- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Farewell, ‘Phryne’

It’s been some time since we wrote about the sex scandal — in the shape of a shapely courtesan named “Phryne” — that rocked Washington in 1998.

And within the National Press Club, no less.

“Silver Owls,” as aging newspapermen of the club are affectionately called, had been feasting their eyes on Phryne for decades.

She has “hung in the club for over 50 years,” former club president Richard Sammon recalled several years ago. “It is a classically done nude painting.”

But then a politically correct breed of “journalist” arrived in the nation’s capital, and it wasn’t long before they declared Phryne “inappropriate” for viewing.

“In many ways, she has become the Confederate flag of the National Press Club,” Mr. Sammon explained. “The older members of the club … find that the painting is a connection to the past, an identity marker for the club through the years. The painting harks back to a time at the press club when the only woman in the club was a naked one hanging on a wall.” (Women were first allowed to join the NPC in 1971).

For 15 years, complaints about Phryne persisted, finally coming to boil in 1998 during a raucous meeting of the club’s board. One outraged Silver Owl was overheard conceding to another, “I guess we can’t have … that old hooker hanging around here.”

“You mean we’re going to have to take down the photo of Pamela Harriman, too?” replied the aging scribe.

In a 9-1 decision, the club’s board of governors voted to expel Phryne from the club, even though she’d been a member longer than anybody in the room.

“I pointed out that no matter how you flush it, it’s censorship,” said David K. Martin, the lone board member who voted to save the elegant lady. “No one agreed with me.”

Next came the question of disposition. First, the Silver Owls had their grand dame appraised, and were they ever surprised at her value — easily six figures on the auction block. The Brazilian ambassador let it be known that he was eager to get his hands on the stunning nude, with hopes of hanging her in his official Washington residence. Phryne, he knew, was painted by the famous Brazilian artist Antonio Parreiras.

Born in 1860, Parreiras studied at the Fine Arts Imperial Academy in Brazil, where he met German painter George Grimm. It was under Grimm’s guidance and influence that Parreiras shunned traditional artistry, creating what’s been described as a unique Brazilian-European style. He traveled throughout Europe, exhibiting his first female nude at the Salon in Paris in 1907.

But his main concentration — indeed, his major talent — was landscapes. And in 1929, he was awarded the gold medal at the Exposition International in Seville. Ultimately, Parreiras returned to his native Brazil, where he founded the country’s Plein Air School. Today, a museum of his works — the Museum Antonio Parreiras — is found in Niteroi, Brazil, near the Plein Air School.

One art expert writes that “because of his popularity in Brazil, it is getting more expensive and much more difficult to find [even] original postcards of his work.”

It came as no surprise, then, when the Silver Owls insisted that Phryne only be “on loan” to the Brazilians. Don Larrabee, a Silver Owl and club president in 1973, was fearful that once Phryne was out of sight, she might be taken from the country, never to return.

So instead of losing their lady, the Silver Owls found Phryne temporary sanctuary at the prestigious Metropolitan Club of Washington, where for the past five years members have provided her safe haven, full insurance and numerous toasts.

Now, Mr. Larrabee, a retired newspaperman from Maine, tells Inside the Beltway that the Silver Owls recently met and agreed the time has come to, dare we say, shop Phryne around — that is, present her to the highest bidder.

Alla Rogers, a gallery owner in Georgetown whose late husband, Warren Rogers, was a newspaperman and past president of the press club, volunteered to contact various auction houses — “to see what we might get for this painting,” Mr. Larrabee explains.

“We have also decided that we would give a large sum of the proceeds to create an archive at the press club. It desperately needs one. There’s nothing there that resembles a real archive,” he says. “Despite the fact that they rejected our painting, we’ll give it back to them.”

As for having to say goodbye to Phryne after such a long courtship?

“She’s much admired,” Mr. Larrabee says. “I feel we can’t do much about it anymore. It would be wonderful to find an owner for her right here in Washington.”

Come to think of it, he adds: “There’s worse nudes in a lot of big art galleries.”

John McCaslin, whose column is nationally syndicated, can be reached at 202/636-3284 or jmccaslin@washingtontimes.com.

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