‘Treasure Houses of Britain Exhibit’ : Royal Fever Has Them Reeling on the Potomac

Times Staff Writer

With the visit of Prince Charles and Princess Diana only days away, the capital of the United States has gone gaga.

“It reminds me of Paris, when the queen occasionally goes to Paris and France goes crazy,” newsman David Brinkley said.

Not above partaking in the pandemonium, Brinkley was one of 300 lucky Americans who dined Thursday night with the 150 lenders to the National Gallery’s “Treasure Houses of Britain Exhibit,”--a 700-item display so sensational that the Royal Highnesses themselves arrive Saturday for a three-day visit to see it.


With the dukes, duchesses, lords and ladies of Britain’s great country houses arriving early to see their treasures unveiled Sunday at the gallery, the mood has been set and parties have begun in earnest.

More Glitzy, Glamorous

Even Estee Lauder, another guest at the Thursday gallery dinner, noticed that Washington partygoers never have looked more glitzy and glamorous than they have at these galas, rivaling the glare of Ronald Reagan’s 1981 inaugural.

“Everyone went out of their way to wear their best and look their best,” Lauder said, clearly enjoying the display.

And this is just the warm-up.

The parties began at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel on Wednesday night with 250 guests walking by lines of bagpipers to the door. Hosted by hotel owner John Coleman, the gathering honored owners of the so-called “Magnificent Seven” country houses, who have loaned many objects to the exhibit.

Elegantly dressed and melting everyone with their accents, six of the seven owners attended: The Duke and Duchess of Marlborough, Lord and Lady Romsey, Lord Montagu, the Marquess of Tavistock, Michael Herbert and Simon and Annette Howard.


Guests were announced quite royally as they entered, and America’s version of royalty ate it up.

Charles Z. Wick, a California Reagan friend and head of the United States Information Agency, waxed poetic about the to-do.

“It’s a celebration of art and the spirit of the soul,” said Wick, revealing that he is indeed invited to one of the parties the royals will be attending, “but I won’t tell you which one.”

Leonore Annenberg, the former chief of protocol and another longtime California Reagan friend, came down for this and other parties from Pennsylvania, where her husband, Walter, is recuperating from a hip-replacement operation.

“He’s doing fine,” she said.

Annenberg admitted to a case of royal fever, although it was unclear which royals she was most excited about.

“I do have royal fever, just seeing my friends,” she said.

Not all Californians at the party were beside themselves, however.

Asked if he had royal fever, Michael Deaver, former White House deputy chief of staff, said, “What’s that? Do you take pills for it?”


Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger, who later toasted the queen, said of the royal couple, “I’m trying to look at them more as individuals, as nice, able people.”

High School Reunion

As for Gayle Wilson, wife of California Republican Sen. Pete Wilson, she’s not going to look at them at all. She’s leaving Washington the weekend their royal highnesses will be here.

“I’m going to Las Vegas,” Wilson said, “for my high school reunion.”

Other guests included Commerce Secretary Malcolm Baldrige, Ann Landers, Nancy Reagan’s New York socialite-friend Jerry Zipkin, Henry Ford II (Ford is sponsoring the exhibition), Washington Mayor Marion Barry, Chief of Protocol Selwa Roosevelt, and Franklin D. Murphy, chairman of the executive committee of the Times Mirror Co. and chairman of the board of trustees of the National Gallery of Art.

After a trumpet fanfare ushered guests to tables of 10, they dined on pumpkin soup served in a hollowed-out acorn squash and veal stuffed with osyter dressing, munching while a band played instrumental versions of American pop hits from the 1950s and 1960s.

Thursday night the merry-making moved to the National Gallery East Wing itself, where guests thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to browse through the exhibit at their leisure, chatting casually with Washington’s powerful and Britain’s landed aristocracy along the way.

Standing uncharacteristically alone in one room contemplating a painting was Secretary of State George P. Shultz.


“It’s like trying to eat 15 banana splits,” Shultz said. “There’s so much, you can’t take it all in.”

Annenberg, Weinberger, Lauder, Ford and Murphy took in the Thursday night party, along with Chief Justice Warren Burger, Sen. James McClure (R-Ida.) and Ford Chairman Donald Peterson.

Burger said that the royals generate excitement here because “Americans love handsome men and beautiful girls.”

Having a Ball

Simon and Annette Howard said the lenders have been having a ball in Washington.

“We’ve been treated frightfully well,” said Mrs. Howard, who lives with her husband and two children in Castle Howard, made famous in the television special “Brideshead Revisited.”

The huge, old houses, more than 200 years old, are packed with precious paintings, porcelains, sculptures, Chippendale furniture (Chippendale the person, as opposed to Chippendale, the style) and ornate silver collected over the centuries by their families. As laws have changed, the heirs find themselves battling taxes and towering upkeep costs in efforts to keep the homes intact.

The exhibit seems to leave everyone breathless. Brinkley couldn’t get over the silver wine cooler.


“It’s big enough to take a bath in,” he said.

Again trumpets called guests to dinner. The menu included crab Lord Baltimore (whose portrait is in the exhibition) and medallions of venison, served on chintz tablecloths.

The dinner conversation with owners of the grand houses was a big cut above the usual Washington political talk. One lender, who asked his name not appear in the paper, chatted animatedly about his upbringing by nannies and governesses (once trying to cut off a nanny’s head with a toy sword), riding ponies and studying French, seeing his parents only when they kissed him good night, about his house’s eight major drawing rooms and rooms modeled after palaces, about sit-down dinners for 90, dancing with Princess Diana (she and the prince are “frightfully happy”) and his current business venture on the outskirts of Denver. Buying it.

Disbelieving Dinner Partner

“You’re buying the outskirts of Denver? All of it?” a disbelieving dinner partner asked.

“As much as I can get my hands on,” he said.

On Friday night, the 150 nobles spread out to 42 different dinner parties in private homes, given by the likes of Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W. Va.), Washington Post Chairman of the Board Katharine Graham, Maurice Tobin (former chairman of the national theater) and socialite Oatsie Charles.

The prince and princess are due to arrive Saturday morning and to attend a party in their honor at the White House that night. Sunday night the dinner party will be at the British Embassy, where they are staying, and Monday night the National Gallery draws the privilege of feeding them.

Monday they leave for Palm Beach, where Charles will play polo and they will attend a benefit arranged by Armand Hammer.