IN THE WHITE HOUSE
That summer day in 1977 the plane circled Washington D.C. for almost two hours above the too-crowded National airport, so I arrived half an hour late to lunch at The White House. I was ushered swiftly into the dining room where about 20 people were already seated. The book I was carrying disappeared from my hands as I was placed between Charlotte Curtis, The New York Times society columnist, and Alex Haley, the author of Roots, at the oval table.
When I received the invitation to attend the lunch that President Carter and Rosalynn Carter were giving for Farah Pahlavi, empress and wife of the Shah of Iran, I had reservations about attending. The Shah was then savagely suppressing popular unrest against his government even as President Carter was urging him to undertake democratic reforms, to no avail. Would I be endorsing repressive policies by attending the lunch? Would anyone construe my rejection of the invitation as an act of protest? Who beside myself would care if I accepted or not? And why had I been invited?
I first needed to know the extent of Farah Pahlavi’s involvement in the regime’s policies and discovered that, after having fulfilled her duty of providing a male heir, she had become involved in attaining women’s right to vote in 1963; in supporting women’s crafts in remote villages; and in the creation and development of several museums, including those of traditional women’s arts. Having decided to attend the lunch, my focus shifted to the reasons for my inclusion, which I assumed had to do with the fact that Farah Pahlavi had studied architecture at the École Spéciale d’Architecture in Paris, and the Women in American Architecture exhibition I had recently curated and the companion book I had edited had received widespread national attention in the major newspapers and magazines in addition to the professional journals. However, Farah Pahlavi had met with many famous and well-established architects in her roles as queen and empress, who could have been invited but weren’t. I thus took the White House’s decision to include women architects at the table as a disinterested gesture acknowledging our newly acquired visibility. In those circumstances, it did not seem to accrue any political gain, as the presence of common citizens in the State of the Union addresses usually does.
When the lunch was over, the book I had brought with me materialized again in my hands. It was the copy of Women in American Architecture I had intended to give to Farah Pahlavi. In the receiving line to bid farewell to our hosts and their guest of honor I changed my mind. The empress was not the person who could make best use of the book. I gave it to Rosalynn Carter. “This is for Amy,” I said.
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