David Isbell Text of Interview: November 24, 2008Catherine Nugent2022-04-26T17:14:57-04:00
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Oral History of
DAVID B. ISBELL
SIXTH SESSION – NOVEMBER 24, 2008
Sinclair: This is session six of David Isbell’s oral biography for the Historical Society of
the D.C. Circuit, and we are beginning today with a discussion of the Federal City Club,
following up on our discussion in the last session of eating clubs generally and the Metropolitan
Club and the Cosmos Club in particular. The one remaining club mentioned in your notes was
the Federal City Club, so let’s turn now to that. What is or was the Federal City Club, and what
was your involvement in it?
Isbell: Well, the Federal City Club came into being early in the Kennedy Administration,
as a result of Kennedy’s withdrawal of his application for membership in the Metropolitan Club.
I’m not sure of the exact chronology, but I think Kennedy had made that application shortly after
winning the election, but then withdrawn it before the Club had acted on it. My understanding
was that someone in Kennedy’s entourage had pointed out the Metropolitan Club’s exclusionary
policy and the potential political problems that his belonging to such a club could present for
Kennedy. That withdrawal also served as a warning to others who were destined for high
positions in the Administration, and in consequence the withdrawal of Kennedy’s application
was followed by a number of resignations from the Metropolitan Club.
The Federal City Club, as I understand it, was organized by a journalist named Charles
Bartlett, who had been a roommate of Kennedy’s at Harvard, as a refuge for those who had
resigned from the Metropolitan Club. Membership was also open to others than the refugees
from the Metropolitan Club, and of course the new club did not discriminate against blacks as
either members or guests. As a club, it had a quite limited physical scope. It had no building of
its own, and offered no overnight accommodations—let alone a barber shop or squash courts,
like the Metropolitan Club. It rented space from a hotel; initially, the Sheraton Carlton (now
called the St. Regis) which, conveniently, was on the next block and across the street from
Covington’s offices at that time, and offered lunch there, but neither breakfast nor dinner. It also
offered on occasion at lunchtime quite interesting speakers about various current events.
I joined the Federal City Club at some point, but I’m not sure exactly when, though I’m
reasonably sure that it was before I’d gotten admitted to the Cosmos Club. After becoming a
member of the Cosmos Club, I kept up my membership in the Federal City Club because it was
more convenient to get to from the firm’s office for lunch than the Cosmos Club.
Sinclair: Are you still an active member of both of those clubs?
Isbell: Well, I’m still a member of the Cosmos Club, but I dropped my membership in
the Federal City Club sometime after I rejoined the Cosmos Club following the club’s
recognition of the error of its ways with respect to the treatment of women, as I’ve previously
recounted. The Federal City Club eventually dissolved in January 2006. During the time I was
still actively engaged in the practice of law, I didn’t use either club very often, but since
acquiring senior status at the firm, I have used the Cosmos Club fairly often for both lunches and
Sinclair: What benefits have you derived from membership in those clubs?
Isbell: The main benefit has been the ability to have a good lunch (and, in the case of the
Cosmos Club, dinner) in an agreeable, uncrowded, and reasonably quiet dining room in which I
have some sense of proprietorship. The Cosmos Club also offers a wide variety of intellectually
rewarding activities—duplicate bridge, chess tournaments, lecturers at occasional lunches or
dinners, classical movies and so forth—but I have never partaken of any of them, initially
because I simply had too full a professional and family schedule, and more recently because of
my ever-worsening hearing problem.
Sinclair: Okay, let’s talk about the Southeast Neighborhood House, which is also
mentioned in the notes that you’ve provided me. What is or was the Southeast Neighborhood
Isbell: That was one of my earliest pro bono activities after I’d rejoined the firm
following my time at the Civil Rights Commission. It’s been a long time since I was involved in
it, and I don’t know if the organization is still in existence, or if so whether it still bears that
name. My guess and hope is that it is still operating, in some form or other. The historical name
for that sort of place was a “settlement house,” established by the “settlement movement,” a
liberal reformist social movement born in England in the nineteenth century, with the goal of
getting the rich and the poor to live more closely together. The settlement houses were
established in poor urban areas, and provided various services, including food, shelter, and
sometimes legal representation and education for the poor. They were funded by wealthy donors
and staffed by social workers. The movement spread to other countries, including America,
where the most famous settlement house was Hull House, in Chicago, established by Jane
Addams in 1889.
The settlement house whose board I joined was one of several such institutions in
Washington, and the poor neighborhoods they served were predominantly, if not invariably, in
Anacostia. The chairman of the board was Crosby Roper, a partner in the firm with whom I was
doing some corporate law work. Other members of the board, all of them white, and from
middle- or upper-class neighborhoods, included Francine Temko, a lawyer with whom I had
worked at the Commission and who was the wife of Stanley Temko, a partner in the firm with
whom I was also currently doing some work; Jean Warnke, the wife of a then-partner, Paul
Warnke; and Marion White, whose husband was Justice Byron White. The organization had an
exceedingly able director named Ralph Fertig.
Southeast Neighborhood House, along with all the other settlement houses in D.C.,
became part of the Poverty Program launched as part of President Johnson’s War on Poverty,
which not only provided new, governmental funding for settlement houses, but also gave a new
focus to their activities, in the form of “community action”—which is to say, getting local
people to organize and agitate and take charge of efforts to improve their situation and that of the
neighborhood generally, rather than relying on leadership from the boards of upper- and middleclass directors. Eventually, all the white members of the board of directors of Southeast
Neighborhood House withdrew and were replaced by people from the neighborhood, so the
organization was put in the hands of community activists—a very desirable development, in my
view. We weren’t kicked out, but we felt we weren’t needed any more. I haven’t followed the
fortunes of Southeast Neighborhood House since that time, and I don’t know what effect the
termination of the Federal Poverty Program had.
Sinclair: What did you contribute to Southeast Neighborhood House?
Isbell: Well, I was an active member of the board, and had some dealings with the local
community activists, but I don’t have any recollection of any specific thing I did except
organizing and running a fundraising event, an evening event in a large hall somewhere whose
name and location I don’t recall. It offered food and drink, dance music provided by a disc
jockey, and a performance by a then well-known entertainer named Tom Lehrer. An unusual
feature of that event was that we had a two-level pricing system for admission: people from the
neighborhood paid a quite modest entrance fee, while others paid much more for their tickets.
Despite the unusual pricing system, the event actually did generate a significant profit for
Southeast Neighborhood House.
Sinclair: Your star attraction was named Tom Lehrer?
Isbell: Yes. Have you never heard of him?
Sinclair: I don’t think so.
Isbell: I guess it’s a generational thing. At the time I first heard of him, Tom Lehrer was
a doctoral candidate in Harvard’s mathematics department. He subsequently bounced around
academia, teaching at a number of other universities. As a hobby of sorts, he composed and
performed—that is, he sang, accompanying himself on a piano—amusing songs, all making fun
of some institution or other. He got to be widely enough known to have his songs collected on
records that were available at music stores everywhere. I was in law school when I first heard of
him, but by the time I graduated I’d guess that just about every college or post-college student in
the country, and certainly a lot of older adults, at least among the bourgeoisie, knew of him, and
most also had his records. I think by the time of that funding event, I knew most of his songs by
heart, including all the verses, though I can’t make that claim today. I do, however, remember
snippets of some of his pieces. One of them was a mock-Irish folksong, which went in part—
About a maid I’ll sing a song,
Sing rickety tickety tin;
About a maid I’ll sing a song
Who didn’t have her family long
Not only did she do them wrong,
She did every one of them in
. . . .
Her mother she could never stand,
Sing rickety tickety tin;
Her mother she could never stand,
And so a cyanide soup she planned
Her mother died with the spoon in her hand
And her face in a hideous grin.
He had one about Boy Scouts, of which the following are excerpts:
Be prepared, and be careful not to do
Your good deeds when there’s no one watching you
. . . .
If you’re looking for adventure of a new and different kind
And you run into a girl scout who is similarly inclined
Don’t be flustered, don’t be nervous, don’t be scared
And from one about the Wild West:
Amid the yuccas and the thistles I‘ll watch the guided missiles
While the old FBI watches me
Yes, I’ll soon make my appearance, soon as I can get my clearance
‘Cause the Wild West is where I want to be.
So we were able to land Tom Lehrer to perform at our fundraiser, without fee (though we
doubtless paid his travel expense), because the husband of one of our board members had been
his roommate in college. He came down from Harvard without pay and was quite an attraction
for those, at least, who’d heard of him. I would guess that most of the board members and other
middle-class people we managed to attract to the event had heard of Tom Lehrer, but I’m not sure
the neighborhood people had, but I assume they would have enjoyed Lehrer’s performance, too.
That fundraising party was the only concrete contribution that I recall making while I
was on the Southeast Neighborhood House board, though I was an active member of the board,
and probably would have succeeded Crosby Roper as Chair if the decision hadn’t been made to
turn the whole operation, including the board of directors, over to people in the neighborhood.
Sinclair: Let’s talk about Florence’s family.
Isbell Florence had two children from her previous marriage—a son, Richard Robin,
and a daughter, Peggy Robin. They’re each now in their fifties, though when Florence and I
married Richard was in college and Peggy was just finishing high school. Each of them has
since married and each has two daughters, all very bright. Each of the older daughters has just
started college this fall (2009). Both families wound up living in Cleveland Park, so we’re able
to see a good deal more of Florence’s descendants than we do of most of mine, all but two of
whom live in Europe
Sinclair: What do Richard and Peggy do?
Isbell: Richard is a linguist, with a specialty in Slavic languages, and he’s got a
wonderful aptitude for languages, picking up new languages very quickly. I understand that that
talent for language manifested itself very early. He invented a language, taught it to his sister,
and the two of them were able to communicate in a tongue that their parents didn’t understand.
Richard is particularly interested in Russian; he’s the Chair of the Russian Language Department
at George Washington University, and he’s co-author of the pre-eminent teaching textbook for
the Russian language. He’s certainly a very talented teacher. If you ask him to explain
something, he does it in a step-by step fashion that gives you a perfectly clear, concise
Peggy, Florence’s daughter, is an author of non-fiction books, and with her husband Bill
Adler runs a small publishing company, which mainly puts out paperbacks on practical subjects
whose principal market is impulse buyers at airports and railroad stations. They also run a kind
of community blog (if that’s the correct term) for Cleveland Park. Peggy also is a community
activist, and one of the books she’s written and published is a sort of handbook on how to get
things done as a community activist. I’ve forgotten what the title is, but I remember the
dedication was to Florence, which read, “To my mother, who taught me how to lie down in front
of bulldozers.” She served for seven years on the Advisory Neighborhood Commission that
covered Cleveland Park, one of whose accomplishments was to preserve the small Park and
Shop shopping center of small, low-rise stores on the east side of Connecticut Avenue in
Cleveland Park from developers who wanted to tear it down and replace it with high rise
buildings. This was accomplished by creating a Cleveland Park Historic District, which had the
effect of requiring a hearing before any building within the District could be torn down.
An interesting thing about Peggy is that after she had her two daughters, she decided that
they should have the benefit, which she had not herself had, of in-depth exposure to Jewish
culture and tradition. Florence has always been totally nonobservant, and so had her husband
Fred Robin, the father of her children, and they had never sought to imbue any consciousness of
Jewish tradition in their children.
Sinclair: Is Florence of Jewish extraction?
Isbell: Yes, she’s Jewish, as both of her immigrant parents were (and their language at
home was, initially, Yiddish), but she’s never been observant; in fact, she prides herself as being
a militant atheist. Her parents weren’t observant Jews, either, although her father became a
prominent member of the local synagogue, more as a matter of social prestige than of religious
conviction. Her parents also hosted, in Florence’s early years, a Passover Seder. I think that was
the only religious occasion that they celebrated, and theirs was, from her description, more of a
wonderful cultural event than a religious one, with a variety of interesting regular participants,
who would recount stories about their lives and their escapes from Russia, and sing traditional
songs with the words changed to refer to the culture of their new American lives. That’s a whole
separate story, which I won’t try to tell further here.
What I was aiming at in mentioning the Jewish traditions was that only Peggy, and not
Richard (nor Florence, when she was raising them), was anxious to expose her two daughters to
Jewish tradition. So Peggy started giving a Passover Seder, which all the family attends,
including her in-laws, Florence and me, and whatever descendants of mine are around. In
addition, Peggy sent her two daughters to a Hebrew pre-kindergarten, and they both chose to
have a bat mitzvah, though the synagogue where they did this (and which conducted the
kindergarten) is a sort of nontheistic synagogue, which really concentrates on Jewish tradition, as
distinct from the Jewish religion. Their nonreligious congregation meets at a Unitarian church.
Sinclair: How have Florence’s children and grandchildren gotten along with yours?
Isbell: They’ve always gotten along beautifully. In the case of the grandchildren, like
Sinclair: Are they similar in age?
Isbell: Florence’s children are somewhat older than mine, but my two older children
married at a younger age than Florence’s, so the grandchildren/cousins are almost all in the same
range of ages.
Sinclair: So, when you married Florence, whom did your three children live with—you or
Isbell: They were mainly living with Michèle, but we had an agreement about custody
that amounted to joint custody, so I had them with me every other weekend, plus one midweek
night. I think I also had them during my vacation time, though she would have them the rest of
the summer, and usually went to France for that period, so I had somewhat less than half of their
summer vacation time.
Sinclair: Now let’s get a little more detail about your children.
Isbell: Well, the oldest is Christopher Pascal, though he generally goes only by Pascal.
He is now (in 2009) 51 years old. He got his college degree at Connecticut College, which had
just become co-ed (and shortened its name from Connecticut College for Women), so that he
was in the first class that included males. He did well—Phi Beta Kappa and summa cum laude.
He then got an MBA from Wharton and wound up as an investment banker of sorts, living in
London with his wife Virginie, the daughter of a French family of whom we’re very fond, as we
are of Virginie. Pascal and Virginie have three sons, one of whom, tragically, is autistic and
deeply dysfunctional; the other two are fine, and the oldest is in the process of applying to
colleges in both England and the United States.
My middle child is Virginia (more generally known as Poucette or simply Pou), who has
just turned 50, and who, although she attended Yale College, has lived for most of her life in
Paris. She is a serious and quite successful painter. She has three children from a former
marriage with a French psychoanalyst, Michel Topaloff, from whom she is now divorced: Alice,
now 20, who has just started at a French Grande École called Agro Paris, and 18-year-old twins,
Lucy, who has just started as a freshman at Yale, and Gabriel, who is attending a graduate school
of design in France.
My third child, Nicholas, who will be 48 this December, spent his college years first at
Duke and then, after a junior year abroad at the Hautes Études Commerciales (the prime business
school in France), at Harvard, from which he graduated with a bachelor’s degree. He then
successively earned an MBA from Wharton, an MA in international relations at the Johns
Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and an MA in History of Art from UCLA.
He now is making use of only the MBA background as an analyst at Fannie Mae. Somewhat
tardy on the matrimonial front, compared to his siblings, Nick married late and has fathered just
one child, Sophie, who is now 9, and the youngest of all of our grandchildren. Nick and
Sophie’s mother, Martine Burkel, are divorced, and Nick has recently remarried to a French
woman, Rose Villard Marsico.