Picks and Pans Review: Washington Rollercoaster

updated 07/23/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/23/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Sondra Gotlieb

Sondra Gotlieb, wife of Canada's ex-Ambassador to the U.S., Allan Gotlieb, has been gone from Washington for nearly two years, but memories of her linger on.

On March 19, 1986, for instance, while hosting a lavish embassy dinner for Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, she hauled off and slapped her social secretary, Connie Connor, in the face.

The shot in the kisser was billed as the "slap flap" and made delicious headlines everywhere. Sondra Gotlieb's faux pas became part of the Washington lore that still titillates long after the perpetrators have left Powertown on the Potomac. Sondra's slug was right up there with Tidal Basin romps, "killer rabbits," amaretto and cream-strewed bodices, and jocks who advise Supreme Court Justices to "Sandy, baby, loosen up."

Now, for the first time, Gotlieb tells her version of what happened that evening in this name-dropping memoir, which details her seven years on Embassy Row, a bumpy roller-coaster ride that took her to the heights of Washington celebrity and into mortifying notoriety.

This might make a handy guidebook for the uninitiated diplomat or social climber who has spent the last 20 years in Outer Mongolia, but most of her gossipy insights into Washington are out of date. And diplomacy is hardly Gotlieb's strong suit. She takes catty swipes at Nancy Reagan, and her mean-spirited remarks about the media

Aside from taking a whole chapter to explain the slapping incident (she had starved herself the entire day to get into a new red dress, Nancy Reagan had slighted her, and the pressures of entertaining Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney were too much, she says), Gotlieb provides few other tidbits. She offers some firsthand testimony to a Washington rumor that White House Chief of Staff Donald Regan resented National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane's access to President Reagan and "was determined to destroy his credibility" by spreading gossip about McFarlane's having an "adulterous affair." Indeed, it happened at Gotlieb's celebrated table: "I felt that as a hostess I was being used for a sorry political purpose."

A writer and author long before her husband's posting to Washington, where she earned the label "twinkling hostess" from Vanity Fair, Gotlieb seems to want to have it managed to dish it out pretty good in her bimonthly Washington Post columns, but when the slapping incident turned the tables on her, she ran for cover. She blames her downfall on the media and other ambassadors' wives: "Those who were truly nasty were a couple of ambassadors' wives who perhaps had been previously envious of my profile in Washington and some members of the social press who had never met me or barely knew me but who used to call to be asked to our embassy as a guest."

Like Gotlieb and her husband, many of the people she writes about have left Washington or are out of the current social loop. "Washington," as she notes, is not a city. "It is a compact organism. It lives on itself. I will miss it more than I can say." (Double-day, $18.95)

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