Late Night Open Thread: Queen of Not-A-Lot

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.

70 replies
  1. 1

    And there were actual journalists being laid off while this woman kept her job?

    ETA: and we could get rid of all the “society journalists” and i don’t think anyone would honestly notice.

  2. 2
    That's Master of Accountancy to You, Pal (JMN) says:

    Hey, I’ve got . . . not quite a job, but at least something to do. One of my professors has asked me to help him sort through some guy’s week long (and it would be a long week: 8am – 7pm non-stop for five days) course on leadership. By “some guy” I mean Michael Jensen, who a few of you may know as one of the gurus of the Efficient Markets Hypothesis and the Chicago/Rochester school of economic analysis. In other words, Randian.

    To be moderately fair to him, he seems to be trying to make up for past sins. Unfortunately, his method of analyzing concepts like “integrity” and “morality” seem to have the same touching faith in perfect markets, particularly perfect information. The whole thing is also what you get when you let a Chicago economist read Martin Heidegger: lots of incomprehensible sentences about ontology that flow perfectly logically from crappy assumptions.

    I’m on board because I think a lot of the underlying goals are very important. I’m not at all sure that they add up to “leadership,” but I think that there’s the core of some important ethical behavior there. I want to give a shot at trying to be able to teach it. And, hell, it would probably be easier to sell to executives if it’s called leadership than if we call it what I think it really is.

    Besides, if we ever do manage to sell it, then it will have been a job.

  3. 3
    TrishB says:

    Urgh, Diabetic dog is at the emergency vet clinic. That is one more month’s severance down the drain. Well, not down the drain, since Pepper is stable now, but if she’d just had the courtesy to start her whole faux hypoglycemia just one hour earlier, she’d be at her regular vet now and I’d be a helluva lot less poor.

  4. 4
    Brandon says:

    Good lord, a privileged know-nothing achieves success in Washington through belittling other people. No wonder “the Establishment” was so smitten with W. They are quite literally cut from the same cloth.

  5. 5

    @That’s Master of Accountancy to You, Pal (JMN):

    it would probably be easier to sell to executives if it’s called leadership than if we call it what I think it really is.

    horseshit? seriously, glad you’ve got something to do. hope the kitteh is doing well.
    @TrishB: best of wishes as well.

  6. 6
    That's Master of Accountancy to You, Pal (JMN) says:

    @arguingwithsignposts: Hey, now. I plan to clean it up a lot before going forward with it. My ethics won’t allow me to collect money for it until it is no more than kind of horseshit.

  7. 7

    @That’s Master of Accountancy to You, Pal (JMN): just remember to verbalize some nouns, because otherwise, businesspeople won’t go for it. Also, i recommend some Dilbert. LOL.

  8. 8
    Lev says:

    I recently learned that Pamela Harriman was Winston Churchill’s daughter.

  9. 9
    Kris says:

    Sally Quinn is a sociopath.

  10. 10
    Yutsano says:

    Just out of curiosity, who is this Sally Quinn person? Is this the nasty piece of work who felt that her family’s dirty laundry needed to be aired in public and got shitcanned for it?

  11. 11

    F. Scott Fitzgerald would spooge in his grave if he could know that such a sad woman as Quinn not only existed, but was publically celebrated.

  12. 12

    Sally is ensconced in one of the many sitting areas of her stately Georgetown town house as she sets the record straight.

    St. Nick on a stick, I’m glad she’s not having to cut down on her “sitting areas.”

    Unless that means her fat ass.

  13. 13
    That's Master of Accountancy to You, Pal (JMN) says:

    @arguingwithsignposts: I lost my taste for Dilbert a long time ago. Aside from the fact that Scott Adams turns out to be the pointy haired boss, the relentless cruelty and mean-spiritedness of the strip eventually got to me.

  14. 14
    Sly says:

    I’ve always argued that DC was like any other city: It has its own local elite who dictate who gets what. In this regard, Sally Quinn (and Border/Ignatius/Hiatt/etc) is little more than that gossipy mom who shows up at every school board meeting and thinks she runs the place. She probably does, but only because the other parents, the school board, and the superintendent kiss her ass.

    The difference, and the problem, is that DC creates national policy, and so its local social hierarchies will dictate how that policy is created. And if any of you ever lived in DC (I had lived there for about five years), you’ll know that it is quite stratified. Not merely economically, but culturally and geographically as well.

    More so than NYC, I’d argue. And that’s saying something.

  15. 15
    Bill E Pilgrim says:

    Still quite the looker at 68, pulled together in gray wool pants and a lavender cardigan,

    “Pulled together”? What a strange thing to write. It makes it sound like they keep her stored in jars.

  16. 16
    Splitting Image says:

    The unspoken joke, of course, is that the interview appears in a magazine called “Vanity Fair”.

    One supposes that Ms Quinn knows where the phrase comes from.

  17. 17
    TuiMel says:


  18. 18
    MattR says:

    from a comment to a TPM article about the Alabama Treasurer GOP Primary between George Wallace and Young Boozer:

    In 2008, the Democrats ran Barack Obama, son of Barack Obama, and Joseph Biden, son of Joseph Biden. The Republicans ran John McCain, son of John McCain and grandson of John McCain, and Sarah Palin nee Heath, daughter of Sarah Heath.
    They were running to succeed George Bush, son of George Bush, and Richard Cheney, son of Richard Cheney. Those two had succeeded William Clinton ne Blythe, son of William Blythe and grandson of William Blythe, and Albert Gore, son of Albert Gore.

  19. 19
    PeakVT says:

    Vanity Fair has posted Evgenia Peretz’ …

    Oh, good, another generation of Peretzs wreaking havoc on the media landscape.

  20. 20
    fucen tarmal says:

    why am i imagining sarah palin as i was reading about sally quinn…palin is the familiar low rent version….

    also too…how do you take anyone seriously who has their own concrete meditation labyrinth.

  21. 21
    Softail says:

    Very well put… but somebody else actually reads Edith Wharton novels?

  22. 22

    @Yutsano: Yes. And I am about to self-immolate after reading this excerpt. Fuck ethics, man. I’m going to write something that will be a million-dollar best seller (which means rightwing, of course). I’m open to ideas.

  23. 23
    andy says:

    how do you take anyone seriously who has their own concrete meditation labyrinth.

    Yeah, you kind of expect Dutch Angles and uniformed henchmen like in the old Batman teevee show…

  24. 24
    daryljfontaine says:

    @asiangrrlMN: Call it No True Conservative, and catalog the vast array of bloggers, pundits, et al., who have parted ways with the Right over the years. Make it a (movement)self-justifying and myopic narrative of how these traitors to the cause are even worse than the librul sockalist Left. Gives you an excuse to write about our illustrious host, and to use the language of the Right to lay out the ultimate in fallacious arguments that they would still use to justify everything they say or do without recognizing the gaping sinkholes in their logic.


  25. 25

    @daryljfontaine: Ooooh! I like it. I will add how we have to be careful of China taking over the US as in the new Red Dawn (being Asian, that will be my shtick), and, of course, I will have to pare out the humor and the big words from my writing so as to not give the game away. A big bonus that it’ll give me a chance to rag on Cole!

  26. 26


    nevermind amongst all that nomenclature nepotism, who came from the upper class and who took their name from fucking goat herders, sons of immigrants, and otherwise regular Americans? I dislike palin as much as the next person here, but is the fact that her name is also her mother’s something to be held against her? Or obama’s? Or Biden’s? My middle name is my father’s first name. Am I a product of plutocratic nepotism?

    The tpm commenter is really reaching here.

  27. 27

    @freelancer (itouch): Because, shut up, that’s why!

  28. 28

    @TrishB: But she’s ok, right? That’s the important thing!

  29. 29
    Anya says:

    @Lev: you mean daughter-in-law. She was married to his son.

  30. 30
    Bill E Pilgrim says:

    Hey they’ve got James Cameron in consulting to help stop the leak. He’s an “expert in underwater filming”, which is probably true. (The Abyss is the only movie by him I actually liked).

    They better watch out though, anyone who’s worked in Hollywood could tell them, you’ll end up with one view of the leak fixed, from one angle, and the rest still gushing out just out of camera range.

    “Well, actually fixing the leak didn’t look like fixing the leak, so we just left it gushing and fixed it with CGI and post-processing instead”.

  31. 31
    Warren Terra says:

    The tendency of the American elite, meritocratic (BHO) and not (GWB), to be named after living relatives shows the power structure’s antisemitism: (Ashkenazi) Jewish tradition forbids it.

  32. 32
    Warren Terra says:

    @ Freelancer
    Snark aside and without bothering to read the comment, I assumed it was noting an interesting coincidence, or suggesting an Eudipal ambition to match or exceed the name they’ve inherited.

  33. 33
  34. 34
    Phyllis says:

    As my daddy would say, “She* doesn’t know what she doesn’t know.”

    *SQ, but it works for SP as well.

  35. 35

    She’s as awful as advertised.

  36. 36
    WereBear says:

    Nice article extraction. Sally loves power, and in 1969, a perky blonde from the bottom of her class at Smith had only a few venues to work in.

    It is the easiest thing in the world to make the insecure fell like bits of mud tracked into the foyer. Most of the time, Sally was shooting fish in a dishpan.

  37. 37
    jeffreyw says:

    Can’t believe I read that whole cement post. Up too fucking early. Though I will admit to skipping over some of the comments. More coffee, please.

  38. 38
    dmsilev says:

    What the Hell is a a ‘concrete meditation labyrinth’ anyway? Is that something built by people with a lot of money but not enough taste to go for a hedge maze instead? Perhaps it’s the strangest euphemism ever for some convoluted highway interchange?


  39. 39
    Cheryl from Maryland says:

    In 1968, WaPo hired a dumb but leggy young thing who had never written a thing to be a journalist. Is this the year the rot started to give us the fish wrap we have today?

  40. 40


    ….Perhaps it’s the strangest euphemism ever for some convoluted highway interchange?

    It’s inside the beltway for “Los Angeles”. People who don’t pay enough in taxes fly out for brunch on the beach.

  41. 41
    Starfish says:

    @Bill E Pilgrim: I thought it implied plastic surgery.

  42. 42
    WereBear says:

    @That’s Master of Accountancy to You, Pal (JMN): It was terribly sad the way it all turned out. I still have the early books, when it was funneh.

    For “Phil, the Prince of Insufficient Light” alone he achieved.

  43. 43
    IndieTarheel says:

    I don’t know which is sadder: the fact that this woman was foisted upon the reading public, or that all these years later it is being treated as something to celebrate?

  44. 44
    Comrade Javamanphil says:

    @fucen tarmal:

    also too…how do you take anyone seriously who has their own concrete meditation labyrinth.

    I was shocked to learn that she emerged from the other side with the clear conviction that she had done no wrong. Maybe the CEO of BP should visit the CML (concrete meditation labyrinth) and we can save the taxpayer dollars of an investigation.

  45. 45
    PurpleGirl says:

    @Lev: No, Pamela Harriman was Winston Churchill’s daughter-in-law. She was married to Randolph Churchill, son of the great man. She was later married to W. Averell Harriman, diplomat and governor of NY.

  46. 46
    tomvox1 says:

    Awesome link and analysis, Anne. I particularly like…

    Sally, who graduated at the bottom of her class at Smith…

    …as well as David Ignatius’s embarrassing “I’m in with the kewl kids!” moment.

    And of course Sally is more permanent than presidents and therefore more significant. Presidents come and go but Sally will be “queen” of the Beltway forever more…so watch your ass, outsiders. Life really is like high school and maybe more so at the highest levels…

  47. 47
    SiubhanDuinne says:

    @PurpleGirl #45:

    And in between Churchill and Harriman, she was married to Broadway-Hollywood producer Leland Hayward. She also had affaires with some really powerful men, including Edward R. Murrow and the British-Canadian press baron Lord Beaverbrook, inter alia. Pamela Harriman was an interesting, smart, flawed woman: a substantial meal to Quinn’s rancid soufflé.

  48. 48
    Apsaras says:

    Breaking: Must credit Vanity Fair.

    Sally Quinn is the Minotaur!

  49. 49
    Gemina13 says:

    Some people find their own level, and others sow the seeds of their own downfall. Sally Quinn and Ben Bradlee did both, respectively, when they got married in 1978.

  50. 50
    Citizen_X says:

    “I’ve never written anything. Not a word”…Sally, who graduated at the bottom of her class at Smith, may not have written a word, but she had…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

    Jesus. Sounds like my description of a most perfect asshole, female variety; someone whom I would avoid at all costs. And her influence actually affects the country (see: Clinton years), because she’s “the reason Washington glows?” Dog help us.

  51. 51
    Kay Shawn says:

    I’m saving that Quinn profile for when I need to induce vomiting. Better than syrup of ipecac!

  52. 52
    MattR says:

    @freelancer (itouch): The TPM commenter tried to make some point out of it, but I just thought it was a pretty interesting coincidence that I had never noticed before.

  53. 53
    Foxhunter says:

    Everytime I see that woman’s name in print or face on the teebee (she was on Hardball with spittle-boy last week, and he fawned all over her), I seethe. That began when I read this piece by Quinn.

    She is a class A snotball, but look at the roster of folks piling on throughout the article. The usual suspects in the village. Read through and David Gergen even refers to the Beltway enclave as ‘the village’.

    Disgusting loser. I would guess that Nooners is filled with jealous envy. I’ve never heard of her hosting any celeb-filled New Year partays.


  54. 54
    Quaker in a Basement says:

    Quinn is not the problem. The problem is the lifeforms posing as journalists who jostle one another for a place at her table.

  55. 55
    Mumphrey says:

    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.

    What the fuck? What kind of asshole has her own “concrete meditation labyrinth”?

  56. 56
    Tonybrown74 says:

    Am I the only one who views this article (or at least this snippet) as a bitchy take-down?

  57. 57
    tesslibrarian says:

    @Softail: I do. I started reading her after my English 102 instructor assigned me Roman Fever because she thought I’d like the story. It was a far better introduction to Wharton than Ethan Fromme, which is one of those books that makes the world seem miserable and awful.

    Not that House of Mirth is cheery or upbeat, but you at least learn that going along with society can break your heart and your life, and it’s your choice to make. (Well, that’s what I got out of it at 19 or 20.)

    (Edit: Links made to text of Mirth and Fever, and neither went through. FYWP.)

  58. 58
    rikyrah says:

    I love the title of this post; you are on point about Quinn, who I hope doesn’t see the inside of THIS White House, for another 7 years.

  59. 59
    Al says:

    And her value as a human being is what? Such a meaningless life, such a sad person.

  60. 60

    “It was intoxicating to be around real power…”

    Eight words that perfectly describe the pathology of government. The saddest thing about this story is that Sally Quinn is Everyman; we are almost all of us afflicted with this disease to some extent. The only defense is, as Screwtape’s advice to his nephew implies, is a taste for the unfashionable:

    “You should always try to make the patient abandon the people or food or books he really likes in favour of the “best” people, the “right” food, the “important” books. I have known a human defended from strong temptations to social ambition by a still stronger taste for tripe and onions.”

  61. 61
    phoebes-in-santa fe says:

    @Lev: Actually, not. She was Churchill’s daughter-in-law. She was married and divorced from Churchill’s only son, Randolph Churchill.

    She was from an extremely interesting family – the Digby’s. Her I-don’t-know-how-many-great aunt was Lady Jane Digby. Here’s her Wiki entry.

    Also, if interested, try to find the book, “Passion’s Child”, the biography of Jane Digby. Fascinating woman…
    Makes Pam Harriman look like a nun.

  62. 62
    Alex S. says:

    A mean piece on a mean person. Although I do have to say that her treatment of her son is her one redeeming quality, even though she regards the fact that her son won’t go to an Ivy League University as the saddest thing about his situation. It seems she just can’t help herself.

  63. 63
    TuiMel says:

    I have not read it, but the excerpts accomplish a bitchy take down – intended or not. But, Quinn has long been a bitch in need of a good taking down in my eyes. The imagined visual of her anguishing through her “CML” is too just too delicious.

  64. 64
    FlipYrWhig says:

    The concrete meditation labyrinth sounds like a contractor-built version of that hollow tree Yoda makes Luke Skywalker walk through. Sally Quinn saw her own face — ahem — in a Darth Vader helmet. And then she knew everything would be all right.

  65. 65
    Howlin Wolfe says:

    @Warren Terra: “Eudipal”? oh, a combination of Euclid and Oedipus! It’ all Greek to me!

  66. 66
    JoyousMN says:

    @Comrade Javamanphil: hmmm, I’m wondering if we don’t have a new phrase…concrete meditation labyrinth (CML for short) as a way to describe the process someone or some corporation goes through when they rehabilitate their reputation after doing something very wrong.

    What do you think?

  67. 67
    John Bird says:

    What a living tool. What an un-American individual, whose story of familial privilege and spoiled incompetence would be perfectly at home in the depths of the Dark Ages of Europe.

  68. 68
    Nellcote says:

    Still quite the looker at 68, pulled together in gray wool pants and a lavender cardigan, Sally is ensconced

    What color were her kneepads when she met Bradlee?

  69. 69
    Tonybrown74 says:


    I just started reading it for shits and giggles, and it really shows how much of a cesspool the D.C. social circuit is. Everyone there is literally fucking each other. I’m amazed that there isn’t word of STDs being transmitted amongst the “elite” there.

    The article itself doesn’t come off flattering at all. They really make her sound ditsy (not as if she doesn’t do that herself).

  70. 70
    MaryRC says:

    @phoebes-in-santa fe:

    But she (Harriman) kept the Churchill name for the rest of her life. Randolph Churchill, Winston’s son, was her first husband but she called herself Pamela Churchill Harriman after her third marriage as though Churchill were her maiden name.

    She liked to think of herself as more of a Churchill than Winston’s own daughter. She liked to sniff that her son had the name Churchill but Winston’s daughter’s children didn’t. They weren’t real Churchills.

    So she would have been pleased to know that someone mistook her for Winston’s daughter. It’s the impression she tried to give.

    She sounds like she was a nasty piece of work, as my gran would say. Her second and third husband’s children loathed her, perhaps not surprisingly since their parents’ marriages ended because of her, but her own son disliked her as well.

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