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Washington Rollercoaster.

Washington Rollercoaster. Sondra Gotlieb. Doubleday-Canada, $24.95. Fasten your seat belts folks. Sondra Gotlieb, wife of,, the former Canadian ambassador has struck again-Washington Rollercoaster is more than just a bumpy ride.

It is part Perils of Pauline," part innocent abroad, part long-suffering spouse, with a large dollop of revisionist history thrown in.

Although Sondra considers herself a humorist, somewhere along the line she has lost her wit. She adheres to the credo "get mad and get even"and does so with the venom of a cobra.

Let's get right to the heart of the matter. Nancy Reagan made her do it.

In case you were on Mars, I had better explain.

On March 19, 1986 the ambassador and his wife were entertaining the A" list of Powertown at an official dinner for Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. Standing on the steps of "the Residence," waiting impatiently for Vice President and Mrs. Bush to arrive, Sondra got miffed at a last-minute cancellation. A self-styled expert on the complicated nuances of seating, she just couldn't bear the thought of fussing with those tables at such a late moment."

Unable to control her emotions over such an egregious situation, she expressed her dismay by hauling off and slugging her social secretary, Connie Connors, who was standing dutifully by her side. All the other heavy hitters, so to speak, and important newsies missed the scene. They were busy partying inside. Sondra thought she was home free. But one lone reporter, Juliet O'Neill, of the Canadian Press, "not a guest," as Sondra points out-as if she had been trespassing-was nevertheless alert in the driveway. To Sondra's chagrin, O'Neill witnessed what Sondra calls a private incident," and ever so impolitely broke the story.

Hours later, the unsuspecting ambassadorial couple were celebrating what they considered a successful evening when they were engulfed in what Sondra describes as "a tidal wave of poisonous abuse and denigration from the media."

Trying further to prove her innocence, Sondra goes on to question both O'Neill's reporting skills and her eyesight, but enough of that. The whole slap flap can be laid right at Nancy Reagan's door.

The night before the slugging, the Gotliebs were late for a White House state dinner, and Sondra says the first lady was rude. Sondra says she was so distressed by Nancy's slight that she failed to sleep that night. The next day she decided to diet in order to squeeze into a tight new red dress. By eight in the evening she was starving, exhausted, and still unnerved by Mrs. Reagan's behavior.

"My nature turns nasty at the end of the day when I try a starvation diet-especially if I haven't slept well the night before," she writes.

So, when Connie Connors announced that the seating of the dinner had to be rearranged, it was too much to bear. (Not only is Sondra obsessed with perfect placement, she also credits herself with a unique talent: the smarts to know which super sparklie to seat where. "A number of people benefited politically, socially, and some I think financially because they sat next to the right person at our embassy. I knew how to make a table happy.")

Whack, Connors's earring went skittering down the driveway. At this point, according to later reports in the Canadian press, the ambassador launched a clever preemptive strike. He offered to resign on the spot. The prime minister, unwilling to play the heavy, turned him down.

Sondra was sage enough to realize that her golden days were numbered. Vanity Fair's "twinkling hostess" had committed a serious faux pas.

Instead of facing up to her own actions, and reality, she found somebody else to blame. The media.

Not stars of the Powerful Press like Katharine Graham, Barbara Walters, or David Brinkley, who were deemed sufficiently famous and influential to be part of her crowd, and who came to her aid, but rather "the swarm of freelancers, hatchet girls, hacks, desperadoes, and paparazzi who would sell their underpants to Lyndon LaRouche in order to get a piece or picture published in anything from People magazine to the Post."

These types-since there is no mention of jockey shorts, it seems safe to assume that she is singling out women-along with a "Couple of nasty ambassadors' wives who perhaps had been previously envious of my profile in Washington and some members of the social press who had never met me or barely knew me but who used to call to be asked to our embassy as a guest"-are all held personally responsible for her downfall. The slightest criticism during her seven years in Washington is attributed to a jealous journalist or an "embassy rat," i.e., a diplomatic groupie, who was not on her A," B," or C" list and therefore coveted an invite to one of her inimitable soirees.

Even such Powerful Jobs as Sally Quinn and Ben Bradlee have been stung by her poison pen. But because they are in the highest echelon of what she calls "the upper media," she does not trash them. (They were also regulars at her salon, but more important, both have the ability to strike back.)

What Sondra slyly suggests is that the dynamic duo were responsible for the demise of her literary career at The Washington Post. Sondra became famous, or infamous, for her "Dear Beverly" columns, a series of satiric letters in which she gave good gossip to a friend back home.

"I was told-sotto voce-that Ben Bradlee and his wife Sally Quinn were unhappy about me writing for the Post. They couldn't do much about it in the short run because the op-ed section was ruled by Meg Greenfield. As my good fortune increased, so did my enemies." When "Dear Beverly" disappeared shortly after the punch-out, Sondra puzzles, "I wondered if somehow Ben Bradlee and Sally Quinn's opinion had finally prevailed." Despite all her harried hostessing and exposure to quality" folks, i.e., important jobs, Sondra finds few kind words for most denizens of the federal city. Although she is now comfortably ensconced in a new million-dollar home in Toronto, while "husband of' practices law, publishes a magazine, and serves on various boards, Sondra professes to miss Washington. One wonders why. She never ceases to grumble about running the embassy and labels herself "the unpaid manager of a small hotel." Dealing with such taxing problems as swimming pools, servants, party tents, house guests, and dusty diplomats brought on continual panic attacks. Weekends with the Annenbergs in California, Katharine Graham in Martha's Vineyard, not to mention the beautiful people in Palm Beach and the Hamptons, were unadulterated hell. She never knew what to say, what to wear, or whom to tip. Living well was not revenge. It became a chore and a bore. One long, petulant whine.

So why the nostalgia for Powertown? The sudden yearning for the star-studded years? Our gal Sondra is always quick to make a point. "Potomac fever is a highly communicable disease, especially among those who have tasted power."

Enough said.

-Sandra McElwaine
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Article Details
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Author:McElwaine, Sandra
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1990
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