Colin Jost and Scarlett Johansson lead 'D.C.-Palooza'

The First Art Newspaper on the Net    Established in 1996 Monday, June 17, 2024

Colin Jost and Scarlett Johansson lead 'D.C.-Palooza'
The crowd at La Grande Boucherie during the Creative Artists Agency’s party in Washington, on April 26, 2024. Parties surrounding the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner have made April a high point of the Washington social calendar. (Jason Andrew/The New York Times)

by Callie Holtermann

WASHINGTON, DC.- The early arrivals at a party thrown by the Hollywood powerhouse Creative Artists Agency on Friday night seemed to be weighing the same question: Just how much could they expect to let loose during this year’s White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner weekend?

Their game of chicken did not go on long. By 8 p.m., guests at the talent agency’s event, held at La Grande Boucherie in Washington, were applying temporary tattoos to one another’s necks and trying to prevent their drinks from sloshing onto a baby grand piano.

The weekend’s main event, known as “nerd prom,” is a Saturday night banquet at the Washington Hilton Hotel. There, Colin Jost of “Saturday Night Live” plans to gently roast President Joe Biden, who is expected to take the dais and attempt some zingers of his own.

In addition to the annual dinner, the intertwined media and political classes celebrate themselves at a succession of receptions and parties that have made April a bustling month for the D.C. social set.

Despite wars, campus unrest and the criminal trial of former President Donald Trump, plenty of journalists and power brokers appeared determined to make the most of this year’s schmoozefest.

“It’s really exciting to be able to just put politics aside, for one beautiful weekend,” said Desi Lydic, a senior correspondent for “The Daily Show.” “As well as our ethics.”

The CAA party was held in honor of Jost, who made the rounds with his wife, Scarlett Johansson. Jost’s boss, “Saturday Night Live” creator Lorne Michaels, marched straight to the food table upon his arrival. When he was asked what looked good, he replied, “The vegetables.”

Other guests included second gentleman Doug Emhoff, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre and newscaster Andrea Mitchell. Hollywood was represented by actors Rosario Dawson, Chris Pine and Kyle MacLachlan, whose political resume includes his role as a fictional mayor in “Portlandia.” The CAA contingent was led by the company’s CEO, Bryan Lourd, and agents Rachel Adler and Joe Machota.

Located in a former bank on 14th Street, La Grand Boucherie is a stately two-story restaurant trimmed with stained glass and a gilded ceiling. Unlike those married couples who split up at parties to work the room separately, Jost and Johansson, both CAA clients, went around in tandem. At one point, as they maneuvered around a demiclad statue, Jost did his best to fend off questions about his role as the host of this year’s dinner.

“I’m too nervous right now,” he said.

Upstairs, Naomi Biden, the eldest of the president’s grandchildren, said that no celebrity sighting would excite her as much as her run-in with Ariana Madix of “Vanderpump Rules” during last April’s festivities. “I was like, ‘I feel like I’m the only one who appreciates that you’re here,’” Biden recalled.

But only so many cheese boards could stave off conversations about the media industry’s challenges: layoffs in newsrooms, the threat of artificial intelligence and the jailing of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich in Russia more than a year ago.

“The underlying tone of this weekend is, ‘What do we do about Evan Gershkovich?’” said Sara Fischer, the senior media reporter at Axios. “Behind every glass of Champagne is an editor talking about him right now.”

The social agenda had begun Thursday evening, when Politico hosted a kickoff reception at the British ambassador’s residence on Embassy Row.

The 17,000-square-foot manse, designed in the 1920s by architect Sir Edward Lutyens, is an ever so slightly scaled down version of an English country estate. A sign bearing the royal coat of arms shooed certain guests away from a room full of chairs upholstered in white fabric: “No red wine in our drawing room please.”

Attorney General Merrick Garland held court in the garden, where fragrant peonies were in springtime bloom. Nearby, standing close to a tower of whoopie pies, Goli Sheikholeslami, the CEO of Politico, was deep in conversation with David Risher, the CEO of Lyft.

It is rare these days for a marquee fete to go without a sponsorship or some sort of brand presence, and the party at the embassy was no exception. An amiable server, cigar clipper in hand, offered an assortment of Diamond Crown cigars. One guest was observed having a contemplative smoke on a bench in the garden.

“This weekend has become the highlight of the Washington social calendar,” Sheikholeslami told the crowd. “What started out as the ‘nerd prom’ has become somewhat of D.C.-palooza.”

But even amid the merriment and peacocking, outside events could not help but crash the party. Dame Karen Pierce, Britain’s ambassador to the United States, who hosted the event with Sheikholeslami, said she had attended a memorial that morning for seven aid workers killed in the Gaza Strip while delivering food for World Central Kitchen.

“A very difficult time in the world,” she said.

Some of the most coveted invitations came from the new class of digital news startups. John Boehner, a former speaker of the House, was among the guests who rode elevators to the top floor of Riggs Washington D.C., a luxury hotel in the Penn Quarter where Puck was hosting a party with talent agency William Morris Endeavor.

Screenwriter and playwright Aaron Sorkin sat for an interview with Puck writers Matthew Belloni and Peter Hamby that was recorded for Belloni’s podcast, “The Town.” Sorkin offered his takes on TikTok and AI before the presidential campaign came up.

“Can I get an Aaron Sorkin anxiety check on Joe Biden and his reelection chances?” Hamby asked.

“I’m as worried as can be,” Sorkin responded.

As Sorkin delivered a monologue about Meta’s handling of misinformation during the 2020 election, guests who were not in the mood for wonky conversation posed for selfies at kiosks provided by Snap, formerly Snapchat, in the other room.

Joanna Coles, the onetime Hearst Magazines executive who was recently named the content chief of The Daily Beast, navigated podcasters sipping espresso martinis. Areas of interest for the Beast under her leadership? “Money, ambition, power, revenge and betrayal,” she said. “And, of course, we’re captivated by Lauren Sanchez.”

Nearby, Jon Favreau, the Obama speechwriter turned “Pod Save America” host, observed that the weekend’s social scene seemed to have rallied since its COVID-era lull. “It’s a lot of people like, ‘We’re out, we’re back, we’re partying,’” he said. “It’s like a high school reunion with grown-ups.”

The next night the social whirl moved to the Kalorama neighborhood, where a party for the digital news outlet Semafor took place under the watch of Secret Service agents in a private home not far from the Obamas’ residence.

The house belonged to Justin Smith, a former CEO of Bloomberg Media who, in 2022, joined forces with Ben Smith, a former top editor of BuzzFeed News, to start Semafor.

Standing in his kitchen, Justin Smith said that his teenage son was upstairs playing video games and his Nova Scotia duck tolling retriever, Teddy, was in the basement. He lamented that the dog did not have a more distinctive name; a mistake he did not repeat when naming Semafor.

Ben Smith, who put in a roughly two-year stint as the media columnist for The New York Times, was seen joking around with White House communications director Ben LaBolt. Other guests included Jim Bankoff, the CEO of Vox Media, and Kasie Hunt, the “CNN This Morning” host.

Although he seemed bullish about his own operation, Justin Smith said he was stressed about how the news media would handle the upcoming presidential election. “It’s sort of unprecedented, the amount of misinformation, the amount of polarization, the amount of bias,” he said.

He continued: “Can everyone appeal to their better angels and somehow rise above a lot of this stuff and really look at things objectively and factually and independently?”

In a backyard lit by magenta floodlights, a photo backdrop with Semafor branding was set up next to a basketball hoop. DJ Lance Reynolds played relaxed music from the patio, where guests sipped rum punch with their backs to the pool. Everyone appeared a little wary of dancing — it seemed all too easy to fall in.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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