She didn’t need to wait for the movie. She didn’t even need to first read about it in the book.
Long years before the general public was to learn of the clandestine romance between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his distant cousin Daisy Suckley, my magnificent friend Ellen McDougall figured something was up with the ancient matron. Miss Suckley had been first encountered by Miss McDougall in the 1980s during one of her many long weekends spent reveling in our familiar Hudson River Valley, the place she and I both loved.
“She was polite, very old New York. We talked for a long time about FDR until she finally couldn’t help herself from mentioning they were cousins,” Ellen recalled. “I didn’t argue as if I thought she was lying but maybe I seemed skeptical. Then she said, ‘Oh yes, we were very, very close. We wrote each other so many letters.'”
Ellen asked what the President had revealed in the letters. Daisy clammed up, making only vague reference to the private content. Ellen asked if she still had the letters. Daisy mumbled something vague and discretionary.
But Ellen could long recall looking right into Daisy. “It was so obvious she still loved him. Her eyes kind of opened wide. You just knew something was up. And then we talked about Scottie dogs. She loved Scotties and said FDR did too. My father loved Scotties. But I’d never have told him I met the woman who screwed Roosevelt. I don’t know. Maybe.”
Those are the type of tales and unique observations that those who knew and loved Miss McDougall will never hear again. They have come to an end.
Regular readers of stories here may note the rarity of highly personal ones, a fact premised on the premise that, even in the most factual of narratives in the fairest of telling, a writer’s perspective can be reflected.
But now, the most personal of experiences has affected this public platform. One primary criteria of this website has been whether the story under consideration is either untold in its entirety or unfolds from a previously ignored viewpoint.
One other unstated criteria, however, has driven the content.
Would Ellen like the story?
Receiving her feedback, especially in the early months when the content was sparse, helped keep it going when it most likely would have waned.
That enduring inspiration has now vanished. We lost Ellen McDougall on Monday.
And, yes, this is an awfully long article. Ellen deserves it. And she’d have wanted it no shorter.
And one also finds, even with this last decision, another notch of that disciplined determination which marked her life.
During an unblinking fight against cancer, during which she determinedly left no East Coast oncology ward or NIH trial un-ventured, Ellen beat the predictions of experts by living four years with the monster, and living quite well for much of it.
Even after it returned, this time with merciless pain, she put herself through one more radiation treatment for good measure.
The last time I saw her, January 17, she was resting, long and deep. She opened her eyes and sighed. “I don’t know if I can come to California again.
But I want to do the Mississippi plantation tour and the Delta.”
Then she drifted off again. And then, her large, sparkling eyes lit up and she turned her head towards me.
With unsentimental conviction, she firmly stated, “The jig is up.” She smiled, pale.
Then she insisted I remove two pictures from the cork-board facing her hospital bed.
I hesitated, wondering if her awareness was drifting.
She raised an arm towards the window, “I’m going home. I want my pictures when I go home.”
Not until the insurance labyrinth was unraveled could that possibly occur. At best, it was weeks away.
But she was right.
Ellen was determined. Ellen went home.
Miss McDougall was more often than not hilarious, with a raucous, belly-deep giggle.
She was generous with her time and her words. She effusively expressed her genuine appreciation.
She relished detecting the absurdities among the pompous. She could summon up a deadpan to instantly put blowhards on notice.
She was fascinated by silent films, often attending them at the Mary Pickford Theater in the Library of Congress.
She herself was a master of silence, permitting her wide array of jaw-drops, eyebrow-raises, and full-on beaming smiles to do the talking, usually with a flourish of comic relief equal to Chaplin.
One magically golden Saturday afternoon in October, she briefly dropped all cares and self-consciousness to spontaneously transform into a playful girl, starting a game of balloon volleyball with her secret crush, Rich S., in the otherwise staid courtyard of St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church. It had been an especially fruitful church rummage sale and she was feeling unusually content.
Here was she, unhurried by the need to feed her cat, unworried about conflicts at work, unconcerned about her cough, just lost in pure joy. For some reason, those very moments especially haunt me.
She went highbrow on the lowbrow, and lowbrow on the highbrow.
She devoured The Black Dalia and the memoirs of Evalyn Walsh McLean simultaneously. Her favorite book was The Age of Innocence.
She read always, everything, all the time. And she read it all, cover to cover. And fast.
And for some reason, she had an inexplicable fascination with serial killer Ted Bundy. We fought about conspiracy theories. She tended to believe them, I tended not to.
Her eyes welled with tears to the soundtrack of Cinema Paridiso; it made her remember how much she’d loved living in Italy and walking the streets in the wee hours, just reveling in the architecture.
Boy, could she summon the forces to tell a great story.
Perhaps the most memorable was told during a spooky dinner organized by our friend Nancee H. It was dark and blustery out, cozy inside the cavernous Victorian mansion which was home to Rich, Nancee and me.
Nancee insisted we must all wear kimonas. Alright. Beneath the shimmer of candlelight, against the shadow of a glowing fire, Ellen began her infamous “Tale of the Missing Scotties.”
She opened with a word picture of her beloved father, and how he loved, yes, Scottie dogs.
The night he died, she claimed, there was a noise at the front dog. She opened it and glanced down to see two Scottie dogs, for but a ephemeral moment before they vanished forever into the night.
Suddenly Nancee noticed that the steady old clock on the mantlepiece had suddenly stopped in time.
Ellen screamed and sent us all into hysterics. How I wish that time had really stopped.
She was also perfectly imperfect, sometimes turning the most trifling slights into mountainous drama, throwing down the gauntlet so often that she eventually wore out the gauntlet and forget why she’d felt hurt.
She might go a year without calling, then suddenly fret that someone was mad at her. Why haven’t they called, she’d ask?
Eventually, it was pointed out that, for months on end, some people had been frantically leaving voicemail messages for her. Oh. She shrugged. She didn’t retrieve voicemail messages.
No gilding the lily here. She could be a trying, even self-absorbed friend for brief periods. But the operative word was always Friend. For Ellen invested her energy and compassion and concerns in those she loved. She spent hours listening, then thinking and worrying. She committed for life to her friends.
She brimmed ecstatic on every holiday, from Chinese New Year’s to Armistice Day (“Let’s call it what it is, come on. Veterans Day is so…ertsatz.” She loved that word.)
Why weren’t St. Andrew’s Day, St. David’s Day, St. George’s Day and St. Joseph’s Day as big a deal for the Scots, Welsh, English and Italians as St. Patrick’s Day was for the Irish?
She was going to get on that, but she inspired me to explore some of those obscure holidays on this website. And even though it was a matter of at least a decade, she remembered the initial discussion and simply called to thank me for the stories.
She always wore a vintage hat on Easter.
She was given to gags.
She was game to try just about anything, even if the payoff fell flat, as when she climbed into an amazing atomizer but did not emerge feeling ten years younger, as the huckster coaxing her in had promised.
She loved to laugh at herself more than anyone else – and she laughed all over again, this time uncontrollably if you would laugh with her at her.
One afternoon, we were walking through a small-town museum exhibit which had reproduction mannequins of the First Ladies in their Inaugural gowns.
Immediately, our other friends there that day, Eddie P. and Rich S. and I began to exchange furtive glances and suppress our laughs. There was something familiar about the face used on all the mannequins.
Finally, Eddie P. couldn’t help himself. “Ellen, I’m not sure if you look statuesque or the statues look Ellenesque.”
She burst into gales of laughter, yelling, “Well, its about time you said something!” And then she insisted I snap some comparative shots.
And she always had a surprise of her own to add that Ellen touch.
One year, at our lavish annual Christmas dinners in the cavernous Victorian mansion, she arrived with a crumbled paper bag under her arm and scurried with it secretly into the vast kitchen, stashing it from anyone’s sight.
At supper’s end, the table was laden with three fresh coconut cake, Natchez style, encircled with marzipan, sugared almonds and crystallized ginger.
Ellen paid these sweets no mind, whispering sotto-voiced among guests in search of a lighter before she vanished a good while, only to re-emerge triumphant, now done up in a Scottish maid’s apron of sorts.
Held high above her head with the sort of reverence reserved for religious reliquary was her gem: that traditional English Christmas dessert, garnished with ivy, doused and aflame in brandy.
“Ah,” quipped bemused guest Mark O., “Here it is! The moment we’ve been waiting for! Miss McDougall presents the Plum Pudding!”
It was a scene which might well have been penned by Charles Dickens himself, if only he’d known Ellen. So many times over the years, she asked me to repeat the plum pudding story for her, her eyes popping “like exclamation points,” as Rich S. described them. She listened with her open heart as if she was hearing it all for the very first time. One simple, funny line – but it meant so much to her.
When Ellen McDougall played Christmas Party games, she played to win. And she did, beating out sturdy fellows in fast-candy-eating competitions and hula-hooping contests, going on to win Le Grand Prize of an outdoor plastic Santa Claus. In an instant, Ellen negotiated away the big lug for the more petite Parisian model she was after: the outdoor plastic poodle.
She dressed impeccably in a slew of little, black cocktail dresses never bought at full price (“The only good stuff is from the Episcopal church bazaars. Forget the Presbyterians – they wear stuff until its rags.”)
That mind, that ability to always grasp the ineffable abstracts of existence while dickering for a stained-glass lamp: Ellen always kept you guessing.
In her earlier days she had no problem turning down three different glasses of white wine in an upscale eatery after a sip or two because it was “spoiled,” yet gleefully devoured fried fish and mushrooms in a rural Virginia diner as if she was supping on golden caviar and truffles.
She found wisdom in the incantations of a long-term doomsday protestor in front of the White House while wincing with disapproval during a bitter lecture by Gore Vidal. (“He wouldn’t say mean things about Jackie if he knew you were here!” Always a flatterer.)
She mused on Proust and kept up with the Kardashians. She read women’s fashion magazines and kept herself trim.
She initially lived on Capitol Hill, then moved to Dupont Circle. She gardened in a community triangle, sprucing up the look of New Hampshire Avenue and S Street.
Her heart and her home opened easily for forlorn cats. Mmm, not so much for dogs I hate to say.
Ellen McDougall was born and raised on Long Island. Her superior intelligence and disciplined work ethic led her to earn degrees from Columbia and Harvard universities.
She was a federal employee who fielded the trenches from the U.S. Senate Historian’s Office to the General Services Administration (“The Teapot Dome deal went down there, but these bureaucrats just walk through the lobby like nothing ever happened here!” she complained when that job started).
She began her career with a ponderous profession which was quintessentially Ellen, “measuring shadows in New York.”
Ellen McDougall was one of those friends among whom even just an hour feels like an unforgettable party, a member of a lose core of electric, eclectic “Ambassadors of Fun.”
We all have friends like this, hopefully. They’re the sort who seem to embody champagne itself. They call you and they return calls. They pay you the respect of listening closely, apologize readily, forgive easily, and get on with the fun to be squeezed from even an hour.
Ellen knew them all my friends and befriended them immediately, asking after them long beyond a point of simply being polite. Even when he saw strangers who reminded him of her, Rich S. called them, “FOEs,” Friends of Ellen.
This is my crowd. They’re bound by the grandest demographic ever to elude Google, the “Highly Individualistic.”
With each, I share a different passion.
Ellen’s was the rarest of prizes: she was so conversant on the minutest aspects of presidential history that it quickly became our secret language, our sacred indulgence.
She conceded to me Eisenhower’s steady if stealthy civil rights gains, and I came around to her insistence that McKinley was not anti-labor.
But we never failed to both enrage each other in our endless disagreement about whether Woodrow Wilson’s first term in office truly produced legislative success.
We planned trips to presidential homes like they were voyages on a time-machine: George Washington’s Mount Vernon, Jefferson’s Monticello, Monroe’s Ash Lawn, Van Buren’s Lindenwald, Buchanan’s Wheatlands, Coolidge’s Plymouth Notch, FDR’s Hyde Park, Eisenhower’s Gettysburg Farmhouse, the Nixon Presidential Library and the Reagan Presidential Library.
The best visit to a presidential home, she nevertheless declared, was the one on Pennsylvania Avenue. Honored by First Lady Hillary Clinton who hosted a White House book party for me in 1997, in turn I had the honor of inviting my closest friends to share in the once-in-a-lifetime event.
“I’ll never forget this moment as long as I live,” she told me on the front steps of the North Portico. “But the petit-fours were a little dry. Right?”
For a time, she was hot for Montgomery Miegs, Civil War civil engineer and a man of such unparalleled accomplishments that Ellen declared him to be her ideal husband. If only he hadn’t died a century earlier.
Soon enough, she began translating her Meigs fascination back into our secret language, initially speculating about just how supportive President Franklin Pierce really was of all the projects Miegs undertook (the U.S. Capitol dome, the Washington Aqueduct, the Post Office Building).
That led to her suggesting Pierce was passively jealous of his successful contemporaries and that this was undoubtedly the underlying reason for Pierce being alcoholic.
I told her nobody can make such a determinaion about another person. Then she went off about all the people she knew in AA. I reminded her that the second A stood for anonymous. She huffed and looked at me as if I had two heads.
From there, however, Ellen launched into a brilliantly precise diagnosis of Jane Pierce’s mental illness, believing her severe depression and apparent eating disorder had been provoked in her childhood by some unspecified trauma and that, rather being a victim of his wife’s afflictions, Pierce was a contributing factor to them.
Listening as this Pierce debate played out was the original friend to both Ellen and I, the fellow who’d first introduced us, “Eddie,” as she always called him with a slight lowering of her voice which always struck me as a tone of reverence.
In fact, her favorite pastime was marveling at how ebullient he persisted in being, regardless of any vagary in life.
“I’m worried about Eddie,” was always her opening line, “He burns the candle at both ends.” It may be out of line to say so, but I think he was really her Montgomery Miegs.
They could fight like cats and dogs, but in the end, her saucy blue eyes always lit up once the storm had passed, as she murmured and laughed, “Eddie…”
It was after Ellen’s recitation on Pierce that Eddie inimitably dubbed the fourteenth chief executive and his immediate predecessors and successors as “The Loser Presidents.” She loved that expression.
Soon enough, we merrily rolled along to Lancaster, Pennsylvania to visit Wheatland, home of President James Buchanan, the first in what was anticipated as a tour of sites associated with “Loser Presidents.” Van Buren’s Lindenwald was next.
It was a tour summarily abandoned when we realized it would be more than a day’s drive to see the others’ homes. I didn’t consider Coolidge a “Loser President,” but Ellen debated me on that on the flight back from Boston to Washington, insisting, “You cut Presidents too many breaks.” She could be tougher if it was a long car drive.
I wouldn’t get into it with her on Coolidge. I think she felt bad. She made it up to me in a big way.
We had long agreed that Warren Harding was a visionary on health care, gender equality, technology and civil rights. That October, she walked into a Halloween party ballroom dressed as Florence Harding.
None of this was some sort of adult whiz-kid presidential history game, however. For both of us it was about learning from each other and trusting the integrity of our conclusions. Ellen always managed the discussions in a way which assessed the Presidents not mere as policy-makers but as human beings with attributes and deficiencies like us all.
When we made our last historical trip, in May of 2013, to visit the birthplace of George Washington, she identified stumps of cherry-wood, offering encouragement of my unpopular theory that maybe he really did chop down a cherry tree and that the revisionists had been too hasty to debunk the legend.
After inspecting the furnishings of the Eisenhower farmhouse, she provoked a debate, pitting me and Rich S. against her and Eddie P., our side saying it was proof of the American dream, of how far a poor Kansas farm boy had managed to come, their side chiming that it didn’t look like the home of a great general and President.
Seeking to characterize the room’s interiors, Ellen coined a phrase I’ve never heard before or since: “Lower upper-class.”
Ellen didn’t see history as a dead subject, but as a residue dimension of contemporary existence, even if barely perceptible.
She “never went to enjoy Disneyland,” she once reminded me – it was all her way of understanding the visionary of it all, or as she put it, she was “researching Uncle Walt.”
She seemed awfully giddy for a woman on an informational search mission. She must have been enjoying herself?
No, she insisted, she was just relieved to see that so much of the original 1950s Tomorrowland was still intact. “It gives me an idea of the way the future was idealized back then.”
Then she took a second round on the merry go-round. And bought us all Mouseketeer hats.
She especially seemed to live in history during her adult years working in New York, despite her final judgement that the Big Apple was “overcrowded and over-rated.”
During her brief stint in Brooklyn, she bragged of walking down the same street where Mae West had lived. She spoke of her Dutch Van Brunt ancestors not with genealogical solemnity but as early residents of Queens. She fondly conjured up her Scottish grandfather whenever she rode the subway, because he’d been an engineer who worked on them.
Only Ellen could endure a lost Vegas weekend by booking rooms at the old Flamingo Hotel and expect not marble baths but an experience of living history. “There’s nothing here referencing Bugsy Seagal!” She was over Vegas fast – especially when I rubbed it in that she’d missed the last performance of Steve Lawrence and Edie Gormie.
Ellen had the ability to see unfolding current events in an historical context.
She uncannily predicted the outcomes of both the Lewinsky Scandal (“He’s not telling the truth and might get impeached – but she’ll run for office, just watch”) and the Iraqi War (“It’s going to open up a Pandora’s box, unleash a lot of dark forces.”).
Now, her seemingly off-handed remark, “There’ll never be a woman President in my lifetime,” seems prescient.
Of course, history was only about six percent of what engaged her layered mind and imagination.
She was a writer, always working to sharpen her prose. She could study a West Virginia rock formation and body of water and critique why it would be bad engineering to build a bridge where there were no intentions of doing so.
She detected Mid-Century Modern pottery with the skill of a Christie’s specialist. “Great Catalina vase, they didn’t use that green long, but its not worth twenty dollars with the streaks in it,” she snapped, managing to shut down a know-it-all Rose Bowl Swap Meet dealer before he even got started.
There were flea markets and church bazaars, there were swap meets and antique stores, there were yard sales and estate sales.
And then there were thrift stores.
Some of these places seemed to me to be merely a commercial front for hoarders, piles and piles and piles of junk and crap.
Nope, said Ellen. Some of the very best finds were in the thrift stores. She knew I didn’t have the patience for all of that, and just how seriously it bored me out of my skull.
And so one day during a return trip to Washington, as we were sailing along on our way to lunch, she broke out into a disharmonious old song with new lyrics. “Let’s Thrift again! Like we did last summer! Let’s thrift again..” Oh, you Ellen. Of course, I went along for her thrift as much to protect her from what lay in those piles as to make her happy.
She was versed on an array of physic traumas experienced by rescue kittens (though inexplicably indifferent by those of puppies. Did I mention that already?)
She “always felt bad” for Bette Davis and never relented during her first few visits to me in Los Angeles until she had finally succeeded in locating the Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? house, further insisting we be photographed in front of it.
She loved being part of a family, whether it was attending the wedding of Eddie’s sister or catching up with Rich’s mother, or buying gifts for all members of mine with whom she shared holidays, profusely generous in her exuberant gratitude for being included.
She took off of work to attend my grandmother’s funeral.
And she made devoted pilgrimages visits, five hours up, five hours back in one day, to check in on her aged housebound Aunt Edna and her lifelong friend Adeline.
Ellen lost her parents early. Long years afterwards, she still adored her father, especially loving how he loved her mother. “Lots of girls had eyes for John,” she liked to say, “but John only had eyes for Mary.”
She fretted over the distance from her brother who lived across the country. As the years went by, however, she began to increasingly swell with pride about her maturing nephews, “the boys.”
And, as fate would have it, the last anxieties about her health were mitigated by a miracle which illuminated her eleventh hour.
Owen, one of “the boys” was led by his considerable professional experiences around the world to come work to Washington. And there, his impeccable sense of how to properly fulfill every one of Ellen’s final wishes was immediately apparent. He met every challenge for her. Despite an exacting work schedule, he devoted himself with humility and love to her well-being.
“Ellen,” I told her in our last hour together, “He might end up as Secretary of State.” She made one of her funny faces, with the exclamation point eyes. “Secretary of State?! He can be President!”
Finally, after so much uncertainty and turmoil, Ellen could truly rest, trusting Owen’s judgement and care implicitly.
To her friends, it seemed nothing short of heroic, and breathtaking evidence that the lifetime of good karma she’d not yet tapped into had accumulated to comfort her. It all came full circle, like the novel of her life. He took her home as she wished so she could remain there until she left it forever.
Among Ellen McDougall’s other great passions was “my hunt” for heirloom roses.
I didn’t quite understand what she was “hunting.”
How you can track down a rose that’s no longer around?
Has someone kept some seeds or something, or do they somehow backwards-graft ones that were blended with the old varieties?
She took a long deep breath, staring ruefully at me for having to deal with this heirloom rose dummy.
No, she said, people still had them growing in old gardens but didn’t know it, or they grew in the wild and people were wrong in presuming these varieties were extinct.
“Lots of them are still around,” she laughed, “They’re not dead. You just have to know where to find them. You have to look for them.”
Ellen McDougall was a rose unlike any other, and one I will always look for, wherever she can be found.
Ellen, Ellen, Ellen. Mmm. As her Eddie would always say.
(A video slideshow on Ellen will be posted later today, and inserted in a subsequent edition of this article.
For those good friends of Ellen reading this, a Memorial Service is being held for her on Sunday, February 15, 2015 at 3:30pm at the Friends Meeting House, 2111 Florida Avenue Northwest, Washington, DC 20008. If you plan to attend, please send an RSVP email to Owen McDougall at firstname.lastname@example.org. In the Quaker-style, the service will open by sitting in silent worship and reflection upon Ellen’s life. Attendees will then be welcome to speak about a memory of Ellen. No one is required to speak, nor to bring a gift, your attendance is gift enough. In lieu of any flowers, please consider donating to the Smith Center for Healing and the Arts.)
Categories: Personal Stories