In 1941 Winston Churchill stayed at the White House. “I must have a tumbler of sherry in my room before breakfast,” Churchill had told the butler on his arrival. “A couple of glasses of scotch and soda before lunch and French champagne. And 90-year-old brandy before I go to sleep at night.” Which may explain why Eleanor Roosevelt found him reeling about the corridors at 3am in a silk kimono.
He was no better sober. When President Roosevelt stopped by Churchill’s room, Churchill greeted him fresh from the bath. Stark naked. Pink as a shrimp. “We live here as a big family,” said Churchill in a telegraph to the Labour party leader, Clement Attlee, “in the greatest intimacy and informality.” After he left, Eleanor flatly refused to host any more house guests. FDR would simply have to persuade the government to buy him a guest house. And so he did.
Blair House is America’s most exclusive Airbnb. It comes with a view of the White House and 18 full-time staff. It is closed to the public but queens and heads of state have slept in its four-poster beds and made tea in its kitchenette. It’s where every president since Carter has slept the night before their inauguration. And where Boris Yeltsin once got so drunk he tried to leave via the garage door. Unlike the White House’s vast mausoleum of red carpet, Blair House is the bricks-and-mortar incarnation of a chic dowager aunt. Walking through the front door is like slipping into a monogrammed bathrobe. A sumo wrestler could break the spindly antiques just by looking at them. When George HW Bush stayed at Blair House with 10 grandchildren the decorator wrote a note begging them to mind the priceless china. Barbara Bush replied: “We’re playing football with the china. Don’t worry about it. Everything will be mended with Elmer’s glue.”
In London we only ever had one house guest. A mouse. And we murdered him. Since we moved to DC our house has become a Blair House for friends and family here on official state visits. We are new to hosting and energetically hopeless at it. Everyone has hosted. Everyone has been hosted. Ergo hosting is straightforward. Except — it’s not. It’s quantum theory. You need an algorithm. Or a degree in hotel management. A long weekend is ample time in which to blowtorch a friendship. Consider the summer of 1998 which I spent sitting in an umpire chair in Brittany while my French exchange made out with her tennis instructor.
So far we’ve got a lot out of hosting. Our politest guest was so gracious he talked himself into assembling our garden furniture in the snow. But what I’m learning is, without ironclad hosting protocols in place, there is always a risk of a diplomatic crisis. What — for example — is your approach to international affairs? Will you accommodate them on your sofa bed? Or tactfully suggest they be conducted in hotels? How will you manage your bilateral relations — your mother, father, sister, cousins? Their visit will be billed as an informal summit. It’s not. It’s the Bay of Pigs. And what about your agricultural policy? Does your guest like to eat well, but not too much? Or too much, and not well? A hungry houseguest is a wildebeest in the savannah. It must graze. Feed it or be eaten. Under-promise, over-deliver. Be an ambassador plenipotentiary of snacks.
There is a gulf between the expectations of hosts and guests. Do not attempt to straddle the gulf. No one’s pride can handle the invariable fall. Rope your guests to one another, abseil down carefully and pray the descent into unprecedented intimacy doesn’t kill everyone. To host a houseguest is to embrace radical transparency. To revel in the experience of your husband’s-former-colleague-now-friend seeing you in a towel. To celebrate the vigour with which your octogenarian parents’ love life is maintained.
At Blair House the staff personalise each visitor’s experience, leaving jelly beans in Ronald Reagan’s bedroom and serving borscht ice cream to Nikita Khrushchev. Guests in our house enjoy a similar standard of attentiveness. If you happen to stay with us, please help yourself to tea and coffee. To second and third helpings. To our baby when he wakes at 5am. And to the airport when you go.
Jenny Lee is a five-star hotel
Get alerts on Washington when a new story is published