Last Saturday, November 20, was a night like nothing I have ever experienced, and surely will never again. There was a dinner in my honor at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. It wasn’t really in my honor, but I was the logical figurehead, since the evening was a celebration of my mother and the portrait of her which I’d donated to the museum. It was an oil portrait by Roger Robles that had hung in her Chicago apartment for many years, and when she died it came to live with me. In the beginning, perhaps because I was mourning, I basically avoided looking at it. I didn’t know if I would ever be able to look at it … or love and admire it as I had for as long as I could remember. But then, after a while, I would go downstairs in the morning, make a detour to the living room and say, “Hi, honey.” Then, after a while, I would go to gaze at the picture and tell her all my news. Eventually I probably went over the line of sanity and began to ask the portrait for favors for sick friends and to look out for people I felt could use a little divine intervention. I had turned her into a Jewish saint … sort of Our Lady of Lourdes, via Chicago.
The dinner was hosted by Martin Sullivan, director of the Portrait Gallery, Patty Stonesifer, head of their Board of Regents, and her husband, Michael Kinsley. Patty had become a friend when she married Mike … a superb journalist, an early editor of mine, and a great mentor/friend. (Patty is one of the most capable, effective, and important women I know. Prior to the Smithsonian, she headed the Gates Foundation.) Because of the friendship – and being from Chicago – I figured the fix was in regarding the portrait, the dinner, and me.
But what a night it was! Sixty-six guests gathered in the long hall of “new arrivals” where Mother had been unveiled and hung. (Well, you know what I mean.) After a lovely long cocktail hour, we all went up one floor to the magnificent Great Hall where Abraham Lincoln held his inaugural ball. It had once been the nation’s Patent Office – although the gorgeous wood, tiles, and mosaics didn’t look like any “office” I had ever seen before.
Before dinner, the curator of a marvelous new show took us all on a tour and talked about some of the works. The exhibition was “Hide/Seek; Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,” a collection by noted artists dealing with stealth homosexuality in art. It is worth a trip if you are anywhere near Washington. Then we had dinner, which was splendid. The guests were a mix of journalists, Washington figures, and my posse from Chicago – old and dear friends of mine who had known my mother. Milling around, I was touched by the memories and affection so many people had for her. It is unusual, to be sure, to entertain the idea that one’s mother is an icon. But that night I really understood it. The National Portrait Gallery is, after all, home to iconic Americans.
You knew, of course, that there would be at least one faux pas if I was anywhere in the vicinity. It came when I was introduced to a lovely man named Jeff Minear. In my very non-European manner I asked what he did. The answer was that he was the Chief of Staff to the Chief Justice. That would be Justice Roberts. As is usual with me, before I could turn on my inner censor, I said, “Listen, can you do something about your boss?”