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1986: Sondra Gotlieb’s slap flap

The Story


Sondra Gotlieb was well known in Washington, D.C., for her stellar parties and her columns on life as the Canadian ambassador's wife. Vanity Fair has called her a "sparkling hostess," but it's her social secretary who sees stars on March 19, 1986, as Gotlieb strikes her across the face just before an A-list dinner for Brian Mulroney. The CBC Archives looks back at the infamous embassy row.

Medium: Television
Program: The National
Broadcast Date: March 20, 1986
Guest(s): Sondra Gotlieb
Anchor: Peter Mansbridge
Reporter: Mike Duffy
Duration: 1:51

Did You know?


• Gotlieb's husband, Allan Gotlieb, was Canada's ambassador to the U.S. from 1981 to 1989. He was born in Winnipeg and studied law at Harvard and Oxford. The couple met in Winnipeg when she was 17; he was 25 and a don at Oxford.

• "I didn't even know what a don was. A mafia don?" Gotlieb joked to the Globe and Mail's Jan Wong in 2000. They married in 1955. They spent four years in Geneva and then 20 in Ottawa.

• When Gotlieb first arrived in Washington in 1981, as she recalled in 1985, "I had never been an ambassador's wife. I had been a third secretary's wife, and in Ottawa I didn't give these lavish parties you talk about. They were the kind of parties where everybody stood up and dropped chili on their trousers."

• Gotlieb, who had been a humour writer in Canada, quickly made news in the American capital with comments like, "for some reason, a glaze passes over people's faces when you say Canada... maybe we should invade South Dakota or something."

• In 1983, Gotlieb started writing her "Dear Beverly" column in the Washington Post. In the column, Gotlieb wrote letters marvelling about the odd goings-on among Washington, D.C., society to a fictional friend back in Canada.

• The night of March 19, Gotlieb found out Richard Darman, the deputy secretary of the Treasury, had cancelled at the last minute and she believed her social secretary, Connie Gibson Connor (incorrectly called Connie Connors in the clip), hadn't told her. Gotlieb slapped Connor in the face hard enough that Connor's earring flew across the driveway.

• Gotlieb was upset by the idea of having to change her carefully designed seating plan at the last minute, she said in her 1990 memoir Washington Rollercoaster. "I knew how to make a table happy," she wrote.

• "I think we just don't talk about it," author and Washington socialite Susan Mary Alsop, a friend of Gotlieb, told the Washington Post right after the incident. "Nobody in Washington is going to fuss about it."

• But the slap made headlines. Gotlieb wrote in Rollercoaster that the "private incident" became public knowledge after Canadian Press reporter Juliet O'Neill overheard.
 
• The night before the slap, Nancy Reagan had been rude to Gotlieb at a White House state dinner, Gotlieb wrote in Rollercoaster, and Gotlieb was so upset she barely slept. Then she didn't eat much all day to fit into a red dress. "My nature turns nasty at the end of the day when I try a starvation diet - especially if I haven't slept well the night before," Gotlieb wrote.

• Speaking at a Washington luncheon a week after the incident, Gotlieb said, "I just wanted to say one thing. I feel devastated, ladies and gentlemen. And you know what I'm talking about." It made Life magazine's list of famous quotes for 1986.

• Gotlieb wrote her last regular Washington Post column in April 1986, but she kept writing after the couple returned to Canada and eventually became a columnist for the National Post. Her husband became a lawyer for a Toronto Bay Street firm.

• In an interview with the Globe and Mail's Jan Wong in 2001, Gotlieb said of the slap, "In the long run, it was a good thing. I had more invitations to parties. Every socialite in New York wanted to meet me."


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