WASHINGTON – French President Francois Hollande’s very public breakup from his first lady just weeks before President Barack Obama raised a glass to him at a White House state dinner Tuesday was the talk of the town that no one in Washington seemed to want to talk about.
“I don’t get involved in those things,” demurred actress Cicely Tyson, who, at age 80, said she has been to plenty such state affairs.
Tyson and her fellow celebrities, Democratic donors, politicians and businesspeople who made up the 350-person guest list avoided mentioning another kind of affair — “l’affaire Hollande.”
The president and first lady Michelle Obama found just the right seat for the Frenchman who came to dinner without his “plus one.” They seated him between them, and squelched all the drama about his stag visit to the U.S.
Ben Jealous, former president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, was nothing but admiring of the French intrigue. “I think the French are way cooler than we are on a whole lot of fronts,” he said, including “way better gossip.”
On a frigid night, the evening’s pomp and pageantry were designed to wrap Hollande in a comfy blanket of warmth from the moment he stepped out of his limo and onto a red carpet on the Pennsylvania Avenue entrance to the White House. The Obamas greeted him on the front steps.
The evening’s celebrity quotient was impressive, including actors Bradley Cooper, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Mindy Kaling and Tyson. Many wondered how Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert snagged a seat on the other side of the first lady.
Bronx-born singer Mary J. Blige, the evening’s sole entertainer, had to think for a second when asked whether she had a French connection. “Um, my last name is French,” she said.
Obama, in his dinner toast, was deliberately sparing with his French. He welcomed the guests with a hearty “bonsoir,” then confessed that “I have now officially exhausted my French.”
Hollande delivered a good portion of his reciprocal toast in respectable English before switching to French. “We love Americans, although we don’t always say so,” he told the crowd.
The White House did its best to keep the attention on anything but Hollande’s personal life, serving the four-course meal in a heated pavilion on the South Lawn that had patches of greenery and vines hanging from the ceiling like chandeliers. The White House itself doesn’t have any rooms big enough for that many people.
In the kind of awkward turn of events that give protocol officers ulcers, the White House last fall invited Hollande and his longtime girlfriend, Valerie Trierweiler, to come for a state visit, the first such honor for France in two decades. But just weeks ago, the two abruptly split after a magazine reported that a helmeted Hollande had zipped via motorcycle to a liaison with French actress Julie Gayet.
Dinner celebrated American cuisine. The main course was dry-aged rib-eye beef from a family farm in Colorado, with Jasper Hill Farm blue cheese from Vermont.
For dessert, the pastry chefs used a paint sprayer to distribute a very thin layer of chocolate over a creamy ganache cake. Cotton candy dusted with orange zest was also part of the lineup.