DISPATCHES

Faces in the crowd

Washington’s elite bravee cold to toast Yousuf Karsh and a new ambassador

CARL MOLLINS February 7 1994
DISPATCHES

Faces in the crowd

Washington’s elite bravee cold to toast Yousuf Karsh and a new ambassador

CARL MOLLINS February 7 1994

Faces in the crowd

DISPATCHES

For Raymond Chrétien, hosting his first major reception as Canada’s new ambassador to the United States, and for guest of honor Yousuf Karsh, the weather could have been kinder. Sleet and cold rain, following snow and hail, slickened the streets outside the Canadian Embassy last Thursday night. Yet in spite of Washington’s notorious inability to cope with even a quasi-winter, 250 guests turned up at Arthur Erickson’s monumental embassy to celebrate the renowned Ottawa-based photographer. And although several special guests failed to make good on their RSVPs for the 40-person dinner following the reception, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist and media celebrity David Brinkley were among those who headed into the Ambassador’s Dining Room, along with James Blanchard, Washington’s new ambassador to Ottawa.

There was plenty of rubber-necking throughout the evening, but the main focus was on the 68 portraits by Karsh, including two new studies of U.S. President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. The two hang side-by-side in the embassy gallery, not far from Karsh’s scowling Winston Churchill (1941). The seated President peers—with a hint of anxiety—from a dark background, presidential seals decorating his tie and a bronze statuette of Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker behind his left shoulder. The First Lady, dressed in white, stands in customary composure—“a distinct, serene personality,” according to Karsh. He photographed the Clintons as a gift from one of their friends to mark the 25th anniversary of the President’s graduation from Washington’s Georgetown University. And the portraits follow in Karsh tradition: all 12 U.S. presidents since Herbert Hoover have sat for the Armenian-born photographer. His portfolio also includes a series of Canadian prime ministers, beginning with Sir Robert Borden. As for the ambassador’s uncle, Jean Chrétien sat for Karsh before he became prime minister—and Karsh hopes to photograph him again soon.

The exhibition, which overflows the gallery into the expansive Cana-

Washington’s elite bravee cold to toast Yousuf Karsh and a new ambassador

da Room, is catalogued and largely arranged democratically in an alphabetic sequence—beginning with Konrad Adenauer (1964) and closing with H.G. Wells (1943). Almost halfway along is a serenely beautiful profile of Karsh’s wife, Estrellita. She seemed little changed in the 30 years since her portrait was made, accompanying her husband, 85, in the receiving line, prompting him quietly when something slipped his memory.

The show was assembled by the National Archives of Canada, where the originals reside along with some 350,000 other Karsh photographs, negatives and documents. But according to staffers, the embassy’s budget is too lean to mount such an exhibition. Initially, Kodak offered to pick up the tab—between $30,000 and $40,000—according to Embassy staffers, but Karsh was uncomfortable about linking his name commer-

cially to a film company. To the rescue came Peter Munk and his Toronto-based American Barrick Resources Corp., of which he is CEO and chairman—grown rich on a Nevada goldmine. Munk was absent from the opening, but his partner, American Barrick president Robert Smith, cohosted with Chrétien. According to Smith, Karsh believes that every personality has a secret, one that may be revealed in a graphic portrait. With a nod to guest Katharine Graham, an owner and former publisher of The Washington Post, Smith quipped, “Karsh has revealed more secrets than Woodward and Bernstein ever did.” On that wry note, the VIPs retired to dinner, leaving the rest to confront the faces of history.

CARL MOLLINS

‘Karsh has revealed

more secrets than Woodward and Bernstein ever did’