How US ambassador and his wife are sweeping away stuffy traditions
Brooke Barzun explains how she is trying to re-invent the rules of diplomacy by asking the great and the good to relax
In the grand hall of the US ambassador's residence in Regent's Park, under a stern portrait of George Washington, Annie Lennox is at the piano, belting out Here Comes the Rain Again, and finally, Sisters! The room is hot and heaving, Emily Maitlis and Martha Lane Fox among the crowd. It comes at the end of a day of talks on female empowerment. Somehow all the complexities and frustrations of quotas and pipelines are swept away by Lennox's uncompromising voice and simple message that feminism means backing other women globally.
She is introduced by Brooke Barzun, wife of the US ambassador, who is wearing a print dress and whose blonde hair frames an eager face. She looks a bit like a fox cub. Her husband Matthew gives her an encouraging caress but this is her show. Brooke (42) has reinvented diplomacy as mixology. Bring people together, give them a good time and you can make things happen.
The International Women's Day party was the second big bash at Winfield House within a few days. Earlier Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall were here as a send-off for their Washington trip.
Guests then included Tom Ford and the actress Elizabeth McGovern. Celebrations at Winfield House are becoming the envy of the capital; the ambassador and his wife could make Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald look like party poopers. Recently Ed Sheeran played an informal session in front of David and Samantha Cameron and US tech entrepreneurs. A fellow guest describes everyone wearing jeans and singing along.
In a world where protocol and hierarchy are paramount, the Barzuns have re-invented the rules. Firstly, they have subverted the dress code. Lennox alluded to this by calling out between songs to the toff barrister Philip Astor across the room: "Philip! Take off your tie!"
Next, they have broadened the guest list. The Barzuns have studied London's mix and mingled the arts, tech, fashion, City and public sector. Now they are using their party power to push social change. The Lennox session followed a day of talks with British and American women from business, the military and public policy to try to overcome obstacles to equality. Leading the debate was the human asteroid from Facebook, its vice-president Nicola Mendelsohn. Other big hitters included Baroness Ashton and Christiane Amanpour.
Brooke has the gentle manner of a professional therapist. She also has a natural command. The mistresses of the universe followed her unquestioning into the green reception room, sat in a circle which felt half Davos and half Alcoholics Anonymous, and "shared" stories before pledging at the end of the session to "make it happen".
After the session, I ask if it was her plan when she arrived in August 2013 to re-invent diplomacy and she responds with careful grace that it is simply "an honour to be here". Then she adds: "We just wanted to be authentically who we are, we are sociable, we like to connect and convene people." This means modern art in the house, including steel balloons from the ceiling, called Pixel Cloud 2011, by Daniel Arsham, and outside on the grass football goalposts for the children. So how do you start in a new country and with a blank sheet? She concedes that when she arrived she had "little dots of social acquaintances. But we like to welcome people."
From little dots, destinies are made. Matthew Barzun interned for his cousin, John Kerry, now the US Secretary of State. Their social acquaintances in the UK include, for instance, Josh Berger, president of Warner Brothers, who has helped introduce the Barzuns' two sporty sons to rugby. But the couple have enthusiastically added to their circle. Brooke expressed enthusiasm for Alexandra Shulman, editor-in-chief of Vogue in the UK, and showed her appreciation in a now familiar style by hosting a fabulous fashion party at Winfield House last year.
Both Matthew and Brooke have some Pilgrim Fathers ancestry and there is an upright Mayflower quality to both of them, although they are far from priggish. While they share an outlook, there is a slight difference in geographical sensibility. Matthew is East Coast, Harvard. Brooke is Kentucky - her family founded Old Forester Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey. They were match-made while they were both working in San Francisco, Matthew on a Silicon Valley start-up, Brooke as an art and family therapist in public schools. "I could never have guessed we would be sitting here together 17 years later," she says. In fact, you can see exactly why they have survived. They are as evenly matched as the Underwoods from House of Cards, except a benign version. Both are sociable, warm and curious. They have an ease which may partly be to do with being independently wealthy but is also a quality of character. I ask her if her training as a therapist influences her in the diplomatic sphere.
"The goal is to create an environment that is contained and relaxed, where people feel they can share. That is what diplomacy is about. It is two human beings speaking to each other."
Do the same skills help her as a parent to her two sons and daughter? She looks rueful: "As women we work so hard to figure out the balance, right?"
She insists on a family breakfast each morning and tries to make time at weekends. Her other tip for remaining calm is to run. She looks extremely fit.
Her husband is a consummate diplomat, except for one slip. Asked by a Tatler journalist of his opinion of English hospitality, he said: "I tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes, I must have had lamb and potatoes 180 times since I've been here." Brooke, the healer, comes to his rescue. She says ardently: "I LOVE lamb. I even love potatoes."
I ask if a relaxed, meritocratic couple did not find the idea of royalty, with all its protocols and flunkies, odd? Brooke's eyes widen as if a wasp were landing on her nose. "As Americans we look to Britain all the time and admire your traditions and history. We are respectfully in awe. Matthew and I were originally from England. It is beautiful to watch this special relationship. It is what this house is for."
She cites the visit of Prince Charles and Camilla as a highlight. "It was a humbling moment to welcome them to US soil." As if she needed to prove her point, alongside a coffee table book on the history of Winfield House is Robert Hardman's biography, Our Queen.
For the recent royal visit to the US, Brooke got them into the spirit by serving the duke and duchess Kentucky Fried Chicken. She is sympathetic to his concerns on sustainability.
Brooke and Matthew have adapted easily to London, although Brooke still has trouble with some of the terms. "A car boot?" she asks, baffled. She concedes we have the edge on spring, just as America glories in autumn. "Spring lasts longer here." She recognises the dominance of the capital. "London is the world's capital, a most dynamic place to live."
Liberated from diplomatic stuffiness, the couple are testing how far soft power can take them. I ask if anything will come of the morning's discussions, which included changing the approach to female recruitment, mentoring, pay and to force change where companies would not comply. As one City woman said, the level of p****d-offness among women is running high. Would the Barzuns be making any recommendations to President Obama? "We took copious notes this morning that capture the goals and pledges and we are sharing our findings with the White House when Matthew goes there next week."
I ask if she would welcome a female president after Obama. The Barzuns intend to return to Kentucky when they finish their term in London but who knows what would tempt them into higher office. Hillary Clinton could certainly do with some loyal friends.
"A female president?" says Brooke, "I think that would be fabulous. I think we would be pretty happy if that were the case." Could the women's agenda also be the start of a political campaign? Presumably top women in business can easily convert into political donors. Sisters, as Annie Lennox pointed out earlier, are doing it for themselves.