Friday, September 27, 2019

Quote of the Day (Barbara Howar, on Competing in DCs ‘Race Toward the Ridiculous’)

"Laughing at myself is what I do best. Lord knows I have had practice, there being no city like Washington for laughable situations, but it appears to me that I have outdistanced even politicians in my race toward the ridiculous. I wanted to make my mistakes at the top and I have. You may think it simple to play the fool in a town that pursues the activity with unrestrained zeal, but my success was no lucky accident. I have had to work making my blunders count against strong contenders through four administrations." —Barbara Howar, Laughing All the Way (1973)

Barbara Howar, born 85 years ago today in Nashville, Tenn., represents a type—heck, make that “types”—increasingly rare in America: DC cocktail party queen, semi-permanent talk show guest, gossip queen. 

Modeling herself as a Scarlett O’Hara-style Southern belle, she came to Washington as wife of a real-estate leader. Here she found, however briefly, her mecca—in her words, “If ever there was a place for a polished courtesan, it was Washington.” 

That was certainly the case in the early-to-mid Sixties, when the lissome blonde drew notice for her parties and for managing (for a short while) the near-impossible feat of remaining in the good graces of the Kennedys and Lyndon Johnson. 

Then an indiscreet remark led to her banishment from LBJ’s circle, and an indiscreet affair with one of the President’s aides led to the end of her marriage.

In a 1986 Spy Magazine takedown of the “Most Embarrassing New Yorkers,” Howar was derided as a “ludicrous woman, really—each night she primps and postures before millions, delivering mindless accounts of trivial movements in the lives of inconsequential stars.”  It is true that, like the fictional mistress of Tara, she did display a talent for floating to the surface when her latest venture or association with a man didn’t work out.

In the 1970s, that meant an affair with editor-novelist Willie Morris (who evidently used her as the basis for at least part of the title character in his The Last of the Southern Belles), or her own memoir (the bestselling Laughing All the Way) or novel (the far less successful Making Ends Meet).

In the attached 1978 Tonight Show interview with Johnny Carson, Howar inveighs against how the press had turned Washington into as celebrity-obsessed a town as Hollywood. Ironically, she was already well on her way toward becoming part of that celebrity industry as an interviewer. She would go on to stints of several years at Entertainment Tonight and the more ill-starred Who’s Who, as an “entertainment reporter”/gossip columnist. Later, she worked for a while for All in the Family producer Norman Lear, in one capacity or another. By the late 1990s, by design or not, she had fallen off the map.

It is very possible to take umbrage against Howar as a silly, insubstantial woman who made her way with a modicum of humor, charm and looks. But there were, even in her heyday, far worse ways of getting ahead. Right next to her on Spy’s list of Embarrassing New Yorkers was a certain “short-fingered vulgarian.” (Yes, Mr. Orange Hair.) And a sense of proportion about where one really ranks, as she had, is hardly to be sneered at., a

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