Jeanne Viner Bell, 85; Public Relations Expert

As a public relations specialist, Jeanne Viner Bell persuaded presidents to serve California wines at the White House.
As a public relations specialist, Jeanne Viner Bell persuaded presidents to serve California wines at the White House. (Family Photo)
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By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 22, 2008

Jeanne Viner Bell, 85, a Washington public relations counselor who helped an advocacy group for California winemakers make its products a presence on the diplomatic social circuit, died May 21 at her son's home in Los Angeles. She had Alzheimer's disease.

Mrs. Bell -- then known as Jeanne Viner -- started her self-titled agency in 1961 as a single mother and became a mentor to generations of women in public relations. She was inducted into the Public Relations Society of America's hall of fame.

Her clients included many French restaurants and a spectrum of trade organizations, but the Wine Institute, representing California winemakers, was among her most important.

In the mid-1960s, when she began her work, French varietals still dominated state dinners at the White House and functions at U.S. embassies.

Harvey Posert, former public relations executive at the Wine Institute and for wine producer Robert Mondavi, said Mrs. Bell worked successfully to persuade the White House and State Department to serve and promote California wines.

Ultimately, President Richard M. Nixon built a California wine cellar at the White House.

Posert said Mrs. Bell was aided in her work by Sen. George Murphy (R-Calif.) and also had many helpful contacts through her second husband, J. Raymond Bell, a corporate and government relations executive at Columbia movie studios. They were married from 1974 until his death in 1983.

Jeanne Spitzel was born in Los Angeles, where her father was a real estate investor with many film studio contacts. Her appearance at a dance recital attracted the interest of the film studio 20th Century Fox, where she briefly was under contract.

She attended the University of California at Los Angeles before moving to Washington in 1941. That year she married Melvin Viner, whose family owned the area's largest laundry and dry-cleaning firm, Arcade-Sunshine. He was president of the company when he died of a heart ailment at 41 in 1955.

She began volunteering at the United Giver's Fund charity before moving into public relations.

During the next four decades, she handled an array of assignments, including coordinating U.S. visits from foreign heads of state and consulting work for the President's National Advisory Council on Economic Opportunity during the Carter administration.

Her community and civic memberships included the board of Independence Federal Savings Bank, a financial institution started in 1968 to help minorities; and the board of visitors of the University of Maryland journalism school. From 1988 to 1990, she was president of the American News Women's Club.

She was a member of the President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities from 1982 to 1996 and served six terms on the D.C. Private Industry Council, a job-training group.

Survivors include two children from her first marriage, Karen Fawcett of Washington and Paris and Michael Viner of Los Angeles; two grandchildren; and two great-granddaughters.

Mrs. Bell ghostwrote a book published by her son, "Shattered: In the Eye of the Storm" (1996), Faye Resnick's account of O.J. Simpson's trial for allegedly murdering his estranged wife.

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