Elections are still won but inaugural balls are lost

At the 1893 inaugural ball of Stephen Grover Cleveland,heralded as “a triumph of the electricians’ skill”,a canopy constructed of 10,000 square yards of gold bunting hung over a jubilant display of silk,flowers...

Published:January 18, 2009 11:44 am

At the 1893 inaugural ball of Stephen Grover Cleveland,heralded as “a triumph of the electricians’ skill”,a canopy constructed of 10,000 square yards of gold bunting hung over a jubilant display of silk,flowers and incandescent bulbs that spelled out the names of all previous presidents. A 120-piece orchestra played for the guests,who could pause from dancing to nibble on 60,000 oysters,10,000 chicken croquettes,150 gallons of lobster salad and 1,300 quarts of ice cream.

At the 1997 inaugural balls of William Jefferson Clinton,guests at certain venues could purchase a plastic box containing a ham and Swiss mini-biscuit for $5.50 and,for an extra $4,a glass of wine dispensed from an 18-litre box. Some places went the peanuts ‘n’ frozen cookies route. Sadly,sometime in American history,the inaugural ball became,to put it bluntly,hideous.

“Oh,there will be something big hanging from the ceiling and something big hanging from the end of the room,but it won’t be beautiful. It will be gaudy,” says Letitia Baldrige,who was Jackie Kennedy’s social secretary. “The music will be great,but you won’t be able to hear it over the people asking why they paid so much money and why there aren’t more bathrooms.”

So when did this ball go so wrong? The first one appears to have been lovely. The official inaugural ball on March 4,1809,at Long’s Hotel,near what is now the Library of Congress,was the brainchild of that hostess with the mostest,Dolley Madison,wife of the fourth President,James. Anyone with $4 (about $50 today) could attend,and would be treated to lemonade and coffee,a late supper,candies and this new thing called chocolate. The Marine Band played,guests did minuets and waltzes,and James Monroe kept the great idea for his 1817 inauguration. So did John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson.

For Abraham Lincoln’s second inauguration,the list of desserts takes up its own paragraph (“tarte a la Nelson,tart a la Orleans,tarte a la Portuguese,tarte a la Vienne…”).

However,Woodrow Wilson decreed in 1913 that he would not have an inaugural ball. He thought it was too frivolous. From Harding’s time through Franklin D. Roosevelt’s,the inaugural ball became several events around the city.

The whole thing started to go all wrong in the ’50s. When Dwight D. Eisenhower entered office in 1953,Democrats had been in the White House for two full decades,and Republicans were rarin’ for a good bash. That night,both official balls were so crowded that dancing was almost impossible.

John F. Kennedy’s balls (all five of them) were once again too swamped for the couple to dance at all. A ball without dancing is less ball,more cattle herd. So Jimmy Carter renamed the balls “parties” and served pretzels and peanuts. He charged just $25 per ticket. Everybody hated it. Ronald Reagan swung the pendulum back in 1981,planning eight white-tie affairs and starting ticket prices at $100.

America still has balls. Because it is a country of nostalgia and tradition. Because even in this age of the first “Internet president”,Americans want to experience things in real life.
Monica Hesse,LATWP

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