Vanity Fair has posted Evgenia Peretz’ high-gloss profile of Sally Quinn, Queen of the DC Media Village:
… Still quite the looker at 68, pulled together in gray wool pants and a lavender cardigan, Sally is ensconced in one of the many sitting areas of her stately Georgetown town house as she sets the record straight. First, she would like to clarify that she wasn’t canned; the “Party” column had been intended only as a holiday-season offshoot of her On Faith Web site, and she’d started phasing it out anyway. Second, she feels no need to apologize. After the firestorm, she entered the concrete meditation labyrinth her husband had built for her on their country estate in St. Mary’s County, Maryland, to think. When she came out the other side, she was clear. “I did exactly the right thing,” she says. The story of the “dueling” weddings had been out there, she explains, prompting all kinds of nasty online comments about her son and his bride-to-be. “I wrote that piece to protect them… If somebody goes after my kids, look out.”
Sally’s ascent to social arbiter in the nation’s capital was done with similar determination—and flair. The daughter of a three-star general, William Quinn, and a quintessential southern belle, Bette, Sally came to the Post in 1969 to report on parties for the Style section. In her employment interview, Bradlee asked the 28-year-old if she could show him something she’d written. “Mr. Bradlee,” she told him, “I’ve never written anything. Not a word.” When he told his colleague editorial-page editor Phil Geyelin about this, Geyelin replied, “Nobody’s perfect.” Sally, who graduated at the bottom of her class at Smith, may not have written a word, but she had wit and irreverence and an obsession with who was up, who was down—something she picked up while accompanying her father at social functions and in her previous Washington jobs, including social secretary for the Algerian ambassador. “It was intoxicating to be around real power,” she would later write. “To have senators pay attention to you, sit across from famous administration types at little Georgetown restaurants, be invited by ambassadors to visit their countries.”
Though it was the lowest job on the Post’s totem pole, Sally made party coverage come alive. She had an eye for the mortifying moment, as when a congressman’s wife berated the help because the flambé wasn’t in flames, and an ear for self-immolating quotes, a talent she quickly brought to profiles of Washington personalities big and small… But along the way to stardom she humiliated a number of subjects—many of whom were harmless, barely public figures… the running theme being: Everyone in town thinks so-and-so is a tacky social climber. Vicki Bagley, who was the subject of one such profile when she was married to R. J. Reynolds tobacco heir Smith Bagley and working as a fund-raiser for Jimmy Carter, recalls turning Sally down for an interview and then getting phone-stalked by her for weeks. “She was getting more and more threatening,” says Bagley, who recalls hearing that Sally was looking into the lives of her children. “She called us all social climbers. Well, a bigger social climber will have never been…. Sally was the very person she was writing about…. We were all doing things. We were all working. Sally wanted what we had, and she wanted to destroy us because we had it.”
From their enormous perch on N Street, Ben and Sally became the Bogart and Bacall of Washington. “They were our movie stars,” says David Ignatius. “I remember when [my wife] Eve and I were first invited to go to their New Year’s Eve party, it was like we’d won the lottery.” Each New Year’s Eve, the limos would snail up N Street, and the guest list might include Ted Kennedy, Kay Graham, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Colin Powell, Tom Brokaw, Mike Nichols and Diane Sawyer, Henry Kissinger, Barbara Walters, Nora Ephron. “The New Year’s list was the ‘Honours List’ of Washington,” says Matthews. “They’re the reason Washington glows.”
Maintaining the Establishment—and her role at the top of it—wasn’t easy work. First Families came and went in the White House, and often didn’t realize, in Sally’s view, how Washington worked, a phenomenon she griped about in many of her articles during those years. “You come in from another community and you don’t know anything about the people,” she says, explaining why the Establishment is so critical to governance. “So you don’t know what perspectives they bring to something and what the relationships are and … who’s feuding and why…. And all of that is extremely important information for people in the White House to know.”
On the surface, the article is very much the standard VF puff piece, but of course Quinn isn’t the only society journalist with “an eye for the mortifying moment… and an ear for self-immolating quotes.” All the encomiums, the wealth of detail and the details of wealth, end up brutally summarizing the Brilliant Career of a sad, silly Pamela Harriman wanna-be, a woman whose hard-earned achievements amount to nothing better than a third-hand husband, a second-hand spotlight in proximity to the genuinely powerful and accomplished, pathetically meticulous copies of family treasures and society landmarks. And, of course, the undisputed “queenship” of the District of Columbia… a social position roughly analogous to being the theatrical queen of Darien or the leading literary light of West Palm Beach. Edith Wharton wrote tragedies about similar women, but Sally Quinn seems to be recapitulating those novels as a farce.