Secrets of the Social Secretaries
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Page Napier, Lawrence Dunham and “Mari Carmen” Aguirre in the library at the Mexican Cultural Institute
|Aguirre greets Ambassador John Negroponte, former US ambassador to Mexico|
In theory, Washington’s embassy social circuit is a gatecrasher’s heaven. There is a tempting nightly smorgasbord of national-day celebrations, fundraising receptions, concerts with buffets to follow, farewell functions for departing ambassadors and welcoming parties for new ones. But like most coveted events, to get to the complimentary food and drinks—and, moreover, the interesting crowd from all over the world—the uninvited guest must get past the keeper of the gate. And few seldom do.
The obstacle in their path is typically an elegant woman with an affable smile, but a formidable memory for names and faces, and a honed skill for spotting an impostor at a hundred paces. In other words, the ambassador’s social secretary. She (or, very rarely, he) manages a key area of the foreign envoy’s role and that of his or her spouse—their social life, together and separately.
Page Napier, social secretary to the European Union ambassador, describes the social secretary as “a constant force that keeps events moving forward. The job can definitely have a significant impact if something goes awry.” Jaime de Ojeda, a former Spanish ambassador to Washington who never left and lives in the Shenandoah Valley, observes that “ambassadors arrive in Washington and are expected to know everyone in a fortnight. But DC is a very complicated city. The social secretary is the one who unloads her experience and steers the newcomer into the social vortex of the capital.”
“Hospitality greases the wheels of diplomacy,” says Lawrence Dunham, formerly assistant chief of protocol at the State Department and now a consultant. “And embassy social secretaries have an understanding of how things are done; they know who is important to the embassy, who a newly arriving ambassador and spouse need to know. Their judgment and insight are essential.” A social secretary spends a lot of her time drawing up invitation lists for the ambassador’s approval, constructing seating charts and planning menus with the ambassador’s spouse and the embassy’s in-house chef. “On any given day, it could be breakfast for two, a luncheon for 24 or a reception for 200,” says “Mari Carmen” Aguirre, social secretary and protocol officer at the embassy of Mexico. “You work from a master list: Mine has about 3,000 names, which is typical for a big embassy. It is subdivided into categories—State Department, the arts, business and so on. You keep a record of past guest lists and seating arrangements.”
Not to be outdone, EU secretaries have the potential added responsibility of the six-month rotating presidency of the European Council, a major challenge in every respect. “The increased number of receptions, programs and visits by delegations put a strain on the embassy,” says Marta Mihaly, social secretary of the ambassador of Hungary, whose country held the rotating EU presidency until June 30. “On average we were hosting one major social event every week—that was more than 35 big occasions in the embassy between January and June.”
Regardless of frequency, there is no question that an invitation to a Washington embassy is coveted. “Everybody loves to come to an embassy,” says Diane Flamini, social secretary and protocol officer at the embassy of Spain (and, full disclosure, this reporter’s spouse). “It has cachet; it is usually rather grand.” Not surprisingly, however, some invitations are more coveted than others: For many, the big European missions (Britain, Spain, France, Italy) top the list, but almost equally coveted are Morocco, Japan, Brazil, Mexico and Kuwait, due to the tireless efforts of the ambassador’s wife, Rima Al-Sabah.
Celebrating the White House Correspondents’ Association’s annual dinner at Carnegie Library.