Time seriously flies! Can you believe that it’s been 36 years since Charles and Diana’s famous 1985 visit to Washington, D.C.? On November 9, 1985, Diana made one of her most iconic appearances, dancing at a White House dinner with Hollywood stars, including John Travolta. Here’s a closer look at the jewels and the history from that event.
The Prince and Princess of Wales had touched down in Maryland earlier in the day, and they made their way straight to the White House to meet with President and Mrs. Reagan. The trip was Diana’s first visit to the United States. (It’s hard to believe she was only 24 at the time!) Nancy Reagan, though, wasn’t a totally unfamiliar figure. She had attended the couple’s royal wedding in London four years earlier.
Following an afternoon of engagements in Washington, the couple attended a gala dinner at the White House. The event wasn’t a formal state dinner, as this wasn’t a state visit, but rather a private dinner for 80 invited guests. Both of the royals were a little tired: they had flown to Washington via Hawaii after a 10-day tour of Australia. Can you imagine how jet lagged they were? Regardless, both Diana and Nancy went for full glam. Diana wore an iconic midnight blue velvet gown by Victor Edelstein, while Nancy chose a white beaded James Galanos gown, which she had worn earlier in the year for the inaugural celebrations.
Charles and Diana posed with the Reagans for a formal photograph on the North Portico before joining the rest of the guests for the dinner. The guest list for this particular dinner was a real stunner: singers (Neil Diamond, Beverly Sills, Leontyne Price), actors (John Travolta, Clint Eastwood, Tom Selleck, Peter Ustinov), artists (David Hockney, Helen Frankenthaler, Jamie Wyeth), dancers (Mikhail Baryshnikov, Suzanne Farrell), famous figures from the world of fashion and beauty (Gloria Vanderbilt, Estee Lauder, Norman Parkinson, Betsy Bloomingdale), athletes (Dorothy Hamill, Steve Lundquist), and the fabulously wealthy (Brooke Astor, Malcolm Forbes, Rupert Hambro, Drue Heinz). And there was another royal woman there as well: Princess Yasmin Aga Khan, the daughter of Prince Aly Khan and the actress Rita Hayworth.
Those names alone would make for a fantastic party, but there were also some fascinating other additions. Peter Ueberroth, the MLB commissioner who also organized the 1984 Summer Olympics, was there. So was marine explorer Jacques Cousteau, who had recently received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Cousteau would have had a whole lot to discuss with another attendee, Robert Ballard, who had discovered the wreck of the Titanic just a few weeks earlier.
Dr. Jonas Salk, the inventor of the polio vaccine, was there, as was the astronaut Alan Shepherd, who walked on the moon in 1971. Attendee I.M. Pei, the famous architect, had recently designed the Louvre Pyramid. Author Larry McMurtry, who had just published Lonesome Dove, was there, but he almost wasn’t allowed inside by security guards, who didn’t recognize him. And another guest, William Stamps Farish III, the owner of Lane’s End Farm in Kentucky, was very familiar with the royal family. The Queen had stayed at the Farish farm the previous year during a rare private vacation.
Here’s a peek inside the dinner, with all of the guests seated at round tables in the State Dining Room. The tables were set with the Reagan presidential china and the Kennedy crystal. Guests dined on lobster mousseline and Maryland crab with horseradish sauce, followed by glazed chicken capsicum, brown rice and garden vegetables, and a jicama salad with herbed cheese and croutons. Dessert was a peach sorbet basket with champagne sauce. A trio of wines from Napa Valley finished off the menu.
Diana’s jewelry was especially visible in photographs from the receiving line. Here, as she greets Tom Selleck, you’ll note that she wore her famous seven-stranded pearl choker necklace with the large sapphire and diamond clasp. The clasp was originally a brooch, given to Diana as a wedding present by the Queen Mother, and it could still be removed and worn in that original form. She also wore her sapphire cabochon and diamond earrings, as well as a diamond and sapphire bracelet, worn over her evening glove on her left wrist.
Here, Neil Diamond takes the microphone after dinner, singing impromptu renditions of “You Don’t Send Me Flowers” and “September Morn.” Music was also provided by Leontyne Price, the famed soprano who had just concluded an iconic career with the Metropolitan Opera in New York. She sang selections by Puccini, Gershwin, and Cilea, finishing with a spiritual, “Every Time I Feel the Spirit.”
Music for dancing was provided by the Marine Orchestra, the Army Strolling Strings, and the Marine Dance Band. A report from the United Press International noted that “Charles and Diana are avid dancers.” Above, Diana dances with President Reagan. She was also photographed dancing with several other famous attendees, including Tom Selleck and Clint Eastwood.
But, of course, the most famous moment of all was Diana’s dance with Saturday Night Fever actor John Travolta. The Edelstein dress swirled beautifully as Travolta escorted her around the dance floor at midnight. As they danced, the band played selections from the soundtracks of Travolta’s films, including “You’re the One That I Want” from Grease. Nancy Reagan’s press secretary told the Washington Post that the young princess and the famous actor shared a dance that “was certainly more energetic than a fox trot. I don’t know what you’d call it—rock or whatever.” (Heavens!)
Nancy Reagan herself had apparently orchestrated the moment, after hearing that Travolta was one of Diana’s favorite actors. She had tapped Travolta on the shoulder and quietly suggested that he should ask the princess for a dance. After the party, Travolta told reporters that Diana was “charming,” adding that he found her “refreshing” and “down-to-earth.” As for her dancing, he praised her “style and rhythm.” During a press conference the following day, when questions were raised about whether the princess had enjoyed the dance, she simply nodded. In an interview years later, Travolta summed up the experience: “Think of the setting. We were at the White House. It’s midnight. The stage is like a dream.”