Helen Lundeen Whittemore ran a D.C. business and was wife of poet laureate

Helen Lundeen Whittemore, 81, who ran a wallpapering business in Washington while acting as a muse to her husband, Reed Whittemore, a two-time poet laureate of the United States, died April 16 at the Washington Home hospice in the District.

The cause was complications from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, said her daughter Daisy Whittemore. Reed Whittemore, who taught literature at the University of Maryland for nearly two decades until his retirement in 1984, died April 6 at 92.

The Whittemores met in the early 1950s at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., where he was teaching and she was a student (although not in his class). They married in 1952 and moved to the Washington area in 1964 at the beginning of his first term as poet laureate, a post then known as “consultant in poetry” to the Library of Congress. He held the job again from 1984 to 1985, by which time the family had settled in College Park.

In the 1970s, Mrs. Whittemore opened a catering-turned-decorating business with Barbara Gale, a friend and fellow Minnesota transplant. “At one time,” Reed Whittemore once told The Washington Post, his wife “hung most of the wallpaper in Georgetown.”

Mrs. Whittemore joked that the sweaty business of wallpapering removed her from the more rarefied literary milieu, where she was her husband’s “muse and . . . manager,” as their daughter put it.

“The job of the wife of the creative person is to shield him from the slings and arrows — to minister to him,” Mrs. Whittemore told the New York Times in 1976.

She added, however, that certain types of wifely ministering had disappeared with her generation of women. “The kids still get mashed potatoes from scratch,” she said, “but we aren’t exactly standing on the doorstep anymore with the martinis waiting.”

Many of Reed Whittemore’s books were dedicated “To Helen.”

Mrs. Whittemore, too, had a poetic sensibility that emerged in her letters to friends.

“She had her own style, her own code,” said Garrison Keillor, host of the radio variety program “A Prairie Home Companion” and a friend of Mrs. Whittemore’s. “Lots of lowercase. Lots of ampersands, and her own grammar. She was, I don’t know, the e.e. cummings of correspondence.”

Helen Joan Lundeen was born April 13, 1931, in Fergus Falls, Minn., and had a lifelong fascination with the decline of Minnesota farms. In the 1980s, she self-published a book of photographs showing old homesteads in ruin. She made clothes from vintage fabrics, including old tablecloths, and sold the items in trunk shows in the Washington area.

Survivors include three children, Cate Whittemore of Putnam Valley, N.Y., Edward “Ned” Whittemore III of Costa Mesa, Calif., and Daisy Whittemore of Kensington; a sister, Ruth Saxe of the District; two brothers, David Lundeen and Victor “Buzz” Lundeen, both of Fergus Falls; and six grandchildren. Her son Jack Whittemore died in 1997.

Emily Langer is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. She has written about national and world leaders, celebrated figures in science and the arts, and heroes from all walks of life.