Democratic National Convention: Night of the Peanut

Original Publication: Newsweek 7/26/76

By Maureen Orth with Lisa Whitman 

The first thing that the posh New York restaurant 21 did in honor of the Democratic National Convention was to take the pretzels off the bar and replace them with unshelled Georgia peanuts.  The invitation to the Arthur Schlesingers’ party for the Old Guard had a small note at the bottom that said, “Peanuts will be served.”  The panache of any party last week depended on the number of people who showed up wearing solid-gold peanut pins, the symbol of the Carter inner circle.  But at Jimmy Carter’s own party for the delegates, his brother, Billy, had to admit that the goobers served were not Georgia peanuts.  “They’re Spanish raw, ma’am.”

It hardly mattered.  The Big Apple ushered in the era of peanut chic last week, and for most, the combination was tasty.  New York went out of its way to lay on some down-home Southern hospitality was fancy lunches, fashion shows and fund-raising galas.  Carter himself stayed close to his hotel suite, sending out his numerous family and staff members to almost every function.  But the novelty of the Carter crowd – coupled with the predictability of the convention – turned the social sideshow into a hotly contended main event.  “The real action has been at parties this week,” said actress Shirley MacLaine, who managed to show up at many of them.  “Everybody is talking about who got into what party and who got left out.” 

New York society is not familiar with the Carters of Plains, and for the first time many of the town’s gadabouts, showbiz celebrities and political groupies found themselves sidelined at a convention – sometimes socializing among themselves without a political insider in sight.  Whenever the Gothamites did meet the Georgia contingent, the pecking order was in serious disarray.  At one reception, Gloria Steinem made a beeline to meet Miss Lillian, Carter’s mother, while Miss Lillian and the other Carter women were waiting in line to meet Barbara Walters.  The few people who had connections to the Carter crowd suddenly became the power brokers, giving radical chic a cracker twist.  A party given by the formerly anti-Establishment Rolling Stone magazine, which came out early for Carter, turned out to be the party – and the crush at the door was so hysterical that VIP’s like Lauren Bacall and Theodore White couldn’t even get in. 


The new outsiders were definitely not used to it.  “Come visit us,” Hubert Humphrey told a friend at Mayor Abraham Beame’s picnic lunch.  “We’re set up in exile.”  At a party in philanthropist Mary Lasker’s elegant white-on-white apartment, Teddy Kennedy joked that he couldn’t even get into the convention.  And the night Jimmy Carter was nominated for President, George McGovern opted for Regine’s, the glittering new French discotheque.  McGovern sat stone-faced with his wife while a frenzied Bastille Day party whirled around them.  The crowd was more impressed by Elizbeth Taylor, who was dancing in a trance with John Warner, chairman of the U.S. Bicentennial Commission.  Earlier in the week, Eleanor McGovern admitted she felt “ambivalent” about the week’s events.  “I wish I were Mrs. Jimmy Carter right now,” she confided, “but only as Mrs. George McGovern.”

Mr. & Mrs. Jimmy Carter were clearly the ones to be near.  Sunday morning, the Carters attended a brunch for party fat cats at 21, where a three-piece combo played such folksy tunes as “Take Me Home, Country Road.”  “There’s no one left on the outside this year like in 1972,” said Newark’s black mayor, Kenneth Gibson.  “After Miami, the party realized they needed everyone.”

The next “reception for Jimmy Carter,” a Halston fashion show at the Steer Palace inside Madison Square Garden, was typical of most parties in one respect: Carter never showed.  The big attraction was ancient starlet Denise Darcel, who was dressed in full-length sequins for the afternoon affair, and the high-fashion models had to fight their way through an unappreciative crowd.  “When’s this fashion show gonna end?” asked one delegate in a ruffled shirt.  “It’s killing the party.”  Margaux Hemingway arrived with her husband, Errol Weston, took one look and left.  “We’re not political,” he allowed.

The wacky tone of the week was struck at an “exclusive” cocktail party given by William Taub, who deals in oil.  Jimmy Carter, Paul Newman and Prince Philip were invited to honor Flor Trujillo, the newly wed daughter of the late Dominican dictator, and Hermione Gingold, who confessed intense jealousy of Carter’s teeth because “mine are so small.”  Carter, Newman and the Prince never showed but Taub was not daunted.  Flor Trujillo, he declared, was a good prospect for Secretary of HEW.

At the Arthur Schlesingers’, the elders of Camelot came out in full force, Jacqueline Onassis held court in a corner of the crowded downstairs garden, and the rest of the blue-chip crowd tried to figure out whom to hustle for passes into the convention.  Carter was down at Pier 88, at his own party for 4,000 of his supporters.  Fried chicken and beer were served, the South Philadelphia String Band, dressed as mummers, played “Dixie”, and latecomer Telly Savalas was mobbed as if he were the Presidential candidate.  Carter was wearing an electric “Elect Jimmy Carter” button that lit up every second.  When Ron Kovic, a paralyzed Vietnam vet, came down the line in his wheelchair, Kovic grasped Carter’s hand firmly and wouldn’t let go while he complained about the conditions in VA hospitals.  Carter never said a word and never stopped smiling – he just keep trying to pull his hand away. 

Through the cocktails and conversation, a few new stars emerged, most notably Jimmy Carter’s energetic and candid mother.  “I think I’m secretly in love with Miss Lillian,” Walter Cronkite confided at one point, and even Tom Hayden enthused: “She could be another Eleanor Roosevelt.”  She was in demand everywhere, but she clearly had her favorites.  At one luncheon, she summoned reporter Carl Bernstein and was overheard telling him that she had read “All the President’s Men” three times – “twice because it was such a good book, and the third time because I know Jimmy’s gonna be in the White House and I want to watch out for him.”  Twice, in the wee hours, Miss Lillian called Shirley MacLaine to the Carter suite at the Americana Hotel.  She had watched her on TV’s Tom Snyder show and told Jimmy to invite her over.  “They tracked me down at a restaurant at 1 a.m.,” said MacLaine.  “Jimmy told me they’d be up another couple of hours so we sat around and talked about life,” MacLaine now plans to work for Carter.  “He levels that ‘charm’ gaze at you,” she said, “and you know why he got the nomination so fast.”


Psychically Jimmy Carter is already in the White House, according to his faithhealing sister, Ruth Stapleton.  “I’m even seeing it,” she said.  “He has the image of a very strong leader.”  All week long, people have been coming up to her at parties and asking if they could be healed.  The surprise attraction at many of the parties, however, was Cornelia Wallace, whose good looks seemed to mark her far more acceptable on the Democratic Establishment than her husband’s ideology.  Although she was coy about her own political plans to run for office, she managed to show up at almost every top-drawer event in her smartly tailored white suit.  For most women, the uniform of the week turned out to be Diane von Furstenberg’s “great little bourgeois dress” – in Carter green.

Blacks were also highly visible in the Carter celebrations.  Sports entrepreneur Don King threw one of the week’s liveliest shindigs at the Pierre Hotel ballroom, where black celebrities danced to an all-white band.  Boxer Rubin (Hurricane) Carter, civil-rights leader Jesse Jackson and entertainers Isaac Hayes and Cab Calloway socialized with the Carter staff.  Campaign manager Hamilton Jordan, beer bottle in hand, wandered around happily predicting.  “Our only problem now is overconfidence,” but Carter delegate Merle Lefkoff said, “This is a very important party.  It’s a recognition of how crucial blacks have been to us especially by getting the liberals to rally behind Carter.”

The hottest ticket in town was the Rolling Stone party in honor of the Carter campaign staff.  It was controversial even before it took place.  The Stone’s resident political journalist, Hunter Thompson – known for his free-form put-downs of politicians – had written 20,000 words of praise in a cover story on Carter.  The headline read ENDORSEMENT and caused a near staff revolt, according to Rolling Stone insiders.

The magazine expected 500 at its bash, but the party was talked about all over town, and hundreds of eager guests and crashers rolled up.  At midnight, the doors were rudely closed, shutting out many of the legitimate invitees – among them some of Carter’s top staffers and celebrities such as Sen. Gary Hart, Jane Fonda, Barbara Howar and Warren Beatty, “Hey, Beatty,” yelled TV comic Chevy Chase, standing on a balcony across the street with Paul Simon, “who’s the chick?” Beatty was holding hands with Bella Abzug, who shouted back, “Be nice.”

Inside Czech director Milos Forman (“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”) was brokenly ecstatic.  “Look I meet a Carter people,” he exulted.  Also thrilled were two young Carter staffers who had just met Walter Cronkite – the only celebrity the police personally ushered into the party.  “I’d have to say this is the high point of the whole campaign,” said Larry Acciari, 25, a Carter financial man.  “Presidents come and go but Walter Cronkite – he’s an institution.”  After smoking on the roof Hunter Thompson came down and joined the party.  “I don’t think journalists should endorse candidates, but I have no career as a journalist,” he said.  “I write what I do.”  “Just humor him,” said Jimmy Carter’s oldest son, Jack.

Jack Carter, a husky, red-haired lawyer who lives in Calhoun, GA., was enjoying himself.  “We don’t go to many big affairs like this,” he said.  “Back home we consider eight people a party.”  Young Carter, who’s a good dancer, was still ready to boogie at 3 a.m.  “I know I can show you something about myself by the way I dance,” he told one reporter.  “Your Daddy’s gonna spank you,” a Southern belle teased.  “Aw,” Carter answered, “if y’all were in Calhoun I’d take you someplace.”  Three New York reporters took him out for a nightcap.  Still going strong at dawn, he asked innocently, “Has your opinion of Georgia changed much since the beginning of the year?”


If not, at least the Georgians’ opinion of New York certainly had.  At a lavish Bloomingdale’s breakfast of strawberry crepes and champagne, designer Calvin Klein gave personal fashion advice.  “It’s Camelot,” exclaimed the wife of a Carter staffer racing to Bonwit Teller’s brunch.  “How will I go back to the car pool next week?”  Annette Carter, married to Jimmy’s son Jeff, thoroughly enjoyed it.  “My husband said, ‘You’re going to take that checkbook to Bloomingdale’s and spend all our money,’ and I said, ‘You’re darn right!’ ”

Ascetic Jerry Brown, the California governor, held out as long as he could against the party scene, but even he gave in.  He emerged from his tacky room at the McAlpin Hotel to attend a fundraiser for the farm workers.  The refried beans ran out, the taco chips disappeared and Jerry Rubin gazed on his Chicago Seven brother Tom Hayden, an unsuccessful Senate candidate, neatly attired in coat and tie.  Next to him was tieless Sen. John Tunney trying hard to be hip.  Jane Fonda auctioned off Cesar Chavez biographies for $200.

The only convention regular to snub the social whirl was none other than Planter’s Mr. Peanut.  “We decided not to have Mr. Peanut at the convention this year,” sniffed a spokesman from Standard Brands, which owns Planters.  “It’s better if Mr. Peanut is nonpolitical.”

This article is typed from the original material.  Please excuse any errors that have escaped final proofreading.