The Talk of the Town

THE TALK OF THE TOWN

By Barbara Ann Curcio

 

The Washington Post, WEEK-END November 6, 1992; Page N7

 

 

ON CAPITOL Hill, they're passing around the magnetic massage balls, talking up non-traditional medicine and healing. In Arlington, they're debating who would make the better desert island date: Joan of Arc or Marilyn Monroe. And in an Adams-Morgan bar, the hipoisie -- neighborhood artists and writers -- are playing at Paris cafe society in the '20s, swapping witticisms, striking poses and gossiping It's the return of the salon -- ushered in by yet another cultural elite while you were watching MTV. Salons -- beloved of English majors and the avant-garde, once the sole province of the intelligentsia, the Gertrude Steins and Dorothy Parkers -- are back. And they're the talk of the town -- in which the idea is to talk about ideas and the point is merely to talk intelligently, listen to others do the same and talk some more.

 

Washington is a city of talkers, people who like to yak about the issues, campaigns, sports, Madonna -- to friends and colleagues, at dinner parties, in the office. But a lot of Washingtonians think it's not a city of listeners. And they're trying to make the time and create the place just for talking, and listening, for talking to, not at, one another about "the things that matter in people's lives," says Larry Schuster of Silver Spring. The medical writer runs a salon on Capitol Hill that's been meeting for the past two years to discuss such topics as the presidential election, death, the BCCI scandal, rationalism versus mysticism and the paths to enlightenment.

 

"Salons are relaxing and pleasant and they fill in a gap in Washington culture," says visual artist Kathy Keler, who participates in two herself. "Though this is a cultivated city, there is no intellectual life here. Lawyers hang around with lawyers, and doctors with doctors, and there is a kind of ghettoization, too, in the arts."

 

And if you're looking to work as the place to get your need for discourse filled, forget it, concurs crafts gallery owner and salon keeper Carol Supplee of Alexandria. When people who work together get together, they talk about -- what else? -- the office.

 

And parties? "I went to a party last Saturday night, and all people talked about was cats and computers," gripes salon keeper and science fiction writer Michael Capobianco, who lives in Woodbridge.

 

Friends? Often the talk is personal, not about the bigger issues, say salonites. Support groups? Puh-leeeeez . . . Salon goers are sick to death of other people's problems -- and sidestepping the 12 steps like crazy. "Ours is not a 'CR' {consciousness raising} group," sniffs documentary producer Linda Niemi of her Silver Spring/Takoma Park salon.

 

A regular forum especially dedicated to talk is the answer, say salon members. After all, back before talk shows and television -- when our society was less transient and we still knew our neighbors -- talking was arguably the main form of entertainment. And salons fill a need for community: "All the old social networks seem to be dying out," says Capobianco. "And Washington is such a transient place to begin with."

And if we do have a community (of friends, etc.), our overburdened schedules barely leave us time for any kind of meaningful exchange. Susan Roche and Bill Rau of Silver Spring use their Friday evening neighborhood salons as a chance to see friends they don't have time to visit otherwise.

 

An additional benefit of salons: In an economy where expendable income has shrunk, salons are a low-overhead social activity (a potluck entree virtually covers the price of entry). Talk is, after all, cheap.

If you still doubt that salons are making a resurgence, consider that

a class on how to start your own salon is being offered by First Class and a local telephone salon referral service/hot line now lists salons looking for new members. In addition, the Utne Reader, a Minnesota journal that touted the salon concept in its March/April 1991 issue, has started its own Neighborhood Salon Association, with a quarterly newsletter.

 

The final nail in the coffin of trends arrivistes: among participants, salon has become a verb. Shall we salon?

 

 

NATASHA IN CHAOS

 

Natasha Reatig's listing on the salon hot line says she's at Chaos Bar, but she really holds court these days at Chief Ike's Mambo Room one floor below it -- a funky Adams-Morgan bar with giant off-the-wall murals on the wall, of Eisenhower cavorting with the likes of Freud.

 

When you finally do find Reatig receiving friends and friends of friends any Wednesday at Chief Ike's, you'll know her by her purple hair. With her short bob, she bears a striking resemblance to the Post Office's Dorothy Parker stamp, except for four long braided hair extensions woven with stars, moons and salamanders.

 

And once you find the place -- with its hip, slick bohemian crowd, the Adams-Morgan beau monde -- you may well wonder what kind of conversation can come out of Chaos. Fifteen years' worth, says Reatig, who has been holding her salon in at least eight different Adams-Morgan bars and cafes since 1977. In that time salon members have had "at least seven stable marriages," love affairs come and gone, apartments and jobs found and abandoned, and a network established of filmmakers, artists, photographers, engineers, lawyers, TV producers and writers.

 

"I'd like this to be the place where things get started," says Reatig, a 51-year-old federal government employee. "I'm not an artist myself, but when the history of the arts in D.C. gets written, I'd like these salons to be a footnote."

 

If this were Paris in the '20s, Reatig would be receiving at home in a large elegant apartment, but she's just as glad she's not: "Who needs all that buying tea cakes and emptying ashtrays," she laughs.

 

A self-described patroness of the arts in the manner of Gertrude Stein, Reatig always envied the cafe society of Europe, where she lived for a time in the '60s, and "yearned" to duplicate that scene in Washington. So she started her Wednesday night circles and has become something of a minor celebrity around town. The "50 Maps of Washington D.C." guidebook includes "Natasha's 'Underground' Nightlife Map."

 

Locally, she also co-directs the annual Rosebud Awards for excellence in cutting-edge film and video, and First Shot productions, which backs independent filmmakers' projects. Generally she does all she can to support local artists and filmmakers: "I can't afford to buy their paintings, but I can buy them a beer, and introduce them to people who can help them."

 

As what Reatig calls her group of "like souls" wander in, they take their places at the tables in front of the riotously colored murals, which make "great backdrops for my pictures," she says. (She snaps pictures of first-timers to put in an album -- her 11th.)

 

"I solved the physics problem of the week," gleefully announces one member, an intense young man who then launches into an explanation of the physics of a curveball -- a problem that came up in last week's salon.

 

In rushes Melinda Smith, a TV producer who has been absent from the salon, covering the presidential campaign around the country.

"People are really stirred up out there," she enthuses, sipping a beer. "They say people in this country don't follow politics, read or watch the debates . . . It's not true. There's a new energy on the street corners, everywhere you go."

 

"This is what we've been waiting for," gushes Reatig, a product of the '60s and a Vassar grad, '62. "The baby boomers are getting politicized again."

 

For the next two hours, more politics, philsophy, astrology, sex, art -- all are spread out like a conversational smorgasbord. As more people arrive, the talk gets more boisterous, the noise level higher.

"I'm the perfect Washington hostess," laughs Reatig. "I can hold three conversations at once."

 

All while making you think she only has ears for you.

 

Reatig has what Jaida n'ha Sandra, the salon writer/muse for Utne Reader who is currently writing a book on salons, says is a distinguishing characteristic of salon keepers through the ages: "a certain generosity of spirit, a welcoming personality."

 

In sweeps Catherine, a tall woman with a Virginia Woolf helmet of hair, cape and black hat. "Here's my protege," announces Reatig in her throaty Simone Signoret voice. "We were at Vassar -- both anthropology majors. I was a few years ahead of her."

 

In this salon, one member makes you forget the next. These are people who know how to make entrances. A skinny guy with a leather jacket, white gauze scarf and rock star looks comes in. "Bob, he's so cool," giggles Reatig.

 

They know they're hip and that they're tapping into an intellectual legacy that goes back to 17th- and 18th-century France, to salons that were hotbeds of revolution -- political (the French Revolution was born in Mme. de Stael's salon, they say) and social and artistic (the ex-pat Gertrude Stein midwived the birth of modern art in Paris early this century). Salons make you feel special, clever, plugged in, a thinker (even if not a great one).

 

In breezes a man with a woman draped on each arm. It's Johnny Romaine, a painter just in from Hawaii. He presents Reatig with a photo he took of her in front of a painting he did of James Dean.

"I come for Natasha," says Smith, pointing at Reatig. "No matter how many Wednesday nights I miss, I know she's always here. She's my touchstone."

 

THE ARLINGTON WITS

 

"Salon" is French for living room, which is where we're sitting now. It's a Thursday night in Arlington, and we're stashed in an art-and-antiques-filled cozy condo, pleasantly sated by potluck, and ready to rap. Fifteen of us, average age thirtysomething, are arranged in a large circle.

 

Calling the group to order is Ken Schellenberg, the salon keeper, an earnest and affable systems analyst in horn-rimmed glasses.

"A salon keeper is like an orchestra conductor," says Capitol Hill group leader Schuster. "He puts all the elements together -- the people, the meeting place, the food, the topic." Some salon keepers, he says, play more prominent roles in their groups than others, who prefer to do a lot of the organizational work but quietly leave the group to run by consensus. Not Ken Schellenberg: This is definitely his group.

First some salon business, such as arranging a group to go see the AIDS quilt on the Mall, coordinating copy for the salon's newsletter, Slouching Towards Consensus (circulation 60, edited by Schellenberg). Then there's deciding on the next salon's topic: "Should we continue our discussion about death from the last salon?" he asks. "Or should we watch the {third presidential} debate instead?"

 

There are guffaws at this statement -- and someone pipes up, "Why don't we do both? How about a debate to the death?"

 

The grim reaper loses out to the candidates -- and then it's off to a desert island. The topic for this evening's consideration is what books and records you'd bring if stranded and whom you'd invite to lunch or dinner, with historical figures permissible.

 

"I didn't understand the ground rules," a voice in the corner complains. Adds a woman sitting on the floor: "Where is this island anyway? Can it be anywhere I want? Can I pick the Mediterranean? And how long are we stuck there?"

 

And they're off: Obviously, this is a group that likes verbal jousting.

Schellenberg says he'd bring "Gravity's Rainbow" and works by Dickens, records by Duke Ellington and for his dinner companion, Pauline Kael, "so we can talk movies." He then moves the discussion around the circle, with saloners offering up their selections, the others commenting and joking.

 

The choices are surprising. For the most part, brains are in, sex appeal out: Invitees include Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Jefferson, Buckminster Fuller and even God (what would you serve Him for dinner?). On the God thing: "What better companion: He could be everything to you," proffers Jerelee Benjamin.

 

These are clearly readers and thinkers with broad interests. They have a lot to say and enjoy engaging in what one writer about salons calls "conspicuous cerebration." And they aren't shy about it.

 

Women outnumber men. There is Linda Brown, whose acerbic wit belies her Diane Keaton looks, and earthy Annamaria Basile, a keenly intelligent, diminutive woman, curled up on the carpet. There is serious, articulate Kevin Spitler, and Bart Yount, the self-described P.K. ("Preacher's Kid"). They have given a great deal of thought to this and, in a friendly spirit of competition, seem to be trying to one-up each other.

 

For desert island books, we get the Oxford English Dictionary, the Bible, the complete works of Shakespeare, Khalil Ghibran's "The Prophet," books of children's verse, science fiction and poetry. Music is everything from Pink Floyd to David Byrne to Paul Simon. Spitler suggests Dvorak's Seventh. When other group members draw a blank -- is that the "New World" Symphony? -- he replies, "I'm surprised more people don't know it," to the immediate protests (and charges of pretension) of a chorusof women on one side of the room, who seem to specialize in keeping the men in line.

 

When it's Yount's turn, he waffles between the choice of Joan of Arc or Marilyn Monroe -- the saint or the sexpot -- only to be challenged by the feminist chorus.

 

Despite the sparring and teasing, things never go too far -- there is a healthy respect for other people's opinions, a certain satisfaction in the clever comeback and an appreciative audience. Though the point is not just to be clever, these are after all salons in the tradition of the Algonquin Round Table, where the quip, the witty riposte, the bon mot and the well-placed barb are the weapons of choice. One thing salon goers know: When the conversation is good, it's an art form.

 

The spirit of the salon is really closest to the venerable college bull session, says journalist Jennifer Bennett, a member of Schuster's Capitol Hill salon who is making her first visit to the Arlington gathering. (Members of the two groups have occasionally pursued joint activities.) A philosophy major in college, she fondly remembers discussing metaphysics long into the night.

 

Salon members' friends are often baffled by what it is their groups do exactly. Ken Schellenberg gets teased by co-workers about his "communist cell." Some are embarrassed at the perceived pretentiousness of the name salon, while others relish it.

 

Besides a free-flowing exchange, the basic point of salons, says Bennett, is not to grouse about your personal problems, but to come at a topic in a personal way, relating it to your experience. So although salons are not support groups, members may be supportive of one another. Though they are not lectures, a guest speaker or expert may make an informal presentation. And though a book may be discussed or assigned on occasion, they are not book clubs.

 

Though some area salons have been quietly going on for years, others, such as Schellenberg's, are Utne Reader-instigated. In its first issue on salons, the alternative press journal offered to help its readers start their own, organizing them by Zip code.

 

Griff Wigley, the magazine's salon keeper, says the offer tapped into some yearning their readers had for regular intelligent discourse. "We were expecting maybe 1,000 replies, and we got 8,000," he says.

Salons, Wigley suggests, are a "catalyst for thought," and may be "a phenomenon of middle age. The baby boomers have reached a certain level of material comfort and now they're looking beyond themselves, wondering what else matters."

 

Also, he adds, salons are just plain fun

 

WIT'S END

 

A salon, says the Encyclopedia Americana, is a French term for a "fashionable assemblage, generally of literary, artistic, and political figures, held regularly in a private home . . . marked by brilliant conversation and discussion on aesthetic, philosophic and political subjects."

 

No doubt, but there's not much brilliant talk going on at this Friday night meeting of Linda Niemi's Silver Spring/Takoma Park salon. Sitting in Norma Glad's living room are Niemi, a freelance video producer, and Glad, a massage practitioner. The appointed hour of 7:30 has already come and gone, it's after 8 o'clock, and no one has shown up.

 

On the wall across from the couch hangs a tapestry exhorting the room's occupants: "Yes!" Glad tries to massage the conversation: "Where is everybody?"

 

Both Glad and Niemi had received a number of calls from people planning to come, the 35 names on their list. "Salons have to do with community," offers Glad.

 

"A lot of people are freelance writers and artists and actors, and they don't have an office to go to regularly," adds Niemi. "This makes them feel more connected."

 

So where are they? The cider and a bowl of fruit wait forlornly on the dining room table.

 

"A lot of people like the idea that this exists, but they only want to come when they feel like it: They're not committed," grouses Niemi. "And it's hard to get a group of strangers together."

 

But all is not lost. After all, one of the greatest conversations of all time -- the conversation by which all others should be measured -- occurs in the film "My Dinner With Andre," between just two people.

 

But no one really feels like talking. As wits go, they're at their wit's end.

Did Dorothy Parker ever have to lunch solo when Robert Benchley and Alexander Wollcott blew off the Round Table? What did Mme. de Stael do with all the pate and petits fours when no one showed up?

 

Call a meeting of the core group -- the five or six most regular members -- Niemi and Glad decide.

 

Now you're talking.

 

Barbara Ann Curcio last wrote for Weekend about prowling estate sales