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...

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. 
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