There will always be grandes dames in this capital, and grand old men of this and that, yet the city has been dealt a stroke, indeed, with the death of both Alice Longworth and Virginia Bacon within a matter of days.
Mrs. Bacon was only 88 and had lived here less than half a century, yet she was a Dolley Madison-grade institution.
Country boys would sometimes ask, after they met her, who she was, expecting an answer that she was so-and-so's daughter or wife or mother, but instead the answer usually was:
"Why, ah, Virginia Bacon is, um, Mrs. Bacon."
You might as well ask why the Capitol has a dome as ask who Mrs. Bacon was. Beyond doubts, she was indeed a daughter, a wife, a mother, but that was not quite it.
She was one of those persons about whom many values cluster, so that the person becomes larger than life.
"I hardly went to a concert," a culture vulture phoned me, when the news of Mrs. Bacon's death spread by telephone, "that Virginia Bacon was not there. In her last years she may have dozed, but by God she was there. Not every woman in her position stood for the arts."
She was not, however, airy-fairy or arty. There was a good bit of the plain earth about her, and a greater measure of curiosity than is usual among grandes dames.
Once she was spotted upstairs at the Corcoran Gallery, utterly alone, investigating some avant-garde pictures she cannot possibly have liked (judging by the pictures in her own home). But they were new, and she had heard they bore looking into, so there she was.
In her old age she did not well abide long standing on her feet, and sensibly used a wheelchair.
When the National Gallery opened its preview of the spectacular bronzes sent over by the People's Republic (the likes of which the capital had not seen), she was naturally there.
The gallery was jammed. It was amazing to see, from one end of the room, that the crowd parted, much as the Red Sea did for Israel. Some said a great Washington personage must have had a heart attack.
But in a minute that answer was clear:
Virginia Bacon, in her wheelchair, was passing through. She had acquired several colored posters and these stuck out on both sides of her vehicle like a Scythian war chariot with scythes fixed to the wheels.
Mrs. Bacon was moving them down. With, as usual, a smile like Eleanor Roosevelt's on her face.
She was, however, a Republican, though you could see her casually for years and have little conversations with her without ever learning that.
Once, at Peter Malatesta's house (she loved going places where she figured the action was), she recounted that one of President Nixon's first efforts as president was a little dinner attended both by Mrs. Bacon and Mrs. Longworth. Virginia Bacon made a couple of observations, which were duly reported in the press.
"You naughty man," she cried, the next time she saw the reporter. "You naughty man, you have ruined me."
This was not so much a reproach, however, as one of her favorite exercises, by which she teased men into gallantry.
"Now, Mrs. Bacon," I said, "do you really think damage was done?" And so on. And Mrs. Bacon liked teasing about it, pretending to have been mortally wounded by this grave breach of confidence.
"Well, give me a buzz sometime," she would say, perhaps deliberately echoing Mae West, "and let's talk."
On another occasion she said to a reporter, "Oh, you really did a number on me." But it was hard to believe she thought, or that she thought the reporter would believe, that she had been ridiculed.
As grandes dames go, she had plenty of common sense, and perhaps rarely misunderstood motives or matters of substance.
Her old house on F Street, downtown, was at the last surrounded by lots razed, or lots with vast holes dug for new construction, so that her house stood there like a priestess towering above a bunch of drunks, all leveled.
She rather liked meeting new people. Once she had the entire membership of the Irish Georgian Society to her house, and many of these people had not been there before. She liked having people like her house.
She kept an oak fire going all winter, so that guests entering downstairs sometimes thought the place was afire. The drawing-room paint peeled a bit here and there, but one had the comfortable feeling that a great house need not be prissy-shiny.
"Oh, sometimes I think it runs me instead of my running it," she said. And it did have a lot of stuff in it -- Lowestoft platters and brass ceiling lights with real candles burning, and a Chippendale mirror and a lot of family portraits of which the smallest must have been 6 by 9 feet.
She was a New Yorker, but it struck me her philosophy of parties was southern: polish the mirrors, have plenty of candles (no glaring lights) and don't scrimp on food or drink, and the rest will take care of itself.
It is impossible to think of her in one of those white-walled houses with a few grass mats and one fine porcelain object. She clearly had weighed modern notions of elegance and found them wanting.
So her house was almost as stuffed as Jefferson's was, and with something of the same grand effect.
The only time I was ever in it she stood on an axis, at the greatest possible distance, from a giant portrait of herself as a little girl. The picture hung in the dining room and she stood at the far end of the adjoining drawing room, waiting (and not waiting long) for somebody to observe the striking likeness between the little girl, age 3, in the picture, and the aged majesty receiving her guests.
She said one of her very first memories was of sitting for that portrait. The painter, she said -- and she had exceptional gifts for narration -- had tried to amuse her and to keep her still by suggesting she rest one foot on top of the other. But even at the age of 3, Virginia Bacon did not see much amusement in that.
"The only thing he could have done to amuse me, if that's what he had in mind, would have been for him to stand on his head."
"Did he," I inquired, "by any chance do that?"
"No" she said a bit sadly, "he could not do so much."
She had the idea that it is not always a question of what amuses you at the moment, but that you have obligations to lend your support whether you feel like it or not.
Once, at the final concert here of Maria Callas, Virginia Bacon sat in a box with the wife of the Italian ambassador. As Callas began, Mrs. Bacon closed her eyes and inclined her head, withdrawing apparently to that interior world in which music reigns.
Mrs. Ortonna, her hostess that day, nudged her, possibly thinking she was asleep. But of course she was not, and had merely excluded the clamor and distraction of the hall from her attention.
Once she attended a party at Steve Martindale's home and, as usual, settled herself on the sofa.
To the astonishment of all, President Nixon's secretary, Rose Mary Woods (who had just given her odd explanation of how one of the tapes had an 18-minute gap in it) was seen to kneel in front of Mrs. Bacon with one foot stuck straight back and another to one side, either to demonstrate how the gap occurred (while Miss Woods was reaching for the telephone) or else to attempt a curtsy. Miss Wood was not pleased that some people broke up at this sight, but Mrs. Bacon (who retained a calm, smiling expression) was much amused.
The last time I saw her was last month when she attended a party of Carroll Purves, her old friend. She was in failing health and only stayed a few minutes, but she made her point that by God you go when your friend summons you and never mind how you feel.
Her language, her speech, were polished and she did not ramble. She spoke in sentences.
She avoided vulgarisms and affected stateliness alike, and she took for her model, I always thought, the classic sentence. "The body hit the ball," so that you were not in doubt what she had said.
Any more than you had any doubt what she stood for.
She was as utterly American as a woman can well be, while remaining a woman, with a fine relish for the passing scene and the general nonsense of the world.
Her deepest heart, her sorrows and most intense joys, she did not wear on her sleeve, believing them personal and private. She was a gentlewoman, after all, and had rather a sense of restraint.
Only not so much as to make her awesome. She did like to relay news, sometimes.
Her age, her experience, her long years near seats of power made her an institution of the town.
At 88 she was a bonny lass. A bit of brightness appears to have fallen from the Washington air.