Years before "Trading Spaces" and other home-decorating reality shows began captivating TV audiences, Susan Reed McQueen knew exactly how to handle decorating faux pas.
Take, for example, the time when a newly minted U.S. ambassador (or maybe a spouse) decided it would be tres chic to cover the interior walls of a venerable embassy residence with red velvet flocking. McQueen, for 25 years a State Department interior designer for embassies, chanceries, chief of mission residencies and other government properties, said no -- diplomatically, of course.
"She could do that job so nicely," Robert McQueen, her husband, recalled last week, a few days after her death Oct. 24 at age 71 from chronic pulmonary disease and pneumonia. "She could do it without ruffling anybody's feathers."
McQueen, a private investigator and retired Immigration and Naturalization Service officer, knew his wife's design sense and her diplomatic adroitness from experience. Sitting on a comfortable ivory-colored couch in an airy, sun-splashed apartment on the top floor of a Foggy Bottom building, he surveyed the pleasant, understated surroundings.
"She let me think I was choosing the furnishings in here," he said. "That's how she did her work. You didn't know you weren't doing the choosing. She was pretty smooth."
McQueen walked across the plum-colored carpet to retrieve his wife's well-worn passport; she had been to so many countries, 87 in all, that the stamped pages unfolded like a miniature accordion.
"Essentially, she traveled," he said. "Her job was to protect the interests of the U.S. taxpayer from the Firestones, the Goodyears and others of that ilk who had donated sufficient monies to the politicians of their choice and were able to buy ambassadorships to some of the cheerier places of the world."
Occasionally, even Susan McQueen couldn't fade the gaucheness. Her husband recalled the time this nation's new ambassador to France decided to slather paint over a priceless Italian marble fireplace, simply because "Kennedy white" was "in" that season. He ruined it, of course, given marble's porosity.
Susan McQueen, a pilot, sailor and scuba diver, came by her love of travel and her yen for adventure naturally. Born in a suburb of Pittsburgh, she was the daughter of Jonathan Duff Reed, a helmsman on Adm. Richard Byrd's expeditions to the North Pole. Byrd was McQueen's godfather.
According to family lore, the two men became fast friends when Byrd's favorite dog fell off a boat and Reed plunged into the bone-chilling arctic waters to rescue it. The family always speculated he might have done it for the rum that was his reward.
McQueen's mother, Alice Williams, was also a trailblazer. She received her law degree from the University of Michigan in the early 1920s and became a real estate attorney with the New York City Housing Authority, one of the few women in her area of expertise.
"There was never an adventure she wasn't up for," Robert McQueen said of his spirited wife, recalling the times he accompanied her on trips around the world, as well as their sailing adventures from Delaware to the Bahamas after they retired in 1988.
Susan McQueen began her career in New York after graduating from Vassar College in 1954. At first, she designed restaurants and bars, then caught on with the prestigious design studio of Virginia Connors-Mosely.
She took a job with the State Department in 1963, driving her VW Beetle down to Washington on Christmas Eve to begin work for Anita Laird, the State Department's chief interior designer since the late 1940s. In 1971, McQueen herself became chief of the interior design and furnishing branch of Foreign Buildings Operations.
She wasn't always dealing with design disasters. Her primary task, whether working with the ultramodern embassy in Brasilia or the 300-year-old Villa Taverna embassy in Rome, was to make ambassadors and Foreign Service families feel at home and to design and furnish spaces that reflected well on the United States.
"We can't be too avant-garde," she told a New York Times reporter in 1978. "There can be a little bit of flair, but if you flair too much, some people will be uncomfortable. The real challenge is to make it the kind of setting that is not blah but that can be adapted to many different kinds of people and lifestyles."
"She could change the complexion of a room simply by moving a table," her husband said. "She knew what the designer had originally intended."
In a living room where his wife's presence was almost palpable, McQueen got misty-eyed as he recalled their 33 years together.
"Go on ahead, Babe," he recalled telling her during her last hours. "Pick out a good spot."