It was only fitting, his friends thought, that Jack Skuce died while reading The Washington Post at his breakfast table on Sunday morning. Devouring politics and Washington gossip was his favorite sport. Skuce succumbed to a heart ailment in his most recent home, in Shepherdstown, W.Va., but he was never far from the tumult and politics of Washington, where he knew ambassadors and senators, artists and writers, society matrons--everyone from the old elite to the latest avant-garde renegade artist and youngest new writing talent. Or perhaps it should be said, they knew him.
"The last of the great raconteurs," said artist Bill Dunlap, a longtime friend. Skuce was neither rich nor famous but twice as fascinating as most who were. His serious endeavors in politics and on behalf of the arts and culture were impressive--as a senior associate for the National Endowment for the Arts, he twisted the arms of corporate moguls, he produced festivals and historic commemorations that won international praise, he worked toward electing presidents. But it was his quick wit, voracious memory and zest for life that captivated everyone.
His stories, with their long and looping trajectories, ranged far and wide. He told of sitting on Franklin Roosevelt's lap as a child when the president visited Skuce's father, an ardent New Dealer, forester and conservationist in West Virginia. Of fleeing China--on a specially commandeered military plane, the way he told it--in 1949 during the communist take over, with his mother, diplomat father and faithful Doberman pinscher, Lark. Of introducing an unknown peanut farmer to his influential friends in the arts in San Francisco, then later setting up that same peanut farmer's inaugural prayer breakfast at the Capitol.
"His one-liners were the fabric of our lives," recalled Tina Loughran, who knew him from early childhood as the daughter of Skuce's close friends, Katharine and John Loughran, the former ambassador to Somalia.
Meryle Secrest, biographer of Stephen Sondheim, Frank Lloyd Wright and Leonard Bernstein, remembers his unique turns of phrase. She recalled Skuce describing a trip down a snow-covered hill in which the car slipped and lurched. "Jack said he drove the car down the hill 'on the bias.' "
In a gray world of Washington he was mercifully flamboyant, given to wearing a cape with a red lining or a shocking pink sports jacket, unconcerned at the heads that turned. His friends refer to an "almost Old World grace." The novelist Mary Lee Settle, who was founder of the PEN-Faulkner awards, said Skuce was "my gossip in the best sense. Totally benign. Totally fascinated in life."
The serious side of Skuce was acknowledged by Livingston Biddle, a former chairman of the NEA. "Jack helped me get corporate support for the arts. He was very successful, very able, extremely committed and made many friends for the arts."
And Jim Lehrer, the TV commentator and novelist who owns a home near Shepherdstown, recalls, "I always marveled at how Jack fell in love with the old opera house there and used his money, energy and excited commitment to bring it back so people could enjoy movies in it. There was no money to be gained; in fact, it cost him his shirt, but he was so dedicated to do that."
Skuce had a great affection for Shepherdstown. In 1992 he convinced a Russian TV producer that it was the ideal village for a documentary on American life--with Skuce starring. It was seen by millions of Russians.
Life to Skuce was, of course, more serious than just parties, and he had more than just a talent to amuse. Lasting friendships are not forged on amusement alone and Skuce was therefore friends in the roughest of times.
But no one could overlook the joy of mingling with others, which threaded through Skuce's life. He was born in West Virginia and always said his first memory was of slipping down the steps into the living room of a grand Victorian house in Charleston in 1932, as his parents and friends celebrated the election of FDR. He remembered sampling what they were drinking, something "that had bubbles in it."
With a perfect pause, Skuce would add, "I was 3. And that was my first hangover."
After undergraduate days at Nanking University in China and Goddard College in Vermont, Skuce was smitten with politics. He became director of research and a reporter at the Congressional Quarterly in 1953, then left to study in 1956 at the London School of Economics. He returned to CQ, where he remained until 1968.
Executive editor Tom Schroth recalled, "Jack knew everything about Washington, Congress, and all of the people."
A colleague from those days, David Broder, now of The Washington Post, said, "At CQ, as in every other stage of his life, Jack became the maitre d', the morale officer of the ship and organizer of parties, in addition to all his other work."
There was to have been a party on Sunday, this time for Jack Skuce himself--a surprise party to celebrate his 70th birthday. There will, instead, be a memorial service in Shepherdstown. But afterward, glasses will be raised in a toast to an unforgettable friend.
CAPTION: Jack Skuce, who died Sunday, was known for his quick wit, voracious memory and zest for life.