In Memory of Two Great Ladies, Vol. 6, Issue 32

It was bad enough losing Brooke Astor earlier this year. Mrs. Astor was perhaps the last Truly Great Lady known throughout the United States, and she left a legacy of Good Works and Perfect Propriety behind her when she died at age 105.

There are two types of Great Lady. The Grande Dame is the type we’re used to, distinguished by wealth and a casual attitude toward it, flawless manners and presentation, ascetic figure, a general air of noblesse oblige, and Devotion to a Cause. The second type is characterized by a wealth of spirit, effusive manners, a comfortable figure, a general air of good humor and compassion, and Devotion to Those Around Her. The world became a lesser place last week when it lost two Great Ladies, one of each type: Cathryn Keith and Mary Alice Hollingsworth Hairston Gibson.

Mrs. Keith’s devotion to her particular cause, Boston Ballet, shone as an example to others for around 40 years. She not only contributed generously but gave of herself: creating the Ballet’s boutique, stitching costumes, shelving office supplies, and even getting on her knees to tackle the office filing. Etiquetteer approached her about this more than once – she was, after all, in her nineties by this time – and her answer was always "I’m helping to build a cathedral."

She cared about everyone involved in the Company. We often think of Grandes Dames as having their noses in the air, but Mrs. Keith was not That Sort. She was glad to be part of the "chain of human sympathies." Indeed, her kindness to others made one want to extend kindness to her. Her excitement over receiving a surprise plum tart, an invitation to tea, or a photograph of her beloved Rupert Brooke warmed the heart. Last week she left behind many friends, countless friends, who no doubt feel sad that they can no longer offer her favors.

The one area of Perfect Propriety on which she and Etiquetteer differed concerned funerals. Mrs. Keith always insisted that there be no funeral or memorial service for her, no gathering of any kind. She once told Etiquetteer that she’d been to a funeral with everyone weeping and crying and sad, and she wanted no part of that. Etiquetteer must gently disagree. Tears aside, comfort may be found in coming together as a group to remember the dead and to acknowledge feelings of sadness. (Etiquetteer loathes the term "celebration of the life," which ostentatiously denies legitimate feelings of grief when a loved one dies.) But one does not contradict the wishes of Great Ladies – and Etiquetteer can show you the scars from when he has – and will privately lift a glass and reread Rupert Brooke’s "Dining Room Tea" to her memory.

Very few Grandes Dames are made any longer; Etiquetteer can only think of one under the age of 50. Mere wealth isn’t enough – though many wealthy ladies think it is! The other type continues to populate our Great Nation in larger numbers, and let us hope it always does.

Cousin Mary Alice, a cornerstone of any large family gathering, was such a Life Force on her own that it is difficult to think of her having Gone to her Heavenly Reward. She lavished her talents on those around her: making wedding and prom dresses for neighbor women, going into the Mississippi public schools to teach crafts, serving as church organist (and as a pianist at Sunday worship for every family reunion), and as a prodigious correspondent, even into her nineties. Under what many would have considered insurmountable odds – try raising five children on your own – she achieved two college degrees and a successful career in human services.

A Great Lady also exhibits integrity, and Etiquetteer loved hearing the story of how Mary Alice resigned from the Daughters of the American Revolution when Marian Anderson was denied use of their Constitution Hall for a recital back in 1939.

While she seasoned her conversation with the spice of reminiscence and the salt of an occasional naughty story, Mary Alice also paid attention to the troubles of others and could offer a word or a shoulder to encourage one to Keep Going. Even at age 93 her exuberance continued. What her mother called her "merry heart" she wore on her sleeve and her lips. As one of her family said "You know the angels are throwing a party for her in Heaven now!" Etiquetteer, who could not travel to Mississippi for the funeral, will certainly do so, but on a smaller scale.

[All Etiquetteer's efforts to find a photograph of Mary Alice among his voluminous files have come to naught. When Etiquetteer can locate one it will certainly be added to this page.]

So we see that the shared characteristic of Great Ladies is their ability to give of themselves. What better legacy could these ladies leave?

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