
Photos of mountains, rivers and ruins, however, were fine. She took plenty of them during her travels, and wrote down her observations from the Middle East as well as South America.
Later, she sat down and turned her experiences into two books: "The Modern Magic Carpet: Air-Jaunting over the Ancient East," and "Flight Into America's Past: Inca Peaks and Maya Jungles." The latter title received very favorable notice (a "vividly interesting" read) in the New York Times on Jan. 22, 1933.
The exhibit is displayed in a newly renovated 1,200-square-foot portion of Decatur House, in which air conditioning was installed this summer. It is part of a $4 million renovation that is expected to be completed in 2004.
Decatur House will be open throughout the renovations and will continue featuring exhibits in the new space.
After the Marie Beale exhibit will be "Freedom: A History of US," which starts on Feb. 4. After that the museum will feature "Reinventing the American House: The Domestic Architecture of Benjamin Henry Latrobe," the architect behind the Decatur House. That exhibit opens April 10.
When the renovations are completed, Decatur House will look much as it did in Stephen Decatur's day. Not only will the rooms be returned to their original shape and color, all the furniture will be in the Federal style. In the past, part of the house was devoted to Decatur's era, while other rooms were in keeping with the Beales' more Victorian lifestyle.
"People would get very confused," says Carla Jones, a spokeswoman and former guide at the museum. "They would ask, 'So the Decaturs lived on the first floor and the Beales lived on the second floor?' After the renovations we won't have that problem."

WHAT: "Marie Beal|e: Antiquarian, Ambassadress and Adventuress."
WHERE: The Decatur House, 748 Jackson Place NW
Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, noon to 4 p.m., Sept. 25, 2002 through Jan. 19, 2003

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide