News & Politics

Weddings of the Rich & Famous

From chartered jets for guests to couture gowns and six-tiered cakes, there are no limits when high-profile couples get married.

After Chris and Sasha Heinz exchanged vows in historic St. John’s Church, across the street from the White House, they walked down the aisle to a gospel choir’s rousing rendition of “O Happy Day.”

Among the 420 friends and relatives clapping along: Chris’s mom, Teresa Heinz; his stepfather, Senator John Kerry; Senator Ted Kennedy; former NBC Weekend Today anchor Campbell Brown; and Blink 182 frontman Tom DeLonge, a friend of Chris’s from Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign.

During the cocktail hour at Mellon Auditorium, guests enjoyed raw oysters and rolled their own pancakes at a Peking-duck bar. The Bob Hardwick Sound, a New York band that’s performed for British royalty and former presidents, played big band and swing while guests dined on crab-and-avocado appetizers and filet mignon.

Though the wedding was in February, the couple chose “Sleigh Ride,” their favorite Christmas carol, for their first dance. “Neither of us are awesome dancers,” says Sasha, who wore a scoop-neck embroidered gown by Reem Acra. “We were laughing hysterically the whole time.”

Chris, 34, and Sasha, 28, both grew up in Washington, attended the Beauvoir School in DC, and went to the same New Hampshire boarding school as teenagers. But they didn’t meet until after college, in 2001 at a nightclub in New York. Chris proposed five years later in Sun Valley, Idaho, Sasha says, “at a burger joint, sitting in a booth.”

Chris and Sasha love skiing, so their wedding cake was shaped like a ski slope. After dessert—which included miniature mud pies, Chris’s favorite—guests danced to 1980s hits from a second band, Tainted Love. Senator Kerry jumped on stage to play guitar to “Johnny B. Goode.”

At 2:30 am, Occasions caterers brought out late-night snacks, including mini-cheeseburgers served with Heinz ketchup.

With its marriage of money and politics, the Heinz wedding was one of the most high-profile in Washington last year. Chris’s mother is the billionaire ketchup heiress and philanthropist, and both his late father, John Heinz, and his stepfather have been powerful forces in the Senate.

The wedding had many A-list hallmarks: a long guest list sprinkled with big names, an extravagant reception, and a sought-after church and reception site.

Along with St. John’s Church, planners say, the most popular churches for Washington’s celebrity ceremonies are the National Cathedral, Christ Church and Holy Trinity in Georgetown, and Christ Church in Old Town.

Luxury hotels such as the Ritz-Carlton downtown and the Four Seasons in Georgetown, along with large venues like the Ronald Reagan Building and the National Museum of Women in the Arts, host lots of high-profile nuptials. If a celebrity couple’s desired venue is booked, they might pay thousands to buy it out.

Carol Marino of A Perfect Wedding says a typical high-end Washington wedding that she plans costs about $100,000; celebrity weddings can range from $250,000 to more than $1 million. Some high-profile couples charter jets for guests and hire famous musicians. A bride might buy two couture gowns—one for the ceremony, another for the reception.

Laura Weatherly, owner of Engaging Affairs in Alexandria, brought five associates to help coordinate the Heinz wedding. Some helped the bride and bridesmaids; others were stationed at the church or reception site. Seating arrangements—which included tables for 20—weren’t finalized until the night before the wedding.

Despite complicated logistics, often involving security crews, celebrity weddings can be easier for planners to organize.

“High-profile clients are accustomed to letting other people handle the details,” says Alexandra Kovach, hospitality director at Georgetown’s historic Evermay Estate. “They are great at delegating.”

That doesn’t mean they aren’t demanding. Says one planner: “When they have that much money, they think your hours are midnight to 6 am.”

Within minutes of starting to whittle down their guest list, Chris and Sasha Heinz gave up. “The list was one discussion we opted out of,” says Sasha, who’s earning her PhD at Columbia University. “We decided the more, the merrier.”

Couples like the Heinzes often have a wide circle of friends and associates—and sometimes a long list of parents’ friends—which can make it hard to bring down the number of invitees.

Houston Rockets basketball star Steve Francis, a former University of Maryland standout, and his wife, Shelby, married at the Mellon Auditorium in front of 500 guests. Planner Patti Weiner of Plan-It Parties in North Potomac says the list ballooned because some guests brought an entourage of agents and assistants.

“Weddings that large are a circus,” says Weiner, who had 15 staffers working three straight days before the September 2006 wedding. “The paparazzi were in the bushes across the street.”

She spent the night before the wedding trying to persuade the DC courthouse to open on a Saturday because Francis and his fiancée forgot to get their wedding license. “You wear a lot of different hats,” Weiner says.

Guests, including Phoenix Suns star Grant Hill, dined on lobster and filet mignon beneath thousands of handmade feather-and-crystal butterflies strung from the ceiling. Most centerpieces contained more than $1,000 worth of orchids.

Brandywine native Julian Peterson, who plays for the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks, had a Miami-themed wedding at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Southwest DC last summer. The 300-person affair was featured on WeTV’s Platinum Weddings.

The highlight of the cocktail hour was a ten-flavor mojito bar. There were more than 500 floral arrangements, including orchids from Thailand and hydrangeas from Holland. Singer Tyrese performed hip-hop and R&B hits. Guests dined on braised short ribs and sea bass in custom-made cabanas.

Celebrity cake designer Sylvia Weinstock—whose client list includes Donald Trump and Mariah Carey—created a six-tier strawberry-flavored cake. Ten people spent more than two weeks making the pink and orange sugar flowers separating the layers.

Many high-profile Washingtonians marry at home. A residence offers complete privacy and is easier for security to seal off. Homes carry sentimental value, and celebrities often have the property to host a big affair.

Billionaire Sheila Johnson, cofounder of Black Entertainment Television, married Arlington judge William Newman at her Middleburg farm in September 2005. The 700 guests, including Katie Couric, Mark Warner, and Ted Leonsis, were treated to Maine lobster and beef filets amid 60,000 flowers. The wedding was rumored to have cost at least $1 million.

In September, Carl Fairbank—whose father, Richard, founded Capital One and is the area’s highest-paid CEO—married his high-school sweetheart, Victoria Chapman, at Overlook Farm, Fairbank’s property near Gunston Hall on the Potomac River in Virginia.

Perhaps the most high-profile reception at a Washington residence—albeit an official one—was Karenna Gore’s wedding ten years ago. She wed Andrew Schiff, a doctor, at the National Cathedral, then danced the night away with 300 guests at the Vice President’s residence.

Guests included President Clinton—who missed the ceremony but arrived at the reception by helicopter—Yo-Yo Ma, Aretha Franklin, and Vera Wang, who designed Karenna’s satin gown.

The Gores raised a tent by the pool for cocktails—candles floated in the water—and another in the sprawling yard. White ribbons and lights were woven into the tent’s ceiling. Celebrity photographer Denis Reggie, who shot John Kennedy Jr.’s wedding, documented the evening.

Aretha Franklin sang “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You” for the couple’s first dance. Then Grammy-winning fiddler Mark O’Connor played “The Tennessee Waltz” while the bride danced with her father.

“As the band started to play and everyone migrated toward the dinner tent, it gave you the feeling that you were in The Great Gatsby,” says planner Linda Garner of Rockville’s Gala Events.

Garner had met the Gores when she decorated the Vice President’s residence for Halloween. She was so nervous the night before her wedding meeting with Tipper Gore that she tried on every item in her closet. “Everything was all over my bedroom,” she says. “I ended up wearing jeans.”

Planners say coordinating a wedding for the First Family would be the ultimate get. Although Jenna Bush seems to be leaning toward a Texas wedding, the family could still hire someone from Washington. Planners are hopeful: One is putting together a proposal to send to the White House.

Some local celebrities want an intimate wedding. Best-selling author Laura Hillenbrand, who wrote the book Seabiscuit, chose the rooftop deck at the Hay-Adams for her wedding to Borden Flanagan, a professor at American University.

The couple said their vows in front of 60 friends and relatives, underneath an archway decorated with roses.

Flanagan and Hillenbrand met in college in 1986 and stayed together for 20 years as she battled chronic fatigue syndrome. “I wouldn’t really call it dating,” says Hillenbrand. “It was more like a whirlwind courtship.”

Hillenbrand wore a simple, form-fitting dress by Saeyoung Vu—the only dress she tried on. The couple wrote their own vows, and NPR’s Scott Simon, a close friend, read from The Velveteen Rabbit during the ceremony. “We are very romantic people,” says Hillenbrand. “We wanted our wedding to do justice to our relationship.”

DC United soccer star Ben Olsen and his wife, Megan, a teacher, wanted a small wedding in warm weather, but they couldn’t marry in the summer because of Ben’s game schedule. They hosted a destination wedding at the Rock House Hotel in Negril, Jamaica, in December 2006.

The couple organized a soccer match a few days before the wedding—Jamaican locals versus Ben and Megan’s family and friends—and Olsen led his team to a 2–0 victory.

Ben and his groomsmen wore khaki-and-white seersucker pants, high-top sneakers, and white linen shirts. The ceremony took place on a cliff overlooking the water. As Ben waited for Megan to walk down the aisle, someone on a boat yelled, “Don’t do it!”

When high-profile couples stay in Washington to marry, privacy and security can be concerns. Most couples mail invitations nearly two months before the wedding, but some celebrities have them hand-delivered the week before to keep details a secret.

At Karenna Gore Schiff’s wedding, every guest checked in at both the ceremony and the reception, where everyone walked through metal detectors. It’s common for a security detail to request lists of guests and staff before an event, and security often does a sweep of the wedding site.

Evermay’s Alexandra Kovach asks couples if anyone will be arriving with security. “To the bride or groom, it may be Uncle So-and-So,” she says, “but we need to know.”

In Washington, sometimes the wedding guests are more famous than the bride and groom. When Brett Kavanaugh and Ashley Estes—President Bush’s former personal secretary—married in 2004, the President and the First Lady attended the ceremony at Christ Church in Georgetown.

“It was the only wedding in the hundreds I have planned where all of the guests were in their seats 15 minutes early,” says planner Laura Weatherly.

She and her staff wore all black, which led many guests to assume they were security. Moving guests from the ceremony to the reception was easy.

Says Weatherly, “There’s no lollygagging when Secret Service are holding machine guns outside of the church.”


This article originally appeared in the January 2008 issue of The Washingtonian.