One of the time honored traditions each Spring in Washington DC is the spectacle known as the First Ladies’ Luncheon.
A ticket to lunch with the current First Lady and 1300-1400 associates of members of Congress and/or Cabinet members in the intimate ballroom at the Washington Hilton; these invites are coveted and not easily obtained.
It is a fashion show of luncheon attire that could rival gowns at the Academies and it’s as much fun to just hang out in the Hilton lobby and observe the latest trends of the season as to be a participant. One year hats were in style and the “plummery” was so abundant one could hardly see across the room to view the First Lady at the podium.
Started by the Congressional Club in 1912, the event was originally a breakfast and later morphed into a luncheon, now held at the Washington Hilton in the Grand Ballroom. It was originally at the Shoreham Hotel, but in the late 80’s outgrew that space.
Each member of the Club is permitted to bring three guests. Currently there are 693 members (More information on the Congressional Club and its history will appear in my next blog post). Guests come from around the country and the world to attend the event, some staying on to enjoy the sights in Washington, others just blasting in for a quick overnight. Sometimes local restaurants have specials in honor of the event and even cardboard cutouts of the President and First Lady for patrons to pose beside.
One year Madame Tussauds’ Wax Museum provided wax statues of the current and former First Ladies. Guests at the luncheon could wait in the queue and have a picture taken with the lifelike replica of the First Lady. It was a memento to take home and impress friends with your proximity to the First Lady!
Pomp and circumstance opens the show with the Marine Band and the introduction of the Junior hostesses, daughters and granddaughters of Congressional Club members. This is followed by the introduction of distinguished guests. The First Lady is then introduced and follows the preceding guests walking down the cat walk in the center of the ballroom. She is escorted, as are the distinguished guests, by a Marine.
This procedure has varied over the years and at one time all the past presidents of the Congressional Club came down the runway also, but in the last couple years this has not been the case.
Every year the luncheon has a different theme and everything from the tablecloths to the favors (always some type of bag filled to the brim with goodies) to the centerpieces revolves around this theme. Generally the theme is inspired by the state from whence the chairman of the luncheon committee hails. Goodies in the bag usually come from the state and the food on the menu is representative as well.
This year the chair was from Illinois and the theme was America the Beautiful. The unusual appetizer was St Patty’s Day Chicago River Soup with Corned Beef & Cabbage Dumpling.
This year’s goodie bag included a “dove of peace” pin of hand-made pewter plated with 18k gold and designed by Lois Breaux, wife of former Senator John Breaux. Also included was a nifty purse hanger (not so useful for the males in attendance) and the usual variety of small snacks; popcorn from a specialty factory in IL and a cookie with the Congressional Club seal on it.
Every year it’s a treat to see what’s in the bag and normally restrained women gleefully open them before the ceremony starts or surreptitiously look them through during lunch. A personal favorite was the year the chairwoman was from Florida and it was a beach bag filled with a huge beach towel with the CC seal and a pair of leather thong sandals as well.
Usually there is a one of a kind piece of jewelry made especially for the event and perfume is a favorite as well. Again always keeping with the theme or representative of the State affiliation of the Chair.
After being satiated with the gourmet lunch the fun begins with the entertainment. Always spectacular this is a highlight of the event. This year it was Ken Ford, an electric violinist. Not only was his violin electric, his performance was as well. He danced, played and gyrated down the runway giving a breath taking, hand clapping, foot stomping show.
In a previous year Gloria Estafan literally had the entire audience up dancing to her high energy tunes. Other entertainment has included a former American Idol winner, Ruben Studdard.
A good time and a special memory; the First Ladies Luncheon is a unique experience. Each year more and more male faces appear in the crowd of what used to be exclusively women, a sign of changing times. Spouses of members of Congress, Justices of the Supreme court and Diplomats are no longer all women!!
One last note: One of my guests learned the hard way not to leave the goodie bag anywhere a four legged friend might want to search to see what was missed at the First Ladies Luncheon.