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Hannah G. Kaiser, 97

Hannah G. Kaiser, teacher and diplomat's wife, dies at 97

Hannah Kaiser, 97, led efforts in London to raise money for charity.
Hannah Kaiser, 97, led efforts in London to raise money for charity. (Diana Walker)
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By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 14, 2010

Hannah G. Kaiser, 97, a diplomat's wife who taught adults and schoolchildren during her husband's assignments in Europe and Africa and as a young woman escaped a pass made by celebrated portraitist Augustus John, died Aug. 13 at her home in Washington. She had complications from lung ailments.

Mrs. Kaiser's pedigree was New England Protestant; she was a direct descendant of William Bradford, the first governor of the Plymouth Colony in what became Massachusetts.

In 1939, she married Philip M. Kaiser, a classmate at the University of Wisconsin who had been born in New York to Ukrainian Jewish immigrants who had fled from imperial Russia. They met in a class on capitalism and socialism.

Mrs. Kaiser graduated from Wisconsin in 1935 and two years later was accepted into the first class of a Radcliffe College program intended to train women as personnel managers for government and commercial jobs.

In 1938, she traveled to England and worked for the Labor Party's youth organization raising money and clothes for victims of Spain's fascist government.

In addition to asking ministers of Parliament for their financial support, she was asked to solicit money from London's artistic community. She said this resulted in a brief and uncomfortable meeting in the studio of Augustus John, who complained about the rich but "homely" matrons he was used to painting.

"I'd much rather paint you," he said, before directing her to remove her clothing. "I got a little bit worried by that, and I got out of there with my virginity intact," she later recalled, "but I wasn't sure for a few minutes."

After her marriage, Mrs. Kaiser was a social worker in Washington, received a teaching certificate from American University and was president of the Bannockburn Cooperative Nursery School in Bethesda before settling into a career as a Foreign Service spouse.

In the early 1960s, she taught English in Senegal, where her husband was ambassador. A few years later, when her husband was deputy chief of mission in the U.S. Embassy in London, Mrs. Kaiser led an effort involving the city's diplomatic corps that raised money for charities including Save the Children. When they stayed in London in the 1970s as private citizens, she taught English to elementary age children from deprived backgrounds.

Under President Jimmy Carter, Philip Kaiser was tapped as ambassador to Hungary and then Austria, and Mrs. Kaiser worked with the embassy's staff to welcome guests. After returning to Washington in 1981, Mrs. Kaiser taught part-time at the Lab School, a private school for learning-disabled children.

She cited as one of her favorite achievements the successful match she made between the Corcoran Gallery of Art, which owned a set of rare Stradivarius instruments, and the world-renowned Tak?cs String Quartet of Budapest. She helped foster an arrangement for the quartet to use the instruments on loan.

Hannah Elizabeth Greeley was born Aug. 3, 1913, in Simsbury, Conn., in the home of her great-uncle George P. McLean, a Republican governor of and U.S. senator from Connecticut. She was raised in Madison, Wis., where her father was a medical doctor. Her husband died in 2007. Survivors include their three sons, Robert G. Kaiser, an associate editor of The Washington Post, of the District, David Kaiser, a Naval War College professor, of Jamestown, R.I., and journalist and author Charles Kaiser of New York; a brother; four grandchildren; and a great-grandson.

In a 1987 interview with the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training, Mrs. Kaiser spoke of her time overseas as a joyous experience, especially when it came to the latitude she was given in redecorating the ambassadorial residences. She was also candid about her disappointment that President Ronald Reagan replaced her husband in Vienna with "a chain store grocery owner from California."

"That type of appointment is really resented by the embassy staff," she said. "They know that that person may be rich and maybe generous at entertaining, but the substantive part of the job will not be done well."

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