There is a warehouse 20 minutes from the White House. It houses all the holiday decorations from presidential administrations past. To poke through this twinkly archive is to examine U.S. history. Here lie giant spools of Nancy Reagan’s favorite red ribbon, as lush and thick as the shoulder pads on an Adolfo socialite suit. What’s on that crate? Oh look, it’s Pat Nixon’s beautiful balls, beaded and stitched with Faberge-esque anal-retention. Not everything in the warehouse is labeled. It’s fun to rummage and play guess-the-first-lady. From chic hand-painted Venetian baubles (Jackie Kennedy?) to glitter-encrusted disco twigs (Betty Ford?), the range of Yuletide adornments is both staggering and fascinating.
It was among this treasure trove of vintage szhoosh that I came upon several massive crates containing large nasty shiny plastic balls. They did not exactly scream “Martha Stewart.” Au contraire!
Approximately 6 inches in diameter, they resembled something that might dangle from the ceiling of a ’70s gay bar or a doomed shopping mall. Setting aside the question of why anyone ever saw fit to introduce such tacky items into the White House, I grabbed them, all 800 of them. I was on a mission. A secret mission. Permit to explain:
Last spring, Desiree Rogers, the glamazon White House social secretary, invited me—are you sitting down?—to help decorate the White House for the holidays!!! I felt honored and stunned but not, if I am to be honest, totally surprised. This may sound arrogant, but if not me, then whom? With more than 35 years of Holiday decorating at Barneys and elsewhere, I am, après tout, one of the most experienced elves in the land. Why, conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart (more on him in a moment) was still in diapers when I began practicing my craft.
My accumulated holiday savoir-faire did not stop me from being utterly terrified by this fabulous project. The responsibility! The gravitas! The White House! What would happen if I screwed it all up? What would happen if it all turned out looking all horrid and naff? What would happen if some self-appointed Web luminary blogged about some infinitesimally small aspect of my holiday décor, thereby setting off of a gruesome and hostile Internet fatwa? But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
MARCH 2009: MEETING DESIREE.
Why do I feel as if I am standing in a hole? Because the gorgeous and statuesque Desiree Rogers is 5 feet 10 inches tall, that’s why.
During lunch at Fred’s, La Rogers pulls a legal pad out of her Vuitton shoulder bag. She reads me notes taken at a meeting with Mrs. Obama the previous day: Reflect. Rejoice. Renew. This mantra will serve as my guiding principle for the first Obama Holiday.
I suggest that we incorporate some children’s art. Desiree agrees and goes on to tell me about the above-mentioned warehouse. A light bulb goes on. Let’s combine the kids’ art with a recycling moment! Maybe there will be some big gnarly ornaments from some past administration that can be customized, painted and repurposed. Reflect. Rejoice. Renew. Recycle.
SEPTEMBER 2009: MEETING MRS. OBAMA
During the summer, I made repeated trips to our nation’s capital to meet with Desiree and her incredible team of collaborators and volunteers, plus the legendary W.H. flower-shop team. At the helm: Sally Armbruster, Desiree’s assistant, and, most importantly, a top-notch event/set designer named Kimberly Merlin. La Merlin shouldered the bulk of the planning/creative-resourcing responsibility. I provided the overarching vision while Kimberly creatively whomped a solid design proposal together with unerring artistic elan, i.e., she did most of the work. Bravo, Kimmy!
By September, Desiree, Kimberly, Sally and I were ready to unfurl our reflect/rejoice/renew/recycle game plan to Mrs. Obama.
Why do I feel as if I am standing in a hole? Because Mrs. Obama is 5 feet 11 inches tall, that’s why.
The first lady—she dresses with the chic understatement of a Mona Lisa Smile Wellesley gal, circa 1950—looks outstanding in a navy blue and apple green summer dirndl-skirted dress with a waist-accentuating argyle cardigan. She bends down and gives me a hug and thanks me for my hard work. I’m kvelling.
We show her our boards and swatches and talk her through the vast and complex proposal of wreaths and trees and garlands, East Wing, West Wing, the Nativity, Residence, Oval Office, etc., etc. She interjects great ideas and keeps us on track. In a lifetime filled with presentation meetings, this was, for me, the easiest and the most pleasurable. Our first lady has great taste. She is a quick study. She is delightful and cultivated and inhabits her current role with grace and intelligence.
Her long-standing interest in style makes the process easy: She likes the “softer, more Romeo Gigli colors.” She agrees with my suggestion that we should use “a Lanvin-ish antique-looking glitter” instead of anything too sparkly. While Mrs. Obama loves the idea of “the Wish Tree,” an interactive piece created by a Hoboken-based company named Cardboard Design, her most enthusiastic response is reserved for the 800 recycled silver balls that are proposed for the monumental Blue Room Tree. Together we decide that decoupage, rather than painting, is the way to go. Mrs. Obama suggests that we include the efforts of not just kids, but people of all ages at community centers around the U.S. The theme? Great American Monuments.
Before you can say “Bo, the Portuguese water dog,” the balls are shipped off by Sally and her interns to diverse organizations in every state. We include a jug of Mod Podge and a directive written by yours truly on the pitfalls and pleasures of decoupage.
DECEMBER 2009: TIME TO MAKE THE DOUGHNUTS
The installation of the holiday décor follows close upon the Manolo heels of the Salahi party-crasher debacle. As a result, security is tight. All the incoming boxes of pepper-berries, hydrangeas and pine garlands are sniffed and prodded. Extra precautions are taken with the 800 formerly-hideous-and-now-hopefully-fabulous silver balls. Coming as they have from such a broad spectrum of locations, they represent a complex security challenge. I am itching to take a look at the results. This will be my first encounter with the hundreds of returning orbs. Finally, they are released and delivered to the Blue Room. I dive into the boxes.
The citizens of the United States of America have done a bang-up job. The balls are the perfect mixture of wholesome holiday cheer, patriotism, creative expression and fun. While there is no shortage of Mount Rushmores, Niagara Falls and Grand Canyons, most of the creators took a more small-town route, commemorating local landmarks and institutions. Inhabitants of an Indian reservation fringed and beaded theirs with extraordinary skill. One clever person turned his/hers into a Georgia peach. So far, so good.
We are on a very tight deadline. The relentless schedule of holiday events starts the next day. While Kimberly and her team fling grapevines, magnolia wreaths and lotus pods hither and thither, I set about the task of festooning the massive, ceiling-scraping Blue Room Tree. After eight hours of ball-tying, scaffolding-wrangling and ribbon-pinking, we are done. On Wednesday, Dec. 2, we add the magnificent hand-beaded Project Alabama tree skirt. Et voilà! I am very proud of our “Monuments” tree. It looks gorgeous.
Hearing a racket outside, I turn and manage to catch the president jumping aboard the US 1 helicopter to go make his now famous Camp David Afghanistan speech. On my way back to the W Hotel across the street, I encounter Bo and give him a pat on the head. I reflect on the majesty of the U.S. A person can emigrate to this country with a dollar and a dream and, if he shleps hard enough, end up szhooshing the White House.
During the first three weeks of December, the White House schedule of fetes and receptions proceeds without incident. The Wish Tree is groaning with wishes. Oprah and HGTV praise and immortalize our efforts. Everyone is happy. Even Pat Nixon’s old Faberge orbs, polished up and reused in one of many bipartisan gestures, are happy.
DEC. 23: THE BLOGSPLOSION
Some grody little snapshots find their way to Andrew Breitbart’s Big Government Web site HQ. The iPhotos contain carefully chosen and gruesomely misleading micro-close-ups of three of the 800 Blue Room balls: Barely visible is a postage-stamp-size Andy Warhol Chairman Mao from, I assume, a Pittsburgh Warhol Museum–themed ball; a micro-mug-shot of a good-hearted vaudevillian tranny entertainer named Hedda Lettuce; and a pecan-size Obama head decoupaged by a fan onto Mount Rushmore. These three details are seized upon by Mr. Breitbart and attributed directly to yours truly: “Transvestites, Mao and Obama ornaments decorate White House tree.”
The BG posting implies that I have manipulated the content of the décor to incorporate my own malevolent agenda, expressing communist sympathies and launching an attack on family values by including a mug shot of Hedda Lettuce.
There is no way to even begin to address the idiocy and inaccuracy of these notions. There is no such thing as redress on the curse that we call the Internet. Big Government has dropped me in the shazzit and the hating begins. Within hours, Hedda and mini-Mao have gone viral and global with Fox News and tens of thousands of blogs and hits.
Homicidal hatred rages. Death threats involving baseball bats and my head, etc. You get the picture. Merry Christmas, Mr. Doonan, and welcome to Tinselgate.
As somebody who was raised by an arch-conservative working-class mom and a lefty dad, I am no stranger to the concept of a feisty debate. But why the threats of violence? The willingness of wing-nut Web
devotees everywhere to jump aboard the hostility train was staggering and extremely unfestive. Even Gawker fanned the flames, calling me a “noted gay male.” How about “ping-pong ace” or “animal lover?” There are many other facets to the First Elf, you know.
The one person who kept her sense of humor was Hedda Lettuce herself. (She apparently decoupaged her ball while volunteering at a senior gay fund-raiser.) Spewing double-entendres, she blogged about the exhilaration she experienced knowing that one of her balls was now hanging on the White House tree.
The irony of Tinselgate is fairly breathtaking: A person donates his time and expertise—for free!—thereby saving taxpayer money. That same person then uses his ingenuity—incorporating the creativity of kids and needy folk and reusing tchotchkes from previous administrations, thereby saving even more dosh—and ends up on the receiving end of a torrent of threats and physical abuse from his fellow Americans.
And so to you, Mr. Breitbart. Now that the dust has settled and the homicidal emails have slowed to a trickle, I realize that I owe you a debt of gratitude. By dropping the First Elf in the poop, you have unwittingly provided me with a searing insight into the pathetic and disastrous state of our comment-obsessed culture. Thanks to you, I see now that there are two kinds of people in the world: In the first group, we have those who “do,” and in the second group, we have those who sit at their computers on their ever-widening asses blogging, platforming and commenting on the not-always-perfect efforts of the first group. Tinselgate has renewed my commitment to keep my tight ass fairly and squarely plonked in that first group.
Thanks, and happy New Year!