29 Years!

29 Years!

Photo credit: James Brantley

“David Manning, (British) Ambassador between 2003 and 2007, remembers the day he realized quite what his place was in American social order. He said to me, emailed to me, I found out who really counted in this city and who didn’t when Amanda was invited to Bush 41’s 80th birthday party and I wasn’t,” said current British Ambassador Sir Kim Darroch who hosted a farewell party with his wife Lady Vanessa Darroch for the Embassy’s long time Social Secretary Amanda Downes.

Sir Kim Darroch

“October 1989: This was a tumultuous year in history,” Amb. Darroch noted.  “The Communist regime in Hungary had collapsed; East Germany [opened the Berlin Wall];  but most of all, Amanda Downes arrived in Washington. The intention was just to stay two years and it’s now almost three decades – three decades of lunches, brunches, afternoon teas, conferences, dinners and receptions; three decades of scones and chips. We hold about 700 events a year at present, which means Amanda has presided over, I calculate, more than 20,000 events.  When she started, there were no spreadsheets, no email invitations, no iPads. I’m told that when she first arrived she hand wrote every invitation and licked every envelope and she was also in charge of all flower arrangements. Over her almost 29 years here there have been five presidents, six prime ministers – each of whom has stayed in this residence – not to mention royals, countless ministers and even a few rock stars and perhaps most testing of all no less than eight ambassadors. And let me tell you, all of us can be very different characters; each brought very different challenges for Amanda, though we probably have one consistent feature, which is we all took ourselves rather too seriously. I’ve been in touch with all of them and perhaps most telling is that they’ve all replied, all saying how brilliant Amanda was and how much they relied on her.”

Photo credit: Janet Donovan

Ambassador Darroch went on to explain an incident that happened in 2003 which showed off Amanda’s extraordinary sense of public duty and self-sacrifice –  as he calls it – when the then Ambassador Christopher [Meyer] made a disastrous purchase when he bought from a fellow British diplomat “one of the worst cars apparently ever manufactured, a Plymouth Horizon in a fetching shade of tomato red. He quickly discovered he simply could not as the British Ambassador be seen in DC at the wheel of this car. But no one, no one would take it off his hands until Amanda volunteered. This really was serving her country, especially since on her very first journey in this car to rural Virginia, it broke down.”

Amanda Downes

There’s this: “Amanda managed to get The Rolling Stones to come to the residence and then wrote for (Amb.) David Manning a speech entirely composed of their song titles. I tried very hard but sadly I couldn’t track down a copy of this masterpiece. You know how it is, ‘you can’t always get what you want.’  I’ve recovered from this disappointment. Amanda was used by the White House as the go-to person on etiquette whenever they had a tricky problem with a foreign visitor. But it wasn’t just the White House who needed her help. John Kerr, Ambassador from ’95 to ’97, recalls that one day he was waiting to speak to Amanda in her office, getting rather irritated that she was on a long, involved telephone call to someone, issuing detailed instructions of who ranked higher in protocol, a British bishop or American congressman. And he was so annoyed that at the end of the conversation he said, ‘Who the heck were you talking to, Amanda?’  Amanda’s reply was, ‘The Washington Post’s Katharine Graham.’ And by the way, the security answer is the British bishop outranks the American congressman.”

“I’m going to end with a couple of personal observations about Amanda. As all of you in this room know, she’s the very embodiment of experience, efficiency, and attention to detail. So you would imagine, I guess, that her office is a shrine to these qualities: Neat, structured, ordered. If you imagine that, you couldn’t be more wrong. Amanda’s office is, I assure you, a fair representation of anarchy. Perhaps the right word is chaos. It looks to be entirely without order or structure yet when I ring in there and ask for a particular piece of paper, miraculously, she always finds it halfway down the fourth pile on the left. And I can only find one explanation for this extraordinary ability is in the words of the famous psychoanalyst Carl Jung, in all chaos there is cosmos, in all disorder a secret order.”

James Billington, 13th Librarian of the US Congress with Mrs. Billington  Photo credit: Janet Donovan

Ok, so by now you know this was a long and grateful speech, but Sir Darroch was terribly amusing and is worth reading.  “You might be surprised to hear that deep within that serious and efficient exterior, there is a healthy streak of irreverence. She might be an expert on etiquette, but she doesn’t take that all that seriously. She might know off by heart who outranks who in order, but doesn’t mean she thinks it’s the most important thing in life. So when I go to her and say, ‘Well, I know that’s the right protocol, but I really want to site between these two people, not them,’ she give me one of those Amanda looks, but then she always lets me get away with it.”

“Let me be serious for a moment,” he added while trying to wrap it up. “I have been here almost a thousand days. Amanda has been ever present and has helped and looked after us pretty much every one of those thousand days. That’s less than one percent of her time here. I’ve calculated she’d been in Washington for more than ten and a half thousand days, that’s ten and half thousand days of dedicated public service, often twelve hours a day or longer. Ten and a half thousand days of wisdom, expertise, and overcoming ever kind of challenge you could imagine. It’s also ten and a half thousand days of greeting pretty much every guest who’s arrived here, and seeing every one of them off, once or twice on a stretcher. And it’s fair to say that more than any of the Ambassadors she’s worked for, she has been the public face of this building.”

Photo credit: Janet Donovan

“Anthony Atkins, her first Ambassador, emailed me the other day to say that she’s become better known in Washington than any one of the eight of us who have worked with her. As all of you know that have experienced that Amanda magic, that gift of putting guests at their ease instantly, she brings humor and warmth to every conversation. I think she’s a vet at it now and it is no surprise [she has been] decorated by the Queen, not once, but twice a member of the Victorian Order, a member of the Order of the British Empire. In short, she has over 28, almost 29 years, at a quite brilliant, selfless and vital job.  The fact that all of you here – great names of Washington – are here tonight, is a testament to that. Her impact here, building and maintaining the UK-US relationship has been immense. Just to say a few words about gifts. I wanted to kind of embarrass you, when guests of honor open gifts in front of everyone and there’s always the risk that it drops an expensive piece of glassware. That is not to give any clues, by the way, as to what is in the parcels.  There are a couple of gifts which are wrapped there from the residents and from the whole of the embassy and I hope Amanda will open them at some point this evening and show them to you. But there’s one I am going to explain, which is this thing in the triangle. As all of you know, the Union Jack flies over the residence every day. We thought it would be appropriate given Amanda’s almost 29 years here that the flag which has flown here for really quite a long time, were to be retired and presented to Amanda. So, here it is.”

En fin: “And finally, this has been an extraordinary ride for Amanda. Basically, you own Washington. Thank you very much from all of us who will be forever grateful for your guidance and friendship. We will all miss you greatly. Amanda, it’s been one hell of a party.”

“Oh crumbs,” said Amanda. “I’ve been dreading this for about 29 years.  As The Ambassador mentioned, I’ve worked for eight great and wonderful Ambassadors and their amazing wives too.  It has been a great run, I loved it. It’s been such a privilege to work with some of the best diplomats and an honor to be in this superb voluptuous house. This house has been here for 88 years, and it’s about to have a facelift at some point. I am humbled to be part of seeing this house in action. I’d also like to salute my fellow Social Secretaries in service with me. We have an interesting job, and some are more discreet than others I would say. But you’re great friends, and you’re a huge help, and I have just loved getting to know you.”

“Not long ago I was interviewed for book about Washington,” she added, “and the nerves kicked in. I hate being interviewed. The second attempt I managed to name the correct sitting president of the day when I was arriving here in Washington who was Bush 41. I was asked what I meant when I mentioned the heart of Washington, and the answer is, I am looking at the heart of Washington right now.”