Publication:The New York Sun; Date:Feb 3, 2004; Section:Front page; Page:1

Meet D.C.’s Hostess of the Mostest

By ANNA SCHNEIDER-MAYERSON Staff Reporter of the Sun

    A certain mystique has surrounded Jennifer 8. Lee ever since, as a teenager, she added a number to spice up her common name.

    It followed her to the New York Times, where she became a staff reporter at age 24. And it’s trailed the 27-year-old to Washington, D.C., where Ms. Lee has become better known for her parties than for her peculiar byline.

    In just a year in Washington, Ms. Lee has fashioned a high-powered and occasionally raucous social circuit around the brunches and barbeques, dinner parties and poker nights, holiday soirees,and intimate concerts she hosts on a nearly weekly basis in her penthouse loft.

    While the BYOB policy and aluminum tins of fried dumplings at her parties may not have been to Katharine Graham’s taste, that isn’t stopping the lofty comparisons from flowing.

    “Jenny is the Pamela Harriman and Katharine Graham for D.C.’s younger set,” says Adam Kovacevich, 27, the deputy press secretary for Senator Lieberman’s presidential campaign, who has co-hosted a party with Ms.Lee.

    “There’s that tradition of grand dame hostesses in D.C. I think Jenny’s like the 21st-century version,” says Christian Bailey, 28, a buyout fund
manager whose taste of the social scene at Ms. Lee’s swayed him to move to Washington from New York.

    Ms. Lee’s salons, held in a dramatic loft in a raggedy part of northwest Washington, have become famous among young Washingtonians as much for their bohemian bon vivant atmosphere as for some of the invitees.

    In the chipper and maternal Ms. Lee, ambitious 20-and-30-somethings have found a plugged-in peer who’s filling several voids.

    For one thing, she’s capable of attracting bigwigs from the press-politicsinterest group trifecta that might normally be out of their league.

    People like Times managing editor Jill Abramson, anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist, New Yorker writer Katherine Boo, organizing director Zack Exley, columnist Harold Meyerson, and a top aide to presidential candidate John Edwards, Robert Gordon, have all stopped by.

    “There’s some mysterious quality about Jenny Lee that causes people to show up,” says Marc Ambinder, 25, a friend from college who is a producer at ABC News. (Mysterious she likes to remain. Ms. Lee declined requests for an on-the-record interview, saying she didn’t consider herself newsworthy.)

    To be sure, her resume is an essential part of her appeal as a hostess. Ms. Lee joined the Times in New York as a staff reporter a year and a half after graduating from Harvard in 1999. Now she covers environmental policy while doubling as the de facto political correspondent for the Sunday style section, writing stories about the scene among young campaign volunteers and the buzz surrounding Washington-based television show “K Street.”

    But it’s the synergy among the young overachievers — who make up the bulk of her guests — that’s making her the life of the party. It’s as if, in one quick year, Ms. Lee has single-handedly reinvented the old-style Washington mixer for the Friendster set. Her gatherings provide a setting for young reporters to meet fledgling politicos before either one blows up into the next Bob Woodward or James Carville.

    “She creates connections for people who aren’t connected yet,”says Barbara Martinez, 25, a friend of Ms. Lee’s who worked at the Washington Post.

    “Maybe she’s not Katharine Graham yet,” says Julian Barnes, 32, an investigative reporter for US News & World Report who has co-hosted a party with Ms. Lee. “But there’s something that evokes that.”

    In some ways, the title has been years in the making for Ms. Lee, who colleagues say has always been a masterful networker. She sends unsolicited emails to writers she admires. She sits in the front row and introduces herself to speakers at conferences.

    At the Harvard Crimson, where she was vice president, she created a guide to help younger reporters get internships, and she continues to update her job advice on the student newspaper’s Web site five years later.

    After a year at the Times’ New York headquarters, she organized a series of lunchtime writing workshops with speakers like the paper’s executive editor and columnists. About a year later, in the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal, she spearheaded a letter of recommendations, ultimately signed by herself and 18 other staffers, to a committee that was set up to investigate how Mr. Blair got away with making up stories. Ms. Lee, who was posted in Washington, sent out as many as three drafts a day.

    In Washington, scrolling down her Web-based RSVP lists to see the highprofile invitees has become routine for guests, who are amazed at the range of people Ms. Lee befriends.

    In New York, where Ms. Lee began covering technology for the business section of the Times, she quickly became the reporter who organized parties to celebrate promotions, welcome interns (only months after she had been hired), and say good-bye to departing reporters. Sometimes she got the Times to cover the bill at a bar; other times she loaned out her services to cook at a friend’s apartment.

    Colleagues also remember Ms. Lee, who moved to the Circuits section after a year, coordinating outings to watch the outdoor movies in Bryant Park,only to nod off as soon as the movie started rolling.

    As testament to Ms. Lee’s friendliness, a friend recalls that the reporter struck up a conversation with a take-out food delivery person who was dropping off an order at her hotel while she was on assignment in Defiance, Ohio. Ms. Lee, on the spot, ended up inviting the delivery woman, a Taiwanese-American college student who was majoring in journalism, to share a hotel room with her and other reporters at an Asian American Journalists Association convention in San Diego a few months later.

    A Times business reporter, Jennifer Bayot, 23, remembers asking Ms. Lee why she put herself out to help people so often; at the conference,for example,she could have had the hotel room to herself.

    “She went into this economic thing, ‘The marginal benefit of the people I get to help is so much more than the marginal cost to me.’ I thought, ‘Not everyone would think of it that way,’” Ms. Bayot recalls.

    Bubbly though she may be, Ms. Lee is no Tara Reid. So sensitive to alcohol that she hardly ever drinks (a few sips of liquor get her drunk, friends say) she’s also been known to pad off to bed early when her guests are still mid-conversation.

    As a host, she’s a fretter, rolling her homemade dumplings or picking up plastic cups behind her guests rather than mingling; more likely to wear baggy drawstring pants than form-fitting French Connection ensembles; frugally catering her parties with supplies from Costco; co-hosting often to defray the cost and credit. (Ms. Lee grew up in Harlem, and until Harvard, had only attended public schools.) No coat check or catered hors d’hœuvres here — Ms. Lee cooks from scratch.

    She gets embarrassed when people point out how often she throws parties — and friends say the guest lists rotate, so it’s hard to pin down a tally.

    “I definitely get the sense that she’s entertaining all the time,” says Senate staffer James Stern, 24. (Weekly is the going estimate when Ms. Lee is not out of town for work.)

    In an online Q&A with Times readers a year and a half ago, she recalled close friend Adam Hickey’s assessment of her as a multitasker. “My friend…tells me that I ‘alt-tab through life,’” she wrote, referring to a keystroke that switches between programs on a computer screen.

    “I think she likes meeting people and watching other people meet each other,” says Mr. Hickey, echoing the hypotheses of many other guests and friends.

    That much was clear when, in anticipation of her move to D.C., Ms. Lee sent an e-mail to more than 500 members of a recent Harvard graduates mailing list looking for an apartment and inviting them to drop her a line.

    “I would love to make new friends down in D.C.,” she wrote.

    The work had already begun to pay off bythe time she moved in.“Within 10 days she had the best party I’d been to in Washington,” recalls Anne Hull, 42, a Washington Post national correspondent.

    Ms. Lee had only been covering the EPA for about a week but had as her guests, in Ms. Hull’s estimation, about three “high-placed sources,”as well as a “shaggy conservationist” and Times reporter Richard Oppel Jr.

    “In one week she knew about 10 times as many people as I know,” says Ms. Hull, who moved to D.C. a year and a half ago. “There were your typical wonky people, young and middle-aged, but probably half the room had not seen ‘West Wing’ and listened to Radiohead and not Norah Jones.”

    Guests outside the buttoned-up norm have included a mortician from Louisiana, a Foggy Bottom-based psychic with a cable access show, and a waiter Ms. Lee struck up a conversation with at a pan-Asian restaurant.

    The parties just kept coming. The apartment, which she rents with a roommate, is in an out-of-the-way section of Washington near the convention center.But its roof deck has views of the Capitol and the Washington monument and the owner left her modern art and baby grand piano behind.As friends see it, the 1,500-square-foot space invites entertaining.

    The first indication of Ms. Lee’s elaborate style was at her Chinese New Year party last February.On top of the authentic almond, milk tea, and red bean mixes and tapioca drops for Taiwanese bubble tea, Ms. Lee attracted as wide a range of guests — from toddlers to Washington interns to Ms. Abramson, who brought some Asian-style sauces — as her guests had ever seen inside the Beltway.

    The dam had burst. And out came crepe parties, impromptu Sunday brunches, and numerous summer barbecues, including a Crimson alumni party where Mr. Norquist, a business staffer on the paper in the late 1970s, stopped in. He didn’t stay long.

    Hundreds showed up at her Halloween party, which featured a smoke machine and a crystal ball reader she found through the Harvard grapevine. There was some unplanned entertainment as well: A few impatient guests decided to relieve themselves off her balcony early in the morning. Ms. Lee’s apartment has only one bathroom.

    A jazz singer she knew from summer camp performed at her holiday party in December.This Saturday, she’s hosting a concert. A mahjongg group is in the works.

    “I always call her ‘Lucky Jenny.’ She’s like a little rabbit’s foot,” says Ms. Hull.

    Luck is something her family thought about when giving her the middle initial “8” as a teenager. After too many identity confusions with her popular name, she and her parents, who immigrated to New York from Taiwan in the 1970s, added the digit — the most auspicious numeral in China. It’s spelled out “Eight” on her New York driver’s license, according to the Department of Motor Vehicles, meaning her middle initial could be less dramatically rendered “E.”

    As an intern at the Boston Globe 7 1 /2 years ago,Ms.Lee penned a story on the front page of the living section entitled “Yes, 8 is My Middle Name.” In November, she was the only reporter honored alongside Britney Spears and Demi Moore in Esquire’s “Women We Love” issue.

    “Because she’s got the best byline since R.W. Apple Jr.” the entry reads.

    Those wondering how Ms. Lee does it were treated to a rare insight when she received a story tip at the beginning of a Friday evening cocktail party in the spring. As the several dozen guests sipped merlot, she holed herself up in her room for several hours interviewing sources for an article that appeared the next day.

    Ms. Martinez, a friend who was at the party, recalls, “I remember thinking, ‘She wrote that while we were all drinking in her living room.’”