Nancy Reagan, the influential and stylish former first lady who died on Sunday at 94, was fond of saying: “A woman is like a tea bag. You never know how strong it is until it’s in hot water.”
Reagan was merely quoting a line attributed to another first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt (though historians have never confirmed whether Roosevelt said it.)
Reagan got a chance to test that quip at the 1985 Geneva Summit, when she met the first lady of the Soviet Union, Raisa Gorbachev, over tea, at two tensely choreographed tête-à-têtes.
While their husbands discussed nuclear disarmament – this meeting was the first step in a historical détente that would end with the fall of the Wall – the two wives chatted over tea.
The press hyped the tea parties as the “Tea Summit.” After all, Gorbachev, a political science lecturer, was called “the Kremlin’s secret weapon,” and everyone knew that Reagan was not only her husband’s most trusted advisor, but that it was she who had encouraged him to talk to the Russians.
Reagan played host first, inviting Gorbachev to tea at the beautiful lakeside mansion loaned to the Reagans by the Aga Khan. Things didn’t start well. Gorbachev’s long motorcade rolled up fifteen minutes late, a tardiness bitterly noted by the waiting journalists whiplashed by the icy November winds.
Matters scarcely improved inside when Gorbachev began to behave like the Red Queen from Alice in Wonderland. “When she didn’t like the chair she was seated in, she snapped her fingers to summon her KGB guards, who promptly moved her to another chair,” recounted a startled Reagan in her memoirs, My Turn. “After sitting in the new spot for a couple of minutes, she decided she didn’t like that one either, so she snapped her fingers and they moved her again.” But since the imperious behavior was not repeated, Reagan correctly chalked it down to nerves.
“I offered Raisa a choice of coffee or decaffeinated almond tea, my personal favorite,” wrote Reagan. “She chose the tea and seemed to enjoy it.”
Surprisingly, given the strained atmosphere, the visit lasted more than an hour, but neither the freshly baked cookies nor the crackling fire could rescue the “dry, impersonal and tedious” conversation.
“She was lecturing me about Communism, and I couldn’t wait for her to stop,” recalls an exasperated Reagan.
Although Reagan tried to make out that it had all gone marvelously, telling the press that her guest had “talked a lot about Russia and the expanse of Russia, and the different sections and climates of Russia,” her irritation was apparent. “I discussed my children,” she said. “We didn’t get around to her children, maybe tomorrow.”
At 4 p.m. sharp the next afternoon, Reagan arrived at the Soviet Mission, a boxy, office-like building. She was surprised to see the glamorous “Bo Derek of the Steppes” – as the press called Gorbachev – dressed “like a prison matron” in a black skirt, a white shirt, and a black tie. Soon enough she understood why: “They were taking the only photograph of her at the Geneva summit that would be shown back home.”
Gorbachev was still smarting from the criticism she had received from the Soviet press about her recent visit to Paris, where she had hobnobbed with the bourgeois capitalist designers Pierre Cardin and Yves Saint Laurent. It had earned her the catty epithet of “Gucci comrade” – something she was determined to avoid this time.
But though both the U.S. and U.S.S.R. assiduously projected the First Ladies’ teas as serious business devoted to promoting peace, the press continued to compare Reagan’s sheer stockings with Gorbachev’s opaque ones.
The Russian tea came with an hors de ‘oeuvre of propaganda. After being dragged through children’s drawings decorating the hall, with her host providing a granular commentary on each sketch, Reagan felt “condescended to.”
“I wanted to say, ‘Enough. You don’t have to tell me what a missile is. I get the message.’ “
She brightened, however, at the sight of the sumptuous spread laid out for her. “On the table was a lovely antique samovar, and next to it was a mouth-watering array of delicacies: blinis with caviar, cabbage rolls, blueberry pie, cookies, chocolates, honey and jam. I couldn’t possibly try everything, and I finally had to give up.”
Gorbachev called it “a typical Russian tea,” provoking a sarcastic riposte in Reagan’s memoirs: “If that was an ordinary housewife’s tea, then I’m Catherine the Great.”
Both women were no doubt relieved when the tea charade ended. They would meet again in Washington and Moscow; both meetings were strained affairs, and despite them holding hands in public – a Russian custom – few were fooled. All the hot tea they drank failed to dispel the chill between them.
Tea Tuesdays is an occasional series exploring the science, history, culture and economics of this ancient brewed beverage.
Nina Martyris is a literary journalist based in Knoxville, Tenn.