Across the Nation / Across the World

Washington Social Diary

Marion Barry as a young Washington politician on the rise.
CHARMING AND COMPLICATED, REMEMBERING MARION BARRY JR.
by Carol Joynt

In a city of many national politicians who have, over the years, become household names, Marion Barry, Jr. was Washington’s own homegrown political superstar. Whether due to good acts or bad acts (there were solid good, but the bad ones were sensational) loved or hated (in fact, more loved than actually hated) Barry was a national figure. When folks beyond the Potomac were asked to name a local DC figure, it was always Marion Barry’s name that popped up, though too often in a late night comedy sketch. There was a reason he and Bill Clinton were often compared to each other: masterful politicians, larger than life, charming, passionate, beloved and yet maddeningly flawed.
Bill Clinton and Marion Barry — smart, skiled, passionate and flawed.
Over the last several years, in newsrooms across the city, Barry’s obit was written, rewritten, updated, set and ready to go, as he would dramatically have a health incident, be admitted to the hospital, and word would quietly spread that he was at death’s door. But he’d fool everyone. He’d post a Twitter message from his hospital bed claiming “I’m still here” and sure enough he would soon emerge back into the public eye and his public life. It was possible to believe he was not only the “mayor for life,” but also the mayor with nine lives.
Marion Barry was that rare local DC politician who was known to the national audience, though not always for the most flattering reasons.
Something prompted me to wake-up in the wee hours yesterday to check email. There it was, and unexpected: Marion Barry, in the company of his wife, Cora Masters Barry, had collapsed Saturday night and been taken to the hospital, where he died. There would be no more Tweets from his hospital bed. No more smiling claims of “I’m back.” This was it and, in the darkness of my bedroom, gaping at the small bright iPhone screen, I felt a heavy sadness. We’d lost a colorful character and a local legend.
Marion Barry sworn in as the mayor of Washington with his wife, Cora Masters Barry, at his side, in 1995.
Marion was 78 years old when he died, but he lived life hard and often appeared to be a decade older. Though I was aware of him from early on, when he was a Civil Rights activist and began to make waves (his run for DC school board was the first time I ever cast a ballot), and met him here and there, we didn’t get to know each other until 1997, after I inherited my family’s Georgetown restaurant, Nathans. From then on we intersected, mostly for public or official reasons, but also a few memorable private encounters. He was always interesting, smart, irascible, and, naturally, charming.

Marion Barry, Civil Rights activist
Because Nathans was more than just a corner bar, in some ways a focal point for the city, I chose to run it in a community-minded way. For that reason I invited Marion Barry to dinner. It was in the middle of his second tenure as mayor (the first ended with him getting busted for crack cocaine and heading off to jail). It was a small dinner of about 8 people, the others being activist-minded Georgetowners, people who Barry already knew or might like to know. I recall the group included my friends Rusty Lindner, owner of Colonial Parking (and now also director of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond), and his wife, Mimsy, and developer Marvin Jawer, who did a lot of business with the city.

Up close, Barry was as fascinating as you might expect. He sat at the middle of a rectangular table and drew everyone toward him. He was affable and inclusive, revealing and heartfelt. He didn’t play the Anacostia vs. Georgetown card, which is as popular on the local hustings as Anywhere vs. Washington is on a national scale.

Here, off the record, he was keenly aware of Georgetown’s value, and the different levels where that value applied. He talked business, he told stories, he made us laugh, he listened. Before he departed he asked if he could get a pizza to take home for his son, Chris, and could he also please visit the kitchen to shake the hands of the staff back there. He did that as well as greeting just about every patron in the dining room and the bar.
Marion Barry Jr., with CJ at The Q&A Cafe, taping during the time in September 2012 when he was writing his memoir, "Mayor for Life."
We met again after he finished his term as mayor and then was elected to the city council, from where he started his political climb, to represent the city’s 8th ward. He accepted an invitation to be interviewed on my relatively new Q&A Café program, which at that point was still not taped for television. The lunch program sold out to a packed house. The interview was set to start at 12:30 in Nathans dining room. I told his office 11:30, because, again like Clinton, he was famously loose about the clock.

He arrived at 1:15. But when he arrived he dominated the room. He sat on the guest’s bar stool opposite mine, noted the audience was mostly white, talked about what mattered to him – “the people of Ward 8” – but also talked candidly about his drug addiction, time in prison, his marriages and raising his son, as well as city development efforts during his mayoral terms and the need to get more of that development throughout the city.
In August 2012, after I became Editor-at-Large of Washingtonian magazine, he invited me over to his City Hall office to have a talk about the federal corruption investigation of the current mayor, and his friend, Vincent Gray. He wanted the prosecutors to speed it up. A few months later, his spokesperson, LaToya Foster, asked me if I would return for a private conversation with him. I did. We sat in club chairs, side-by-side, alone in his office. He wanted to write his memoir and he wanted advice because I had written a memoir. My message was pretty simple: if you want it to matter you have to go deep into yourself, you have to be candid and revealing, you have to go there, as in “the bitch set me up” there. He was classic Barry; he both listened and waved me off at the same time. 
Mayors and friends, Vincent Gray and Marion Barry.
Marion Barry during an office interview about the federal investigation of his friend, DC Mayor Vincent Gray.
While he worked on the book, and perhaps subliminally to help him on the process of soul-searching, I invited him for another interview – this time to be taped for television.

Barry's bookjacket and also his Twitter profile photo.
My goal was to have him address out loud some of the issues that needed to be addressed in the book; to see for myself whether he would go there. I still hold this interview up as one of my favorites out of some 375 interviews with notable people over 13 years. He was equal parts bluster, candor and, especially, himself. We had a good time. I hope you’ll watch it.

The last time I saw Marion in an up-close and personal way was on a flight from Bermuda back to Washington in August 2013. We chatted briefly in the terminal and he found me again up in the air, a few rows back, calling to me across the other passengers: “Can you buy me two vodkas?”

He worked his way back to an empty seat across the aisle and we talked as we sipped Bloody Marys. We pondered the DC mayor’s race, then in its early stages, he brought up Eliot Spitzer and Anthony Weiner (fellow flawed politicians), we also talked about his personal life.
Marion Barry makes himself comfortable in the aisle seat on a flight to DC from Bermuda.
Estranged from Cora at the time, he was traveling with his “significant other,” Sandy Bellamy. “You have to come meet her. Come on up and meet her,” as if crawling over the drinks cart and through the cramped coach section of a 727 was just so damned easy. He was in fine spirits and looked good, and greeted everyone around him. Back on the ground he tweeted me, “Hey @CarolJoynt ... we must meet again at 35k feet!!! LOL! Too much fun!”
Talking and sipping at 35,000 feet in August 2013.
Yesterday morning, DC City Council chairman Phil Mendelson hit some main points about Barry and his legacy in DC politics, emphasizing that he looked out for “the least, the lost and the losing.” It was also noted that whatever his failings, they were not designed for his personal financial gain (well, there was the issue of not paying taxes). He did not get rich off the little people. He did not get rich. He loved the life of a man of the people, “my people,” and lived for it.
Barry, about to do a radio interview, this past October.
There was always mockery of Barry, of course. Hard to avoid, given his antics. He seemed to let it roll off, or he learned to let it go. It will continue. There will always be snarks who can’t help themselves. But maybe they’ll pause for a moment, step down from their pedestals, and think about the great epic that he was, flaws and all. DC has no comparable politician.

For that reason, I give the last word on Marion Barry to Tom Sherwood of NBC News, one of the city’s most dogged and respected political reporters. He noted that the phrase “end of an era” is overused and usually inaccurate but for Washington’s Mayor for Life, on this occasion, “it is the end of an era.”

Follow Carol on twitter @caroljoynt