During the Christmas holidays, my family gave me a rare treat—an auto tour of downtown Washington, D.C. They didn’t know, however, when we took a break at the historic Willard Hotel just how personally significant this landmark was to us. Even I had forgotten the importance of the Willard when I was in my early twenties and had just moved to D.C. from Springfield, Missouri.
At that time our nation’s capital may have seemed provincial to sophisticated world travelers, but it was impressive to me. I loved having lunch on Saturdays at Garfinckel’s when the store had a fashion show with models displaying the latest outfits as they strolled around the tearoom. Long before the Kennedy Center was built, it was thrilling to me to be able to see live dramas starring famous actors at the National Theatre, or attend a concert at Constitution Hall. Usually, though, most of my dates took me to a movie at the Warner Theater on 13th Street, where occasionally there might be a short stage show during intermission.
I had been recruited by the Veterans Administration (VA) in the late 1940s when it was converting G.I.s’ insurance from temporary to permanent plans. I had accepted a lowly time clerk’s position rather than continue teaching English in a consolidated high school in rural southwestern Missouri. The VA paid my train fare to D.C. I wouldn’t be totally on my own because my favorite aunt lived in nearby Prince George’s County, Maryland. She had arranged for me to share an apartment with her friend’s daughter who lived near George Washington University. If I managed to get up early enough, I could easily walk to Constitution Avenue where the VA’s offices were located in the old Munitions Buildings, still temporary after having been constructed during World War I. But if I overslept (which happened far too often), I had to take a taxi; the accumulated fares whittled away my pittance of a paycheck.
About a year after I began working for the government, the VA transferred me to a different section. Midway in the row of insurance examiners’ desks facing me was a handsome man with wavy black hair, brown eyes and olive skin. I was attracted to him because of his good looks and for some unknown reason, his faraway expression reminded me of an explorer of distant lands and exotic places. When he asked me out to dinner and a movie, I was pleased to accept his invitation. We agreed to meet downtown at the Willard, which was a popular trysting place for couples, especially in the initial stage of their courtship. I could easily get there by bus from the rooming house just off Connecticut Avenue near Dupont Circle where by then I was living. Our date was set for the following Saturday.
Unfortunately, just as I set forth for the bus stop on Connecticut, it began to rain. I had an umbrella, but I wasn’t wearing a raincoat. The pre-dinner hour traffic was heavy, and cars as they passed sent sheets of rain water toward me as I waited on the sidewalk for the bus. Soon an impatient driver, who barely missed the curb, absolutely drenched me with a gutter full of the downpour. After I recovered from the initial shock, I was dismayed. I hadn’t allowed extra time for emergencies. There was no payphone in the vicinity so that I could call my date to explain what had happened. (Cellphones were far in the future.) I was miserable in my soaked clothes. There was no other alternative than to return to the red brick row house where I lived and change from top to bottom, don my raincoat, and try to flag down a cab. Finally, after jumping into a taxi, I panted with anxiety. Would he wait for me? Would he believe my reason for being so late? How angry might he be with me?
When we arrived at the Willard, I dashed up the steps and said, “No, thanks” to the doorman who tried to offer his assistance. Normally I would have been awed and respectful of the elegant lobby with its columns and deep-cushioned furniture, and especially the smartly uniformed staff. But I only had eyes for my date.
I spotted him sitting at the end of a sofa. He had a grim look on his face as he rose and approached me. “I was about to take a powder.” He never minced words when he was angry, I discovered later. I babbled an apology that I still don’t know if he really believed. (He was a street-wise, Baltimore-born and raised product, so different from the corn-fed guys I had known and understood.)
This was my first acquaintance with the Willard Hotel. No wonder that the Christmas Eve of 2015 I took my time, appreciating every detail of the lobby and relishing the comfort of the armchairs. The head pastry chef even took a break from his supervising the preparations for Christmas morning buffet in an adjacent hall to show us his current creation—a model of the Capitol, made from gingerbread.
I think it was the columns wound around with Christmas garlands that reminded me of that rainy night so many years ago when at last I was forgiven for being late by our future children’s father. I thought I was recounting a familiar family story to my children, as we relaxed in the hotel lobby, but amazingly they had never heard what a part the Willard had played in their very existence.