C. David Heymann, a quintessential New Yorker, has written a book about some quintessential Washingtonians --- five women who through their marriages, friendships, and careers set the scene of mid-to-late twentieth-century D.C. The women are Katharine Graham, Evangeline Bruce, Lorraine Cooper, Pamela Harriman and Sally Quinn (the only one of the quintet still living), along with dashes of Jacqueline Kennedy and Elizabeth Taylor (presumably Heymann couldn't help himself, having written biographies of those two in the past).
Heymann is an entertainment writer (several of his books have been TV miniseries), and this book does not try to act as history --- instead, it's a fast-moving mix of interviews, hearsay, anecdotes, quotes and fact. New York Post gossip columnist Liz Smith said the book is "one juicy story after another." However juicy they may be, most of the stories in THE GEORGETOWN LADIES' SOCIAL CLUB have been told before: Phil Graham's mental illness and suicide, Joe and Susan Mary Alsops's sham marriage, Jackie Kennedy's distraught widowhood, Mary Pinchot Meyer's still-unsolved murder, Pamela Harriman's easy-to-bed, easy-to-wed persona, Elizabeth Taylor's gluttonous time in Virginia --- these have all been fodder for Smith and her ilk for decades.
What hasn't been told before is how these women were interconnected. One of the most fascinating things Heymann shows readers is just how small Georgetown is, and therefore just how amazing it is that all of these women had residences within minutes of each other. However, between all of the marriages, affairs, divorces, births, deaths, scandals, elections and parties, it is sometimes difficult to keep track of who knew whom when and why. A timeline would not have been a bad addition to the book, along with some kind of historical exegesis, especially considering that there are huge gaps of more than years between the English Pamela Digby's wartime wedding to Winston Churchill's son and Smith graduate Sally Quinn's seventies marriage to recently divorced Ben Bradlee.
Despite the sometimes breathless and rushed pace, Heymann's writing is entertaining and --- when it comes to the two women whose stories have rarely been told --- informative as well. Evangeline ("Vangie") Bruce, wife of Ambassador David Bruce, and Lorraine Cooper, wife of Kentucky Senator John Sherman Cooper, were very powerful women in their own right, although the general public did not hear their names with the same frequency as Graham's or Harriman's or Quinn's. After all, neither Bruce nor Cooper had a spouse who killed himself, a string of wealthy lovers, or a career as a sharp-nibbed reporter.
The work of these women was behind the scenes, as they carefully crafted dinner parties and cocktail hours with all of the cunning and cleverness of four-star generals. Both had high standards for themselves and others, going so far as to tell members of Congress where to find a good tailor and providing safe havens for presidential misbehavior. It was Ronald Reagan who coined the term "the Georgetown Ladies' Social Club," and no wonder --- the politician from Hollywood recognized others who were involved in acting.
If the world of the Georgetown Ladies no longer exists, then this book is an intriguing look at an underrated part of American history. If the world of the Georgetown Ladies still exists, albeit in another guise, then this book is an intriguing let-the-players-beware...
--- Reviewed by Bethanne Kelly Patrick