My dear friend Anne Chamberlin died on New Year’s Eve in Sarasota, Fla., just shy of her 91st birthday. During her distinguished and eclectic career, she was a correspondent for Time and Life, traveled with Harry Truman and JFK, and interviewed the likes of Pablo Picasso and Marcello Mastroianni (her best quote from the latter: “Things were better when they were worse”). She also wrote the occasional, dryly witty book review for The Post.
Anne, a longtime journalist chum of my father’s, came into my life when I was in my mid-20s, shortly after my mother passed away. Picture me and my dad at his conventionally elegant home in Bethesda, descended upon by a minute, wiry 60ish woman on a racing bicycle with ultra-thin, silk tires, lit up like an airport and wearing a short, purple, thrift-shop, suede skirt over woolen leggings (well before older women wore leggings). I was instantly captivated by her quirky intrepidness, her helmet of shining white hair, her keen mind and, most of all, her charm. For some reason she was drawn to me as well, and so began a 30-year friendship during which she often referred to herself as my surrogate mother.
Anne was a fanatical exerciser. She rose at 5 every morning to swim for an hour, then took a long walk and often rode the bicycle from her apartment in Southwest D.C. to far-flung destinations, much to the consternation of friends who were constantly offering her lifts. She was even prone to ride the bicycle to the Kennedy Center in full evening attire. Despite the fact that she can’t have weighed more than 90 pounds, her calves were thick with ropey muscle and her arms were as toned as a teenager’s. My father claimed she had swum the Suez Canal while on assignment in Egypt.
One thing Anne and I did have in common was our love of long, rambling walks. A lifelong vegetarian (again, long before it was fashionable), Anne also inspired me to stop eating meat (though, unlike her, I tend to cheat). For most of her life she enjoyed excellent health. Once, when she was sent to a cardiologist for a stress test, Anne surprised the doctor, who had patronizingly asked if she got any exercise “around the house,” by being so fit that the doctor could not tax her heart sufficiently to complete the test.
Anne’s niece was kind enough to call me on New Year’s Day with the news of her passing. In need of a way to reflect on Anne’s life and our friendship, I dug out the letters and notes she had sent to me over the years. She collected exotic stationery and postcards from all over the world and delighted in sharing these rare, brittle treasures. Among my collection are letters written on stationery from the Hotel d’Angleterre in Denmark, the Tel Aviv Hilton, the Gran Hotel Bolivar in Lima, Peru (collected in 1941, so the letter informs), and the S.S. Constitution. Often these were accompanied by thoughtful gifts: a silver Tiffany’s bracelet with the inscription “En souvenir du Bon Vivant” (a tribute to our favorite café); a bejeweled Tiffany’s whistle, to fend off muggers; some wonderful designer hand-me-downs, including a vintage Christian Dior dress and silk pajamas from Gump’s; as well as a constant supply of our favorite stationery accessory: stickers, which she particularly coveted if they were sparkly or iridescent.
Even more precious to me than the gifts are the letters themselves, written with Anne’s somewhat haphazard penmanship but impeccable spelling, punctuation and grammar, and “signed” with a comical little caricature of herself with x’s for eyes. I can honestly say there is not a single boring sentence in any of them; she just had perfect pitch for newsworthy and amusing prose. Her wit, though exceedingly sharp, was almost invariably aimed at herself. A few lines about her personal travails are followed by the question “Are you asleep yet?” She was consistently self-deprecating, yet full of lavish praise and awe for any accomplishment or mine, no matter how modest.
I still don’t know how I got so lucky as to count Anne among my close friends , but my New Year’s resolution is to be more like the friend and person she was.
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