Follow the leaders

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Follow the leaders


It is very cold in the cocktail tent where Bruce Wilcox, president-elect of the Sons of the American Revolution, is talking to George Washington, another son of the revolution who is better recalled, of course, as the Father of Our Country.

Though he died 207 years ago, Washington looks pretty well pulled together. True, Mr. Wilcox has many more medals pinned to his tuxedo but General Washington has a sword. He has a thinner and more hawkish bearing than his portraits suggest, but the general is very regal in his heavy wool uniform, powdered wig and tricorn hat. He is explaining to Wilcox that the whole wooden teeth thing was a misunderstanding. Forgetting tact, someone asks him about a seemingly different George Washington who was at Yorktown last night, but our General won’t discuss his rival. He admits he knows Lafayette, however, and thinks he’s pretty good. The discussion is interrupted by a serving woman who offers Washington a mini quiche from a silver tray. Declining, the general says, “Madame, as another great American, Mr. John Wayne, once said, ‘Real men don’t eat quiche.’” Things are getting surreal at the Peace Ball.

Two-hundred and twenty-five years ago the real Peace Ball was held to honor the victory of the original Washington and his French colleague, Comte de Rochambeau, over General Cornwallis and the British at Yorktown. This, the second (and commemorative) Peace Ball, is underway at the Willow Grove Inn, a last minute venue change from nearby Montpelier. It’s actually happening behind the yellow Colonial-era inn in Orange County, in a large tent set over a brick patio that is appointed with heaters and pink-draped tables on top of which roses serve as centerpieces. Sartorially speaking, it’s another era. The men wear tuxedos, though a few have opted for white tie with tails, and some have large sashes with rows of medals (a look that, these days, is mostly associated with Counts Dracula and Chocula). The women wear ball gowns (pink and red are favored hues) with furs, elbow length gloves and diamonds.

Red-coated soldiers playing “Yankee Doodle” on the fife and drum have led us into the tent. Bent at the waist in our finery, we all squint at the place cards to find our seats. The drum rat-a-tats along to our little waltz.

Hosted by the Alliance Française de Charlottesville, the party’s list of guests (real and re-enacted) is quite impressive. In attendance are his Excellency U. S. Ambassador W. N. Howell (real), whose huge sash is neon orange, and the Consul Général de France a Washington (also real), who gives a long lecture on the many times France and America have helped each other vanquish their enemies. Real descendents of famous people, like James Madison and Martha Washington, impress, but taking top tier are the descendents of the two Yorktown generals—the Comte and Comtesse de Rochambeau and the Lord and Lady Cornwallis. Lord Cornwallis, tall and gray haired with a wolfish grin and, at 85, a firm handshake, is autographing copies of his family history, which begins in 1225, according to the book’s cover. His Lordship is selling them for $70, but discovering a reporter in his midst, he quickly raises the price to $80.

The food, served buffet style, is appropriately Anglo-Saxon: roast beef, salmon, asparagus, and new potatoes with sour cream and caviar. Wines include a ’96 Haut-Medoc, a robust Gigondas and Gabrielle Rausse’s Cab Franc. Lord Cornwallis is clearly sitting with the cool kids, as his table is loud and rowdy. One tuxedoed elderly gentleman keeps turning and blowing kisses at my table, before falling out of his chair. Don’t let anyone tell you that aristocrats can’t party.

Dancing commences after dinner, which is good as the heater seems to have broken. One guest kneels down to try and fix it, and he is tapped on the shoulder. “Can we get another bottle of wine at our table?” the tapper asks. “I’m not a waiter,” the first man replies, “I’m trying to fix the heater.” “Well where are the waiters?” says the tapper. “I don’t know,” comes the reply, “where is the heater repairman?” Oblivious, General Washington (re-enacted) haunts the dance floor, his hat poking above the crowd.

As the night draws to a close, I am introduced to the spectral figure of Comtesse de Rochambeau—tall and thin and outfitted in a tight black lace dress and black elbow-length fingerless gloves. Her dark eyeliner sets off her very short, silver hair. Gazing intensely, she says, “We live ordinary lives. We just happen to be related to famous people.”

The ball ends near midnight, right before we all turn into waistcoated pumpkins. In 1781, General de Rochambeau allowed his troops to be placed under the command of a less experienced General Washington and helped found our nation. Two centuries later, despite a real sense of brotherly love at the reconstructed Peace Ball, I do not think he would do so again. Weighed down by our medals and our history—and perhaps too much wine and food—we stagger out into the icy air, leaving behind us a man dressed as the only leader this country has ever, as one, considered worthy of following.

Lord Cornwallis is clearly sitting with the cool kids, as his table is loud and rowdy. One tuxedoed elderly gentleman keeps turning and blowing kisses at my table, before falling out of his chair. Don’t let anyone tell you that aristocrats can’t party.

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