Deborah Gore Dean’s Georgetown home is long on famous decorator furnishings, including a Sister Parish piano stool, left, a Chessy Rayner sofa and Eric Cohler chairs, center. (Photo by Mark Finkenstaedt for The Washington Post)
This explains why the dutiful daughter, now 50, turns up at auctions around the country to buy furnishings designed or owned by celebrity decorators. Many of the pieces go straight into her Georgetown antiques shop, Gore Dean, where they are sometimes resold to designers from the very cities where she bought them in the first place.
But some pedigreed tables, chairs and accessories have found their place in the three-story Georgetown house she shares with her husband and business partner, Richard “Spider” Pawlik, their daughter Jamie Marie, her ailing mother, three dogs and four hamsters.
She traces pieces back to some of the decorating world’s most famous or flamboyant practitioners: Sister Parish, Nancy Lancaster, Billy Baldwin, Albert Hadley, Chessy Rayner, Tony Duquette.
In one auction equivalent of a hat trick, Dean bought a pair of “Chinese Chippendale-esque” chairs. She attributes the design to Billy Haines, the legendary 1930s actor turned decorator, and bought them at a Los Angeles sale of the estate of Ted Graber, who was Nancy Reagan’s White House decorator.
One lot, two chairs, three big names. Nice.
And they look swell in her dining room, flanking the Chinese-style gilded console table from Villa Fiorentina, the cliffside home on the French Riviera redone in the 1970s by Billy Baldwin.
The house is, at first glance, the sort one might see in a flossy home decorating magazine or on a Georgetown house tour. But a second look around the first floor from the entrance foyer (with its water-damaged ceiling) to the back patio (its sliding glass door in dire need of replacement) reveals a genteel state of decline not unknown in Georgetown and consistent with a life that involves private school tuition, elder care and more than 15 years of legal bills. (More about that later.)
“Everything is glued together, wired together, and I have all the three-legged chairs and broken mirrors from my store,” she says with a great laugh.
Case in point is a well-worn mirrored coffee table missing a few sharply beveled panels. She calls it “the best buy in my entire life. If it were in absolutely perfect condition, it would cost $4,500,” not the $225 she paid at the old Sloan’s auction house 18 years ago. “It’s lived-in, like the house.”
This is not quite interior design as morality tale — Dean did, after all, get into the antiques business to sell her own possessions to pay the lawyers who kept her out of jail in a HUD corruption scandal. But it is at the least a dishy, social-political Washington soap opera with a cast of famous principals and walk-ons.
Her father, Gordon Dean, was a Nazi war crimes prosecutor, Atomic Energy Commission chairman and General Dynamics executive. He died in a plane crash when she was 3. She grew up among extended family at Marwood (sold in 1995) and the Fairfax (sold, too, and now a Westin). The clan included grandfather H. Grady Gore, who left Tennessee and made his fortune in Washington-area real estate; aunt Louise Gore, a Maryland Republican powerhouse and state senator; and Democratic Vice President Al Gore, a second cousin once removed. Gore Vidal, the writer, is another distant cousin.
Noting that “blood is thicker than politics,” Dean has collected first editions of books by all the relatives (even Tipper Gore’s assault on vulgar and violent pop music lyrics and Kristin Gore’s recent debut novel).
But this mini-library in no way rivals the framed power photos that are de rigueur in every well-connected Washington home. Hers sit atop the grand piano in the living room: a “This one’s for you, Debbie” inscription under a smiling President Reagan holding a champagne flute; her father on the cover of Time magazine; her mother posed near a tiger-skin rug, its feline teeth fully bared; and a grip-and-grin of Dean and Coretta Scott King.
The soap opera portion of Dean’s life began in the late 1980s. Having spent eight years earning a political science degree from Georgetown University, tending bar at assorted Georgetown saloons and publishing a Washington society magazine, she landed a job in 1982 at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. By 1984, she was executive assistant to agency chief Samuel Pierce, a Reagan appointee. In 1987 she was nominated, but never confirmed, by the Senate as an assistant secretary.
Then intruded the influence-peddling scandal that broke open in the agency. After stormy congressional hearings and a trial, Dean was convicted of conspiracy, perjury, accepting an illegal $4,000 gratuity and lying to Congress about lucrative federal contracts funneled by the agency to well-connected Republicans. Her appeals, all the way to the Supreme Court, made her the target of the longest-running special-prosecutor probe in U.S. history and ended with her spending six months under modified house arrest in 2002. (She was allowed to go to work and make buying trips to New York.)
While she mounted a defense and taught herself the antiques trade, her long-widowed mother was spending a great deal of time with John Mitchell, Richard Nixon’s attorney general. Dean referred to him as her father or stepfather. After his Watergate conviction and 19 months spent in prison, Mitchell moved to the Georgetown house that Mary Gore Dean had owned for years.
In 1990, two years after Mitchell’s death, Debbie Dean moved into the old house herself, fixed it up and brought in the eclectic furnishings.
Almost no family pieces remain, but whichever objects a recent visitor mentions, Dean offers an amusing back-story. Those blackamoor candlesticks? Bought by her grandfather and said to have been owned by Abe Lincoln. The portrait that looks like a Modigliani? A $160 fake. But she very much wants to believe that a cracked, unsigned ceramic tile depicting a Spanish infanta that hangs below the long-necked fraud is a genuine Goya.
Look carefully behind many other pictures and you may still find a price tag, because the buying and selling of objects is what keeps this family more or less afloat.
“My parents have had the same furniture for 50 years. For Debbie, things change every 15 days,” says Spider Pawlik, a onetime psychologist who met his bride while managing the Guards, a Gore family Georgetown watering hole. He now works with his wife at the shop, originally named the Proud American.
Next month, in the latest chapter of her colorful life, Dean will forsake the Wisconsin Avenue shop for a far larger space in Cady’s Alley, the cluster of design-oriented shops evolving on M Street, east of Key Bridge. There she will sell a line of her own furniture as well as her usual, unusual home and garden antiques and new, high-end accessories.
She is seriously considering moving two eccentric, leaf-motif iron chairs by Tony Duquette, the over-the-top L.A. decorator, from her patio to the new showroom, where she thinks she’ll price them at $25,000 for the pair. That’s $15,000 more than she paid for them at auction in 2002.
She is betting, or at least hoping, that mother was right: Anything owned by somebody famous has value.