If you take a stroll through Meridian Hill Park in Columbia Heights, you will find two noteworthy statues: on the lower level, a standing figure of the Italian poet, Dante Alighieri; on the upper terrace, an equestrian statue of the French saint, Jeanne d’Arc, or, Joan of Arc, anglicized. Interestingly enough, these two artworks were unveiled at the park within one month of each other—Dante on Dec. 2, 1921, and Jeanne following on Jan. 6, 1922. Walking past these serene bronze monuments, few would guess their pivotal role a century-old saga when rumored remarks in Washington led to riots in Europe.
When Thomas Jefferson took office in 1801, he decided he was going to do away with all the courtly nonsense of his predecessors, George Washington and John Adams. No longer would there be rules and regulations dictating behavior in social situations; not a single whiff of pomp or circumstance would be found in his administration. It was a rude awakening for visiting dignitaries including British minister Anthony Merry.
“Don’t you know there’s a war on?” That’s the usual refrain when your country is at war. But for Countess Marguerite Cassini, daughter of the Russian ambassador to Washington, the 1904-1905 war between Russia and Japan was a reason to have a two-day party. And if you say it’s for charity, why not?
When Countess Marguerite Cassini first arrived in DC in 1898 during the McKinley administration, she accompanied the first Russian Ambassador to America, Count Arthur Cassini, as his 16-year-old “niece.” An air of mystery shrouded her origins, but as the oldest female relative of the ambassador, the “Countess” was the embassy’s official hostess. At state functions, she would be seated in the proper place for the Russian hostess — at the top right below the British, French, and German hostesses. The wives of the diplomatic corps bristled to be placed beneath an unmarried teenager, who was thought to be “neither a [countess] nor, according to rumor, a Cassini.” To be fair, the Capital gossip wasn’t entirely wrong; young Marguerite wasn’t a countess, and the count was not her uncle. He was her father. But questions over her roots soon gave way to amazement over the Countess's command of the D.C. social scene, which she effectively ruled along with Alice Roosevelt.