An Anderson House Dinner Party 1917

The Saloon of Anderson House, Washington, DC, furnished for after-dinner musical performances. 

The lights in and around Anderson House burned brightly on the evening of Friday, May 30, 1917. More than two-dozen servants stood ready to attend to the needs of the thirty very select guests who had been invited to what would without doubt be the most important social event of the season, in the loveliest of Washington’s great houses. Readying the 50,000-square-foot mansion had been a colossal endeavor. The kitchen had been crowded for days with cooks and scullery girls preparing a menu of delicacies both savory and sweet, all to be served on Friday evening with great formality by livery-clad footmen under the supervision of the English-born butler.

The Anderson House kitchen as it appears today.
(Photo by Skip Moskey)

The mansion’s mahogany-paneled dining room, adorned with priceless Belgian tapestries commissioned by the French King Louis VIII as a gift to the pope’s emissary, Cardinal Barberini, would be an elegant setting for the event. The master of the house, former U.S. ambassador to Japan Larz Anderson, had personally selected the wines and cordials from his vast collection in the cellar. The valet and seamstress had been fussing over the Andersons’ formal attire for days, and Isabel Anderson’s massive three-emerald brooch fashioned from a 19th-century Indian turban clip had been polished and waited in the safe. Fresh flowers had been shipped down from the Andersons’ year-round heated greenhouses in a tony Boston suburb, timed to be at their peak of bloom for the party.

Mrs. Larz Anderson in her gown by Charles Frederick Worth (1912).

His Royal Highness The Prince of Udine was to be the guest of honor at this evening’s dinner party. A cousin of Italy’s reigning monarch King Victor Emmanuel III, the prince was one of the most important visitors to the nation’s capital during the 1917 social season. World War I was raging in Europe and the presence of an Italian royal at the Andersons’ dinner table had both political and social import. Twenty years earlier Larz Anderson had served as first secretary at the American Embassy in Rome. He would have been very pleased indeed if any of his guests speculated idly among themselves that he was in some way involved in the conduct of the war – in a behind-the-scenes kind of way.

An Anderson House Menu
(Anderson Collection, Society of the Cincinnati)

The prince, accompanied by his country’s ambassador to the United States, Count di Cellere and his wife the Countess, was met by the Andersons at the front door. With great decorum they escorted their honored guests to the reception rooms above, perhaps stopping along the way to admire the monumental painting that dominated the two-story grand staircase, The Triumph of the Dogaressa Marina Foscari by the Spanish artist Jose Villega, a friend of the Andersons. The prince would surely have been pleased by the magnificent scene of 15th-century Venetian pomp and protocol, a metaphor for the elaborate event being staged this evening by Mr. and Mrs. Anderson in his honor.

Ambassador Larz Anderson.

The Andersons, the prince, and the count and countess greeted each guest as they were announced at the top of the staircase. Guests then assembled in the mansion’s elegant drawing rooms to enjoy cocktails and wait for the Andersons and their noble guests to join them. After dinner, the guests descended the mansion’s famous “floating staircase” from the dining room to the vast ballroom below for entertainment. Many more guests had been invited to arrive after dinner to meet the prince and his entourage. Coffee, cigarettes, and cordials added to the late evening’s conviviality.

The “floating stairway” that leads from the dining room of Anderson House to the room that the Andersons called the “Saloon”
(Photo by Skip Moskey)

The next morning, the Washington Post called the Anderson dinner party “a particularly interesting function” because of Larz’s diplomatic past. Larz’s publicist made sure the reporter did not forget other details of his biography. The brief article reminded readers that Larz had married into Boston wealth, had been part of the Taft administration, and had been decorated by the Italian king.

Anderson parties always made good copy.

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The Dining Room of Anderson House, Washington, DC, during the Andersons’ lifetime.

To learn more about Larz and Isabel Anderson and their fascinating Gilded Age lifestyle, please read Larz and Isabel Anderson: Wealth and Celebrity in the Gilded Age by Stephen T. Moskey, available on Amazon Prime and from your local bookseller.