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Deeda Blair's 'Annus Horribilis'

WASHINGTON — “I don’t care to glitter,” says Catherine “Deeda” Blair, dressed in monochromatic gray Chanel, accented by a signature thin plume of gray cigarette smoke encircling her bouffant coiffure.Her...

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Deeda Blair in her Washington home

Deeda Blair in her Washington home.

Photo By Dean Kaufman

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WASHINGTON — “I don’t care to glitter,” says Catherine “Deeda” Blair, dressed in monochromatic gray Chanel, accented by a signature thin plume of gray cigarette smoke encircling her bouffant coiffure.

Her life would appear to say otherwise. Blair, for decades known as one of Washington’s leading socialites and icons of style, has always been a peacock among the wrens, a shade too sophisticated for the nation’s capital — couture shows in Paris, summers in the South of France and, most recently, mingling with biotech pioneers. She seems to have had an endlessly charmed life.

But no one would describe her that way after the last year. Last May, she and her husband, former Ambassador William McCormick Blair Jr., lost their only child, William McCormick Blair 3rd, 41, to suicide. “The moments of grief are rather unpredictable,” Blair says, her reed-thin figure looking frailer than usual. “Different things can suddenly generate overwhelming sadness.”

Her son, who had owned a fashionable dog-walking business in Georgetown, suffered from bipolar disorder. He had attempted suicide with an overdose of sedatives a few weeks earlier in California, and succeeded in killing himself en route home to D.C. His body was discovered on a terrace at Chicago’s Le Meridien Hotel, where he had jumped out of a window.

Then, in October, the planned sale of the Blairs’ $7.25 million, Thirties Georgian mansion, decorated by Billy Baldwin, fell through and their plans to relocate to New York City’s River House Condominium were put on hold. The Blairs had planned to relocate after 37 years as one of the capital’s most elegant globe-trotting couples because of the retirement of their longtime household help and a need to simplify their lives.

“To have all these horrible things come crashing down on her, it’s unspeakable,” says her good friend Catherine Graham, daughter-in-law of the late Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham.

Blair insists she is doing fine, and that she and her husband are still moving to New York as soon as they have settled the issue of their house. In the meantime, the D.C. doyenne is keeping more than busy, planning the details of her new home in New York and continuing her work of the past two decades as a biotech entrepreneur. Blair credits her unlikely career with helping her deal with her son’s death. “Going back to work was very important,” she says. “I went to a meeting at the National Institutes of Health and saw that I could stay all day and function. It’s a terrific distraction. Very few people know it, but I work seven days a week.”
It is this work that distinguishes Blair almost more than her love of Chanel, antiques and other fine things in life. Her hairdo may still be vintage Sixties — relatively unchanged apart from a few streaks of gray since the couple’s storybook wedding in Frederiksborg Castle, just months after William Blair arrived as President John F. Kennedy’s ambassador to Denmark — but Deeda Blair is firmly part of the 21st century. As a philanthropist and a spotter and investor in scientific talent, she serves on boards for the Harvard AIDS Institute, the Scripps Research Institute (a nonprofit biomedical research organization), the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health and, until recently, the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation (which administers the prestigious Lasker Awards for achievements in medical research).

These days, it is Deeda Blair who is the couple’s breadwinner — and she’s not afraid to let anyone know it. At a recent Kennedy Center party, a friend congratulated Ambassador Blair, now 88, on looking so well. “Of course he looks wonderful,” Deeda Blair quipped. “He’s not the one who is working.”

What few people know is that she had little choice. William Blair, a well-connected Kennedy insider, suffered a number of financial setbacks after his father’s death in 1982. Blair family members say the bulk of the senior Blair’s estate went to the Art Institute of Chicago. While his two brothers maintained their partnership positions in the family’s investment bank of William Blair & Co., the former ambassador, as a public servant, found himself at a financial crossroads. It was then that Deeda Blair gave up her unofficial position as Washington doyenne, sold a pair of 22.4-carat Van Cleef & Arpels diamond earrings given to her by her husband several years after the wedding and embarked on her new career.

She credits her resolve to her mentor, the late Mary Lasker, ardent Democrat, philanthropist and advocate for the National Institute of Health, the woman who trained Blair to be a tough negotiator. Lasker also gave Blair the wherewithal and the social cachet to establish herself on the international scene as a player independent of the confines of Washington society. 
“Mary always felt a woman needed to be responsible for her own finances,” says Blair, who based her decision to sell her earrings on the notion that jewelry, unlike drawings, porcelain or a fine piece of furniture, generally tends to depreciate in value. 

It was an attitude that once again caused Blair to stand out from the other Washington political wives — and not always in a good light. She and her husband first met in the Fifties at the Chicago home of Eunice and Sargent Shriver, when William Blair was working as a lawyer in Adlai Stevenson’s firm after moving into the governor’s mansion, where he managed Stevenson’s two unsuccessful presidential bids against Dwight D. Eisenhower.

At the time, Deeda was battling through a scandalous divorce from Charles Jelke, heir to an oleomargarine fortune, who was drinking his way through his family inheritance. Born Catherine Gerlach (“Deeda” is a childhood nickname), Blair was 25 when she obtained an injunction tying up a million dollars in four trusts and restraining her 30-year-old husband from proceeding with his own divorce suit filed in Florida. She had moved back home with her parents, where the Shrivers were neighbors. Throughout her courtship with William Blair, Eunice Shriver was assigned as official chaperone.

She first came to Washington in 1968, and while first ladies from Jackie Kennedy to Nancy Reagan were hounded by the press for sneaking frocks from European designers like Valentino and Givenchy into their White House closets, Blair became a regular at the Paris shows. While the locals rallied around presidents and their first ladies, who honored the traditional holidays by supporting national symbols — sparing a turkey’s life on Thanksgiving Day, traveling to the Ellipse to perch on ladders and light the national Christmas tree — Blair served lobster for Thanksgiving and never allowed a Christmas tree in her home. In summers, when Washington’s elite trekked off to all-American enclaves like Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, Sun Valley or the Hamptons, Blair and her husband left their son with his Uncle Edward in Northeast Harbor, Maine, to tag along with Lasker to Venice, England and the South of France. At Lasker’s villa in Cap Ferrat on the French Riviera, the Blairs met Greta Garbo, Cecile Beaton and surgeon Michael De Bakey.
When Lasker traveled to Europe, Blair pored over books about the arts. When Lasker fought to win support for the National Institute of Health, Blair scoured the latest scientific journals. And when the celebrated philanthropist joined the fight to conquer cancer, Blair was perfectly positioned to stake a claim in the biotech gold rush — pairing scientists up with joint-venture capitalists.

Blair’s biotech career started in 1983 with an exhibition of 30 years of Givenchy couture staged in Washington’s gilded Departmental Auditorium. For co-chair Bunny Mellon, the show was an occasion to celebrate her great friend, designer Hubert de Givenchy. For others, it was a chance to raise money for the projected National Women’s Museum. For Blair, it was also an opportunity to impress a top pharmaceutical executive, whom she met when they served together on a Federal Drug Administration committee.

“We had all our customers from the textile industry there, along with congressmen, members of the Supreme Court, senators. It certainly put our name on the map,” says Max Link, at the time the head of the American division of Sandoz Pharmacueticals, now called Novartis, a Swiss-based drug company. Two years later, he followed up with a lucrative consulting contract.

Blair has gone on to earn fees or stock from at least a half-dozen drug and biotech companies, from Novartis (where she still consults) to smaller firms like Advancer. She is unapologetic about her success. “I began a professional career doing many of the things I’d worked on with Mary Lasker without compensation. I was asked to consult for a venture capital group and to consult for one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world,” says Blair.

Still, some say her mixing of philanthropy and consulting might create the appearance of a conflict of interest. As one fellow board member of the Scripps Research Institute observes, “You don’t always know the terrain.”

But Blair says she is well aware of the ethical constraints. “I am very aware of conflicts of interest,” she says. “If you have any kind of [personal] interest in a company, and the [philanthropic] board has any decisions related to that company, you excuse yourself from the room.”
Occasionally, Blair’s ability to home in on the subject can leave even the most sophisticated social arbiter gasping for relief.

A family scrapbook of the Blairs’ charmed life includes a printout of an e-mail from a British admirer reporting on an uncharacteristically gushy letter purportedly published in a collection of letters written by the celebrated British intellectual and wit Nancy Mitford. Charlotte Mosley, the official editor of Mitford’s letters, contacted about the reference to Mitford marveling over the elegance of a certain American woman traveling on Charles Wrightsman’s yacht, reports there is no such letter in the collection. Instead, she received permission from the Duchess of Devonshire, Mitford’s sister “Debo,” and the executor of her letters, to share the contents of the unpublished letter, which paints a very different picture.

Mitford — not exactly a fan of Americans, as her letters to Evelyn Waugh demonstrate — writes about “a particularly ghastly Mrs. Blair,” whom she met in July 1967 when she was staying in Venice with Anna Maria Cicogna, along with fellow houseguest J. Carter Brown, the late director of the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

Blair tells her about a recent visit to Chatsworth, the home of the Duchess of Devonshire. “I said, Pity Debo wasn’t there,” Mitford writes. “She said, in strong American dialect I can’t write so will translate, it was a mercy because we didn’t have to be polite, we could concentrate on the art. I furiously told Carter (staying here) this piece of effrontery & he said My dear, Americans don’t spend their time reading Debrett; she can’t have known you were sisters. Still, I said ‘Debo’ so she must have known I was a great friend. Quelle insolente.’’

Mitford’s comments aside, others also aren’t fans of the Blair touch. “Deeda’s charm is the charm of a dinner party,” says one Lasker Foundation insider. “She’s good at putting people together, but she gives the illusion of being conspiratorial.”

Still, Blair will always have her devoted admirers.

Telecommunications whiz Lynn Forrester de Rothschild remembers her encounter with Blair’s unique business style four years before she married Sir Evelyn de Rothschild. Introduced through a mutual friend, Blair volunteered to induct Forrester into the wonderful world of haute couture in return for dealmaking advice.
“Deeda makes everything special. She’s a really magical person and an icon in all aspects of style. She introduced me to the couture in 1996. She took me to all the shows, to Chanel, Balmain, Yves Saint Laurent, Givenchy, Valentino, the whole week. I had never been there before. We met Karl Lagerfeld. We stayed together at the Ritz. We went antiquing,” recalls Lady Rothschild, who characterizes Blair as someone who always knows exactly what she wants.

“No one else compares with her,” says James Watson, the legendary co-discoverer of DNA. “I’ve always liked to look at beautiful women, being an appreciator of style. A lot of scientists have no sense of taste whatsoever. She’s one of the best-dressed women in the world. When she walks into a room, she is noticed. She has great style and a great commitment to medical research. You always look forward to sitting next to her.”

Bill Haseltine, a former Harvard professor and an entrepreneur who benefited from Blair’s access to start-up capital, warns anyone who would ever consider underestimating her influence. “The way Jayne Wrightsman is a connoisseur of Louis XV furniture and plays some role in the French antique market, Deeda is a connoisseur of the very best work and the very best people in biomedical science,” says Haseltine.

Still, the criticism of her only increased after her son’s death. Blair spoke publicly about his mental illness at the time, leading to criticism in the tabloids and among his friends for downplaying her son’s first suicide attempt. Friends of the couple say that although the ambassador shared a close bond with their son, Deeda’s relationship with him was strained.

“People portray her as a terrible mother,” says Catherine Graham. “She wanted to be a good mother. She really did. But people with bipolar illness are very difficult to deal with.”

“Our culture doesn’t welcome people talking about their depression,” concedes Blair. “Maybe it would have been different under different circumstances, if I’d been just a housewife or lived in the suburbs.

“Since William’s death, I’m really contented to slow down a bit,” she continues. “It is time to simplify.”
She is looking forward to her move to the exclusive River House condo (also home to Henry Kissinger and de Rothschild) and a more pared-down lifestyle. “I want a library dining room where we can have only three or four people over,” says Blair, who is collaborating with architect Daniel Romualdez and decorator Howard Slatkin, an old friend. She says she couldn’t find an apartment in Washington to suit her. “A lot of the places at the Watergate have triangular rooms. And I’m terribly symmetrical.”

New York just seemed to call her, she explains — even though, just Thursday, she was spotted having to stand outside the Spice Market restaurant in the Meatpacking District to smoke a cigarette.

“I adore pavement, looking in store windows, walking to the Frick,” Blair says. In New York, she adds, “I envision that life can change. I can just feel it. We’ll just have to wait to see exactly how.