Inauguration Doyenne Plans Again

Ellen Proxmire Remembers Past Parties, Looks Forward to Obama

Posted December 9, 2008 at 4:12pm

Correction Appended

As Washington, D.C., braces for millions of visitors to flood the city streets for President-elect Barack Obama’s inauguration, one doyenne remembers another magical time: the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy in 1961.

Ellen Proxmire, co-chairwoman of Kennedy’s inaugural ball and widow of Sen. Bill Proxmire (D-Wis.), has emerged from her mostly retired life to offer her hand in navigating the intricacies of event-planning in a city that will have too many people, limited space and plenty of party novices.

“The balls are complicated and crowded,” Proxmire said, noting that too many inauguration rookies don’t understand the dire necessity of an RSVP. “People think there is unlimited space in Washington, but you can hardly move.”

Proxmire knows her parties. She has organized dinners at dozens of local hotels and special venues, and in the cherry atop her career of scheduling cocktail hours and dessert receptions, she once planned a dinner at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.

As the wife of a long-serving Senator, Proxmire volunteered for years to help plan parties and special events. She became so acquainted with the best venues — the Woodrow Wilson House being her favorite — that she joined with two other women and created a consulting business, Washington Inc., in the late 1960s.

With Barbara Boggs, wife of lobbyist Tommy Boggs, and Gretchen Poston, who later served as President Jimmy Carter’s social secretary, Proxmire organized special events for visiting associations and lobby shops.

The business offered weekend tours and staked out local attractions to complement its events, pairing a backstage tour of the Kennedy Center with dinner in Georgetown or creating booklets to accompany bus trips to Mount Vernon.

“We created an industry. Nobody did what we did at that time,” Proxmire said, noting there were few Washington-based professional party planners in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Washington Inc. “handled every major opening,” including the reopening of Union Station in 1988 and the unveiling of the newly renovated Willard hotel in 1986. She proudly shows off the buttons, programs and invitations to the events that she planned and laughs at a few of the more offbeat ones.

“Can you imagine having a dinner at an airport?” she asked, quickly adding that the airport’s B terminal was “a lovely place to have a nice dinner.”

This Senator’s wife planned so many events for Members and their wives that she made a career out of it, a path that was unusual in the 1960s.

“Congressional wives in my time, we volunteered for everything,” she said. “We didn’t work outside our husbands’ careers.”

Washington Inc. closed shop several years ago, and Proxmire has lived a mostly retired life in the upper Northwest section of Washington. She followed the 2008 elections with watchful eyes and decided to join a collection of consultants with Inaugural Event Resources, a group formed to consult on the 2009 inauguration.

Plans for Obama’s inauguration have been slower to trickle out, especially compared to the Kennedy festivities in 1961, Proxmire said. But the scene will be no less festive, and as supporters make their plans to join the celebration on Jan. 20, party planners are busy creating party favors and menu lists.

Ever connected to the Beltway party scene, Proxmire said a few private homes are available for parties on Inauguration Day. Because there are still so few details of Obama’s inauguration, preparations have become all the more important for the thousands of first-time inaugural-goers.

“We have been watching this all unfold for two years, and it’s been so dramatic,” Proxmire said. “Inaugurations are always exciting, but this year is going to be so much more.”

Correction: Dec. 12, 2008

The article incorrectly stated that Ellen Proxmire planned the 1967 reopening of Union Station. It was the 1988 reopening.