Last week, as it surged through the news cycle, the reports about the Petraeus scandal included frequent mention of the word “socialite.” It was used in reference to Jill Kelley, the Tampa, Florida, hostess who entertained the brass from the Joint Special Operations Command, including former CIA director David Petraeus and General John Allen, now head of the military command in Afghanistan. The tide of public opinion turned against Kelley as details came out about her and the picture emerged of someone who seemed made for reality TV, but not necessarily a socialite.
Socialite is a peculiar word. What does it mean in the modern era, and is it negative or positive? Does it matter? The dictionary says it is a person who is well known in “fashionable society” and is fond of social activities. Is it about money, position, pedigree, connections, charity, education, home address, party calendar—or all of the above? It’s applied most often to women, but as we evolve as a culture, the term has begun to feel irrelevant. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has money, position, pedigree, education, and connections, her calendar is packed with official social events, and she is well known in fashionable society, but would anyone call her a socialite? Of course not.
When Tareq and Michaele Salahi became household names because of their White House “gatecrashing” antics, the first flush of news reports referred to them as socialites, before “scammers” became the popular term. They were many things, but not well known in fashionable society. Or maybe they represent the version of “socialite” that was applied to Kelley.
All this brings us to Friday night and a cocktail party in Georgetown that probably gives the best possible glimpse at a group of individuals who could be viewed as authentic Washington “socialites” (in a positive way). Bill and Ann Nitze hosted the party. He is on the board of the Aspen Institute and is chairman of an energy systems company called Gridpoint. She is a dealer of fine art, went to school at Miss Porter’s, Radcliffe, and in Paris, and likes to entertain. The cocktail party was for Manuel Johnson and Jacqueline B. Mars, chair and vice chair, respectively, of the National Sporting Library & Museum in Middleburg, Virginia, where Mars lives. Mars owns the Mars candy company with her brothers, gives generously, especially to the arts, and, according to Forbes, is worth $17 billion. Even though she lives in Middleburg, where she raises show horses, Mars appears a lot at Washington events, particularly at the Kennedy Center.
The party was to introduce some of the Nitze’s Washington friends to the library and museum, which were founded in 1954 by some other very well-off Middleburg residents, George L. Ohrstrom Sr. and Alexander Mackay-Smith, and today has a board that represents the area’s elite. In the last few years the NSLM was substantially renovated and expanded and has become quite the attraction for visitors to the hunt country as well as scholars doing research about sporting life and art. Johnson said as much when he described the institution as providing “a nice afternoon or weekend in Middleburg.” Comparing it to the Phillips Collection, he called it a place “Washingtonians can be proud of. We have the best rare book sporting library in the world.”
While Johnson made the remarks it was Mars, in bright red, who was the center of attention. Ready to greet her was a parade of Washingtonians, who by strict definition could be called “socialites” though in truth they have careers, own companies, and have projects and causes. They included Lucky Roosevelt, Nina Straight, Marcia Carter, Robin Hill, Mandy and Mary Ourisman, Alexandra de Borchgrave, Ina Ginsburg, Aniko Gaal Schott, Judy Esfandiary, Finlay and Willee Lewis, Lynda and William Webster, Bruce Larson and Shelly Ross-Larson, Monica Greenberg, Amanda Downes, Diana Kingbury-Smith, Senator John Warner, Jocelyn Greenan, Grace Bender, Donald Brennan, and Kevin Chaffee. In addition to Johnson and Mars, in from the Middleburg area were Claudia Pfeiffer, Elizabeth Locke, John Staelin, Jan Neuharth, Joseph Keusch, Jean Perin, Rick Stoutamyer, and Dana and Turner Reuter, who own the Red Fox Inn and Red Fox Fine Art. Turner, author of Animal and Sporting Artists in America, was instrumental in the renovation of the library and museum.
If it’s true that Jill Kelley occasionally attended social events in Washington, which has been reported, then she was effectively off the radar. Willee Lewis, who is a veteran of DC social life and seems to know everyone, said she’d never met her. We asked Ann Nitze, who also gets around in society, if she ever met Kelley and whether she considered Kelley a “socialite.” Her response was to the point: Nitze was emphatically “not interested.”