In a neighborhood known for transience more than stability, Sudie Black was a community regular, a welcome sight for nearly three decades at most of the pubs and restaurants -- Timberlake's, Past Times, the Childe Harold and the Cold Duck -- that dotted the way to her small apartment three blocks north of Dupont Circle. She sought companionship and good talk more than food and drink, and she won new friends among strangers, from whom she pried smiles and conversation.
After her death earlier this month from cancer at age 67, Black's friends, many of them as close as family, scattered her ashes around the neighborhood she had come to know and love so well.
They called her the belle of Dupont Circle.
Her 27 years at Dupont Circle spanned the days from when beatniks played bongos in all-night pubs to when sign-carrying hippies marched along Connecticut Avenue to today's workday bustle, where preppies, gays and others move along the avenue's busy midtown strip.
Most of her friends still live in rented rooms and small apartment buildings obscured by the commercial and business activity around Dupont Circle. When they gather now in the places Black used to frequent, they remember the good times, such as when she danced atop a table at Past Times Pub on St. Patrick's Day. Once, when Schwartz's drugstore at Connecticut Avenue and R Street NW had a lunch counter, she donned an apron and worked the counter when the regular help didn't show.
Their memories are of days and ways that used to be. The old Crystal City restaurant at 20th and R streets NW where Black met friends when she first moved to Dupont Circle in 1955 is gone. Schwartz's drugstore, 1700 Connecticut Ave. NW, once offered strangers a proper breakfast with the best hotcakes in town, but it closed four years ago and reopened without its famous lunch counter. Her friends say city folks like Black, eager to help a stranger or a friend, are rare in a society reluctant to get involved for fear of urban violence.
She had dimples that pierced round cheeks and honey blond hair that, on special occasions, she topped with a flashy hat that matched the latest dress that fashion she, a professional dressmaker, had designed for herself.
Black partied with bartenders and unemployed artists along the circle and dined at Georgetown parties of women who knew her by the alterations she did at the Shands and Fleming dress shop on Florida Avenue NW.
Although her strongest ties were local, her friends say she was a woman of the world, having traveled extensively with her five husbands.
"She was a bon vivant, a grand raconteur, a gadfly," said Tom Manos, a regular around Dupont Circle who recalled meeting Black in this part of town more than 25 years ago. "She never changed from the first day I met her to the last."
Most shopkeepers, waiters and bartenders along this strip of Connecticut Avenue knew Black, and so did an assortment of midtown characters, including Manthos, a Greek construction fitter; Rick, a young sculptor; Reds, the bartender at the Morocco Restaurant; and Mary, the lady who outlived three husbands. They are persons, some known only by first name or occupation, with one thing in common: Black's friendship.
"She would go up and down the social spectrum," said Stephen Hitchcock as he drank a beer last week at the Cold Duck Restaurant, 1732 Connecticut Ave. NW, where some of Black's friends had gathered to remember her. Hitchcock, 37, said she befriended him in a restaurant about 11 years ago when he moved to the area. "There was never an exclusionary clause in her friendships," he said. "Once she knew you, she would always ask how you're doing."
Friends say she was generous and showed true concern for them. But sometimes, they say, she showed an air of sophistication that contrasted with her modest roots. "Sudie did have a prissy attitude that turned some people off," said Geraldine Lucas, who met her over hotcakes at Schwartz's in 1971.
Black was born Sudie Marie Wilson on a farm in Lizard Hill, N.C., the elder of two daughters of Alton and Madge Wilson, a barber and a beautician. She moved with her family to the District in 1920, grew up in upper Northwest and attended Central High School, now known as Cardozo. At 19, she got a job as a seamstress at Garfinckel's downtown store but left town on various adventures and with different husbands before settling back into the city at Dupont Circle.
"Marie was different than I was," recalled Black's sister, Madge (Polly) Jones, who lives in Wheaton and has three sons. Sudie's closest surviving relatives, they called her by her middle name. "Marie was adventurous, creative," Jones said. "Me, I just wanted home."
Black never had children. She didn't want them, her sister said, and it seems she filled her life with young people whom she could mother as well as befriend.
"She called us her two bad boys," Hitchcock said, referring to a fond relationship he shared with her and friend David Stang, an attorney. She prodded them with motherly affection to find nice girls and get married.
Although she may have seemed motherly to some, most who knew Black say her spirit and energy concealed her age. Many said that before she died few knew she was older than 55.
"The energy Sudie had and the determination to get something done was amazing to me all the years I knew her," Lucas recalled.
Lucas recalled sharing with Black such experiences as Chinese dinner at the Nanking Restaurant, taking rides in the Maryland countryside and organizing a Christmas Eve party in the small lobby of an apartment building where, after preparing most of the food, Black waltzed and jitterbugged throughout the night.
"I'd get these energetic phone calls on a Friday night when I was on my last leg. You know how people are tired on Friday night," said Lucas, a 38-year-old freelance illustrator.
A day of harvesting strawberries at Butler's pick-your-own farm in Gaithersburg once left her and several other of Black's young friends exhausted. But not Black.
"Come on down for a minute. I want to show you something, hon," Black would say. That same day she would present her friends with the finished product: perfect strawberry pies.
"There wasn't anything Sudie wasn't up to," Hitchcock said.
Warren Seager remembers her as a generous stranger. At 19, he came to Washington in 1945 with a dollar in his pocket, he said. Black, sitting in the old Crystal City restaurant, was the first person he met.
"She paid for my dinner (55 cents) and a beer (10 cents) and she gave me 50 cents for breakfast," he recalled. He now lives in Reston and is a professional fund-raiser, but once was a Dupont Circle regular.
At a memorial service for her three weeks ago at St. Thomas' Parish church, more than 100 other friends remembered her as well.
There were the tenants from the Chateau Thierry apartment building where she once lived and worked as a tough but fair resident manager; a young woman in her twenties who had only recently met Sudie; Herman and Margarite, who worked the counter years ago at Schwartz's; and Bosco and Nancy who once owned Nora Restaurant at R Street and Florida Avenue NW.
Guests nibbled on hors d'oeuvres from Timberlake's and pungently sweet swedish meatballs, Black's favorite, prepared by the Cold Duck.
"Her spirit was moving amongst her friends," recalled Lucas, who joined Black's friends in raising glasses of beer and wine to her memory at the Cold Duck.
"She would've enjoyed it."