City Desk

Sally Quinn: “Style Is Back!”

quinnWashington social doyenne Sally Quinn has made a career out of party etiquette. She knows what food to serve, what atmosphere to create, what to wear, precisely where to seat the married couples (not together, dammit!).

The author of a new Washington Post Style section column on entertaining as well as a book on the same subject has lofty goals for her get-togethers: "I want everyone who leaves my house to leave feeling better about themselves," said Quinn in an interview with City Desk.

Judged against her own standards, Quinn may have stumbled last Friday night.

The event was a holiday bash for Style staffers, and the venue was not Quinn's house but the Georgetown residence of Style co-boss Ned Martel. In any event, Quinn, the queen of the party, felt compelled to play the headlining role, delivering the keynote toast. According to attendees and Quinn herself, the toast hit on the following themes:

I've been with Style for 30 years, and Style is back! Back to where it was in the good old days. I talk to people these days who read Style every day and it's been a long time since I've heard that. There's energy and creativity and vibrancy now. Ned and [co-boss] Lynn [Medford] are doing great work. Blah, blah.

When asked how people should have responded to the message, Quinn responded: "I think they should have been ecstatic."

Ecstasy, though, was scarce among this crowd. "Everybody thought [the toast] was inconsiderate of all the people who’ve been there for some time, that it was a failing operation that people didn't read," says a source.

Another interpretation from another attendee: Quinn was singing the praises of the section decades ago, back when she was a star social correspondent—i.e., the "good old days"—and now, when she is again a regular contributor, via her weekly column "The Party." "This was clearly Sally talking about Sally," says the attendee.

No narcissism here, protests Quinn. "I wasn’t talking about me. I was talking about the energy and excitement that we had, and I see that now and it’s just thrilling."

A couple of partygoers claim that Martel was wincing when Quinn was gushing over the turnaround in Style quality, a charge that Martel denies. "I have never winced at anything that Sally Quinn has said." As to the elegance of Quinn's toast, Martel took a pass: "I think it’s best for that night to exist without the host’s next-day or next-week commentary."

Whatever the feelings about Quinn's attempt at holiday cheer, the gossip that lingers days later attests to a number of issues:

Issue No. 1: Quinn is right that Style is improving, as City Desk has pointed out previously.

Issue No. 2: The quality and avant-garditude of the Style section is one of the great agonies of the Washington Post. Oh, it was so awesome decades ago, goes a popular refrain. Everyone loves to wax nostalgic about its classic writers. Hendrickson! Allen! Quinn! The debate about when the section was great and when it sucked is the journalistic equivalent of "Man, it's cold outside"—a waste of breath that'll never accomplish anything. When the section turned 40 early this year, Style writer Hank Stuever tilted at the craziness:

There's a kind of longtime Washington Post reader who is only too smug about informing us how great Style was in the 1970s, or the '80s or the '90s (the early '90s, they sniff, like oenophiles distinguishing vintage). We are certain that by the end of Style's first week, someone complained that it was better on Monday and Tuesday. At a Style staff meeting a few years back, art critic Paul Richard, who's been here since the Earth cooled, said that anyone who tells you Style was so much better back-when should be condemned to crank the microfilm and forced to read it, day in and day out.

Issue No. 3: Quinn couldn't abide a certain top editor at the Post. When asked to expand on her claim that Style is back, Quinn obliged: "I would say that Ben [Bradlee, former Post executive editor and husband of Quinn] invented Style and he really cared about it. It was priority No. 1. When he stepped down as editor, it was not the No. 1 priority anymore. And when Marcus took over, it was a big priority for him."

Let's see—think there might just be a subtle little elbow in there between the lines? What do you know—that non-priority period just so happens to coincide with the editorship of Leonard Downie Jr., who ran the Post newsroom from 1991 to 2008.

But this is one pissing match for which Downie won't whip it out. When informed of Quinn's analysis, he declined to comment.

Issue No. 4: Quinn is a lovely person to talk to, a true believer in fine entertaining, perky-yet-tough, a great family woman, a co-moderator of an innovative Post Web page on religion, and surely many other good things, but her "The Party" column isn't one of the things contributing to the Style section's resurgence. Thus far, it's a jumble of reflections and peeves from a woman for whom entertaining is a touch too important. And if you actually read it, there's no way to avoid the self-aggrandizing land mines that can hit you at any point. My fave thus far: "One of the nicest compliments I ever got was at a large New Year's Eve party I had. A man came over to me and said, 'I love this party. Everyone here looks so beautiful.' (Candles, rose-colored walls and pink light bulbs never hurt.)"

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  • Comrade Al Gonzales

    Sally Quinn gives the best head in town - bar none. She should teach women how to give blow jobs, that's where her great talent lies. She's only a so-so hostess, & knows nothing about religion, but her reputation for being the best at fellatio is indisputable.

  • Fred

    I think Sally Quinn should just be a Washington Post character. You know, one who never ages. And whenever this one ages out, a new one comes in - kind of like the two Beckys on Roseanne. And the Sally Quinn character is a social "doyenne," whose role is to be married to Ben Bradlee or whatever salty editor they have in there, and to report savvily on things like the social scene, and occasionally (only occasionally) get her photo in that paper or any other.

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  • journalist

    Sally Quinn is the LAST person in the world to be writing about "making guests feel comfortable" at parties. She carries knives on her of the most insulting, rude so-called journalists on the planet

  • edward

    I can well understand why Quinn doesn't like Downie because he virtually banned her from the paper. Now she's back with a column On Faith (which has to be the most hypocritical column I've ever read because it is written by someone who has none) plus occasional pieces. I think the Post needs an iron-clad rule: once you are gone, you are gone. Quinn's time has past, and she's showing her age. She's becoming more and more like the old society reporters she once ridiculed, talking about their dinner "gets" and important people on their invitation lists.

  • Mark

    I was an underling (OK, a sub-underling) at Style in the summer of 1980 while finishing my journalism degree at American U. I recall several of the section's superstars for the courtesy, consideration and patience they displayed toward us lowly copy aides and the like. Sally Quinn was not among them.

  • Nanette

    An aging self-appointed socialite whose husband-stealing is a moral abrogation. (And this adulterer now has a 'faith' site, a hoot in itself.)
    SQ represents the old style of women's lives, where they attach themselves to powerful men, if they can, and ride like remoras. With pride, when they should be embarrassed.
    Please retire her off somewhere so she can plan Ben B.'s 90th. Why is she still swanning around Style parties?
    Delighted to see her become a much-mocked buffoon. She deserves every knife in her lipo-suctioned back.
    Payback's a witch. Welcome to it.

  • Wassup

    Crisco, Kleenex and a coke bottle douche, the Sally Quinn "Style"!

    Old whore whose only talent was an ability to stifle her gag reflex and a penchant for chawing down on old gristle - repulsive!

    Erik, she gets enough free ink in the Post, please don't compound the transgression.

    Gawd this woman is dreadful!

  • Wassup

    Also, Quinn is not and never was and never will be a doyenne. She is a wannabe who crawled out of the gutter and a la "the Salahis" has created a fantasy background for herself. She is not, was not, and never will be accepted by the society from which doyennes come and she knows it - why do you think she is such a fear mongering control freak.

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  • Texarkana Girl

    What in heaven's name is wrong with you people to make such ugly comments?

    I've been a fan of Sally Quinn since the 1970s, when she also got a raw deal. It's easy, perhaps, to say nasty things about a public persona. But why are you doing it?

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  • Guesty

    Texarkana Girl, if you've 'been a fan of Sally Quinn since the 1970s,' you are no girl. You might, however, suffer from the same narcissistic denial of objective reality (denying, amongst other things, that time passes and girls become women) as Ms. Quinn. Sally Quinn is an unbelievably snobby, mean-spirited hack, and she deserves every criticism tossed in her direction.