Putting Words and Music to Her Life

By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Mary Elizabeth Ford's home in the District's Glover Park neighborhood is empty now except for the piano in the basement, some books, bits of furniture and her 6,000 records.

She didn't leave much else in her red brick rowhouse when she died in January at age 99: some yellowed news clippings and two neatly written diaries from the 1940s.

Her nurse scattered her ashes in the Potomac River. Her death certificate listed her occupation as unknown, and her passing went unnoted. But as her executors dispose of the remnants of her life, her music, from Bach to Bob Dylan, and other scattered clues suggest that in her day, Mary Elizabeth Ford had been somebody.

Indeed, during the 1930s, '40s, '50s and '60s, she was a Washington society reporter: Elizabeth Ford of the Washington Daily News, and later the Washington Times-Herald and The Washington Post.

She wrote hundreds of stories about teas and soirees and dinners and parties. She wrote about wives of presidents, wives of senators and wives of diplomats. She had a column called "Paging People," another called "Congressional Set" and another called "Debutante Data."

An elegant picture, captioned "Miss Ford," sometimes ran with her stories, which were smart and lively and what many female journalists did in her time. She made about $40 a week.

She counted famed gossip columnists Maxine Cheshire and Hedda Hopper, to whom she sent Christmas cards, as compatriots, as well as then-reporter Katharine Graham, later publisher of The Post.

But she also dreamed of being a more serious writer. Her 1946 diary, provided by a neighbor, is an intimate account of the year she spent writing and trying, mostly in vain, to sell short fictional pieces to national magazines. "Now it is up to me," she began. "On my own -- to write like mad to get somewhere."

In her spare time, she was a thrifty but discerning student of music, according to Steve Smolian, an old-record appraiser who examined her collection. "This is not background music," he said. "This stuff you have to sit down and pay attention to."

Ford died of cardiovascular disease and ulcers. And while her executors search for a home for her records and prepare to sell her house, enough hints to her life have emerged to leave a portrait of a determined woman and modest pioneer who struggled to make her way and her fortune in a bygone Washington.

She was born in the city Sept. 30, 1908, and graduated from the old Central High School in 1926 and from George Washington University in 1930.

She appears to have been a lifelong music aficionado. Her collection contains records produced as far back as the 1920s, classical music that would have been owned by a connoisseur, and folk albums by the likes of Dylan and Lead Belly.


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