A week after Estelle Wolfe's death from heart disease on Christmas Eve, her will was found in a mayonnaise jar in her apartment refrigerator.
For those who had known the retired civilian administrative clerk for the Navy, the practice was in keeping with a woman who, in her later years, became increasingly eccentric and reclusive.
When her body was found sprawled on the floor of her second-floor efficiency apartment at Park Terrace on Lanier Place NW, police and friends discovered her apartment was a maze of stacks of yellowed newspapers up to five feet high, some of them dating back to the 1940s. There were piles of papers on top of her couch and dining table. More newspaper stacks were discovered in her bedroom, surrounding and covering her bed.
A tall, pale woman with a fleshy round face, a sharply but elegantly pointed nose and short hair dyed black with streaks of gray, Wolfe was a mystery to her neighbors, friends and former coworkers in the Navy Department. Few, if any, knew her personal history; D.C. police investigators have been unable to locate her next of kin or birthplace, or even to pinpoint her age, which they estimated at about 75.
Yet this woman with an avid interest in current events lived and worked in Washington for more than 30 years.
It is thought that during much of that time, if not all of it, she lived alone. The older Wolfe became, the more isolated and vulnerable she became--a situation that young singles ponder and the elderly dread.
"I could see her health going down just by looking at her--the gauntness in her face," said Rita Baker, one of Wolfe's neighbors. Baker said she saw Wolfe several weeks ago and recalled thinking: "Here's the way it will be with all of us. It's just a matter of getting up in age, growing older."
Other neighbors said that fear helped contribute to her isolation amid the bustle and vitality of her Adams-Morgan community, known for its rich mixture of personalities, cultures and age groups. Wolfe told them she had been mugged several times in the mid-'70s. The experience apparently shattered her desire to venture forth, and neighbors said that for the past two years she rarely left her apartment. She spent most of her time reading newspapers and listening to the radio.
"We always think of isolation in terms of a rural area where there are no roads and scattered homes, but you can be just as isolated in Adams-Morgan or on Connecticut Avenue or Anacostia," said Richard Artis, outgoing executive director of the D.C. Office on Aging.
There are an estimated 105,000 elderly people in Washington, Artis said. "A preponderance of older people are able to live independently," he said. "But it's tragic that there are a significant number of elderly who have not found out--because of personal quirks or just out of a lack of knowing--that there are people who would like to get to know them, people who value their sense of history."
Lawrence Myers, a member and former president of the Kalorama Civic Association, said there are others like Wolfe in Washington. "There are a lot of elderly people in the Adams-Morgan area alone," he said. "People who've been there for many, many years do face the situation of outliving their friends and neighbors whom they've known for many, many years."
The depth of Wolfe's isolation can be measured in the puzzlement of her casual friends and neighbors when they speak of her life.
Her hairstylist, Edward Wilson, whom Wolfe named as executor of her will, said he did not know why she chose him because they were not close friends and she never confided in him.
"One day [several months ago, while he was styling her hair] she said, 'You know I'm going to write my will and I'm going to make you executor. Is that all right with you?' I said sure," Wilson said.
Two of the three beneficiaries listed in her will said they didn't feel close to her at all and were surpised to find their names listed in the document. They also were unaware that she had scribbled their names and telephone numbers on her wall as people to contact in case of emergency.
One of the beneficiaries is Mary Ditoto, a former coworker in the Navy department who said she hadn't seen Wolfe in 2 1/2 years.
"I don't know why I'm in her will," Ditoto said. "We were never really close friends or anything. We were telephone friends, you know. One day out of the clear blue sky she called me. I was surprised as ever. We worked in different offices and we knew each other, that's all.
"Then all of a sudden, she stopped calling," Ditoto said. "I had another friend like her. She passed away seven years ago. We all worked at the same place."
Newspaper clippings show that Wolfe had a fleeting moment of celebrity. Twenty years ago, when she was a Navy administrative supplies clerk, a budget-conscious congressman assailed her for buying unnecessary supplies at exorbitant prices--such things as carbon paper and staple removers. No action was ever pursued, however, and the incident faded into the annals of the war of bluster between Capitol Hill and the federal bureaucracy.
Beyond that, what is known about Wolfe comes from her Adams-Morgan neighbors.
They said she made them stand in the hall outside her door to talk to her, rarely inviting anyone in. When friends brought her supplies she asked for, usually bags of bananas, cheese and apples, she would thank them and tell them to leave the goods outside her door and to then go away. When they left she would open the door quickly and take the things inside.
Wolfe walked slowly, her neighbors said, using a black wooden cane, and talked in a sing-song manner, with a high, wispy voice. Neighbors usually saw her wearing red lipstick and other heavy makeup, and dressed in a black-and-maroon house dress and black leather slippers.
Wilson, her stylist, said Wolfe liked her hair streaked, with color in spots. "It made her look eccentric," Wilson said. "But any woman with gray hair wants color in her hair . . . . The style attracted attention and she liked attention. 'Make my hair sparkle,' she used to say."
"She always kept to herself," said Baker. "But she was very alert. I once asked her if she had any children. She said, 'No, I don't have anyone.' It wasn't in a depressed fashion. Just matter of factly."
Last October, according to Park Terrace resident manager Louise Jones, Wolfe's physical condition apparently worsened. Jones said she noticed Wolfe wasn't looking healthy and offered to take her to a hospital, but said she refused. Jones said that she called D.C. police and asked for help, but Wolfe also refused to go with police who went to her apartment offering to take her to a doctor.
Dr. Alex Hemphill, who said he has kept in contact with Wolfe since moving from Park Terrace in 1975, recalled her telling him that she was from Long Island, but he does not know why she came to Washington. He said he often tried to persuade her to get out of her apartment for a change of pace.
"But she'd skirt the issue," he said. "She talked about what happened to her when she got mugged and how desperate things had gotten locally and nationwide. She was well informed . . . . and was very lucid and generous with her emotions. She'd tell you how she felt about things."
Wolfe seemed to have a reason to brighten up when it came to her smallest friend, Marty Wade, a 12-year-old boy who once lived at Park Terrace with his mother, Mary Wade. Each year, on his birthday, Christmas, Valentine's Day and other holidays, she sent him a card.
"I felt sorry for her because nobody knew her hardly," Marty Wade said. "A lot of people would think she was strange. But she wasn't strange to me. She was just another human being."