A golden age for D.C. humor
When the Republican majority in the House of Representatives passed the American Health Care Act this month, there was a smattering of applause as well as some cheering on the House floor followed by some spontaneous singing. Surprisingly, the voices raised in song came from Democrats, who taunted their opponents with a couple of refrains of the late-1960s lyrics “Na na na na, Na na na na, Hey hey hey, Goodbye.”
The message: “Your careers are over.” As a prediction, that seems rather premature, given that the midterm elections are 18 months away. But the singing was a lighthearted way to communicate a message.
Washington would benefit from more of such playful antics. Our president recently broke with decades of tradition and skipped the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner, the seasonal high point of political ribbing and ribald jokes.
Today’s climate may seem harsh, but there have been periods when comity and good humor were part of Washington life.
One feast of merciless barbs was the “stunt party” of the Women’s National Press Club, an annual tradition that began in 1928. It was a lengthy theatrical undertaking that spoofed events and personalities of the day. Several hundred female journalists, elected officials and wives of dignitaries came from around the country for what grew into a weekend of festivities. The party itself, usually held at the Statler Hotel, was more than short satirical skits or a recital of one-liners. There was singing, dancing and costumes, with everything written and performed by club members.
A frequent presence in starring roles was Hope Ridings Miller, The Post’s society editor from 1937 to 1944. Miller, blond and petite, longed to become a professional actress. During her year of graduate studies at Columbia University, she also took acting classes at the Lucy Fagan school in Greenwich Village. Writing won out as Miller’s chosen field, and Washington became the grand stage for her long life, which ended in 2005 at age 99. Thanks to the WNPC’s stunt shows, she had regular opportunities to perform in the spotlight.
Miller made her stunt party debut in 1938 playing Miss Lotta Business, opposite “Franklin DeLayno,” portrayed by Esther Van Wagoner Tufty. Lotta complains to Franklin, “You haven’t left me anything to sit around on! Everywhere I look there’s nothing but tax, tax, tax!” Later she exclaims, “He pinched me on my undistributed profits!”
Six scenes followed, including a “Boycott Ballet” and a segment that takes place in a beauty parlor, as a sendup of “The Women,” Clare Boothe Luce’s comedy of manners. The segment also poked fun at first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who had recently appeared at her weekly news conference wearing lipstick and “a hint of rouge,” as Miller described it in a column.
“We took our playacting very seriously and would agonize to produce amusement and wit,” said Olive Clapper, wife of Post political writer Raymond Clapper.
As the years went by, the club allowed men to attend the parties. That seemed only fair, given that men were being satirized.
President Harry S. Truman and first lady Bess Truman attended the spring 1949 party, in which one of the big skits focused on the first daughter. Miller played Margaret Truman, then 25, an aspiring singer and the most eligible woman in town. She was pestered by columnists desperate to cover a White House wedding and hounded by bachelors eager for her hand. A photograph from that night shows Margaret/Hope perched on a stool, wearing a full-skirted, ivory-colored dress and glowing beatifically as she completely ignores a quartet of eager suitors, played by women in top hats and tails.
Chuckling along with the crowd, the president showed he was no stick in the mud, even though his administration and his only daughter were being mercilessly lampooned.
Just one year later, Truman was a thinner-skinned president and father when he sent a poisonpen letter to The Post’s music critic Paul Hume for his harsh review of Margaret’s singing.
The stunt parties faded away during the early 1960s. The Women’s National Press Club voted to allow men in 1970 and became the Washington Press Club.
Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper showed up for a stunt party in the mid-1940s. She wrote, “The most creative women in our national capital can and do ridicule each other publicly, all in a spirit of good clean fun, without any ill-feeling, so that all can see, hear and gasp.”
If only Washington of today could recapture that spirit.