Greetin’s, Cousin George


On the embassy’s extensive lawns, Washington society rubbed elbows, and then some, in a determined effort to stay near the royal presence and the punch bowls. Over a thousand uncomfortably dressed guests jammed the humid gardens. As one reporter remarked, going to the party was in itself an “excellent weight-reducing privilege.” Having an invitation meant being “acceptable.” Originally Lady Lindsay, the British ambassador’s wife, had invited only a select group of congressmen and their wives, apparently following her husband’s dictum that the garden party was like “heaven—some are taken and some are not.” But when those omitted raised a storm of protest, the embassy expanded the guest list. Most congressmen finally received an invitation, and their wives dragged them to the embassy to mingle nonchalantly with Mrs. Woodrow Wilson, J.P. Morgan, Jr., John D. Rockefeller, Jr., Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt, and Admiral Richard E. Byrd.

Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes was invited but did not attend; he went instead to a stag cocktail party at the apartment of a young Texas congressman, Lyndon E. Johnson. Dressed in shirtsleeves, Ickes enjoyed Johnson’s drinks, he later recalled, more than he would have “the formal doings in morning coat and silk hat at the British Embassy, milling about with a lot of uninteresting, climbing, and supercilious people.” Most congressmen rejected Ickes’ view of the affair and turned up at the embassy. Although Indiana’s Sherman Minton and Rhode Island’s Theodore F. Green drew criticism from their Senate colleagues for wearing full formal attire, others erred in the opposite direction. One senator defied convention by appearing in a lounge suit. Another sported a straw hat. Nevada’s Pat McCarran thrust a green carnation in his lapel to remind the British of Irish-American Anglophobia. Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan appeared in an ice-cream suit, and a South Dakota senator wore a most proper cutaway but topped it with a Stetson.

Styles of dress were not the only compromises made with formality. The heat and humidity loosened the bindings of convention. Perspiring women fanned themselves with invitation-cud envelopes and parched men struggled around the punch bowls for iced tea and lemonade, a scene which prompted Representative C. Jasper Bell to blurt out that the party “was sort of like our church socials in Missouri.” King George tried to ease the situation by tracking “Finder’s keepers!” when someone dropped a coin in the receiving line, but he did not stoop to pick it up himself. Vice President Garner succeeded in burying all protocol in the punch bowl when he dealt the King a Texas-style greeting—a hearty slap on the back. Ickes, when he heard of it, noted sarcastically in his diary that the slap was only “a showing of familiarity and bad breeding necessary to impress others with his democracy.” Somehow able to ignore the congressional buffoonery, a diplomat concluded that the garden party, which had “caused more heartburns, more adverse press comment, [and] more of a tempest in a teapot than any social event … in this country, [went] off beautifully.”

The formal state dinner that evening gave Garner another opportunity to display his “democracy.” Sitting on the Queen’s right, Cactus Jack was as “full of life as a kitten,” Ickes noted. The Secretary of the Interior was shocked. Obviously, he told his diary, Garner had “no breeding or natural dignity,” treating royalty as he would poker cronies. Ickes doubted “if he had any more self-restraint” at a White House dinner “than he would have shown at a church supper in Uvalde, Texas.” Later the Vice President pawed and grabbed the King. Then, according to Ickes, Garner “reach[ed] his arm behind [the King’s] back as if in a semi-embrace. I suppose that…to Garner the King was simply a visiting Elk.”

After dinner the President proposed a toast to the Anglo-American example of mutual trust and absence of fear, expressing the wish that “these methods of peace, divorced from aggression, could only be universally followed.” The King toasted in a similar vein.

Guests then adjourned to the East Room for an entertainment chosen by Mrs. Roosevelt. It presented a variety of American music from Negro spirituals to popular tunes. Kate Smith forced a rearrangement of the program, fearing that she might be late for her radio show. Mrs. Roosevelt introduced her as “one of our greatest singers,” whereupon she sang “When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain” and received polite applause. Ickes thought that Kate Smith “was awful, both in appearance and performance.” North Carolina’s Soco Gap Square Dancers stomped, clapped, and whirled through “Dive and Shoot the Owl” and “London Bridge.” This perked up Garner sufficiently to remark that the Queen might have dozed off “if those fellers hadn’t been raisin’ the roof.” The Vice President kept alert even while the Coon Creek Girls from Pinchem-Tight Hollow, Kentucky, strummed several folk songs. Perhaps the snake rattle in the leader’s fiddle fascinated Cactus Jack; it made little difference to the rest of the fatigued audience. For nearly everyone the highlight of the evening was Marian Anderson, who sang “My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord,” “Tramping,” and “Ave Maria.” Garner, however, was unresponsive: “So far as I could observe,” wrote Ickes, “he never gave her a hand.”

The affair finally broke up at about midnight, and the King and Queen went to bed in order to be fresh for Friday’s ordeal of meeting congressmen at the Capitol.