News & Politics

Marion Barry and Bloody Marys at 35,000 Feet

Talking Washington politics and beyond with the “mayor for life” on a flight from Bermuda to DC.

Marion Barry. Photograph by Carol Ross Joynt.

So there we were, a crowd of mostly tanned and rested travelers about to leave the pink sand and aquamarine shores of Bermuda to fly back to Washington and, most likely, work. The US Airways gate agent said the Monday afternoon flight was fully booked. Sigh—so much inching and carry-on shoving ahead. In the long line waiting to board, I noticed a man in a dapper white linen suit and sporting a sombrero-style straw hat. He looked familiar to me and to others, who also glanced his way. It was DC City Council member Marion Barry, also known as former mayor Marion Barry and occasionally “mayor for life” Marion Barry. We’ve met on several occasions over the years for professional reasons, mostly interviews, and when we were side by side he smiled broadly, said hello, and introduced me to his companion and significant other Sandy Bellamy.

I wanted to turn to fellow passengers and make the classic morbid joke about what the headline would be if the plane went down, but I’m too fearful a flyer to go there.

Later, at a cruising altitude of about 35,000 feet, the flight attendants brought out the beverage and snack carts to navigate the narrow aisle, offering sodas, cocktails, and chips to the passengers sitting snugly, three across, on either side. I was in the aisle seat in row 11. Barry was in the aisle seat of the seventh or eighth row, up ahead. The cart was between us.

The cart did not deter him. He was up, the hat now off, coming in my direction, looking right at me over the flight attendants, smiling and talking, though I couldn’t make out the words in the din of the cabin. The flight attendants moved this way and that, backed up, let him pass, and then followed him as he came toward me, still smiling and talking. When he got close, I heard him clearly. Did I have credit cards? I did. “I only have cash,” he said. “Can you buy me two vodkas?” Well, sure—I was about to buy one for myself (the anxious flyer). The aisle seat across from mine was open, and Barry asked if he could sit there. The young couple in the center and window seats smiled and said, “Of course.” The flight attendants, standing practically on top of us, filled cups with ice, cracked open cans of Bloody Mary mix, poured in vodka from tiny bottles, and passed the drinks around. I handed over my credit card. “Are you sure you don’t mind?” Barry asked. I didn’t.

When the cart moved on, Barry remained seated, sipping his drink, and we started to talk. I had a dozen subjects on my mind, and forged ahead.

Did he read that Jack Evans, Ward 2 council member and mayoral candidate, had raised $40,000 at a fundraiser on Nantucket? Barry said he was “not surprised.”

What’s up with Mayor Vincent Gray? What’s he going to do about running or not running? Barry shared a recent compelling conversation with Gray, though he insisted it be off the record. If Gray didn’t run, would Barry endorse Evans? Barry had an answer, but that was OTR, too. He talked about the field of candidates in general, and not enthusiastically. He said, “If I were 25 years younger, I would run. But I’m 77 years old.”

Would he get involved in the Redskins team name controversy if he were mayor? Would he make the proposal to change the name a front-burner issue? Yes, he said. “The name is offensive. I’d do something meaningful”—but he did not say what.

He talked about Eliot Spitzer and Anthony Weiner, both running for office in New York and both having had scandal-plagued careers, something Barry knows about. We talked about his arrest and time in prison and career rebound, but he did not want to be compared to Spitzer or, in particular, Weiner. Separate issues, he said. There was more on the subject of Weiner, but it, too, was off the record.

We moved back to the mayor’s race and what would happen if Gray didn’t run. Barry said although he feels he still had the influence and power to turn a DC election one way or the other, he would stay on the sidelines for now. Would there be a dark-horse candidate, I wondered? He mentioned Robert Bobb, a former DC administrator who has been rumored to be interested in running but who publicly denies any effort is underway. “Bobb told me that if Gray didn’t run he would enter the race for mayor or chair [of the city council], and that he has a campaign ready,” Barry said.

Barry mentioned he was traveling with his girlfriend and that they’d been in Bermuda for the weekend, staying with friends. Coincidentally, on Facebook, Rock Newman posted a photo of Barry floating in water with the caption: “Mayor for Life Marion Barry funning at Paradise Lake, Bermuda…” In the photo he bobbles around with the help of an assortment of colorful “noodle” floats.

That gave me an opening to ask whether he would marry again. He said yes, he would like to. (Of course, first he would need to get divorced from his fourth wife, Cora Masters Barry, from whom he is legally separated.) He wanted me to come the few rows up and talk with his girlfriend, but because the plane was packed I demurred. After about 40 minutes, Barry got up and made his way back to his seat. I followed a few minutes later to say hello to his girlfriend. “She looks out for me,” he said. I went over my notes from our conversation to clarify what was on or off the record. He laughed. “You’re always working? Is this because you bought me a drink?” he said. Well, yeah, kinda. All is fair, on the ground or at 35,000 feet.

Once we landed, Barry disappeared from the airport before I could say goodbye. Later he posted this message on Twitter: