Wife Of … An Irreverent Account of Life in Washington
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 31 Oct 1985, p. 100-108

Gotlieb, Sondra, Speaker
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Item Type:
Amusing anecodtes and reminiscences of the speaker, in her role as wife of Canada's Ambassador to the United States. Autobiographical.
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31 Oct 1985
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Full Text
Sondra Gotlieb, Author and Columnist
October 31, 1985
The President, Harry T. Seymour, Chairman

Mr. Seymour

Distinguished guests, members and friends of The Empire Club of Canada: It is my pleasure to welcome as our guest speaker today Sondra Gotlieb, author and columnist and wife of our Ambassador to the United States.

The Wall Street Journal of Monday, July 29, 1985, featured two significant headlines: First, "Canada's top envoy to Washington cuts unusually wide swath... hard work and good parties give Allan Gotlieb access to Capitol's powerhouses," and, second, "How a famous Canadian wit battles against the pretensions of Powertown"

From the time Sondra Gotlieb arrived in Washington with her ambassador husband, Allan Gotlieb, we knew relationships between Canada and the United States would never be the same. Her wry humour and irreverent pronouncements soon captivated many Washingtonians.

Within eight months of her arrival in December, 1981, the headlines in the press read, "Envoy's outspoken wife adored in Washington." Not so in the House of Commons. The then Conservative External Affairs critic Sinclair Stevens criticised her "Dear Beverly" newspaper column-letters to a fictitious composite of her girlfriends in Canada-for "poking fun at the U.S. Establishment"

Born Sondra Kaufman in Winnipeg in 1936, she married Allan Gotlieb in 1955. They have three grown childrenRebecca, Mark and Rachel. We are pleased to have Rebecca with us today.

After tours of duty of four years in Geneva and twenty years in Ottawa, the Gotliebs arrived in Washington virtually unknown in December, 1981. They had prepared themselves masterfully, however, for the new appointment. To Ottawa's Establishment, Sondra Gotlieb had been ". . .the quintessential political wife: popular hostess, social-column name, informal wit, food expert, mother of three, wife of the top foreign-affairs bureaucrat... her parties were legend-not for refreshment but for the guests, the cream of the city's power structure and cultural life."

To Washington's Establishment, the virtually unknown Sondra Gotlieb soon became an outspoken hit with the American media for such featured quotations as: "For some reason, a glaze passes over people's faces when you say Canada... maybe we should invade South Dakota or something."

Notwithstanding this breakthrough in relations, "to be Canadian was to be out," because Canada was perceived to be dull, dull, dull.

Undaunted by this unfair perception of Canada, the Gotliebs systematically proceeded to elevate Canada's profile. Sondra's "Letter from Washington" column, known as "witty, elegant and tart," continues to be widely read. In the June 26, 1984, column, Sondra wrote to her friend Beverly:

"Remember that you're sitting next to a job, not a person ... You have to charm the powerful job... a job-that-influences-government-policies."

Canadian columnist Allan Fotheringham, who is based in Washington and is close to the Gotliebs, maintains that ". . people go to the Gotliebs' parties knowing they'll come away with a brilliant insight from him and a goofy comment from her... but she's about as goofy as a fox. She knows exactly what she's doing. She is shrewd and insightful."

Ladies and gentlemen, it gives me great pleasure to introduce Sondra Gotlieb-author (and recipient of the 1978 Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour for her book True Confections), columnist, gourmet cook, celebrated hostess and wife of Canada's Ambassador to the United States, whom we were privileged to have address The Club on November 10, 1983. Mrs. Gotlieb will address us on the subject, "Wife Of... An Irreverent Account of Life in Washington."

Sondra Gotlieb

Canadians often ask me, what questions do Americans ask me about Canada? Question No. 1: What happened to Margaret? Question No. 2: Is Quebec separating? Is Alberta separating? Is Nova Scotia separating? I don't know why we got Nova Scotia in the act, but that sometimes happens. And, question No. 3, now no longer is a question, it's more of a little bit of a smirk: What happened to the Blue Jays?

You know, Canadians also ask me if Americans think it's wrong for the wife of an ambassador to write columns in the Op-Ed page of the Washington Post. Well, I think we have to distinguish between dignity and stuffiness. I write humour columns. I don't write political columns. I don't write about Canadian politics. I don't write about American politics. I do write about the effects of power, the temporary power and temporary status upon people in this town-Powertown. About Mister Secretary, powerful jobs, White House people, senators, and even wives of ambassadors. The thing I have to stress is that it's all temporary and I think this temporary business makes you laugh at yourself and makes other people laugh at themselves, and it makes them laugh at my columns. I get lots of letters from Americans saying, "I thought wives of ambassadors were remote and stuffy people, and you have proved to us that you're just like us. You are human, and the silly things that happen to everybody, happen to you-only four-fold. The incidents in this book, "Wife of. . .", incidents that happened to us, whether Allan, scrubbing the floor in Palm Beach with Prell Shampoo, and me wandering around in my nightgown at the Pierre Hotel at four o'clock in the morning-that's all true. But, the characters, such as Popsy Tribble, the Washington socialite, the great destabilizer, she is the one who is always telling me to strew my dinner table with jasmine and things like that. All of these people are composites. There's no one person involved.

Now, Popsy Tribble is a socialite, and try to explain to people in Washington that in Canada we have socialists, but in the United States you have socialites and there is a big difference between them. PopsyTribble wears Oscar de la Renta clothes and she is always telling me I'm doing things wrong, and she is in this book.

Lionel Portant, the world's most famous media star and columnist, is in it, too. He's the power of the press. Mister Secretary would say, "He is power without responsibility" Sorry, Mr. McGarry. But, he figures largely in my columns, too, and I think nobody pokes enough fun at the press, and I feel I could do that. The press is very powerful in Washington. It's the only permanent power in Washington; everything else is transient.

I just want to tell you that, in my book, these columns are really harmless. In my book, I describe the launch of the space shuttle and I describe it the way my Auntie Zora in Winnipeg makes an omelette, so I can't think of anything more innocuous than that. Well, they're not innocuous; they're a little bit daring.

Let me tell you how I became "wife of. . : '. In Canada I was a writer. I wrote for fifteen years before I went to Washington. I was known as Sondra Gotlieb the writer, I think. When I went to Washington, I was invited to a luncheon and there were sixty ladies at that luncheon. A lot of them had jobs. We all had to stand up and we were introduced as the wife of the Attorney General; the wife of the Nuclear Regulatory Agency; the wife of the Secretary of Energy; and 1, for some reason, was introduced as "wife of Canada," coming right after "wife of Peru." And then, I just found it much easier to say I was the wife of the Canadian Ambassador than having to explain, "My name is Sondra Gotlieb and I used to write books in Canada," because there are thousands of different kinds of people you have to meet. It's easier for them to identify you and identify your country with you.

I tell you, they do not send wives of ambassadors to charm school. I had no diplomatic training before I became an ambassador's wife. I was in Geneva between 1960 and 1964, where Allan was a Third Secretary. I was twenty-two years old, and I had just lived a year in Oxford and a couple of years in Ottawa, and I just didn't know anything about diplomacy or protocol. We were invited to something called a Rhodes Scholars' Dinner in France. Allan was a Rhodes Scholar and the few people there were also Rhodes Scholars, and it was a small but exclusive company. There was a Lord on one side of me, and there was a famous Senator on the other side of me and then, there was somebody who, I guess, was a Third Secretary about Allan's age across the table with his wife, who happened to be the daughter of an English Marquis (Is that the way you pronounce the word?) and I was very impressed and intimidated by this august company.

I didn't begin to relax until the port and nuts came about, and I wasn't used to wine and I drank some of that port and the port was sweet and it was old, and I began to talk a lot. I cracked a few nuts, and I noticed that everybody had stopped talking and they were looking at me. Then, I noticed my husband, who was sitting across the table going like this, as if he had a funny tick in his neck, but I was too relaxed-for once I wasn't going to pay attention to him.

Finally, the Marquis' daughter rose and gave me a dirty look and left the room and all of the men stood up and I was sitting there with my port and nuts. Finally, the Senator said to me very kindly, "Mrs. Gotlieb, the ladies usually leave the gentlemen alone with their port and nuts." So, I went. I just fled and I went into a little anteroom, and there was the Marquis' daughter, who was the wife of the New Zealand Third Secretary, flicking a newspaper and she said:

"You were the senior person there, the senior lady. You were supposed to leave first."

So, I was really floored by this. I didn't know anything about that sort of protocol between Third Secretaries' wives and I sat there for ten minutes in humiliation.

Then, I decided to go to the bathroom and this was in France and you know it's the same bathroom for men and women, and, as I was washing my hands, Allan and the rest of the men walked in and Allan said: "Oh, no, Sondra! You're washing your hands in the urinal." So, it's kind of on-the-job training. I was only twenty-two.

Oh, and then when I arrived, of course, I had never been an ambassador's wife. I had been a Third Secretary's wife, and in Ottawa I didn't give these lavish parties you talk about. They were the kind of parties where everybody stood up and dropped chili on their trousers and I didn't care whether the Prime Minister, whoever the Prime Minister of the day was, sat on the lowest step or the top of our staircase. It was very informal type of entertaining.

One of my predecessors said to me before I came: "Sondra, you know, before I went to the Canadian Embassy in Washington, they were not writing out the place cards by hand"

So, of course, I didn't tell her that this was news to me, about these handwritten place cards, but that was the one thing that I knew. It was the only thing that I knew, and, when I arrived, I was greeted by a Social Secretary, a Butler, an Upstairs Maid, a Downstairs Maid, a Chef, and a Portugese Houseman (and it took me three years to figure out what his duties were). And, the Social Secretary's first question to me was: "Do I have to write those place cards out by hand?" and I said, "Of course, you do." Then, the Butler handed me keys and I said, "What are these?" and he said,

"These are Madam's keys." He was kind of gloomy and Spanish and he's gone and most of the staff has gone. I replaced all of the staff. He took me down to the storeroom, and I thought, "What's in there, caviar, foie gras?" It was ten cans of peas and a bottle of ketchup. So, I threw away those keys. Then, he gave me another key. And, I said "What's that key?" and he said, "That's the key for the thermostat. Only Madam can touch the thermostat." Well, ladies and gentlemen, this was not my idea of power, being the only one allowed to monkey around with the thermostat. So, I threw away that key and, to this day, I do not know how the thermostat works.

Popsy Tribble came over the first week I was there and told me that Canada wasn't chic, and she opened up a newspaper or a magazine that I had never heard of before called "W" which is an extension of Women's Wear Daily and in the column of The Arts, between the Stuttgart Ballet and the Moscow Government, was Canada-we're in the outs. She said: "If you want to be in and you want to be chic in Washington, you have to have a tennis court," because we don't have a tennis court. She said the "worst thing to have in Washington is a swimming pool, because it's very middleclass, and anybody who is anybody makes their swimming pool into lily ponds and pretends it's not a swimming pool." So, we have a nice swimming pool. We have never been able to get anybody except ourselves to come and swim in it, because everybody else has a swimming pool. But, they all ask us one thing: "Can we come and play in your tennis court?"

The Vice-President, and Kay Graham-they all like to play on people's tennis courts-and so far the Canadian Government hasn't built us a tennis court, because we don't play tennis.

Let me tell you why embassies entertain. An embassy party is not supposed to be fun. It's an extension of the working day. There are one hundred and thirty embassies in Washington. We are all rivals for the powerful jobs, the close-to, the senators. We are all rivals for their attention. Ours is a bilateral relationship with the United States. So, each embassy sort of works on its own.

We hardly ever entertain other ambassadors. We go after the Americans. I mean, how do you know whom to entertain? Whom to go after, and whom to have come to your parties?

Power is so divided in the United States, in Washington. You have Congress. You have 550 Congressmen, 25,000 staffers. You have the White House. White House people are constantly changing. You have the Mister Secretaries. The Secretary of Agriculture has his own bureaucracy.

You also have lobbyists. There are 25,000 registered lobbyists in Washington and they are very powerful people. They write the Bills for the Congressmen. They actually do that. The K Street lawyers and the lobbyists, they do both jobs and are in and out the maze of Congress every day.

And, I can tell you, the average Congressman does not care about the foreign ambassadors, because we can't contribute to his campaign fund and we can't vote for him, so why should he care about Canada? So, we have to sort of get at Americans through the back door. But the thing is, it's the same for everybody.

Let me just give you an example. I met a very important Senator at a large party, and I said, "Senator, what are you doing at this party? Wouldn't you rather be home, putting your feet up?" He said, "Little lady, (he's from the South) I've been chasing four fellows for the past three weeks. They haven't answered my phone calls, and I've cut three deals tonight at this party and that's why I'm here."

And, that's why embassies give parties.

We are not only accredited to Washington, we do travel throughout the United States. But, I never get to see places like the Grand Canyon. It's always from one head table to another. In California on a rather exhausting tour, we found ourselves, or at least I found myself, in a beautiful suite in San Francisco in the Clift Hotel. Allan was supposed to meet the then-Governor, Gerry Brown, in San Francisco somewhere. Well, I had ten days' laundry in the bottom of my suitcase and it was afternoon, so I took out all of the socks and the stockings and I washed them out and I spread them all over the beautiful Chinese chairs in the suite in the Clift Hotel, and I was in my bathrobe in bare feet. Just then, there was a knock at the door, and I opened the door and there was Governor Gerry Brown with two Secret Servicemen. They said to me, "Who are you?" and, just before I could answer, I could see Allan veering around the corner with his people. He said, "Sondra, don't you ever read your program? The meeting is in the suite." He said, "Get rid of all of that stuff." So, as gracefully as I could, I swept up all the laundry and I disappeared into the bedroom. Allan came in, and said: "You'd better say hello to the Governor. Get dressed, put on your high heels." I don't know why it is, but wives of ambassadors are supposed to wear high heels. Well, I got dressed up, put on my high heels. Gerry Brown and I looked at each other as if we had never met before under any other circumstances. We shook hands and I went back into the bedroom while they had their meeting.

Well, it wasn't worth my life to turn on the television, because that would interrupt the talks. I had left my book in the other room. So I lay there and stared at the ceiling and I thought, "Well, that's part of being the wife of the Canadian Ambassador to the United States-and I don't mind it one little bit"

The appreciation of the audience was expressed byWilliam Whiteacre, a Director of The Club.

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Wife Of … An Irreverent Account of Life in Washington

Amusing anecodtes and reminiscences of the speaker, in her role as wife of Canada's Ambassador to the United States. Autobiographical.