She sits, with rigid spine, clasped hands and crossed ankles, on the edge of the pink divan amid her French tapestries, Dresden china, a rosewood table from St. Croix, an oil portrait. She lifts a soggy cocktail napkin between her thumb and index finger like a tweezered lab specimen, explaining that "silver trays are such a bother." A West Highland terrier scuttles into her drawing room. "Mr. Puddles is a gentleman. My companion," she says.
Georgia Leard, 80, is an Army widow. As the wife of Colonel Emil W. Leard from 1920 to 1964 she bobbed through high-society America like a cherry in a cocktail glass, entertaining the "best people," visiting the "right places." She describes her married years--nearly half a century, during which she and her husband received 11 White House invitations and vacationed in Europe regularly--as a time "when being in the Army meant something."
She takes a visitor on a memory-laden excursion through an era when wars were fought to end all wars and men in green were welcomed home with ticker tape and champagne. Back then, Georgia Leard enjoyed such privileges of rank as servants, chauffeurs, yardmen and carte blanche at Army post clubs, a namecard at the head table and nightcaps at the general's house.
"We led a very social, country-club sort of life. We knew so many people," she muses, primping her newly coiffed brown hair. "I remember dressing for parties at two in the afternoon and returning at four in the morning. And we never stopped dancing.
"It was a charmed life, when we were young."
Georgia Leard has lived in her red-brick house on Western Avenue in Northwest Washington for 34 years. Elegant scenes roll from her memory: "Carcassonne was just a small town outside Paris, a little jewel hanging from the sky, but so lovely! And we ate more than human beings could eat" . . . "The Countess Moltke's wedding in Copenhagen was a pageant. A regiment in blue with capes and plumes, real plumes" . . . "Who was that dancer from the Lido we met on the Champs E'lyse'es who had the little dog with the diamond collar?"
She is wearing a white gauze corsage and pearls, lipstick that matches her vermilion suit, and black patent leather pumps. A gold bracelet jangles on her wrist as she flips the pages of a dusty leather-bound photograph album.
Georgia Leard was born under the silver eagle of a colonel's insignia. Her grandfather, Col. Robert Napoleon de la Fontaine, was the first of a line of Army colonels that included her husband and her only son. In a small sepia print, her grandfather kneels before his horse-drawn carriage in Cheyenne, Wyo., where Georgia was raised. He is leading little Georgia through a military drill. She, wearing petticoat and tights and a wild smile, pulling her long black tresses over her eyes, oblivious to the Colonel's commands. The white chalk caption reads "About Face."
Neither poor nor rich, Georgia Leard was an only child who grew up under the stern and watchful eyes of the Colonel, her mother, two aunts and three uncles. "It was a sheltered life," she recalls. "They would hardly allow me to decide what dress to wear."
From her college years, there are rows of dog-eared photographs of Georgia with suitors on the beach, posing on jet-black Chevrolets, on swinging porch seats, flashing Greta Garbo smiles. "I was the feminine type, considered quite attractive," she says. "I was in love with a boy at school, but usually had about four or five engagements going."
Summers were for soldiers, she reminisces. And soldiers were for waltzing sultry summer nights away in the Fort Warren Army post of home-town Cheyenne. In mock pearls and spit curls, the girl voted "most popular freshman" by the University of Colorado Pi Beta Phis toyed with uniformed beaus who "cut beelines for me in my red taffeta."
Within the corrugated walls of the Fort Warren post 19-year-old Georgia met Capt. Emil Leard. "He was tall and handsome. A southern man with southern ways." They were married after a six-week courtship.
Military life was nomadic; the Leards moved 23 times in 28 years. The poses--happy couple wearing happy smiles--are nearly identical; only the backgrounds change: dunes in Puerto Rico, palm trees in Hawaii, cinder blocks in Georgia.
In 1935, the Major's wife "took time out to have a baby." Pages captioned "Proud Mama" show Georgia Leard cradling a blanket-wrapped bundle on the porch of her first Washington home on Massachusetts Avenue where they lived from 1933 to 1938. Georgia's life was centered on the Army-Navy Country Club and Spring Valley was "the place to be."
"Washington was so much smaller then," says Georgia Leard, recalling the days when social directors invited her to luncheons with Washington's elite. "It was so much easier to be social."
Yellowed clippings, 50-years-faded, from Washington society pages folded between photographs: "Mrs. Emil Leard and son, Bobby, will accompany Major Leard, sailing on The Republic." . . . "I'm going to be a soldier just like Daddy," said Bobby Leard, son of Major E. W. Leard, to Sen. J. C. O'Mahoney." . . . "Leards Mobilized for Christmas." . . . "Leards on Leave."
January, 1941: Pearl Harbor. Georgia Leard holds her son by her side. Their shadows cast against a schoolhouse, they are hiding with 30 other women and children from the Japanese who invaded one month before. At night, Georgia Leard, "the ranking woman," covers the schoolhouse windows with blankets, forbids smoking, and removes the icebox lightbulb. A month later, their provisions running low, Georgia Leard and her son will be evacuated in a convoy of Dutch freighters to San Francisco. The colonel will go to war: to England and Luxembourg and France. Georgia Leard will not see her husband for five years.
"It was lonely, of course," says Georgia Leard. "But we made the best of it and I prayed it wouldn't happen again."
The final pages are filled with photographs of the years following Col. Emil Leard's retirement in 1951. Georgia and her husband had returned to Washington to live in the Western Avenue house. There are pictures of Georgia and the Colonel holding hands on the decks of ocean liners; on picnics in Washington parks; at train stations in Europe.
Col. Emil Leard died of heart failure in a motel in California in 1964. "Traumatic," Georgia Leard says softly, switching off a table lamp. Upstairs, she says, there are photographs of Ike's inaugural ball and Countess Moltke's wedding and visits with the Roosevelts. There are no more photographs in the album.
As the late afternoon sun angles through drawing-room blinds, Georgia Leard is looking at her watch. She will attend a black-tie affair this evening, the third one in two weeks. Tomorrow she will visit a friend for lunch and then return home to greet the ladies of her bridge club.
She is walking across the room with a black box that looks like a school child's clarinet case. Georgia Leard sells Christmas cards. "A hobby" of 29 years, shrugs the woman who played the second lead in "Debutante" a half century ago with a practiced smile and arched brow. "These," she says, indicating a stack of accordion-folded Santa Clauses, "are the Tiffany of Christmas cards."
She flips through the Henri Fayette greeting card sentiment book, stopping to read her favorites. Sentiment 725: A special feeling in the air/ trees that bend with gentle care/ flights of birds that sweep and lie/ on tender curve of earth and sky.
"You have to be handpicked, of course, to sell the cards, and when someone asked me I thought I would never . . . I mean, I hadn't worked a day in my life, you understand; but I turned out to be quite good at it. I've sold around 600,000 cards, I think. One year I won a trip to Montego Bay. Of course, I don't want my friends to say, 'Here comes Georgia with her goddamn Christmas cards.' But I make enough money to allow me to travel. I don't need the money. It's just icing on the cake really."
A spokesman for the Henri Fayette company in Chicago says there are "750 other older women, like Georgia, who sell these elite greeting cards to their friends."
Sometimes Georgia Leard's clients send chauffeurs to pick her up. Sometimes she drives herself. Two weeks ago she was mugged walking to her car. A tall man grabbed her from behind and choked her while ripping her purse off her arm, she says. She screamed. He ran with her wallet, leaving her and her cards on the sidewalk.
Georgia Leard says she gets phone calls all the time--usually from her son, the treasure of her life, who is now 47 and lives in Alexandria with his wife and two children. And from suitors, who have continued to call through the years, some just to talk, some hoping to marry Georgia Leard.
"I have some charming men friends," she confides, "but I have no intention of taking care of someone older than myself."
She keeps busy writing letters. A recent one, to an old suitor from Pennsylvania--"a beau from eons ago" whom she hoped would visit her in Washington--was returned marked "Deceased." It was not the first time that happened, she says.
At the end of a day, Georgia Leard sits in her anteroom by her candy-pink telephone with the musical hold attachment that chimes "Somewhere My Love."
With a party to go to that evening, a luncheon the next day and bridge club the next, Georgia Leard sighs, "Isn't it awful to be alone?"