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Nancy Gray Pyne

Oral History interview with Nancy Gray Pyne undertaken by Therese O’Malley, Associate Dean of the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., and James Carder on November 4, 2014, at Mrs. Pyne’s home in Georgetown. Mrs. Pyne was a social friend of Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss and traveled to the Middle East and Greece and Turkey with Mildred Bliss in 1964.

JC: I’m James Carder and I’m here with Therese O’Malley of the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, and we have the great pleasure of interviewing Mrs. Pyne–Nancy Gray Pine–who was a friend of the Blisses and who traveled with Mildred Bliss to the Middle East in 1964. Mrs. Pyne, thank you very much for agreeing to do this interview.

NGP: You are welcome. Oh, I forgot I have my invitation to the opening of Dumbarton Oaks to give you. I left it upstairs. I’ll get it for you later.

JC: That would be great. Thank you. Therese, would you like to begin?

TOM: Sure. Mrs. Pyne, could you tell us how you knew the Blisses, when you first met them?

NGP: I knew them the way one probably met everyone in those days, at dinner parties. I went to their house in Georgetown many times for dinner. And they often entertained. Everyone had help. You went to their house for dinner. You didn’t go to restaurants. You didn’t do anything. You know, eight o’clock, black tie. You were out of the house by eleven. It was very social and wonderful. And the Blisses were very social.

TOM: We understood that she always had French spoken at the table. Was that true for most of these dinner parties? Or was that not true?

NGP: I am sure it was true amongst those that spoke French, but I think a little – yeah, she was totally fluent in quite a few languages.

TOM: Yes. Yes.

NGP: And – no, I never was subjected to that. [laughter]

TOM: But in the early days of the fellowship program, I understood that –

NGP: Oh, you mean academically, when she –

TOM: No, no. She carried it over from the diplomatic table to the academic one.

NGP: Yeah. Well, that’s neat! No, I was never at one of those. I was at the social Washington – that time was very social, and always dinner parties, always eight o’clock, always black tie. I mean, it was amazing. And they were terrific. They were very social, and we had the best time. And he was a wonderful dancer. So –

JC: Do you remember, more or less, when you first met them?

NGP: At a dinner party.

JC: What year, or what –

NGP: ’57, ’58? He was a good dancer, I was –

JC: Yes.

NGP: Yeah, it was a very – it was a really zippy town. [whispered] I don’t think it is now.

TOM: That’s wonderful to hear, because I had this idea that it was a sleepy town until Mrs. Kennedy. That’s what – you know, the standard line.

NGP: Uh huh. Yeah, it was very – in that era, everyone had help and you went to their house for dinner. And it was pretty much – and then we said, “What? Black tie?” It was just automatic. Eight o’clock you went, and you were always on time. But the – it was at a dinner party that Mrs. Bliss – I lived in Greece for two and a half years with my first husband, who was in the foreign service, who died. And at this dinner party, she said, “I have to go to Athens to see about the exhibit, the Byzantine exhibit. Do you want to come?” I said, “Oh, sorry, Mrs. Bliss. I have to put all those children in camps and ranches – oh, I can’t. And my husband, Gordon Gray, was so put out. He said, “What kind of dope do you think I am that I can’t get those kids in camps and ranches? Go! [laughter] So, I went!

TOM: Oh, fabulous.

NGP: I went! And it was fabulous, as you can imagine, with her. I mean, she was the queen of every place she went. We went to Athens first, and – which is where the exhibit was at that time. The big museums had recalled all of their stuff because of the Turks and the Greeks, and Cyprus had that little unpleasantness. They didn’t know whether war was going to break out or not. But not Dumbarton Oaks, so we arrived. And of course, fantastic. They were all out to greet her. And Athens – it was great to be there. Then we flew to Lebanon. And I think we were just there overnight, on our way to – oh no, to Constantinople. Yeah, that was it. That was it. To go there and see Constantinople. But while we were in Greece, we went by the palace to leave her cards, because she would have been staying at the palace, but the court was in mourning because the king had died, and Queen Frederica was in mourning, so that’s why I was – went along. And we went by to leave her cards at the palace, and suddenly, she turned to me and she said, “Did you ever know Edward VII?” [laughter] I said, “How’s that again?” She said, “He had the most terrible German accent!” Then Prince Philips – she had Prince Philip’s mother come out of the nunnery to have lunch with us.

TOM: She knew – really?

NGP: Oh yes.

TOM: She knew –

NGP: She knew all the – all the royal heads in every country.

TOM: Wow.

NGP: Every country. So, that was fun, because she was telling a lot of fun stories about Prince Charles and his siblings. But one thing that was so great that she said quite often was, [affecting an accent] “The darkest day in Christendom was when the last of the Paleologans fell on the walls of Constantinople.” [laughter] Is that not fabulous?

JC: That is fabulous.

NGP: Is that not a – [affecting the same accent] “The darkest day in Christendom, when the last of the Paleologans fell on the walls” – oh, it was so great! And she was so great, and so much fun, too! I mean, she had a real sparkle and twinkle. And – [laughter] yeah, it was, it was terrific. And then, let’s see, we went to Beirut, and that’s where Carlo Perrone had us for a dinner. And he was number two in the Italian Embassy here, and he was Ambassador in Lebanon. And we arrived at his house, and there were two great, over six foot tall, Nubian – standing at the front door. In white, in complete white. Turban white, turban – it was pretty –

TOM: Oh my.

NGP: Golly! And then we went on to Damascus, and – oh I don’t know, I guess it must have been – we looked at a mosque, a famous mosque in Damascus, and stayed in a hotel. And then we had this long trip across the desert to Aphrodisias, which is where the dig was that she wanted to see. New York University had just begun it. It was just in its first season. And we passed the Krak des Chevaliers in – and we wanted to stop there on the hill, but we had to get to Aphrodisias, because it was – we just had to get there. And Erim – Kenan Erim was the wonderful, well, head of the dig from New York – New York University was doing this dig. And he was great. I kept up correspondence with him for a long time and supported the dig. And then – I know that he did die, but he was just marvelous. And we had pretty primitive – that was pretty primitive. I think we stayed in some sort of not-very-attractive place. I think the bathroom was in the village. [laughter] I mean it wasn’t there. We had to go out of the house – not in the village, but I remember heading there and thinking the dogs were barking. And I said, “Oh, all I need now is to be attacked by dogs.” Yeah, it was very primitive. But it was great. It was really great.

TOM: Who was traveling with you? How many did you have?

NGP: Just me and her.

TOM: Really?

NGP: Me and she.

TOM: You just – going from point to point to point, you didn’t have –

NGP: No, she had – her maid came with us as far, as far as Athens. And then she – we left her in Athens, and her exercise suitcase. She was in fabulous shape. She had traveled, if you can believe it, with weights, and – yeah, she had a separate suitcase for exercise.

JC: That’s amazing.

TOM: [laughter] That’s great.

NGP: We left her in Athens, and then, I think, she went back to London, because after our great experience at Aphrodisias, we came back across the desert to catch the plane to London, where we stayed with the David Bruces. Oh, and I remember, it was time to leave, and the desert was really pretty hot – this was June. Really hot, and we went to get our water. Somebody had stolen our water.

TOM: [gasp] Oh.

NGP: So, we had to go across the desert with no water. It was – yeah. I mean, it was a couple hours’ trip, but you know – yeah. So, then I guess it was probably Damascus. That would be the first. And we went to Baalbek and Sidon and Tyre. Now where would we have been when we did that?

TOM: My goodness, what a great trip.

NGP: In Damascus, I guess. And then we had landed in London with the David Bruces and we were there for about five days in the embassy with him. That was a pretty unbelievable trip.

TOM: Fantastic.

JC: Sounds marvelous. Did you go to any dealers? Was she interested to –

NGP: Any what?

JC: – to any antiquities dealers in any of these cities?

NGP: Dealers?

JC: Dealers.

NGP: Dealers. No. No.

JC: No.

TOM: Or book shops?

NGP: No. No, it was not a shopping thing. Oh, when we got to London – the other places, no. No. She’s definitely heading for the digs and to see any part of Byzantium that, you know, in the digs. In London, I remember going to a famous bookshop there. She was looking for a certain garden book. And – I’m trying to think. She said, “Bunny Mellon always gets there first.”

JC: [laughter] And do you think they had a rivalry? A friendly rivalry?

NGP: Yes! Yeah. Yeah. [whispering] But really she was really very proud. It was a book that she wanted, but Bunny Mellon had already gotten there. [laughter] So, I was trying to make – trying to revive and – you know, Kenan Erim, he was wonderful. He was the, the dig at Aphrodisias. And New York, New York University. The head of the…  Yeah, I mean – and then, into music. I never discussed music with her much, because Stravinsky, you know. She had him come and compose the – whatever it was.

TOM: The sonata.

JC: Concerto.

TOM: Concerto. Sorry.

NGP: So, can you think of anything?

TOM: Well, I wanted to ask, if I can, a little bit about the gardens. Your garden and her garden and just garden building at that period of time, because here Rose Greely started, and then Perry Wheeler picked up, and of course –

NGP: You want to take a look at it later? The garden – they’re out there. Are you – now you’re from the National Gallery?

TOM: I am from the National Gallery.

NGP: But are you from the garden department at the National Gallery?

TOM: No, I’m an art historian. I’m in the research institute. It’s called the Center for Advanced Studies.

NGP: Oh, right. Yeah, research institute.

TOM: Yeah, so – but my particular specialty is in the history of American gardens.

NGP: Oh.

TOM: So, I wrote a little bit about Mrs. Bliss’s garden library for that book. But I’m just – you know, this is something that I work on.

NGP: Yeah. We didn’t – We didn’t discuss gardens, because she was more into digs, you know, what was going on in the restoration world of antiquity, of digs that were going on. That seemed to be more her bent at that time, although if I’d known then what I know now, I would have directed the conversation a lot to gardens. But see, she was eighty-two when we went on this trip, so –

TOM: Right.

NGP: Oh my god, when she would go up and down these steps.

JC: At eighty-two.

TOM: She was eighty-two then?

NGP: Eighty-two, and I was forty-one. She was simply incredible. When we got to – she always referred to it as Constantinople, never Istanbul [laughter] – and when we went to Hagia Sophia where the Harvard scholars were up in the dome, chipping off the plaster from the mosaics, she said, “Why don’t you go up and see?” I said, “Okay.” I don’t know how I got up there, but anyway, I was up there, watching them chipping very carefully the plaster. And then it came time to come down, and I looked down and I said, “Oop, sorry, I can’t do it. I’m just going to die up here. Leave me alone. I am going to die. I cannot go down.” “Madam, just turn around and go down facing the wall!” So, I made it back. Yeah, otherwise – and to see those scholars run up and down that ladder, just like sailors on a ship – you know, they run up and down that ladder, just skipped down it, facing outwards, and that’s what I couldn’t – oh, it was just horrible to look down. I was up in the top –

TOM: Amazing! Amazing.

NGP: Ugh! Turn around and go down, back – well, go down facing the wall. Then you don’t know where you’ve been.

JC: Where did you stay in Constantinople? Do you remember?

NGP: Oh, we stayed at – not the Pera Palace. We stayed at… a new American one. It would have been the Hilton or something like that.

JC: In Pera, though, probably.

NGP: The – it was not – the Pera Palace was an old, done over – now they are really fancy, but at that time, they weren’t – so we stayed – what’d you say, the Hilton? No, I said the Hilton.

JC: I was just saying there, it probably – Pera was where the hotels, the American hotels were –

NGP: Yeah, I mean, it was a new one, but just beginning. It was sort of – we felt a little disloyal to not be staying at a Turkish hotel. She didn’t like that. I agree. We were there; we should be staying at a Turkish hotel.

JC: Interesting.

NGP: But –

TOM: Do you know if she continued to travel after that very much?

NGP: No. No, saw a lot of her – socially, again, though, she came for dinner parties and lunches. Lunches, I say. Just somebody that would interest her. And I would go to the house. I almost got the name of the Butler. It almost came to me.

TOM: I’m trying to remember the secretaries, because I came across all those names in the archives. And the library staff, but we have that all.

JC: What was – this was the 28th Street house. I –

NGP: Yes.

JC: What was that house like?

NGP: Oh!

JC: And the gardens?

NGP: Lovely. The Nitzes live in it now. I don’t – they’ve added a great big thing at the back for entertaining, a kitchen or something, pantry. But no, it was a lovely house.

JC: It was nice. They didn’t take any photographs that we know of, when they lived at that house.

TOM: That was a Rose Greely garden, too.

NGP: But you – oh, you have no photographs of the house?

JC: No. There is one of the exterior, but nothing of the gardens or the inter –

NGP: Would it be helpful for you to go in there now? Because I could call them; I’m sure they’d be delighted, but then you’d see their –

JC: Exactly.

NGP: Architecturally, it was nice! A very nice house.

JC: They sold off – someone sold off a part of it, right? There was a servant’s house on the property? I read that they split the property after their death, and part of it got sold off.

NGP: Could be, could be.

TOM: The University of Virginia has all of Rose Greely’s drawings.

JC: Oh?

TOM: So, you might be able to find.

NGP: Why has the University of Virginia got those things?

TOM: Well, I – I think because she – Rose Greely was the only woman involved with the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg. So, there’s that Virginia connection. And they have a school of landscape, architecture, and they might have gone after them. They might have –

NGP: But Rose Greely, what was she – did she do the –

TOM: She did the 28th Street house.

NGP: 28th Street?

TOM: Mmm hmm.

NGP: Oh, you see, I –

TOM: She did this place. She did the –

NGP: Yes, she did, in 1929.

TOM: They might have those – they might have those drawings.

NGP: Yeah, in 1929, she did this – through these kinkers lots out here in the back – well, I’ll show you – and did it. And then when we got the house fifty five years ago or whatever, Perry Wheeler just tweaked a few things. But the bones are Rose Greely. The bones are still there. A few things were tweaked, and – yeah.

TOM: It’s amazing. She’s amaz –

NGP: I didn’t know that. Now you see, too bad that we never really discussed her garden there, and this garden here. Isn’t that weird?

JC: It is hard, because I believe her garden was a boxwood garden as well. It had –

NGP: Was it?

JC: – defined areas of boxwood –

NGP: Yeah.

JC: So, there might have been a strong similarity between the two houses –

NGP: I think – well maybe. I think – huh. I’ll tell Ann Nitze, who owns it. They live there. I think with her, it was really pretty much the Byzantine world. We never really went into music, of which I’m somewhat knowledgeable. And we never went into gardens particularly. She never knew about this garden, never asked to see it.

TOM: Really? Now that is – But you know, I’m always struck with how little time, how much – she didn’t spend so many years here, it seems.

JC: True.

TOM: She was always traveling.

NGP: Well yeah, I think it depended on, it depended on which – now, Pre-Columbian. Never did we discuss that, because I knew nothing, and that was just being finished, that museum.

TOM: And the collection was Mr. Bliss’s interest, really. But the building was very much – her relationship with Philip Johnson was –

NGP: Yes.

TOM: – well documented. And he worked very closely with – together they went to the nursery to pick out plants.

NGP: Philip Johnson?

TOM: Philip Johnson.

NGP: And Mrs. Bliss?

TOM: Yes.

NGP: Went to pick out what?

TOM: Plants for the landscaping around the –

NGP: Around the –

TOM: The museum.

NGP: The – yeah. That’s interesting.

TOM: Isn’t that – I just – that was –

NGP: But you see, she wore a lot of hats. I mean – I mean, and big! Each – well, each section, enormous! But with me, it was just the Byzantine world. And Greece – well, the Byzantine world – and not, not really gardens. That’s too bad! Isn’t it amazing? Because she would have done this first.

TOM: Yes.

NGP: Rose Greely would have done this garden in ’29, way before she did 28th Street.

TOM: Yes, yeah. Yeah.

NGP: Because – let’s see, when they sold – they left it to Harvard in 1940. They left the big house.

JC: Yes.

NGP: To Harvard in ’40.

TOM: Mmm hmm.

NGP: So, she would have started work on this house in 1940.

TOM: So, the Beatrix Farrand years are – she picked up after Rose Greely, really.

NGP: Who was after Rose Greely?

TOM: Beatrix Farrand.

NGP: Well, she was Dumbarton Oaks.

TOM: Yeah.

NGP: Mmm hmm. So, that would have been before Rose Greely. That would have been when they lived.

TOM: But she continued as an advisor to –

JC: She advised Harvard in the first half decade of the forties, a little, maybe, into the late forties. And then she – she was not –

NGP: Who are we talking about? Beatrix Farrand?

TOM: Beatrix Farrand.

JC: She then didn’t really feel very well a lot of the time. She sort of backed off. And Ruth Havey began under Mildred Bliss to do design work for the gardens. But then apparently when she moved to 28th Street –

NGP: Ruth Havey.

JC: A woman named Ruth Havey.

NGP: Ruth Havey? Hasey?

TOM: With a V. Havey.

NGP: Havey.

JC: She was from Yale. She was one of the early women who took a degree in landscape architecture and design.

NGP: Mmm.

JC: I think she considered herself an architect, in fact.

TOM: Yeah, because you couldn’t get landscape architecture at Yale.

JC: Right.

TOM: You did architecture.

JC: Right.

TOM: In fact, Ruth Greely’s firm was an architecture firm, here in Washington, first. So. But it’s interesting how she engaged so many important women designers over the course of the history of –

NGP: Yeah. Right.

TOM: – her home and Dumbarton Oaks.

NGP: Right. Right. But Beatrix Farrand did the big house, did Dumbarton Oaks.

JC: Yes. Right.

NGP: And Rose Greely did 28th Street.

TOM: Actually, Rose Greely also worked on the big house, too.

JC: No.

TOM: Not at all? Not at all?

JC: Not at all.

TOM: Oh, okay.

JC: Unless it was very casual advising, but it was –

TOM: Yeah.

JC: Basically, Ruth Havey, working for Mildred Bliss, and Patterson and others, working for Harvard – so there was this odd duality of Harvard employing people to deal with the gardens, and Mildred Bliss wanting to make some changes, such as the great pebble garden that replaced the tennis court. That was –

NGP: Now who did that?

JC: That was Ruth Havey’s design.

NGP: Oh, really?

JC: Mmm hmm.

NGP: She doesn’t get much PR on this.

JC: No. We’ve been trying to resurrect her, not very successfully. [laughter]

NGP: Yeah, that’s interesting. I had never even heard of her. That’s interesting.

JC: And she did a number of designs that never got built, gardens for the blind that Mrs. Bliss was very interested in. So, it would have a lot of scented plants, but also plants that I think you could touch. And then there was a plan for a Byzantine garden, which I assume was Byzantine-era plant material. Never –

TOM: Mosaics.

JC: [laughter] Mosaics.

NGP: How would you track that one?

TOM: I don’t know. I guess she would use plants from the Mediterranean.

NGP: Yeah, you’d – or you’d go to Constantinople and take a look at what was growing there.

TOM: Yeah. Yeah.

NGP: Yeah, that’s interesting.

TOM: I wonder if you ever had any conversation with her about her collecting of rare books and paintings and drawings.

NGP: Only that remark – when I went with her to this, to this bookstore. And I think – could I have gone with her in New York? I think I did once. We were in New York together. I think I went there also. The same thing happened. Mrs. Mellon had been there before her. That was really a funny, funny thing.

TOM: Did she ever mention Mrs. Hunt, because at the same time Mrs. Hunt and Carnegie Mellon was building the same collection.

NGP: Yeah. No. I know whom you think, but she – no, she didn’t mention, but I know exactly – yeah. She was great. And then we came back – I mean, she was fun, too! She wasn’t totally – she wasn’t totally scholarly and, you know – she was really fun. I think we’d been to Baalbek, or maybe Sidon and Tyre. I’ve forgotten one whole day. Eugh! And those cars were not very comfortable, fifty years ago or whatever. And we came back to the hotel in Beirut, very glamorous. I mean, Lebanon was the Paris of – I mean, it was really, really glamorous. And we got to the table for supper and she said, “Ah! A strong gin and tonic.” [laughter]

JC: When you went to her house here on 28th Street, did – was there ever any musical entertainment after dinner or before?

NGP: No. Well, I mean, I wasn’t included. But it – the rooms are not that big.

JC: Right, I – Interestingly, in a lot of correspondence I’ve read, she politely says that she can’t entertain someone who’s coming to town because she lives in this very small house. So, they’ll go out to a hotel dining room or something like that.

NGP: Yeah. Oh! She wouldn’t even –

JC: She may have wanted to put them off, but –

NGP: I’ve almost got that butler’s name. You’ve got to get me that butler’s name. I mean, I have – oh, damn! I think she didn’t want to, because the dining room is a perfectly pleasant size. Not maybe for a huge gathering – not like what she once did at Dumbarton Oaks. And I went there once for dinner. Maybe it was before he died. I went there once for dinner, in that dining room. And did we have real gold service?

TOM: Really?

NGP: Really? I can’t – now you see, this is –

TOM: It’s all possible.

NGP: Possible. Or maybe gold service plates, or something was gold.

JC: Well, you know they – when he was Ambassador in Argentina and Minister in Sweden, was the era where it – ambassadors had to supply their own furnishings, and even often rent their own accommodations. So, all of their ambassadorial service – Baccarat crystal and Sèvres china –

NGP: They had to provide?

JC: They had bought. And they decided to take it home with them.

NGP: Yeah, well.

JC: So, I –

TOM: Do you still have it?

JC: We still have it. We actually lent it to the National Trust. I didn’t lend it. Someone a long time ago did. And it clearly was marked “gift,” but with the provision that if the Trust couldn’t use it, it had to come back to Dumbarton Oaks, and they recently returned it all from the –

TOM: Isn’t that interesting?

JC: We have it. But they had an enormous amount of – that wasn’t gold, but it was gold-edged and monogrammed, and –

NGP: Oh, well this could have not – somebody said it was real gold. She didn’t say it was real gold. But –

JC: It could have been any – you know, her mother in California was very extravagant and lived that Victorian, early Edwardian lifestyle where gold was better than silver, and so she made –

TOM: Especially in California.

JC: Especially in California, right? So, she may have when – in ’35, when her mother died, she may have taken that to Dumbarton Oaks.

NGP: Yeah. Maybe, yeah. Could be.

TOM: Yeah.

JC: And then they – records seem to show that little by little, she sold a lot of things in order to keep the endowment at Dumbarton Oaks at a higher level.

NGP: Yeah.

JC: Jewelry and probably household objects. So, who knows?

NGP: She… She did talk about other posts. She said, when they were in Sweden – you know, at that time, I don’t think people were ambassadors. I think they were ministers.

JC: He was a Minister to Sweden, right.

NGP: That ambassador thing has just come in since the Second World War. Every country has an ambassador now. But in that era, they were really mostly ministers, except the big countries like France and Ger – well, probably Germany and London, England, and – but, other countries. She said, in the middle of winter, all of the Mediterranean ministers, or the staff, they all had to go south, go back to their own country, because they had this affliction, you know, with no sun.

TOM: Oh, really? They –

NGP: Yeah.

TOM: Oh.

NGP: That was – you know, they’ve discovered it now, since.

TOM: Yes.

NGP: And there are some other articles on it. But back then, that was really true.

TOM: Yeah.

NGP: They got sick. Sick, not with seeing the sun.

JC: Right.

NGP: And just overcast, dreadful. Day after day and the sun going down at three o’clock in the afternoon, you know. And then she was invited to the Shah’s coronation. I think she – I think she was – wait a minute. One other thing that she’d invited me to – either the Shah or – and I couldn’t go. It was very upsetting. I could not go. Or she went to Sweden when somebody was crowned. She knew the heads of every country. She knew them, and was invited by them. Yeah. And how she knew Prince Philip’s mother beats me.

TOM: Well, that’s – she –

NGP: Who was in a nunnery.

TOM: In Athens.

NGP: Yeah.

TOM: Because her first husband was King of Greece.

NGP: Philip’s mother? No.

TOM: Philip’s father.

NGP: Philips father?

TOM: Was heir to the throne of Greece. And that’s where they lived when – it was the revolution. And they sent the –

NGP: Really?

TOM: Yes.

NGP: I thought he was a cousin, or something.

TOM: No, I think he was – she was – Philip –

NGP: Then what was he doing –

TOM: Philip could have become the King of Greece.

NGP: What?

TOM: Philip could have become – he was in line for the throne, I’m pretty sure. And so he was sent – because of the troubles, he was sent to England under the care of Mountbatten, and he was really raised by Mountbatten.

NGP: Mmm hmm.

TOM: His father died quite young.

NGP: Oh, I –

TOM: His father died young.

NGP: Yeah. Okay. Well, that I didn’t know. I thought that he – I knew that they were related.

TOM: I only know this because just recently there was a very good documentary on her, on Philip’s mother.

NGP: Oh, really?

TOM: Yes, on – at –

NGP: Why did she go to a nunnery, for heaven’s sake?

TOM: She had – she created her own nunnery. She created her own religion. She was – you know, she spent many years in this mental institution as well.

NGP: Oh. Uh huh.

TOM: She had a long and very colorful life.

NGP: When she came out and we went to the GB, the Grande Bretagne, for lunch, and she regaled us with stories about Prince Charles and his siblings. It was fun! And then she went back to the nunnery, I guess. She had her habit on.

TOM: And they still have – she ran a – she created a charitable organization, kind of a safe house. And it has – it’s still working today, and Philip recently went back with her ashes to have her buried there.

NGP: In Greece?

TOM: In Greece, as a monument to her. But she’s a – she’s considered a hero of World War II, because of the care she gave to people who were suffering.

NGP: Well. Well, that’s why I was on the trip, because Mrs. Bliss would have been at the palace with Queen Frederica and King – but he had died, and they were in mourning, so I got the trip.

TOM: That’s a fantastic story.

JC: Very fantastic.

NGP: I don’t know what happened to her that night at Mrs. McCauley’s for dinner. I can remember the actual dinner. And she just said to me, “Why don’t you come with me? Why don’t you come with me as I check up on the Dumbarton Oaks artifacts that we’ve sent?”

TOM: This is a great –

NGP: And that’s when I said, “No, sorry. I can’t come.” And that’s when Gordon Gray said –

JC: When you were in Constantinople, did you meet Jack Thacher? John Thacher?

NGP: Oh, Jack Thacher! I’m trying to think of him. No, he was back here.

JC: Hmm. He used to go to Istanbul over the summer.

NGP: Well, he hadn’t gone yet.

JC: He hadn’t gone yet.

NGP: I thank you. Jack Thacher – trying to remember that. And there was a wonderful American woman there. I think she was in the embassy. Boy, she ran us around perfectly. What was her name? Like a – the butler and – anybody in the State Department could tell you right off the top of their heads. She was in Constantinople for years, one of those that kind of ran the place even though she was not the ambassador.

TOM: Mmm.

NGP: But she just knew everybody and did everything, was a great friend of Mrs. Bliss’s. It was wonderful being under her egis, because everything was on time and perfect.

JC: Nice.

NGP: Yeah.

TOM: Would you go over to Dumbarton Oaks often to hear the concerts or anything? Is that something that you’re –?

NGP: Today?

TOM: Yeah.

NGP: No. I’m not on the list. Well, I’m not here very much either.

TOM: Oh.

NGP: They still have the concerts?

TOM: They do. Yeah, they do. It’s – we went just the other night.

NGP: What was it?

TOM: It was a pianist. She’s Filipino. Her name is Cecile Licad. Licad?

JC: Mmm hmm.

TOM: And she was a powerhouse. Absolutely fabulous concert. She did five encores. And of course, being in the Music Room is magical in and of itself.

NGP: Yes, magical itself, right. Right.

TOM: So, that’s a great – it’s a wonderful thing. It’s two performances of each –

JC: It was great. Mmm hmm.

NGP: Oh, they still have those concerts? Well now, who runs those?

TOM: There’s a woman who –

JC: There’s a woman named Valerie Stains who is the, sort of impresario and books the talent. And then there’s a woman named Cindy Greene, who is the administrator. But it’s all done, frankly, because of the Blisses. And, you know, it’s not part of the mission in the absolute sense for Dumbarton Oaks as a research institution and museum. But because the Blisses were interested in music, and had used the Music Room that way, they wanted to retain that –

NGP: Oh, that’s wonderful!

JC: – aspect.

NGP: That’s really wonderful. No, now, Thursday, I go to a party in honor of the conservancy.

JC: Mmm.

TOM: Oh, yes. Great.

NGP: And Rebecca called up this morning – Rebecca, the chairman of this – trying to save that section of –

TOM: Yes. I can’t think of the name.

NGP: And she didn’t know that you all were coming. I said, “I thought you were going to come today, too!” She said, “No, no, no. We’re two different – I’m the conservancy, and you're Dumbarton Oaks.”

TOM: Yeah. Yeah.

NGP: Yeah, so I’ll go to that to – how are they coming? No money.

JC: No, it’s a volunteer –

NGP: Yeah, has to be, I guess.

JC: – crew.

NGP: The park owns it?

JC: The park owns it.

NGP: I think the Blisses gave it to – and the park has no money.

TOM: No, but I must say, they have really drummed up a lot of interest.

JC: And the volunteers are very interested to –

NGP: Good.

TOM: Yes.

JC: – try to keep it going.

NGP: When you see the –

TOM: And Shaun Donovan’s wife is one of the key volunteers. He’s the new head of HUD.

JC: And Dumbarton Oaks is trying to somewhat modestly help them by giving them cuttings of plant material that once was there, but –

TOM: Oh, that’s great.

JC: – didn’t survive for whatever reason. And showing them where the volunteer weeds and trees are that –

NGP: Yeah.

JC: weren’t in there. We have all the photographic documentation, although the conservancy has copies of it, so they don’t really need to come to us, but – I think they’ll ultimately do a good job. It’s a money issue, as you say.

NGP: Yeah.

TOM: But they do get prominent people to come and speak. Betsy Rogers gave a talk, and – so it’s getting attention.

NGP: Well, I think you see the pictures of the overgrown – it’s just shocking. The paths and that love vine, whatever it’s called.

TOM: Yeah.

NGP: It’s overgrown and taken over all the trees and all the specimens.

TOM: Yeah.

NGP: They have to get rid of that first, and then –

TOM: Is it kudzu that’s doing it?

JC: I don’t think we have kudzu, but all of the other vines –

TOM: Yeah, Virginia Creeper, and all… I was going to ask you if there was really a season in Washington in those days, when you described the dinner parties at eight. Was there a – what was the season, in terms of the year. Was it –

NGP: Oh, autumn through –

TOM: It was autumn through May?

NGP: To summer. Yeah.

TOM: It was –

NGP: Yeah. You know, Labor Day. After Labor Day to the beginning of summer, when that – a lot of people left.

TOM: Mmm hmm.

NGP: And those that stayed, like us, like – because Gordon Gray was – oh, I don’t know which – Assistant Secretary of Defense, then he came across the river and was Special Assistant to the President of the National Security – so we didn’t – we were here. And then dinners were very informal. Nice, I mean, very informal.

TOM: Mmm hmm.

NGP: You didn’t put on black tie.

TOM: In the garden?

NGP: Yeah.

TOM: Nice.

NGP: Yeah.

TOM: Nice.

NGP: And nice. Yeah, that was very nice. But then back – you know, Labor Day, sort of. It was – after Labor Day –

TOM: Mmm hmm.

NGP: – when everybody comes back into town and things get revved up again.

TOM: Yes.

NGP: And it got formal, went back to its formality.

TOM: But now you reverse. You leave now.

NGP: Yeah, I’m – this is crazy now. I’m – I do – why I don’t stay here, now that I’m – this house is so divine, that garden is so – I don’t know why I have to go to Florida, but I’m going, because I have a – we have a big reunion coming up over Thanksgiving. Ninety-one people.

TOM: Oh my.

NGP: Some of those are babies, so –

TOM: Oh, it’s family. Oh, that’s great.

NGP: Yeah, family.

JC: Ninety-one family. That’s amazing.

NGP: Well, we had a hundred and fifty at our reunion. [laughter] I said yeah, but this is only what two brothers begat. Bowman and Gordon Gray had, my husband, had nine boys. Bowman had five; Gordon had four. And it’s the issue of that. So, everybody at this gathering is from those two brothers.

TOM: Fantastic.

NGP: Because they all married and they married and they married – and now we’re down, I think, to the fourth, maybe fifth – no, fourth –

TOM: Generation.

NGP: – generation.

TOM: Fantastic.

NGP: Yeah. So, we do it every other year. So, that’s why I’m going so early, because November’s nice here, and December’s nice.

TOM: Yeah, it’s really – I always like Washington weather. People complain, but I think it’s –

NGP: Yeah, I think – and January!

TOM: I much prefer it.

NGP: If I can remember – then February, March aren’t so pleasant.

TOM: No, they’re –

NGP: April really isn’t all that great.

TOM: May is –

NGP: It should be, but it’s not.

TOM: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Sometimes March is better, because March, you get an early, early –

NGP: Hint.

TOM: Yes, exactly.

NGP: But we’ve lost so much stuff out there, and – like the earlier camellias in March. Oh, now wham –

TOM: Yes.

NGP: – comes this big frost, and…

JC: Mmm hmm. I’ve heard that, because of the old season, the fall through winter season, most gardens were done conscientiously with evergreen planting rather than a lot of flower planting that you would have today –

NGP: Yeah.

JC: – in the summer, because –

NGP: We did many, many more flowers – planting early on. When you see out there – the four beds around the first fountain were changed with the season, with the seasons, with the proper flowers. Now we just have wonderful mulch and a huge boxwood. No more flowers. And then when we got the house, what is now a swimming pool area was an English garden.

TOM: Mmm.

NGP: Border, border grass, when we got the house. Then we made it into a paddle tennis court. And now it’s a pool.

TOM: So, it’s seen some changes. [laughter]

NGP: Yeah. So…

TOM: I did read an article about Adrian Higgins –

NGP: Adr – doesn’t he write beautifully?

TOM: Yes. And I –

NGP: Beautifully.

TOM: And I’d never heard about him as a gardener himself.

NGP: Well, wait till you see what he did back there.

TOM: Great.

NGP: You know Adrian Higgins’s work?

JC: Yes, I know his work. I don’t know him.

NGP: He just – he just writes so incredibly. I think I have a – let’s see here, if I have that – I want to read this article that – Oh here, I’ll show you this. This is the beginning, and there are two missing in this picture. But this gives you an idea –

TOM: Oh.

NGP: – of where it all started.

TOM: These are the two brothers. Isn’t that fantastic. Oh. [laughter] Great.

NGP: That’s the beginning. There are the two brothers, and there the nine – no, only seven boys. Two of them hadn’t been born yet.

TOM: That’s fantastic.

NGP: Here. I wonder why they put that nude woman there, but it’s because the garden awakens.

TOM: Oh, I see. [laughter]

NGP: That’s the article that Adrian Higgins wrote.

TOM: What are these beautiful botanical drawings?

NGP: Oh that’s – that’s not – is that the Wienerwald?

TOM: These are very nice.

NGP: And just – seventeenth century, I think.

TOM: Beautiful.

NGP: He writes wonderfully.

JC: Should we go see the garden?

NGP: Yeah. I’m going to go get a coat.

JC: Okay.

NGP: It’s not very cold, but – You had a coat?

TOM: I have it right here, so.

NGP: Now, who else – do you have anybody that knew her as I knew her?

JC: No, we do not.

NGP: Nobody else?

JC: Not that we’ve discovered.

NGP: I’m trying to think. All of my peers have marched on. Not all of them. Most. It’s terrible, thinking of them. Pauline Fritschy and Dorcas Hardin, Evangeline Bruce, Kay Graham. They’re all gone. The Bruces, of course, would have known Mrs. Bliss. And everyone I’ve mentioned, Yeah. You’re lucky you’ve got me, the last of the standing. [laughter] Yeah.

JC: To have traveled on such an interesting itinerary is just remarkable.

NGP: Yeah, it was amazing. And she was eighty-one, eighty-two.

JC: Mmm hmm.

NGP: And spry. Oh my lord. I mean, incredible. You know, I think of her up and down steps, and in uncomfortable shoes – evening – I mean, digs, you know.

JC: Mmm hmm.

NGP: Those hotels weren’t very luxe, and certainly the – living in Aphrodisias was really primitive.

JC: I know, she –

NGP: You can’t imagine how amazing Mrs. Bliss was at eighty-one, eighty-two.

TOM: Wow, I hadn’t realized she was –

NGP: Yeah.

JC: She had a personal trainer, in an era when those words, I think, were never spoken. [laughter]

NGP: I know. And she traveled with her traveling, with her – one of her pieces of luggage was her equipment. Dumbbells, and a thing, a rod, and –

TOM: Amazing.

JC: And there are a number of letters, thank you letters, written to her from people who have stayed at Dumbarton Oaks, and they always say, “I’m sticking to the breakfast regime that has been recommended.” And they never say what it is. [laughter]

NGP: Oh, too bad! Oh, you can be sure it was healthy.

JC: Exactly. [exit to the gardens – end of the interview]