She glides across the pink marble of her living room floor, in silvery high heels and a spangled sarong: Vera Freeman, Miss Vera, the Leopard Lady. An exotic cloud of her trademark perfume, "Black Narcissus," billows around her. It is deepest Calvert County on an early autumn night, but it could be Morocco, Hong Kong, India, Hollywood or Hawaii. Is that ukulele music too?
With the completion of "Vera's Villa," her remodeled waterfront home, another stage is ready for the charming, childlike and somehow timeless Vera. For 35 years, she has graciously wandered among the carved statues and the temple dogs at her other showplace, the nearby restaurant and marina called Vera's White Sands.
Done in lavish Vera-esque style, it has long been an area legend. Washington lawyers, weekend travelers and celebrities as diverse as Robert Mitchum and Arte Johnson have found their way to Vera's to drink mai-tais and mystery punch in her Palm-Palm Room. There, she doesn't exactly run the place, she presides.
"I usually go up and get a glass of champagne and have fun with everyone," says Freeman, who does not reveal her age and wonders why people are always asking. "But I don't sit in the throne chair. That would be too ostentatious."
Now Freeman's "dream home," as she describes it, probably ranks her as the only person in Lusby, Md., with a swimming pool in the living room.
It is an oval pool, glowing aqua, surrounded by white columns. It distracts the eye from Freeman's other treasures: the Shanghai settee, the marble busts depicting the Four Seasons, the mantel with its peacock molding. The dining room is a fantasy in lavender tones. The Safari Room awaits past those steps.
It's not everyone's taste, but so what? Vera has created her own wonderland on the banks of St. Leonard Creek, a deep, glittering waterway surrounded by heavy forest. Amid this natural beauty, sailboats and yachts glide by the Bermuda-pink restaurant, and the white, turreted house takes on the look of a sultan's palace.
And in the middle of it all is Vera -- with George Wood, her "constant companion."
Freeman and Wood are a fun-loving pair: Vera with her platinum waves; George in Hawaiian shirts and white shoes.
"Shall I be dramatic?" she asks as she poses for photographs.
"Oh, please, please, be dramatic," Wood urges.
Wood, 42, is her partner in travel (they prefer the Rotterdam for world cruises, her 1960 Rolls-Royce for their weekly drives into Washington for lunches at Lion d'Or). He is also the entertainer at Vera's White Sands, singing and playing the grand piano near the bar with the thatched roof.
Wood's wing at Vera's Villa features what he laughingly calls "the can from Cannes," an imposing toilet with a porcelain base shaped like a lion. They picked it up on one of their trips. That's how they got many of their pieces. The silver chair with the winged cats came from India, they said. The nude figure with the huge topknot, from Indonesia. Every one of them has a story.
"Oh, I must tell you about this. This is fabulous," said Freeman, pointing out a cabinet with a carved colorful door. "This is from Bali, a temple in Bali, and my friend made me a cabinet for my goblets. We drove all the way into the interior of the valley for that door. Isn't it amazing?
"I don't really think I have a style," she mused. "It's funny when I buy things. I say, 'Now where in the world am I going to put that?' Sometimes, I know, but lots of times I don't. Then I'll go, 'Oh, that's just perfect. How did I ever get along without it?'
"I'm almost to the end," she said. "I don't know where to put anything else, do you? Where will we put it, George?"
"We'll have to rotate," he said with a laugh. In fact, she said, the recent $1 million renovation of her former home was done to make room for her "collection."
Growing up in Wyola, Mont., a speck of a town, young Vera relied on her imagination. She learned early on that she could "do a lot with lace curtains." In Hollywood, as an aspiring actress, she met Effrus "Doc" Freeman, "The Optometrist to the Stars." It was a blind date that led to marriage.
Effrus Freeman was also a businessman, eventually buying 2,500 acres in the Shenandoah Valley and 800 waterfront acres in Calvert County. He died a decade ago.
Vera Freeman says some of their landholdings have been sold, but demurs when asked how she can afford such a lifestyle. She says only that her husband left her "comfortable."
"He made everything possible," she said. "He wanted me to be perfection. He enjoyed watching me do what I wanted to do."
He certainly encouraged the Leopard Lady. In the 1950s, the Freeman yacht was decorated in leopard prints, and Vera regularly appeared in leopard swimsuits and leopard aprons, although, of course, she never cooked.
At the White Sands, the large bar is covered in a leopard print with matching stools. That seemed obvious to Vera. "I don't know what one would use, if not leopard at a bar overlooking the water," she said, "with beaded curtains and all these statues. I just love it."
Many of her employees at the restaurant and marina have been with her for several years, and they speak of her with admiration and warmth.
"She's unique, very intelligent, a very good businesswoman," said Betty Stilt, a law student and waitress whose father worked for Freeman for many years. "She's very optimistic. She does whatever she wants to, and if people don't like it, too bad."
But it's hard to find people who don't like it, or at least aren't fascinated. Last month, Freeman threw open the doors of her home to 200 members of the Calvert County Chamber of Commerce for one of their periodic social meetings. The waiters wore Moroccan costumes, and Freeman, naturally, was the center of attention.
"It was totally unique," said Jane Connell, the chamber's executive director. "It was the largest turnout we have ever had, because Vera is a local celebrity and everybody wanted to visit her home. And she is a delightful hostess."
It is nearing the end of the season at Vera's White Sands and soon, only the marina will remain open. The banana trees will be brought in from the cold, and the plastic leis at each setting will be packed away. No one will sit at the tables with the elephant-trunk legs.
And Freeman and Wood, they will travel again -- to New York, to Florida, to Mexico. Perhaps they will lunch at the Bistro in Hollywood. But in late April, when the yachts come passing through again, the two of them will be back at Vera's Villa, in all their finery.
"Oh, I love my life," Freeman said. "I wouldn't change it at all. It hasn't always been easy, you know, but my dreams have all come true."