To know if you're anybody, check the list Society: In Washington, the snobby old Green Book is relished as a throwback to less-tacky times.

October 22, 1997|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- A plush velvet-covered society listing known as the Green Book was already printed, bound and en route to thousands of socialites in the nation's capital when the phone rang in associate publisher Peter Murray's office.

A merciless voice -- that of a woman listed in the coveted volume for ages -- was booming on the line, demanding an explanation. The book's latest edition came out this month, as always, but this time without her name. This wouldn't do. She wanted back in. Immediately.

Murray apologized but told her she could not be included -- the book was already published, packed and shipped. Perhaps, he offered, she might try again next year.

But the woman wanted to be in the book, and she wanted it now. There was only one solution: A massive reprint.

"What part of 'no' don't you understand?" Murray said, laughing as he recalled the phone chat over lunch at a private club later that day. "She really wanted her name in that book."

The woman did not get her wish, but perhaps Murray got his. After all, any social register that can still prompt hissy fits over a snub must be doing something right.

The Green Book, so named for its emerald cover, lists 5,500 names and numbers for everyone from well-to-do debutantes to political honchos. And though some socialites complain that the Washington high-life is getting a little too low-brow, the register's elite cachet endures.

It is unabashedly snobby, a relic of the old-style society life released every October at the start of the social season. Socialites see it as a throwback to a time before private society balls went the way of mega-fund raisers and cleavage-dripping galas.

Admirers call the book the last defense against tackiness, their sworn enemy.

"The book really is essential," said Marie Stanley, who handles public relations for a Swedish princess and others.

"Remember, above all, the barbarians are at the gate. We must retain good manners. The book is instrumental for that."

Created 65 years ago by Murray's great-grandmother, Helen Ray Hagner, the book began as a list of guests Hagner could call on to attend the cotillions of young Washington ladies whose debutante balls she planned. Since then, it has turned into a white pages of power and money.

Every year, Murray must be on the lookout for the socially stunted to make room for new listings. Those who have not been active enough over the past social season get dissed.

"We've been snubbed!" said Janet Baxter after hearing from a stranger that her name had been dropped from the 1998 edition. Baxter landed in the book 10 years ago, as the second wife of a man formerly married to the daughter of Harry Hopkins, a trusted adviser to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It didn't occur to her that she would get axed.

But she recovered quickly, concluding that if she wasn't good enough for the register, then it probably wasn't good enough for her.

"The Green Book used to mean a lot more than it does now," Baxter said. "At one point it translated into status, but not now. The newer movers and shakers, I don't even think they know what the Green Book is."

Other socialites also sniff at the book, which they claim has become too large and undiscriminating over the years. It lists, as they say, n'importe qui -- doesn't matter who.

Some ex-listees believe they only got dumped because they don't shell out $70 for the book every year. But Murray said this alone would not merit dismissal, adding that people are dropped for a variety of reasons: they move away, forget to reapply, lose their popularity, get divorced or commit grave public-relations sins that turn them into social pariahs.

"If people in the book get bad press, we reconsider," said Murray, who refused to name the newly excommunicated, but made a shooing motion with his hands to convey their fate.

Murray calls the register "a living book" because over the years its character has changed along with Washington's. As the bureaucracy has swollen, so too has the Green Book, supplementing blue-bloods with diplomatic operators and political insiders.

While Baltimore and other cities have their own social registers, none has the mission of the Green Book, which serves as a guide to a city as much defined by its ever-changing corps of power players as by its mothballed cadre of bureaucratic hangers-on.

To get in, applicants must prove their social status. Anyone who attends pricey charity balls stands a good shot -- also, belonging to a country club or private society helps.

Politicians are generally blase about the Green Book, since they need only to get elected to office to make the list. But the same is not true for socialites, who sometimes endure long waits to appear in the register's pages.

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