Betty Beale, 94, a society writer for four decades whose syndicated column gave readers a close-up, largely sympathetic nibble of Washington's upper crust, died June 7 at the Washington Home hospice. She had bladder cancer.
Ms. Beale was born into a prominent Washington family and wrote for the old Washington Star, once the city's dominant newspaper. From the Truman to the Reagan administrations, she attended an estimated 15,000 parties, chronicling what she called "the manners, customs and personalities of our times." At her peak in the mid-1960s, her column was reprinted in about 90 newspapers.
As a journalist, Ms. Beale was not mischievous like her peer Diana McLellan or investigative like Maxine Cheshire, whom she disliked. She was deeply competitive, and in her hunt for human-interest items, she had a tendency to depart from dull party conversations by saying she had to find a "newsmaker."
She hosted presidents in her home, dined with authors and statesmen and chatted up emperors. She wrote of her "special bond" with Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie -- "the love we shared for Chihuahuas."
She recounted a surreal conversation with surreal painter Salvador Dali, who told her, "I hate telephones unless they are disconnected and in trees, then I like them."
After meeting Emily Post, doyenne of social etiquette, Ms. Beale wrote: "Her sense of humor was such that when I bit into a little sandwich at tea in her house and jelly squirted out on my fingers, I didn't hesitate to lick my fingers in front of her. I wouldn't have to do this, I told her, if I had been given a napkin."
She was present when first lady Jacqueline Kennedy danced the twist with Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara. Later, in a memoir, Ms. Beale wrote of dancing with Lyndon B. Johnson ("he had a good sense of rhythm and did a smooth foxtrot") and cringing through a merengue with Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo, who had summoned her to his yacht ("fortunately, the loathsome experience was short").
One dinner she attended during the Kennedy administration featured 48 Nobel Prize-winners. At other functions, she was at ease with everyone from choreographer George Balanchine to Army Gen. William C. Westmoreland to genius architect R. Buckminster Fuller.After the Star folded in 1981, Ms. Beale wrote periodically but found much of the glamour vanished and the tone of society coverage far more snide than she liked.
"We don't have any big hostesses in Washington now," she said in 1993. "Ambassadors coming to town are not as social minded or as wealthy. Also, women are not concentrating on being hostesses; they would rather be known for making it in the corporate world."
Elizabeth Virginia Beale was born Nov. 6, 1911, in Washington, where her father was a banking executive. An uncle, Louis Brownlow, was a former chairman of the District commissioners, a Democratic presidential adviser and author of "The Anatomy of the Anecdote."
After graduating from the Holton-Arms School and Smith College, Ms. Beale said, she was determined to be financially independent. She took courses in shorthand and typing, went to work with the Junior League and in 1937 was recruited by editor Hope Ridings Miller to write the "Top Hats and Tiaras" society column in The Washington Post.
She left The Post in 1940, citing fatigue and ill health. She later attributed her recovery to a conversion to Christian Science, and in 1945 she was well enough to join the reporting staff of the Star.
Mostly in the early days, her job amounted to asking hostesses for the names of the honored guests who "poured" the coffee and tea at afternoon functions. She also debated the social hierarchy of tea and coffee pourers.
"A perplexed hostess finally called the Protocol Office in the State Department to settle this world-shaking problem," she wrote in her memoir. "Protocol pronounced no difference between the two beverages; I passed this important government ruling on to my readers, thereby settling the question and soothing the coffee pourers' egos."
Tiring of this, she began to insert into the column political commentary overheard at the parties. The managing editor told her the women's page was no forum for such talk, but she later made a successful case to send the society writer -- herself -- to national political conventions.
At the 1952 Democratic convention, she met Adlai E. Stevenson II, the Illinois governor then running for president, and a decade later began a love affair with him that lasted until his death in 1965.
"Looking at Stevenson's picture today, you would never suspect his great appeal," she wrote. "He wasn't handsome; he did not have a physique that draws feminine raves. But he had a marvelous speaking voice, great charm, elegance, kindness, and a delicious wit."
During the Vietnam War period, Ms. Beale received many letters from readers asking how in good conscience Washington's powerful could maintain an elaborate social life. She defended the right of presidents and other powerful men -- they were all men -- to release tension through socializing at night. She wrote back asking what possible advantage would there be if they "went straight home and moped all evening about the world situation."
She also sided with the establishment during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago because she was appalled by the methods of the youthful protesters. Her column criticizing the rioters -- a rare departure from mainstream coverage that blamed the police for the violence -- won an award from the Freedoms Foundation of Valley Forge, Pa.
After the Star ended publication, Ms. Beale worked briefly for the Washington Times. She wrote an autobiography, "Power at Play: A Memoir of Parties, Politicians, and the Presidents in My Bedroom."
Survivors include her husband, George K. Graeber, whom she married in 1969, of Washington; two stepchildren, George B. Graeber of Bethesda and Gretchen Quigley of Medford, N.J.; two grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.