Long after she had retired, Ethel Starbird lingered in spirit at the National Geographic. From 1961 to 1983, she was a writer and editor with the magazine, traveling the globe as one its few female staff writers.
She wrote articles on Hawaii, Saskatchewan, England's Thames River, the islands of Spain and her beloved New England. Each of them required months and sometimes years of research, travel, writing and polishing.
For a story on coffee in the magazine's March 1981 issue, Starbird worked for more than two years, picking coffee beans in the mountains of Colombia, searching for authentic Turkish coffee in Istanbul and visiting plantations in Brazil and the Ivory Coast. In Japan, she was buried up to her neck in a therapeutic bath of coffee grounds heated to 140 degrees. In Indonesia, a coffee farmer told her of a prized local variety made from beans digested in the belly of a small animal called the luak.
"He refilled my cup," she wrote in her article. " 'I'd like to try it sometime,' I told him more out of politeness than conviction.
" 'You just did.' "
Ethel Allan Starbird, who died June 27 of a stroke at age 87, was admired not just for her writing but for her straight-shooting personality, her love of a good time and her willingness to stand up to cant and nonsense. Her career had taken her from the military to radio to politics, but at the Geographic, she wrote in an unpublished memoir, she found "the most civilized place in Washington to work."
She was so beloved that, for years, the magazine presented an annual award called "the Ethel" to a writer, editor or researcher who best embodied what her colleagues called her spirit of "integrity, good humor and guts."
If the pages of her articles have begun to fade, the impression she made on others has not.
"She was smart, funny, generous, as well as stubborn, opinionated and sometimes mercurial," former colleague Betsy Moize said.
"She was abrasive as all get out and cantankerous," said writer Bart McDowell, "but also a very loyal and feisty person."
"If a woman could be a curmudgeon," said Geographic researcher Judith Brown, "she was a curmudgeon."
Starbird was born in Washington but spent most of her youth in Vermont, graduating in 1938 from the University of Vermont. Her father and her brother were Army generals, and Starbird herself served two years in the Women's Army Corps during World War II.
Her official job, she said, was preparing news releases, but her unofficial duty was writing Dear John letters for other women in her unit, which she called "some of the most creative work I have ever done."
Posted to war zones in the Pacific theater, she wrote in her memoirs, she didn't always observe strict military decorum and sometimes found herself wearing, "all at the same time, a Navy overseas cap, Marine shirt, Seabee dungarees, Air Corps jacket and jungle boots courtesy of the Japanese Imperial Army."
From 1945 to 1951, Starbird worked in radio and advertising in Burlington, Vt., Honolulu, San Francisco and Tokyo before joining Dwight D. Eisenhower's 1952 presidential campaign. By the end of the year, she was assistant to the chairman of the Republican National Committee, in charge of coordinating women's activities. She worked for the U.S. Information Agency and the General Services Administration before signing on with the Geographic as a writer of "legends," or photo captions.
The magazine had its share of traditions and, as Starbird discovered, secrets. Finding an office with a constantly closed door, she decided to investigate, "which is how, after seven years of clandestine operation, I managed to blow the cover on the conspiracy within -- the FBI's 24-hour vigilance from the Geo's garret on the Russian Embassy across the street."
Gregarious and generous, Starbird always followed an open-door policy in her own office, especially as the clock approached 5 p.m.
"She would invite people in for a 'smile,' as she said," McDowell recalled, "which was her Inver House Scotch Whisky and general gossip."
She had scores of friends, whom she invited to her weekend house on the Rappahannock River for an annual "summer camp," complete with printed T-shirts, contests and a schedule for kitchen duty. Dozens of people came to her weekend-long parties that invariably devolved into discordant concerts on the kazoos, tambourines, penny whistles and broomstick bass she kept on hand.
The best party of all, though, came in 1978, for her 60th birthday. After a five-course meal, Starbird led the revelers on a frolic through the ornamental pool in the Geographic's ground-floor Explorers Hall, as perplexed tourists peered through the windows.
That year, her friends pitched in to buy her a full set of drums -- just the thing for someone who marched to no one's drumbeat but her own.