A few years ago Jamie and I attended a Democratic Party fundraising luncheon at the beautiful Casa del Mar Hotel on Ocean Way in Santa Monica.
While it is now completely refurbished to its original 1920’s Italian Renaissance Revival style, the grand old lady of the beachfront has had a difficult life. The building was constructed in 1926 to be the Club Casa del Mar, a private beach club; it became one of the most successful clubs in Southern California, popular with local socialites and the Hollywood crowd until 1941 when the Navy commandeered it for the duration of World War II. Afterward she, like much of Santa Monica, fell on hard times: Her glory days appeared over. By 1960, she was shuttered. Then she had a few additional incarnations on her journey – as a drug rehab center and a nutrition and health facility. Eventually property values began to rise and a developer saw the great bones under the tired mask and she was reenergized as a stunning European-style hotel, truly a jewel on Ocean Way, the location of many big ticket events.
The main draw of this gathering was that President Bill Clinton was the guest of honor so everyone would be really well-dressed. Considering we lived so near we probably could have walked along the Strand but we planned to drive as I was in no mood to dodge rollerblading tourists as I tottered my way along the ocean front in a peach and white houndstooth Chanel pencil skirt and jacket and my usual stilettos.
Now I love clothes and I like nothing better than getting dressed up, but, I had begun to notice that at the political and Hollywood events we attended, everyone looked pretty much alike. LA casual (female) consisted of the tightest, most expensive jeans Barneys carried worn with a white James Perse shirt, skyscraper heels in the contrasting color of your choice (I often chose scarlet or fuchsia) and a Birkin. LA daytime formal (female) was the tightest, most expensive pencil skirt Barneys carried, a contrasting jacket, skyscraper heels, and a Birkin. Because of Jamie’s job, I dressed the same as all of the other women we knew but occasionally I felt the need to rebel, to display my essential New York contrariness, so I would ditch the Birkin for something funky, like an oversized pencil case from the Met or one of my mom’s lightship baskets.
Today I pulled out a tiny child’s handbag I had bought in Germany crafted in the shape of a lamb. While small it held my lipstick, cell phone, and license which I needed to show to the Secret Service to gain admission. I dangled the lamb’s blue braided strap from my hand and stood in front of the full-length bathroom mirror.
“How do I look?” I asked Jamie as he tied his coral Hermes tie.
His eyes darted from the basin mirror where he had been watching himself craft the perfect Windsor. “You’re carrying Nina?” he asked, gesturing toward the lamb. “Won’t Emmett be jealous?”
Emmett was a similar purse, only in the shape of a brown Dachshund that I had bought the same day. “No, he has plans today so it’s Nina’s turn to go somewhere.”
“Well, you look fine to me.”
We held hands and squinted in the hazy sunshine as we strolled down the rise of the walkstreet to the garage. Since it was a Saturday traffic was the usual nightmare but it got worse the closer we got to the beach. Ocean Way was always crowded due to the number of hotels located there but with road blocks and three separate security car checks, it took nearly an hour to go two miles.
After parking, we followed the crowds to the first security checkpoint where we each provided our photo identification, were wanded, and passed along to the hospitality table where we received our seating assignment. The final checkpoint was a Secret Service one at which everyone was patted down and all shoes and bags were searched.
When we finally inched to the front of the line, I slid off my beige and black spectators and plopped them alongside Nina on the table.
“Thank you,” said the first Secret Service agent absentmindedly as he pushed the shoes along. Then he saw Nina and laughed. “Is that yours?” he asked me.
“Hey, Carl, look at this,” he called to another agent as he lifted Nina up into the air.
The second agent walked closer and took Nina. He frowned at me. “Is this yours?” he asked.
“Sorry, lady, no livestock allowed. Isn’t that right, Terry?” he called to another agent.
Terry looked up, saw Nina, and grinned. “That’s right; no livestock in a nice hotel like this.” He turned to a woman agent. ” Shelley! Shelley!” She pivoted. “Come look at this.” He pointed toward Nina.
Shelley walked over and took Nina from the first agent’s hands. “That is so cute!” she exclaimed. “Is it yours?” I nodded again.
“Well, since no livestock is allowed you may just have to leave that adorable thing with me!”
Somehow I hadn’t imagined that the Secret Service would find my purse this enchanting but they were being so nice about it, I decided to just roll with it. “I can’t,” I answered. “I promised Nina that she could meet the President.”
“Nina? Is that her name? How funny. Seriously that is the cutest bag. My daughter would love it. Where did you get it?”
“In a children’s clothing store in Germany,” I told her.
“Oh, too bad. I guess I had better let you go; the line is bottlenecking. But, hey, if Nina gets bored, you just bring her out here to sit with me.”
I laughed and we continued into the ballroom where the luncheon was being held. We found our table companions and the whole “where did you get that purse?” began again with every new woman who sat at the table.
After the luncheon and the speeches, the wife of Jamie’s client – huge donors and our hosts at the event – said to me, “Would you like to meet the President?”
I started. “Hell, yes!” I exclaimed.
We rose and Sylvia pushed her way through the throng. When Bill Clinton saw her he smiled broadly and waved her over. He greeted her enthusiastically then turned to me. Sylvia introduced us. “Is that your handbag?” he asked pointing at Nina dangling from my shoulder.
So I met the leader of the free world and we chatted for a few minutes, mostly about where Nina was from because he knew Chelsea would just love one.
Years later, at Bob Rubin’s book launch at The Four Seasons in Manhattan, I met Mr. Clinton again.
After greeting me effusively at Bob’s introduction I said, “I have actually met you once before, Mr. President, at a luncheon in Santa Monica. Sylvia Steiner introduced us.”
He stared at me intently for about thirty seconds. “Did you have a handbag shaped like a sheep?” he asked.
“I told Chelsea about that. One of my security agents just loved it, too.”
“Was it Shelley?” I asked.
“Yes, I believe it was,” he answered then looked me up and down. “You aren’t carrying it tonight,” he observed.
“No, sir, it’s past her bedtime.”
He laughed and as he turned to speak to Henry Kissinger, he winked at me. “Give my best to the sheep!”
I sighed. I could come or go but everyone remembered Nina.