December ’91: Christmas at the Kennedy Center Honors

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Twenty-five years ago—and writing this I can’t believe it’s been that long—my stepfather, Robert Shaw, the prolific choral and symphonic conductor whom I’ve written about before in these pages, won the Kennedy Center Honor. It’s the highest honor for a performing artist in America to receive, and the splashy weekend of celebration was one of those pinch-yourself-I-just-can’t-believe-this-is-happening moments that only come along every so often in a lifetime, if at all. 1991 was a big year for our family: Carnegie Hall turned 100 years old and RS had served as a board member and frequent conductor there, so there were lots of celebrations and concerts about all that. As well, RS turned 75. To top it off with the Kennedy Center Honor, this was truly a banner year.

We flew from Atlanta to Washington, D.C., on a Friday and checked in to what was then The Ritz-Carlton, although it has since been de-flagged. The celebration for the Kennedy Center Honorees didn’t start till Saturday night with a splendid reception and dinner in the Period Rooms of the State Department—a museum of American furniture and paintings, and the original hand-signed U.S. Constitution, under glass. I loved seeing the Boston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore silver—not quite the start of but still early on in my fetish—and the dinner for 200 people was lit by candles alone. The menu? American absolutely everything: the wines, the foie gras, the duck, the chocolate. The very best of what our country had to offer. Leontyne Price made a dramatic turbanned entrance with her brother, whom she referred to as either The Captain or The Colonel—I can’t remember which because he was a decorated war hero—in uniform. I sat next to Betty Comden, a fellow honoree that year, and fell in love instantly.

Other honorees that year? Betty and her writing partner, Adolf Green, were legends on Broadway. Gregory Peck was a movie star who needs no introduction—and his son Tony, with wife Cheryl Tiegs, left the room breathless when they made their entrance. The Nicholas Brothers were 1930s movie dancers who’d spearheaded civil-rights issues in tap shoes, and country star Roy Acuff, a Grand Ole Opry blockbuster. At the State Department that night, Isaac Stern, the violin virtuoso and emcee of the evening, played “Danny Boy,” and the entire room melted in tears.

The next day, Sunday, there was a brunch at The Jockey Club in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, the headquarters for the weekend. It was a clubby, intimate restaurant, and at 22, this was my first experience meeting legends like Lauren Bacall, Katharine Hepburn, Anthony Hopkins, and Walter Cronkite in person. Heady, no?

That afternoon, we went in black-tie to a fully decked-out-in-Christmas White House for a reception. The actual awards ceremony took place in the East Room, with an incredible buffet and cocktail reception in the State Dining Room, but beforehand, we’d been invited by President and Mrs. Bush to see the private quarters. Among the Pecks’ guests were M. et Mme. Jacques Chirac, and Mme. Chirac spoke very little, if any, English, so my mother—as fluent in French as she was in English—was corralled to serve as translator. The Bushes were affable and charming. The President wanted to mesmerize us with some technology on his fab TV but couldn’t get it to work, and Barbara Bush showed my aunt, Laura, every detail of a splendid needlepoint rug of wildflowers she’d made out of squares she’d done on the campaign trail—one square at a time—and then had them assembled. The First Lady wryly cautioned us on the importance of picking one’s own portrait painter as she motioned to a portrait of some 19th-century First Lady who’d had no say in hers, and whose image had a beard.

After The White House, we went to the Kennedy Center for the incredible show for 2,000 guests. That’s the one you’ve seen on television—all singing, all dancing. It’s splendidly produced—one of a kind—and like nothing else that’s ever been televised. Jean Stapleton presented Robert with his award that night, a surprise for him, because she’d sung in one of his choruses in the late 1940s. The show’s producers had flown up the entire Atlanta Symphony Chorus to sing for Robert—another surprise. The whole evening was one wow after the other, and the exhilaration, dopamine, and adrenaline of that night were, thus far, unparalleled in my life.

Another memory: earlier that afternoon, walking into the White House, Kitty Carlisle Hart—alone in her emeralds—asked my family, “Mind if I walk in with you?” For sure we didn’t.