Farewell, 'Phryne'

John McCaslin
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Posted: Jun 23, 2005 12:00 AM

It's been some time since we wrote about the sex scandal - in the shape of a shapely courtesan named "Phryne" - that rocked Washington in 1998.

And within the National Press Club, no less.

"Silver Owls," as aging newspapermen of the club are affectionately called, had been feasting their eyes on Phryne for decades.

She has "hung in the club for over 50 years," former club president Richard Sammon recalled several years ago. "It is a classically done nude painting."

But then a politically correct breed of "journalist" arrived in the nation's capital, and it wasn't long before they declared Phryne "inappropriate" for viewing.

"In many ways, she has become the Confederate flag of the National Press Club," Sammon explained. "The older members of the club ... find that the painting is a connection to the past, an identity marker for the club through the years. The painting harks back to a time at the press club when the only woman in the club was a naked one hanging on a wall." (Women were first allowed to join the NPC in 1971).

For 15 years, complaints about Phryne persisted, finally coming to boil in 1998 during a raucous meeting of the club's board. One outraged Silver Owl was overheard conceding to another, "I guess we can't have ... that old hooker hanging around here." "You mean we're going to have to take down the photo of Pamela Harriman, too?" replied the aging scribe.

In a 9-1 decision, the club's board of governors voted to expel Phryne from the club, even though she'd been a member longer than anybody in the room.

"I pointed out that no matter how you flush it, it's censorship," said David K. Martin, the lone board member who voted to save the elegant lady. "No one agreed with me."

Next came the question of disposition. First, the Silver Owls had their grand dame appraised, and were they ever surprised at her value: easily six figures on the auction block. The Brazilian ambassador let it be known that he was eager to get his hands on the stunning nude, with hopes of hanging her in his official Washington residence. The famous Brazilian artist Antonio Parreiras, he knew, painted Phryne.

Born in 1860, Parreiras studied at the Fine Arts Imperial Academy in Brazil, where he met German painter George Grimm. It was under Grimm's guidance and influence that Parreiras shunned traditional artistry, creating what's been described as a unique Brazilian-European style. He traveled throughout Europe, exhibiting his first female nude at the Salon in Paris in 1907.

But his main concentration - indeed, his major talent - was landscapes. And in 1929, he was awarded the gold medal at the Exposition International in Seville. Ultimately, Parreiras returned to his native Brazil, where he founded the country's Plein Air School. Today, a museum of his works - the Museum Antonio Parreiras - is found in Niteroi, Brazil, near the school.

One art expert writes that "because of his popularity in Brazil, it is getting more expensive and much more difficult to find (even) original postcards of his work."

It came as no surprise, then, when the Silver Owls insisted that Phryne only be "on loan" to the Brazilians. Don Larrabee, a Silver Owl and club president in 1973, was fearful that once Phryne was out of sight, she might be taken from the country, never to return.

So instead of losing their lady, the Silver Owls found Phryne temporary sanctuary at the prestigious Metropolitan Club of Washington, where for the past five years members have provided her safe haven, full insurance and numerous toasts.

Now, Larrabee, a retired newspaperman from Maine, tells The Beltway Beat that the Silver Owls recently met and agreed the time has come to, dare we say, shop Phryne around - that is, present her to the highest bidder.

Alla Rogers, a gallery owner in Georgetown whose late husband, Warren Rogers, was a newspaperman and past president of the press club, volunteered to contact various auction houses - "to see what we might get for this painting," Larrabee explains.

"We have also decided that we would give a large sum of the proceeds to create an archive at the press club. It desperately needs one. There's nothing there that resembles a real archive," he says. "Despite the fact that they rejected our painting, we'll give it back to them."

As for having to say goodbye to Phryne after such a long courtship?

"She's much admired," Larrabee says. "I feel we can't do much about it anymore. It would be wonderful to find an owner for her right here in Washington."

Come to think of it, he adds: "There's worse nudes in a lot of big art galleries."

AL AND COMPANY

Former CBS News senior correspondent Bernard Goldberg has an intriguing title for his forthcoming book: "The 100 People Who are Screwing Up America: And Al Franken is No. 37."

After exposing his old network's political stripes in his best-seller "Bias" (Regnery Publishing, Inc., 2002), Goldberg will argue in his next book that America has become indiscriminately tolerant of garbage in our culture, which he adds is not the work of some vague, irresistible natural force.

Specific people are to blame, Goldberg says, and he names names. They are injecting a "slow poison" through America's veins, he explains, turning the country into a selfish and cynical place, a less decent and civil place, eroding its very ethical and moral underpinnings.

And who, besides No. 37, are the culprits?

He cites pinstripe crooks and intellectual thugs, Hollywood loudmouths and American jackals. He then presents the dirty 100.

WHERE IT STANDS

A conservative who's who in Washington - David Keene, Becky Norton Dunlop, Morton Blackwell, Grover Norquist, Ron Robinson and Tony Perkins - huddled this week with Sen. Richard M. Burr, (R-N.C.), and the family and office alumni of Jesse Helms, to plan what one dubbed a "long-overdue Washington tribute" to the senator, who retired in 2002.

It was decided that the gala, benefiting the Jesse Helms Center Foundation, would take place Sept. 20 at the Marriott Crystal Gateway. Burr and Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.) will be co-chairmen for the event, which is timed to coincide with the August release of Helms' long-anticipated memoir, "Here's Where I Stand," (Random House).

"This is going to be huge," one attendee says. "I think a lot of folks - and not just conservatives - will really look forward to this opportunity to properly honor Sen. Helms and his rich legacy here in Washington. The fact that we're able to do it to coincide with the release of his memoir is just icing on the cake."

CALLING ON ROVE

Who better than Karl Rove's former team of campaign strategists to help Ed Cox, the 58-year-old lawyer and son-in-law of former President Richard Nixon, defeat New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in her re-election bid next year?

Cox's Senate exploratory committee this week brought aboard political consultants Todd Olsen and Kevin Shuvalov, whose firm, Olsen & Shuvalov, was founded in 1999 after Rove's departure to advise George W. Bush in his inaugural campaign for the White House.

Olsen served as executive vice president of Karl Rove and Company, while Shuvalov moved from Rove's firm to Bush's campaign in 2000.

GANDY'S MOMENT

A prominent women's group says National Organization for Women President Kim Gandy is "in hysteria mode."

"Ms. Gandy and her fellow feminist leaders are so 'open-minded' their brains are falling out," the Clare Boothe Luce Policy Institute says in a statement. The women's group, named after the late Connecticut congresswoman who was also managing editor of Vanity Fair, was reacting to the NOW president's recent directive at the "Take Back America Conference" to oppose Social Security reform, oppose parental notification on teen abortion and oppose faith-based initiatives.

"The Taliban used religion to suppress the basic rights of women. The Southern Baptists and the Promise Keepers preach submission of women as part of their religion," Gandy told the crowd, calling for support of universal health care, "marriage" for homosexual couples and a continuing blockage of President Bush's judicial nominees.