At 83, Edith Cummings Munson, former national women's golf champion (1923), first woman on the cover of Time magazine (Aug. 25, 1924), big game hunter in the Yukon, debutante, heiress and dodger of bullets in World War II as a Red Cross volunteer, says things might be getting the teensiest bit dull lately.
"Oftentimes," she confides, "I feel that if I just saw one vulgar person it would be kind of fun."
She giggles, the nooks and crannies of her sun-weathered face crinkling under clear gray eyes. Her hair is a halo of snow, paler than the pearls clipped to her earlobes. On the table of her Georgetown mansion is a vase of freshly cut, yellow Gerber daisies. On her finger, a large square diamond. On her walls, etchings, watercolors and other paintings by Gaugin, Dufy, Sargent, de Chirico and Corot. On the wide-plank hardwood floor, the skin of a zebra she shot in Africa.
Edith Munson, a Washington widow whose adventures might have made a classic Katharine Hepburn movie, has quietly donated $500,000 to the National Trust for Historic Preservation to refurbish the old Decatur House stables, known as The Carriage House, on Layfayette Square. She is giving the money in memory of her Naval commander husband, Curtis Munson. Last night, the National Trust honored her with a star-studded dinner.
Munson has a hard time believing that she should be honored. In fact, she spent much of the evening talking about her late husband, a Naval intelligence officer under FDR, World War II hero and soldier who was absolutely furious when they told him he couldn't go to Korea--at the age of 62.
"They don't take you at that age," says his widow, perfectly serious.
Born Edith Cummings in Chicago, she was the oldest of three children. Her father was a wealthy businessman, who taught his tomboy daughter how to play golf at an early age.
She took up sculpting ("fortunately, I knew how bad I was"), rode horses and left her Lake Forest home at age 14 for Westover, a toney girls boarding school in Connecticut.
"To please father, I went into golf. Quite a few women played then, but not the way they do now. There was no kind of rough and tumble tough stuff. It was thoroughly what I call 'a nice game.' Of course, there were no women professionals in those days."
Golf, she says, "teaches you more about life. I also think it's the most mental, physical game there is. You have to have complete control of your nerves and mind. It isn't any dumbbell's game."
During World War I, she sold liberty bonds and in 1921 went to England to play in the women's championship.
Tall and slim, with warm brown hair, she was one of the prettiest young society women of her day. But the seemingly charmed life had its sorrows. She flips through an old scrapbook, cluttered with dried flowers, dance cards, programs from Vernon and Irene Castle dance exhibitions.
There was one tragic love affair.
"His mother was a proper Bostonian," she says. "They called her the Czarina. Quite protective and jealous. She thought that Chicago people were outside the realm of what she wanted for her son. Can you imagine? And it was a very sad thing because he didn't want to give me up and I finally said, 'Fish or cut bait.' But then he kept coming back, reopening the wound, you see. This is what kept me from meeting anyone else for a long time."
He never married, she says, and eventually "went mental."
So she overcame her sorrows on the links, becoming the U.S. champion. Her golf victories earned her the cover of Time.
A newspaper clipping of the time summed Munson up as "a noted society sportswoman . . . one of the most popular girls in Chicago society since her debut in 1919. She is well-known in Palm Beach, Jamaica, Arizona and European smart resorts. At home, she has been hostess to many well-known people."
She pooh-poohs the socialite label. "I never was completely satisfied with that . I thought it was a nice diversion and a way to meet people, but I never gave myself over to what I call 'vapid society.' I was a little too serious for that."
At the age of 29, she says her life was endangered by tumors on her uterus.
"When I came out of the ether the doctor said, 'No cancer, but no babies.' " They had removed her uterus. "Of course I realize that as a woman it's a very important thing that I missed. But I'm not anybody who sits around moping or regretting. I'm much too progressive in my life to have regrets about anything."
In 1931, she met Curtis Munson at a dinner party given by a friend in Lake Forest . She was 32. He was 39, divorced and the owner of coal mines in the Canadian Rockies. No, she says, it was not love at first sight. "It amused me because I was sitting next to him and he burnt a hole in the lovely tablecloth and just moved a plate over it," she laughs.
Two years later, they married and stayed married for 46 years. "I think the important thing about marriage is that you simply can't live without somebody. Instead of, 'Can you live with him?' "
The phone rings. She leans on her cane, necessary after two hip operations, and walks to the phone. "Well, hello, is that you Bertie? . . . Yes, well how marvelous! When will you arrive? Just a minute there's a horrible plane going over. Listen dear, I have a staff problem because a maid that I thought I could count on . . . We simply do not want anybody new who will have to be told everything . . ."
The conversation ends after two minutes. "Although I shouldn't take any alcohol, I'm going to have a drink," she quips.
When her husband went overseas for World War II, Edith Munson went with him, serving as director of staff welfare for the Red Cross in Europe. "I drove a 1 1/2-ton truck from London to Paris with a mobile kitchen behind it. It took me 13 days," she says, "13 days."
She feels sorry for the women who stayed behind in America. "They had a lot of work to do and none of the glamor. I had a lot of very scary experiences, like those buzzbombs, the jets that the Germans established to synchronize with the landing of Normandy. They aimed them, with no pilot. They were like a witch on a broomstick."
One of them she says, came straight for her and missed the house she was staying in outside of London by five feet.
After the war, she and her husband returned to Washington, where they lived in the rectory of Christ Church at 31st and O streets NW and continued their spirited life. They traveled often to Canada, and one day while skiing up a frozen river near Alberta passed by a beautiful spot 200 feet above the water, dotted with spruce trees. The next day they bought it, 700 acres at $42 an acre, and built a vacation home overlooking the water.
They camped out in 25-degree weather, cooked on a campfire, shot ducks, geese, prairie chickens and Hungarian partridge. "This is the way I love to live in the outdoors," she recalls wistfully.
A year ago, plagued by high blood pressure and her bad hip, she decided to sell the land. "That is why I'm able to give this money in memory of my husband. It was a just a gold mine, that land."
Now she's busy writing a family history, playing bridge with friends, and attending concerts at the Kennedy Center. She divides her time between here and Florida, and is saddened by the recent loss of her three best friends, one of them a suicide. "I don't think you make friends as easily after 65," she says softly.
She isn't exactly enamored with the latter part of the 20th century. "Life used to be so agreeably simple compared to now," she says. "We had water that tasted good instead of chlorine. The fresh, unpolluted air. Television and the planes are a very bothersome thing."
But these things are minor annoyances. Yes, she says, she is lucky to have lived 83 years. Lucky to have had such an interesting life. Maybe even a fascinating one. "I think you make your own life," she says, the autumn sun shining through her window. "You have to be lucky in certain things. But you usually get what you deserve."