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101-Year-Old Washingtonian Witnessed John F. Kennedy’s Engagement, Still Drinks a Martini Every Day

Ambassador Marion “Joe” Smoak now has his own plaque at Martin’s Tavern

In nearly every corner of Georgetown institution Martin’s Tavern, there is a plaque commemorating some of the restaurant’s most well-known regulars. Lyndon Johnson once shared a booth with House Speaker Sam Rayburn in the back. Richard Nixon hung out in booth two. And a plaque located above booth three pays homage to perhaps the restaurant’s most famous customers: then-Senator John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Bouvier, who, as local legend would have it, were engaged at Martin’s on June 24, 1953.

Perhaps the oldest living witness to this proposal received his own plaque Thursday. Marion “Joe” Smoak, who is 101 years old, was having a martini at the bar when Kennedy—who lived in a row house a few blocks away—proposed. At the time, Smoak didn’t think much of it. But about five years ago, he mentioned it to a friend off-hand, after returning to the same spot.

Smoak’s daughter, Mary Frances Walde, corroborated the story with her cousin, who remembered hearing from Smoak about the proposal at the time. The owners of the family-run restaurant took it as living proof that the long-disputed account (Parker’s Restaurant in Boston has also laid claim to the story) was true.

Smoak (left) with friends and family: Gwendolyn Beck, Billy Martin, Mary Frances Walde, and Sandy Crippen.

“What better than having an eyewitness account?” says Billy Martin, Jr., who now heads the  restaurant and presented Smoak with his plaque Thursday. Martin remembers that while his father talked about seeing the proposal, he’d also jokingly noted that he’d seen Kennedy in the same booth with Elizabeth Taylor. But it’s the story with Jackie that stuck.

“The night didn’t know his future and what it would bring,” Smoak says in a statement engraved on the plaque about that night in 1953. “In hindsight it was great fun to witness a part of history.”

Although Smoak didn’t know of his own future at the time, he would also continue on to do big things in Washington. He served as Chief of Protocol for President Richard Nixon and his Secretary of State from 1969 to 1974, after which he retired from the State Department with the rank of Ambassador. He was later co-chairman of presidential candidate Ronald Reagan’s Committee for Finance.

In addition to presenting Smoak with a plaque, Martin’s also created a martini for the occasion. “The Ambassador’s Martini” is made straight up, with dry vodka and three olives. Smoak is a regular at the restaurant and still enjoys a martini every night. He remembers his younger years well, too: While JFK was proposing to Jackie, Smoak was working at the Pentagon (he served in the military), and living with his brother in Arlington. “My apartment was the local dance floor,” he says of their house. “We wore the rug out.”

Even at 101, Smoak has held onto his sense of humor. As he enjoyed his nightly martini upon receiving his plaque, a friend toasted to “a true gentleman.”

“You don’t know me very well, do you?” Smoak replied.

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Courtney Vinopal is a former Washingtonian editorial fellow. She holds a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University, and previously worked as a press attaché for the Embassy of France in Washington, where she ran the institution’s social media accounts and newsletters. She lives in Woodley Park.