When Tongsun Park, the redoubtable Korean influence peddler and maximum host, returns to Washington this week to answer some hard questions before the House Ethics Committee, a group of friends and former associates plans to welcome him back with a party. But it is doubtful whether any congressmen, diplomats or high government officials will be on hand to take part in the revels. Time was when capital heavyweights of all sizes and politics clamored for entree to Park’s posh George Town Club, or to his $700,000 mansion on Embassy Row. But all that ended in 1976, when Park left the country shortly before the Justice Department and the Ethics Committee began to look into charges that he had sluiced millions of dollars to U.S. political figures. One person who will be waiting for him, though, is Tandy Dickinson, his onetime hostess and constant companion.
Tongsun, 42, and Tandy, a taffy-haired, 35-year-old Southern belle with expensive tastes and a studied air of wide-eyed naivete, may have seemed the oddest of Washington couples, but their parties provided a footnote to social history. Virtually everybody on the Washington “A” list coveted Park’s invitations in those days: future House Speaker Tip O’Neill, Vice-President Jerry Ford, Sen. Hubert Humphrey, Attorney General William Saxbe, Saudi Arabian Oil Minister Zaki Yamani. “The name Tongsun Park meant a good party,” recalls Tandy. “People would change their plans to make sure they’d be there—because they were treated so well. The best food, the best wine, the best champagne, the best music, the best people.”
For Tandy, the parties—and Tongsun Park—represented the pinnacle of a rock candy mountain. The daughter of a blue-blooded Lynchburg, Va. family, she was christened Mary Tandy Meem. After making her debut, she attended Mount Vernon Junior College, a fashionable Washington girls’ school. “The day after I graduated,” she says, “I called a number in the paper and asked if I could come in for an interview, and they said, ‘Of course.’ After I hung up I said, ‘Oh, Mother, I’m so excited. I’m going for my first job interview.’ She said, ‘What company is it?’ and I said, ‘I don’t know, I forgot to ask.’ ”
The job turned out to be with the D.C. Transit System, and Tandy’s boss was Washington wheeler-dealer O. Roy Chalk. Later she became receptionist-secretary for Madison Hotel owner Marshall Coyne, another adept social mover. The Lynchburg postdeb was impressed. “I just looked up at them and said, ‘I wonder what it’s like to be a part of that?’ But I didn’t venture at that point.”
Eventually she did. “I took a little sabbatical in Lynchburg. I went back to the farm, so to speak, and reviewed my life and decided that Washington was it.” Back to the Potomac Tandy came, but not to a receptionist’s desk. In short order she met Ed Dickinson, a multimillionaire Maryland builder 23 years her senior. They were married on Dickinson’s yacht on Memorial Day weekend, 1971.
From then on, life was wall-to-wall marble halls. “We would go down to Florida and to the Ocean Reef Club, and then up to Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard…I didn’t have much to do. It was a heady life. Dom Pérignon and beluga caviar are better than hamburger and french fries.” All the while, she recalls, “Ed showered me with gifts, clothes, jewelry, fur coats. For a girl without money it was a fantasy, and at first I reveled in it.” The revels ended after three years, but the divorce settlement made Tandy financially independent.
For a time the beautiful divorcée was one of Washington’s most sought-after social ornaments. (“Washington,” she confides, “isn’t a sex town. Image is more important than sexuality, and after a heavy round of parties and a busy day of being powerful, sex is trivial to men. Besides, they’re too tired.”) Then along came Tongsun Park, Korean businessman, rice broker and entrepreneur extraordinaire.
It was not quite love at first sight. Tandy, felled by the flu, had to bow out of their first date—a birthday party for Tip O’Neill, attended by Jerry and Betty Ford. On their second try, a gala at the Kennedy Center, Park frowned at the backless gown she had chosen. “Tongsun is a very conservative gentleman,” she explains, “and he has certain rules that I learned very quickly: cover up, not too much makeup, no cuss words—and I liked it. I liked someone taking care of me that way. I looked up to him. He swooped into my life and took me by the hand and showed me many fascinating things. I respected him.”
From the outset, there was never a question of marriage. “It wasn’t in the cards,” says Tandy, “and not because of the racial differences. My divorce is the inhibiting factor. In Korea the social stigma would be overwhelming.” But there were compensations, including a villa they share in the Dominican Republic, and trips to Korea, Europe, Morocco and the Middle East. “I spent Christmas Eve in Abu Dhabi the year before last,” marvels Tandy. “I thought, ‘My heavens, what is happening?’ ”
A few months earlier an investigation had been launched into Park’s alleged influence peddling on behalf of the South Korean CIA. There were reports of cash payoffs to prominent congressional figures in the amounts of $500,000 to $1 million a year. And there were allegations of other favors as well: call girls, expensive gifts, jewelry. Finally Park was indicted by a Washington grand jury on 36 counts of bribery, conspiracy, mail fraud, racketeering, illegal political contributions and failure to register as a foreign agent. Recently, after closed-door questioning by congressional investigators in Seoul and some high-level diplomatic plea bargaining, Park was granted immunity in exchange for his testimony. Only then did he agree to return to Washington.
Tandy, who invested $190,000 of her own money in Park’s Valley Finance Inc., professes ignorance of his alleged shady dealings. As for rumors of call girls and stuffed party envelopes, she insists, “That’s a bunch of garbage. I never saw it.”
Since Tongsun’s departure 18 months ago, Tandy has virtually vanished from the Washington social scene. She watches TV in her one-bedroom Watergate apartment and talks twice a week with Park when he phones from Korea. As often as she can, she flies off to their hideaway in the Dominican Republic, where she cultivates her golden girl’s tan. “I don’t go to parties anymore because people stare, and I don’t like the questions,” she says. But she will appear on NBC’s Weekend this Saturday night. She still cherishes her friendship with Tongsun and the memories of their glorious partying. “I remember one night,” she says, “when Hubert Humphrey stood there with his champagne glass in his hand and said, ‘Tongsun, I don’t know what you do, but you do it well.’ And everyone just burst out laughing. It was all very, very pleasant. Very beautiful. I miss it.”