Our most notorious party

Sam Smith – The most notorious party we ever gave not only made it into the Washington Post and Washington Star-News, but also into the hearing record of the Senate Judiciary Committee’ investigation into “subversion of law enforcement intelligence gathering operations.” The 1974 event was a fund-raiser for the Fifth Estate, a creation of Norman Mailer. The organization had not quite gotten off the ground since at its launch a year earlier at New York City’s Four Seasons. Even the air in the room couldn’t have passed a breathalyzer test. “At the end of the glittery and boisterous evening,” reported the Star-News, “a sweating, bloodshot-eyed Mailer announced he was starting the Fifth Estate — a people’s counterespionage organization designed to spy right back at the CIA and the FBI to keep the nation from ‘sliding towards totalitarianism.'”

Later, Mailer merged his baby with a functioning public interest group called the Committee for Action/Research on the Intelligence Community and was ready to try again. Mailer was sober and the crowd serious. According to the Star-News, I “gazed around at the houseful of anonymous young men in turtlenecks, girls in black, and vociferous gray-haired ladies with name tags” and told the reporter, “We’re all part of the central cause. The central cause still exists, in spite of what you read in the papers.”

Earlier that day, my favorite high school English teacher had called to say he was in town, which allowed me to reply with something of the sort I had always wanted to say to him, “Great, Bob, why don’t you come over tonight? Norman Mailer will be here.” It’s not every night you can have Norman Mailer and your favorite high school English teacher in your house at the same time.

The Star-News wrote of the guest of honor:

“Finally he mounted a stair landing to speak. With one hand on the balustrade and the other gesticulating from the elbow, he spoke at great length about himself and his cause. ‘This idea came to me through the aegis of an angel,’ he said. ‘This angel said, ‘You are the dauphin. You must ride forth and bring this idea. You must save France.’ The angel was a drunk and he meant America.

“‘So I said, ‘Okay, anything to relieve my illimitable boredom . . . I am just Phineas T. Dauphin. If this remains my plaything, nothing will happen to it. I just want to be remembered as old Uncle Norman who had something to do with it.”

[It is reflective of the subsequent decline of Washington that the always well-reported Star-News died, while the Post — which claimed that Mailer had called himself the “dolphin” and was suffering from “inimitable” boredom — survived.]

Among those attending the party were ex-CIA agent Victor Marchetti whose new book had been enjoined from publication because of government objections, as well as a woman who said, “I’m a very bored radical right now, and I’d love to leave, but the person who brought me wants to ask Mailer something.”

The Post reported that, “many of the guests, mostly elegantly dressed, articulate antiwar activists, had come not knowing quite what to expect but with the thought that, as one woman put it, ‘wine and cheese and Norman Mailer were probably worth $10 a head.'”

Also on hand was a New York television director, Paul Jacobs, who told crowd that he didn’t trust men with “two last names and tasseled Bass Weejuns without socks” and added: “People are starting other conversations. People are dying to leave. Mailer talked too long. This is the wrong audience. There’s no social status to be gained here.”

With this curious pitch, he started asking for funds as several bowls were circulated among the crowd. Mailer contributed $500. At 11:30, the Post spotted Mailer “standing on the chilly front porch, drinking ice water, still talking abut the Fifth Estate.”

A number of organizations that would actually survive held one of their earliest meetings on our front porch or in our living room, including the Center for Voting & Democracy and a bunch of pizza-munching activists who dreamed of some day starting a national Green party. Unfortunately, the Fifth Estate was not one of them. It was soon gone.

But not completely forgotten. In the permanent record of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s 1976 hearings there is this report from a committee investigator:

“Publicity [for the Fifth Estate] was provided at a March 23, 1974, fundraising wine and cheese party at the home of District of Columbia Gazette editor Sam Smith attended by some 100 guests, each of whom paid $10 each for the privilege of attending. Norman Mailer made a rambling 30-minute speech; the staffers, Timothy Charles Blitz, Perry Fellwock, also known as Winslow Peck, K. Barton Osborn, and Douglas Porter spoke of their counterintelligence activities, and the somewhat besotted liberals in attendance poured two bottles of Portuguese wine into a planter in support of African liberation.”

 

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