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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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“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.
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