Gladys P. Bendetsen, 91, a founding member of what is now the Washington Ballet Company and an Embassy Row socialite in the 1950s, died of urosepsis Dec. 5 at Sibley Memorial Hospital. She was a Washington resident.
Mrs. Bendetsen started two ballet companies in her native Central America as a young woman, and she joined with local ballet leaders Mary Day and Lisa Gardiner in the mid-1950s to help develop a full-time ballet company in Washington.
She became artistic director and vice president of the Washington Ballet Guild, the predecessor to the current ballet company and school. She also designed 150 costumes for the ballet's performance of "The Nutcracker" in the late 1950s.
While married to Panamanian diplomat Julio E. Heurtematte, she was named one of the most attractive women in the city in 1951 by the Sulgrave Club. She was still listed in the local social register known as the Green Book and was cited on the 2005 Social List in Washington Life magazine last December.
Born Gladys Ponton de Arce to a wealthy family in San Jose, Costa Rica, her primary love was ballet, an affection that grew stronger when her parents took her to Monte Carlo to see Russian dancer Serge Diaghilev. She was invited to join a ballet class there taught by choreographer Michel Fokine.
"When Diaghilev walked into a rehearsal, he was like a king," she told The Washington Post in 1961. "I was thrilled when Fokine invited me to join his classes, and I would sit, motionless and entranced for hours, watching him rehearse."
She graduated from Sophie Newcomb College, now part of Tulane University, in New Orleans and returned to Costa Rica to open that nation's first ballet school. She was among a group of women in Panama in 1936 who sparked a Diaghilev movement in the arts, opening a ballet school, symphony and dramatic academy.
She married Heurtematte in 1934 and came to Washington in 1945. Her "crystal-clear blond beauty" and "sparkling-eyed" visage enraptured the diplomatic corps, according to contemporary press reports. Her portrait was painted in 1948 by Mrs. M. Robert Guggenheim, and a reception was held for its unveiling.
Years later, she launched an exchange program between the Washington School of Ballet and schools in Costa Rica, Guatemala and Venezuela.
A friend of food-products heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post, she was cited in Post's biography for dancing the pasodoble with the Duke of Windsor and speaking Spanish to him, thereby cheering up the visiting royal.
Her marriage to Heurtematte ended in divorce in 1959. She remarried in 1961, to James M. Johnston, a corporate executive and one of the owners of the Washington Senators baseball team, who died in 1967.
Her last marriage was to Karl R. Bendetsen, a former assistant secretary of the Army, Reagan "kitchen cabinet" member and Champion International executive. He died in 1989.
Survivors include two sons from her first marriage, Julio E. Heurtematte Jr. of Washington and Edgar Heurtematte of Salem, Va.; two grandsons; a great-granddaughter; and a great-great-grandson.