Warhol-Style Portraits, Serpentine Modern Lounge Highlight Jam-Packed Correspondents' Dinner Pre-Parties

By Adele Chapin & Walter Nicholls May 11, 2009, 1:33 PM EDT

The Thomson Reuters cocktail party prior to the White House Correspondents' Association dinner

Photo: Tony Brown/Imijination Photography for BizBash

Members of the White House press corps, Washington elite, and A-list celebrities literally rubbed shoulders in a steamy mass of humanity at the cocktail parties preceding the White House Correspondents' Association dinner Saturday night at the Hilton Washington. Hosted by media organizations and taking place from 6:00 to 7:45 p.m., the pre-parties went from mellow and civilized at the start to decidedly uncomfortable as guests surged into the concourse leading them to security checkpoints and the black-tie dinner. More than one guest muttered “Where’s the fire marshal?” as the likes of Kerry Washington, Al Sharpton, and Donatella Versace fought their way through the crowd.

Secret Service agents, on hand for the arrival of President Barack Obama, and Hilton staff members maintained order the best they could, given the 2,600 dinner guests and hundreds of extras who came solely for the cocktail receptions. Otherwise, there were few decor surprises at the individual parties and the usual smoked salmon and roast beef bites were on offer.

Newsweek’s decor was a repeat of last year’s, with poster-size covers propped on easels and columns of red, white, and blue balloons. Don Graham, C.E.O. of the Washington Post Company, stood at the door shaking hands with guests entering the room. “We get this same space every year. This is all great,” said Graham, who wore a cast on one leg. Natalie Portman arrived early in the evening at Newsweek and escaped notice, for the most part, by standing in a corner. Barbara Walters and Greta Van Susteren arrived about the same time, posing separately for photos. Later, in walked Colin Powell, followed by Arianna Huffington.  

At the Thomson Reuters reception, bartenders whipped up drinks with political-themed names such as Cosmo-Pelosi, Bo-jito and One Hundred Day Martini. As it did last year, Thomson Reuters hired New York-based Watson Productions to transform a drab ballroom, this time into a pure white lounge, with serpentine walls of white fabric, white carpet, and lounge seating. The room's lighting effects changed over time, as did the audiovisual show, which focused on change in the world of autos, inventions, and social issues.  

Atlantic Media’s National Journal Group, The Atlantic, and ABC joined together for the largest party, located along the hotel’s exhibit hall concourse. (In prior years Atlantic took over a patio, which is now closed for construction.) The decor included large Warhol-esque portraits of Obama, the first lady, and other administration officials, such as David Axelrod, who arrived early on. The large space allowed for the only pre-party red carpet and step-and-repeat, which saw the likes of John Bon Jovi, who arrived with George Stepanopoulos, and Gossip Girl's Ed Westwick, who was mobbed by young women wherever he went.

Balls of white hydrangea topped tables at the Time/People/CNN/Fortune reception, where celebrities such as George Lucas, Glenn Close, and Steven Spielberg chatted in the V.I.P. section, which was separated from the rest of the guests. This party had one of the last bars open. At 7:45, a gaggle of people hovered in front of the bartender, who poured drinks until he ran out of glasses. “It’s like the last plane out of Beirut,” one guest joked. Meanwhile, outside the hotel, a helicopter circled overhead and the presidential motorcade arrived.  

Inside the dinner, M.C. Wanda Sykes solicited both laughter and uncomfortable silence for lampooning figures such as Rush Limbaugh. But when the president finally took the stage, he made his new administration—and himself—the butt of all his jokes.

The meal itself was similar to years past, with guests dining on a Mediterranean-inspired menu of antipasti, petite filet, and seared escolar with olive tapendade. Chocolate-covered strawberries were served in lieu of a traditional dessert, with the money saved going to D.C. food bank So Others Might Eat.

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