British Ambassador’s Home Hosts Royalty, Rock Stars, MiceStephanie Green
At a storied Washington stage for royals, rock stars and world leaders, a former Federal Reserve chairman and New York congressman joined a book-launching party for a tome about the British ambassador’s American home.
The residence holds meaning for both retired Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan and Republican Representative Peter King, taking part in last night’s party, as they have attended receptions and official functions there throughout their careers.
“I met Margaret Thatcher in the dining room, well before she became prime minister,” Greenspan recalled.
Said King: “The only time I’ve ever been able to impress my wife was when we met Tony Blair here.”
Designed by the pre-eminent English architect of his time, Edwin Lutyens, the upper Northwest Washington mansion and gardens have set the scene for some of the most historic moments in Anglo-American relations.
Royalty and rock icons have stayed and entertained at the house since its doors opened in 1930.
“You come off Massachusetts Avenue, and you come into Britain,” says political biographer Anthony Seldon. “It’s very seductive, and you feel you are on British soil.”
Its invitations have proven irresistible.
Hillary Clinton, whose Washington home is nearby, was leaving her post as U.S. secretary of state and had recently suffered a bad fall when a dinner invitation from the British residence arrived. She stood in the receiving line in the house’s main room, where an Andy Warhol portrait of Queen Elizabeth II keeps a steady eye on proceedings.
Former President Bill Clinton once told Peter Westmacott, the current British ambassador and master of the house, that he was so taken with the library -- Westmacott’s study -- that he would “never leave it if I lived here.”
The wooden space holds a vast book collection, a portrait of Winston Churchill, a painting by Dwight D. Eisenhower and Westmacott’s toy car -- “an extremely smart Rolls-Royce.”
The walls are talking now in “The Architecture of Diplomacy,” an artistic book by Seldon and Daniel Collings, modeled after one that Westmacott helped produce about his former home, the British ambassadorial residence in Paris.
Photographs demonstrate the house’s main selling point, its propensity for hosting large and widely noted gatherings:
King George VI sat on the grand portico, cigarette in hand, overseeing a garden party for 1,500 on the first visit by a British head of state to the U.S. in 1939.
In 1964, then-ambassador David Ormsby-Gore was so taken with the Beatles, he invited them to a party, where one female attendee clipped off a lock of Ringo Starr’s hair.
British Prime Minister David Cameron held his first meeting with the newly seated French President Francois Hollande there in 2012. Thatcher once danced in the ballroom. Churchill loved spending the night there, as does Prince Charles, who wrote the book’s foreword.
Prince Harry and his mother, the late Princess Diana, planted trees in the house’s expansive garden.
Along with the home’s political history, the book details Lutyens’ charm and sense of humor in architectural flourishes not recognized by even frequent visitors: the spiral staircase leading upstairs, the artwork and decor all have a story.
The ambassador’s personal quarters aren’t photographed, and weren’t made available on the press tour for the book.
Westmacott did allow that, even with a storied past, “there are no ghosts. The odd mouse, but even the mice are friendly.”
“Even when I come in the dead of night, the house is never spooky,” said Amanda Downes, the ambassador’s social secretary. Westmacott’s wife, Susie, one of the few Americans to live there, says the house “has good vibes. People come here and have fun.”
“It earns its keep,” Westmacott said. “We celebrate royal babies, the Olympics, and show our cultural and business profile.”
Since becoming ambassador in January 2012, Westmacott has hosted the cast of “Downton Abbey,” “House of Cards” and a Beatles tribute band, all while wining and dining Washington elites under the same roof.
The book party last night featured a Scottish pipe and drum band in the garden, and the requisite offering of Pimm’s cocktails. King said he’s always happy to be there -- “and I’m Irish,” he added. “Leave it to the Brits.”