Washington Star Society Columnist Betty Beale, 94

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 8, 2006

Betty Beale, 94, a society writer for four decades whose syndicated column gave readers a close-up, largely sympathetic nibble of Washington's upper crust, died June 7 at the Washington Home hospice. She had bladder cancer.

Ms. Beale was born into a prominent Washington family and wrote for the old Washington Star, once the city's dominant newspaper. From the Truman to the Reagan administrations, she attended an estimated 15,000 parties, chronicling what she called "the manners, customs and personalities of our times." At her peak in the mid-1960s, her column was reprinted in about 90 newspapers.

As a journalist, Ms. Beale was not mischievous like her peer Diana McLellan or investigative like Maxine Cheshire, whom she disliked. She was deeply competitive, and in her hunt for human-interest items, she had a tendency to depart from dull party conversations by saying she had to find a "newsmaker."

She hosted presidents in her home, dined with authors and statesmen and chatted up emperors. She wrote of her "special bond" with Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie -- "the love we shared for Chihuahuas."

She recounted a surreal conversation with surreal painter Salvador Dali, who told her, "I hate telephones unless they are disconnected and in trees, then I like them."

After meeting Emily Post, doyenne of social etiquette, Ms. Beale wrote: "Her sense of humor was such that when I bit into a little sandwich at tea in her house and jelly squirted out on my fingers, I didn't hesitate to lick my fingers in front of her. I wouldn't have to do this, I told her, if I had been given a napkin."

She was present when first lady Jacqueline Kennedy danced the twist with Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara. Later, in a memoir, Ms. Beale wrote of dancing with Lyndon B. Johnson ("he had a good sense of rhythm and did a smooth foxtrot") and cringing through a merengue with Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo, who had summoned her to his yacht ("fortunately, the loathsome experience was short").

One dinner she attended during the Kennedy administration featured 48 Nobel Prize-winners. At other functions, she was at ease with everyone from choreographer George Balanchine to Army Gen. William C. Westmoreland to genius architect R. Buckminster Fuller.After the Star folded in 1981, Ms. Beale wrote periodically but found much of the glamour vanished and the tone of society coverage far more snide than she liked.

"We don't have any big hostesses in Washington now," she said in 1993. "Ambassadors coming to town are not as social minded or as wealthy. Also, women are not concentrating on being hostesses; they would rather be known for making it in the corporate world."

Elizabeth Virginia Beale was born Nov. 6, 1911, in Washington, where her father was a banking executive. An uncle, Louis Brownlow, was a former chairman of the District commissioners, a Democratic presidential adviser and author of "The Anatomy of the Anecdote."

After graduating from the Holton-Arms School and Smith College, Ms. Beale said, she was determined to be financially independent. She took courses in shorthand and typing, went to work with the Junior League and in 1937 was recruited by editor Hope Ridings Miller to write the "Top Hats and Tiaras" society column in The Washington Post.

She left The Post in 1940, citing fatigue and ill health. She later attributed her recovery to a conversion to Christian Science, and in 1945 she was well enough to join the reporting staff of the Star.

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