Not since the days of party-giver Perle Mesta has Washington seen anyone like Alejandro Orfila, the 50-year-old divorced Argentine ambassador whose constant round of lunches (for 20), intimate dinners (for 8 to 10) and banquets (for 40) have become among the most sought-after invitations in the capital.
Let his nearest social rival on Embassy Row, the Iranian ambassador, pour on the caviar, Orfila responds with two Orfila-label wines (from his own family vineyards), Argentine and French delicacies concocted by Domenico Canala, one of Washington’s best chefs, and, for a topper, Argentine tango bands with the ambassador himself demonstrating the snakiest style in town.
“I am,” laughs Orfila merrily, “an impresario. We have the best parties in Washington, and I have not as yet—knock on wood—had one disaster.” He likes to think of his embassy staff as “a small, 50-member symphony. Each must do his part precisely and on time” if they are to achieve the ambassador’s goal of providing the most exquisite food, the finest music and the best dancing in Washington—all on a budget of $500,000.
Orfila, who insists that before he became an ambassador he “wasn’t even social,” even now says, “Without a purpose, only a nut would give a party.” Orfila has a purpose: “I must get the Argentine embassy in the picture. The only way to the public available to me is the social page. Now when I go to Congress, they know me as ‘the Ambassador of Argentina’ that they’ve read about—not just one of the other 129 ambassadors.”
Orfila says his great secret is “Lack of solemnity!” He even kids his own appearance: “The bald head has to do with an excess of male hormones; the gap between my front teeth has to do with sensuality and generosity.” It helps that he is no stranger to American ways—he followed up his studies in law with courses at Stanford and Tulane, and was Argentine consul in San Francisco and New Orleans. In Washington, Orfila has found, “You can’t do away with protocol at dinner parties, but after that, use your imagination. In Washington, the size of your imagination is your only limit.”
Among Orfila’s diplomatic tips:
•Rather than keep guests waiting too long—for one too many drinks, even a moment of boredom—I call the guests to dinner, no matter who is late.
•Don’t invite too many strangers. My proportion is 75 percent those who know each other and 25 percent new, to make the spark.
•The flowers must be fresh, but not only the flowers. If the companion seated beside you is not simpático, I have ruined your evening. It is my job to know who is who, what people are like, who smokes and who doesn’t, who talks too much. It is our honor that we have never misplaced a person yet.
•Never give too many or too lavish parties. Otherwise people will say, “Why is he so extravagant? Is he making fun of hard times?” Or, “He has kidnapping, ransoms and six murders a week in his country, and he celebrates…”
•The women are very important. A woman thrives on a social atmosphere, much more than men. I never give stag parties, only business lunches.
•Dancing is very important at parties. Women like to dance. And dancing brings men very much face-to-face with women. You put your arms around them and you know how they feel.
•I see to it that my guests always enjoy themselves. If a lady is by herself, I go up to her. Of course, by being so diplomatic, I sacrifice talking with a good brunette to spend 20 minutes with a lady wheezing from emphysema.
•I love people who are very important and very unpresuming. Nobody is supposed to be arrogant, no matter who he is.
Late last month Orfila gave his farewell dinner as ambassador, with CBS’s Walter Cronkite on hand to give the toast. (The two have been buddies since 1946 when both were stationed in Moscow, Orfila as a modest third secretary.) But Washington has hardly seen the last of Orfila—or his sumptuous hospitality. He has become Secretary General of the Organization of American States, helped into the job, as one of his rivals admits, by “his almost frightening ability at getting contacts.”
Orfila is taking his chef, majordomo and social secretary with him and plans to resume party-giving at his new headquarters in the Pan American Union Building a few blocks from the White House. “Now,” exclaims Orfila, his dark eyes sparkling, “I will have a 2,000-member orchestra with a budget of $50,000,000 a year—and I will be its conductor!”