When You Could Really Look Down on the Nation’s Capital

Herman Wouk as a naval officer during World War Two.

Once upon a time, before 9/11 closed the skies above the city, the Washingtonian ran a lot of aerial pictures of Washington—it’s surprising how different a city looks from the air—and also lots of pictures of the homes of important people.

The home photos were part of a regular feature called Map of the Stars. We’d take a picture of a VIP’s home from the sidewalk or street, give readers the general location but not the street address, and include its purchase price and year it was bought, its current value, and its assessed value. The assessed value was a reason to do it other than voyeurism—if a DC politician lived in a house worth $900,000 and the house was assessed at $400,000, it seemed a public service to point that out.

Map of the Stars also was controversial. Some owners of the homes featured weren’t happy about it. A TV reporter—still prominent—called to ask that we not include his home because his young daughter feared being kidnapped. We didn’t run that picture. Not long after one Map of the Stars, I was having lunch at a popular DC restaurant, when columnist Art Buchwald walked up to our table, pointed at me, and said, “You son of a bitch, they burglarized my house.”

Looking for a new approach, we once decided to do an aerial map of the stars. There were VIP homes that we couldn’t photograph from the sidewalk or street—the property was too big or there were too many trees for a photographer to get a good picture. So we rented a helicopter. Our executive editor, John Sansing, mapped out a flight plan and we took off.

It was eye-opening and fun to see Washington this way. The ability of a helicopter to zero in on a house, go down for pictures, and then swoop away seemed almost God-like.

After a couple of hours over Washington we headed out to the hunt country of Virginia where a lot of rich people had estates. Katharine Graham, Paul Mellon, and Willard Scott were among the big names. Also Herman Wouk.

Wouk didn’t have a big estate, just a nice home on a big piece of land, and we swooped down to get a picture. As we were hovering, he came out onto the deck of the house to check out the noise, saw the helicopter, and shook his fist at us.

John and I didn’t feel very good about having disturbed Wouk, a distinguished author who had won a Pulitzer Prize for The Caine Mutiny in 1952 and gone on to write two big novels of World War II: The Winds of War and War and Remembrance.

The incident didn’t stop us from trying to get him to write something for the Washingtonian. Several years later I sent him a book about Washington, featuring of all things aerial photographs, and asked him to consider writing something along the lines of “The Washington I Know.”

I don’t think at that point he connected the magazine with the hovering helicopter and he politely acknowledged getting the book but skipped by the request for him to write something—here’s Wouk’s letter.

Herman Wouk is 103; here’s his appearance on CBS This Morning last year.


  1. One of my first assignments as a Washingtonian intern in the summer of 1987 was the Map of the Stars feature on the Eastern Shore. I was in the small helicopter with the photographer, the pilot, and a local pilot from near Easton, MD, who could point out the estates. The door of the helicopter was off, we were strapped in, and I juggled the film canisters. It was shortly after the Gary Hart-Donna Rice story, and I’m sure some of those celebrities were wondering why a helicopter was hovering near their homes, with a guy with a zoom lens.

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