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All Tomorrow’s Parties: Meg Greenfield and the Social World of Late 20th-Century Washington

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“And what costume shall the poor girl wear
To all tomorrow’s parties
For Thursday’s child is Sunday’s clown
For whom none will go mourning”

    ~ “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” The Velvet Underground

In the documentary “The Velvet Underground” (2021), director Todd Haynes eschews any attempt at a comprehensive and all-encompassing narrative about the band, choosing instead, in the words of Pitchfork’s Quin Moreland, “to create a moving visual tribute to New York’s experimental art scene of the 1960s.” The group and its “troubled coolness” have long inspired generations of musicians and artists. Its vision of the world rejected the hippie counterculture and embraced a leaner, less sentimental punk ethos which The Velvet Underground helped to birth. “This ‘love peace’ crap, we hated that, get real,” drummer Moe Tucker observes in the film, “you cannot change minds by handing a flower to some bozo who wants to shoot ya.”

Andy Warhol (left) and Tennessee Williams (right) talking on the S.S. France, James Kavallines, 1967, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Though hardly avant-garde, Mary Ellen “Meg” Greenfield (1930-1999) proved just as much a pioneer in her field as an editor and writer at the Washington Post and Newsweek, as the band was in its sphere; her milieu not the gritty lofts of downtown New York, but the comfortable dinner parties and frantic newsrooms of the nation’s capital.

Greenfield came to the Washington Post a few years before The Velvet Underground rose to prominence. She arrived in the capital from New York, in 1961, “[w]ithout the dimmest idea of what was coming,” and landed at the Post in 1968, where she became a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer (1978) and groundbreaking editor, while also flourishing in the Washington social scene of the Nixon and Reagan eras, which was a symbolic and literal rebuke of the counterculture.[1]

If The Velvet Underground embodied a place and moment in time, an Andy Warhol Factory-tinged experimental artistic scene in New York City, the correspondence in the Meg Greenfield Papers in the Manuscript Division at the Library of Congress captures the social and cultural zeitgeist of the nation’s political establishment spanning the administrations from Richard Nixon to Bill Clinton. When juxtaposed with her memoir, Washington, published two years after her death from cancer in 1999, one discovers discordant, countervailing emotions in Greenfield’s observations regarding her adopted city that parallel the famous, sometimes dissident sound of the avant-garde New York band or as one person describes it in the Haynes documentary, “the kind of music you can hear when it’s (sic) a storm outside.” Lead singer Lou Reed once referred to it as “[u]ltrasonic sounds on records to cause frontal lobotomies.” [2]

Washington was published 21 years ago this May. “[P]art memoir, part zoology of Washington elites,” Greenfield used her own history in service of “the scathing purposes of the latter,” noted William Power, a former colleague of Greenfield.[3] Greenfield never completed the book, and her missing final chapter left a number of ideas on the table without resolution, but in her illness, one might surmise, she had time to reflect on her career, leading Powers to title his 2001 book review, “Meg Greenfield’s Song of Regret.”

To delve into the correspondence in the Meg Greenfield Papers is to submerge one’s self into the depths of the very culture Greenfield critiqued in her 2001 work. Names like Kay Graham, Leonard Garment, Antonin Scalia, Lewis Powell, David Remnick, Anthony Lewis, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Mary McGrory, George Will, Sandra Day O’Connor, George H. W. Bush, and Theodore White, among numerous others abound.

In her book, Greenfield deconstructs the same Washington she helped to create: “too many of us have moved on from establishing professional detachment to something different: a willful disconnectedness from the human reality that lies at the heart of the issues and stories we are covering.”[4] She surveys the city describing its high achievers as former student government presidents, “folks who know how to mobilize a bunch of peers, play people against each other, and get things to happen so that everyone is at least a little bit happy and they themselves remain in place.”[5]

Katherine Graham, publisher of the Washington Post, three-quarters length portrait, standing, facing front, holding an issue of the magazine Newsweek, Marion S. Trikosko photographer, April 7, 1976, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Greenfield includes herself in this menagerie of the upscale damned. In one passage, she ridicules D.C. elites for populating their walls with the “power picture . . . blank faced official photos, autographed in the most noncommittally possible ‘friendly’ way, and hanging on the office or living room wall.” She then admits, “I used to have them up all over my study at home.”[6]

How much one thinks Washington represents Greenfield’s genuine regret over her D.C. existence depends on the reader, but what appears undeniable is that whatever her feelings at the end, throughout her life she remained one of the town’s key figures, and her correspondence provides the exuberant cadence and lyrics to this existence, while her memoir serves as its downcast melody.

“Dinner last night was a triumph,” columnist Joseph Alsop wrote to Greenfield in the summer of 1982. A delicious meal of “glorious Dungeness crab” and good conversation, made for “a perfect Washington evening.”[7] Reagan official Richard Darman lamented that during one February 1983 soiree attendees had not endeavored to stay up “‘til dawn trying to solve the problems we defined.”[8] Joanne Kemp thanked Greenfield for the invite to a Monday night “Meg Greenfield salon” in 1990.  “You are as glib orally as you are talented with a pen. Being with you is always stimulating,” Kemp concluded.[9]

Greenfield festivities were not exclusive to the city’s elite. New Yorker Erica Jong travelled down to the capital to attend one of Greenfield’s dinner parties, an engagement that happened to coincide with the release of the Tower Report which concluded the congressional investigation into the Iran Contra affair. “[I]t was delicious for us to be dropped into the world of Washington for a night,” she wrote. Kay Graham “looked marvelous” and Senator Bill Cohen “absolutely dazzled.” Jong also teased out the difference between dinner parties in New York and those in D.C., the latter of which she believed had “an intensity of contemplation – and of expertise,” and was ultimately, “riveting.”[10]

Always the skilled and gracious host, Greenfield even found time to come to the aid of nervous Supreme Court justices. “In a sense, you saved the evening for me last night,” Justice Lewis Powell wrote to Greenfield in 1987 when the Washington Post editor facilitated a brief meeting between Powell, his wife Jo, and Katharine Graham, whom the couple had first met decades earlier. “When I was almost prepared to give up having an opportunity to greet Kay, you came to my rescue and arranged it.”[11]

The mystique of Greenfield’s parties, and the D.C. “glitterati” more generally, were so clichéd that the occasional correspondent mocked the idea all together. Richard Holbrooke facetiously remembered meeting Greenfield at “Arthur Krock’s house during the Truman administration” and “charming little Sunday afternoon tea-and-touch football games in Walter Lippman’s backyard (especially those spectacular passes Felix Frankfurter used to throw to Dean Acheson!).” None of which was possible for the two transplanted Washingtonians, both of whom were probably too young to have participated in either example.

Still, even with tongue firmly planted in cheek, Holbrooke concluded with sincerity. “Meg you were then and now, my inspiration, and it was because of you that I decided to pursue a career in investment banking [Loud cheers from Bradlee, I assume.]”[12] Holbrooke returned to the D.C. fold a few years later, decamping from his Wall Street job for a position in the Clinton State Department and later negotiating the Dayton Accords, which established peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Greenfield turns a sharp eye on her profession in her memoir as well, decrying the rise of “effigy journalism,” which presented public figures as “lifeless, one-dimensional representations of various political positions and cultural categories,” and journalists dismissing any divergence from the “party line” as “trickery – temporary tactical maneuvers, presumptively politics-driven.” Thus, effigies in the sense that they are “suitable only for sticking pins into or pasting over with little iridescent stickum hearts.”[13]

Again, however, whatever her reservations regarding journalism, Greenfield’s peers frequently sought her out to decompress. Then Evening Star columnist Mary McGrory, on the heels of Nixon’s resignation, wrote to Greenfield in August 1974, revealing a fictitious “escape plan” from the city’s frenzy imagining a European vacation. “[W]e could arrange to have some objets d’art from the bazaar flown over to Algeciras,” by which point the local “Madonna peddler could be John Mitchell, or even the Big enchilada himself” Nixon, who McGrory noted, ”could be selling the [Watergate] tapes by that time.”[14]

Mary McGrory to Meg Greenfield, letter, August 14, 1974, Box 29, Meg Greenfield Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

Perhaps because of her growing skepticism, her fellow scribes confided in Greenfield their own doubts about the media landscape. Dispirited after taking in the “Sunday Chat shows” during the final year of the Clinton administration, David Remnick could only be left to ask “What in god’s name does Meg Greenfield make of this fresh hell? . . . If despair is the unforgivable sin, then comedy must be its resolution, the salvation. But it’s not easy to laugh, even when the absurdity outstrips the politics of Freedonia.”[15]

Of course, Greenfield’s correspondence spans countless topics beyond journalistic solidarity and the social habits of Washington’s elite. Researchers will find discussions of U.S. foreign policy in Central America, apartheid in South Africa (see her correspondence with South African anti-apartheid activist Helen Suzman), late Cold War-era Soviet Union, and the Rodney King trial among other issues.

To be fair, Meg Greenfield seemed incapable of the kind of darkness that inhabited many of the songs by The Velvet Underground, but, when placed side by side, Greenfield’s memoir and her correspondence embody a similar discordance. Regret in the former, joy in the latter. “And what costume shall the poor girl wear/To all tomorrow’s parties/For Thursday’s child is Sunday’s clown/ For whom none will go mourning,” Nico sings on the band’s 1967 song, “All Tomorrow’s Parties.” Contra the band, Greenfield was never anyone’s clown and her death in 1999 was mourned by many, but she would probably agree that in Washington “Thursday’s child, is Sunday’s Clown.” Meg Greenfield’s letters provide a score for her era, and her memoir, at least in part, the undertones of that experience.

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[1] Meg Greenfield, Washington (New York: Public Affairs, 2001), 170.

[2] Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain, Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk (New York: Grove Press, 2006), 14.

[3] William Powers, “Meg Greenfield’s Song of Regret,” The Atlantic, May 1, 2001.

[4] Greenfield, Washington, 13.

[5] Greenfield, Washington, 38.

[6] Greenfield, Washington, 103.

[7] Joseph Alsop to Meg Greenfield, letter, July 16, 1982, Box 22, Meg Greenfield Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[8] Richard Darman to Meg Greenfield, letter, February 19, 1983, Box 24, Meg Greenfield Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[9] Joanne Kemp to Meg Greenfield, letter, November 14, 1990, Box 27, Meg Greenfield Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[10] Erica Jong to Meg Greenfield, letter, March 2, 1987, Box 27, Meg Greenfield Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[11] Lewis Powell to Meg Greenfield, letter, July 1, 1987, Box 30, Meg Greenfield Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[12] Richard Holbrooke to Meg Greenfield, letter, December 17, 1990, Box 27, Meg Greenfield Papers, Library of Congress.

[13] Greenfield, Washington, 219.

[14] Mary McGrory to Meg Greenfield, letter, August 15, 1974, Box 29, Meg Greenfield Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[15] David Remnick to Meg Greenfield, letter, January 4, 1999, Box 31, Meg Greenfield Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. Freedonia is a reference to the imaginary kingdom in the Marx Brothers movie “Duck Soup.”

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