A silver Nobel Prize medallion from the late President Anwar Sadat of Egypt. A framed portrait with President Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Royal silk robes from Thailand. Tickets to every presidential inauguration since 1961. A certificate of appreciation from Armenia’s Ministry of Diaspora Affairs.
Walking into Esther Coopersmith’s Washington mansion feels a lot like entering a museum entirely devoted to diplomatic and political tchotchkes. Indeed, whereas many local mansions contain vast libraries lined with books, the Coopersmith residence—fronting a quiet street in DC’s Kalorama district—is a shrine to memorabilia ranging from the mundane to the fascinating.
In the middle of it all is Coopersmith herself, a woman known as Washington’s most famous hostess. At 92, she’s not nearly as energetic as she was just a few years ago. These days, she gets around with a wheelchair and the help of Janet Pitt her longtime chief of staff.
“I am very happy, just living here and enjoying life,” said Coopersmith, a woman of few words. “There are so many nice people. And life has been good.”
Despite her frailty, Esther Coopersmith is still a household name in DC diplomatic circles—even though she was never a diplomat in the literal sense. In fact, the only official title she ever had was as a public member of the US delegation to the United Nations in 1979-80, during the Carter administration.
Yet her devotion to bipartisanship and bringing together people of different backgrounds, ethnicities, nationalities and religions seems to hark back to an earlier era.
Coopersmith was born Esther Lipsen in Mazomanie, a Wisconsin town of about 800 people; her father came from present-day Moldova, and her mother from Romania. According to a 1987 article in the New York Times, her first foray into politics was at age 17, as manager of Sen. Estes Kefauver’s Wisconsin presidential primary, back in 1952.
Two years later, the young Midwesterner came to Washington to work on Capitol Hill, and ended up marrying Jack Coopersmith, a wealthy real-estate lawyer. As the Times reported, “she became known among Washington Democrats, in the words of Sen. William Proxmire, ‘as the Democratic political den mother of all fundraising.’”
Between 1981 and 1983, Coopersmith advised US delegates to the UN Status of Women Commission in Vienna. In 1984, she became only the second woman to receive the UN Peace Prize—a reward for her efforts to foster dialogue and understanding among different cultures and faiths, especially in the turbulent Middle East.
Also during the Reagan administration, she attended the World Conference of the UN Decade for Women in Nairobi, Kenya (1985) and served as a member of the President’s Commission on Executive, Legislative and Judicial Salaries (1987).
And from 1999 to 2000, during the Clinton administration, Coopersmith was an observer to UNESCO. She’s also long counted Hillary Rodham Clinton as among her closest friends.
In September 2009, Coopersmith was named UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador “in light of her outstanding contribution to strengthening mutual understanding between peoples and her unfailing commitment to fostering intercultural dialogue.”
Along the way, she has managed to fill every available space of a large downstairs red room with memorabilia, including this framed letter dated April 19, 2010, from President Clinton, which says, in part: “I have known Esther for a very long time, and I have always been impressed by her firm commitment to public service. She has devoted her entire career to strengthening our nation, and we owe a great debt to leaders who serve with the kind of devotion and compassion that Esther has demonstrated in her work. She has been a fixture in our country’s political life, and has championed peace and intercultural understanding throughout her career.”
As if that’s not enough, in an upstairs hallway, she’s got more items on display, including framed covers of Washingtonian magazine featuring her portrait, a 1979 telegram from the Carter White House thanking the Coopersmiths for helping make Camp David a reality, and historic District of Columbia inaugural license plates from the inaugurations of John F. Kennedy (1961) and Richard Nixon (1973).
By the way, Coopersmith has met every US president since Harry S Truman, except for Donald Trump. And party affiliation never mattered to her; even though she’s been a lifelong Democrat, she’s befriended Democrats and Republicans with equal enthusiasm.
“That’s the way I was brought up,” she said. “I’m happy to know both sides, and if you want to get anything done in Washington, you need both sides.”
Who was your favorite president, we eagerly inquired.
“That’s a really good question. I get asked that all the time,” she said, smiling slowly. “Lyndon Johnson. He had charm and knowledge, and knew how to use it.”
After her husband died in 1995, Coopersmith sold their Potomac, Md., home and bought her current Kalorama mansion, though she lived for two years in the Madison Hotel while the house was being renovated.
“I traveled a lot when I was younger,” she recalled. “I used to go every year to Thailand for the silk festival, and I was fortunate to know the queen.”
But as she aged, the doyenne of Washington social parties realized she needed someone to help her. In 2005, Janet Pitt began working with her on projects—a relationship that developed quite by accident.
“I started around the time of the tsunami [in 2004],” Pitt said. “I was working as vice-president of marketing for a division of United Healthcare, but I wasn’t seeing enough of my kids, so I quit. At the time, Esther was working on a fundraiser for the kids who were orphaned in Thailand after the tsunami. We raised several hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the king sent us photos of the work they were doing with that money.”
It got to a point where Coopersmith was hosting between 50 and 75 events a year in her mansion.
“I remember one dinner we gave,” said Pitt. “The Israeli ambassador at the time RSVP’d yes, and so did the Kuwaiti and Saudi ambassadors. I was having a panic attack—and Esther said we’d seat them right next to each other, and she did. That was the magic of it. They started out as enemies but left here as friends.”
Once Covid hit, of course, everything came to a screeching halt, though events have started picking back up again. In the past year, Coopersmith has hosted dinners for the director-general of UNESCO, for First Lady Jill Biden, and for Turkish Ambassador Hasan Murat Mercan.
Among the things Coopersmith is most proud of, she said, is saving historic Union Station from the wrecking ball when it was about to be demolished years ago, and introducing the wives of the late Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.
“I was very fortunate to know both women, Aliza Begin and Jehan Sadat,” she said. “And I thought it was time to bring them together. They didn’t need some interloper to talk, they could talk directly. So they did, and it worked.”
Shortly after that encounter, the womens’ husbands, along with Jimmy Carter, signed the 1979 Camp David Peace Accords, leading bitter enemies Egypt and Israel to formally end their state of war and establish diplomatic relations—a peace that has endured until today, 43 years later.
Asked what she thinks of the current Washington gridlock, with both political parties drifting away from the center and bipartisanship an almost forgotten relic of an earlier time, Coopersmith was direct.
“It’s a mess, and I don’t want to get involved,” she said. “There’s nothing to be gained from it.”
Before wrapping up our interview, we gently asked Coopersmith what she thinks of Trump and the possibility he may return to the White House in 2024.
Her answer could not have been more graceful: “He goes his way, and I go mine.”