By Angela Valdez
Friday, January 2, 2009 11:20 AM
Thirty-five years makes for a lot of paper.
Last April four of Iris Bouchard's children stood bunched together in a spare bedroom in their mother's Bethesda home staring at stacks of it: loose pages on the desk and bookshelves, manila folders poking out of an overstuffed filing cabinet, rows of letters in wooden clementine boxes in the closet. Bouchard had died just days ago, and her sons, Stephen and Ed, and daughters, Charlie and Ellie, had come to sort through the remains of her business, the Inter-American Employment Agency. For 35 years, until Bouchard stopped working around 2004, the company placed chauffeurs, maids, butlers and other household help in the homes of the Washington elite.
Bouchard had a thing for flamboyance -- furs, jewelry, one hat that closely resembled a strawberry shortcake -- but the walls of her home office were bare. She had died of emphysema, and though she had quit smoking several years before, the smell of cigarettes still hung in the air.
Stephen Bouchard, 50, and Ed Bouchard, 54, started pulling files out of drawers, leafing through papers, then handing them to their sister Charlie Wells, 45, to sort. Sister Ellie Mackintosh, 52, retreated to the living room to look through photos.
Bouchard was born in Puerto Rico and grew up largely in New York City, but she had a long history in Washington. She and her mother moved to the District in 1949, staying first with Bouchard's half sister and her husband. Bouchard took college classes, worked at the C&P telephone company, and by the 1960s was working for the Teletype Corp. and occasionally doing translation work for visiting Spanish-speaking dignitaries. She developed a sideline connecting domestic workers, usually immigrants from Spain or Latin America, with affluent Washingtonians. It wasn't long before she became something of a fixer for those who were newly arrived and looking for jobs, some of whom even lived with her before she placed them.
As Bouchard's address book filled up with the names of the Washington elite, her clients urged her to make her head-hunting a full-time job. Her husband, Robert Bouchard, was less impressed. According to Ed Bouchard, he was a traditional man who believed his wife should spend more time taking care of her own household, and he mockingly referred to Bouchard's charges as "DP's" -- displaced persons. " 'I guess there's another DP here,' " Ed Bouchard remembers his dad harrumphing. "Our house was like a hotel."
Iris Bouchard left Robert in 1967. Ed, then 12, remembers his mom departing with one suitcase and an Electrolux vacuum. The vacuum was key. "She knew she could always use it to make a living," says Ed Bouchard. In 1969, at the urging of client Maryland McCormick, the Chicago Tribune heiress, Bouchard founded her employment agency.
Thereafter, the Bouchard children became accustomed to the strange ways of wealthy Washington: the midnight calls -- some of them boozy -- from clients who came to consider Bouchard a confidant, the galas and fancy dinners that they'd have to sit through quietly. Ed Bouchard remembers McCormick arriving at their house once in an open-front Rolls Royce, accompanied by a bulldog. On another occasion, Iris Bouchard and daughter Margaret (who died in 2006) met Elizabeth Taylor at a party given by the Iranian embassy. Bouchard found help for the Nixons after the president resigned. But Bouchard was a larger-than-life personality, and, especially as they got older, the kids sometimes wondered if their mother's references to intimate moments with celebrity clients ("I was sitting with Sylvester Stallone") were exaggerated. "C'mon, Mom," and, "Whatever, Mom," became common refrains.
"My mom had a very vivid imagination," Wells says. "So, sometimes the truth was according to her. You take everything she says with a very big lick of salt."
But that night at Bouchard's Bethesda home, the siblings began to sense that their mother hadn't needed to pad her résumé. There were letters from former Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas and socialite Mercedes Bass, canceled checks from the Kennedys (Sen. Ted was always on her list for late payments), and home phone numbers for Warren Beatty and Shirley MacLaine. "We were just finding this stuff and marveling at it," Ed Bouchard says.
Some letters from clients included kind notes about Bouchard's children: instructions from Elinor Hendrick, the wife of an adviser to Eleanor Roosevelt, to give Ellie her love or a note of best wishes for Charlie's wedding. It was an unexpected sign that Bouchard, whose brassy hustle didn't leave much space for intimate or kind words to her children, had at least spoken fondly about them to her clients. "It showed she thought of us," Mackintosh says. "Maybe Mom was softer than we're giving her credit for."
Among the years of business correspondence, Mackintosh also discovered mementos of her mother's personal life: her first marriage license and divorce decree, 10 years' worth of bound astrological forecasts with receipts for hundreds of dollars in payments. A baptismal certificate from Ponce, Puerto Rico, found among her papers included the name of Bouchard's father, whom they had never known. At the bottom of one drawer, Ed Bouchard found a signature book from Our Lady of Pity, a Catholic high school in the Bronx. His mother had always said she went to school "in Manhattan," implying, her children believed, that she grew up far away from the tough neighborhoods of Puerto Rican New York. Apparently, Bouchard's exaggerations and elisions had been more personal than professional.
Perhaps, Mackintosh says, her mother manipulated so many details of her life because people didn't believe a Puerto Rican woman could run her own business.
"I realize I didn't really know my mom," Mackintosh says. "I just feel like there's more . . . And I would like in my lifetime to see what her history really was."
Angela Valdez is a freelance writer who lives in Arlington.