Ina Ginsburg, who escaped Nazi-occupied Europe, became a Washington arts patron and hostess, and parlayed her connections into a job writing about the city’s glamour and power crowd for a magazine run by a friend, the artist Andy Warhol, died Nov. 9 at her home in the District. She was 98.
The cause was complications from an infection, said a son, Mark Ginsburg.
Unlike many in her circle, the Austrian-born Mrs. Ginsburg was averse to self-promotion. Linked socially to the Kennedys, Kissingers and Grahams, she surfaced in high-society news but shied from interviews.
Any news article, she figured, would mention a past that she had largely tried to forget. Raised in a cultured and privileged Jewish family, she fled persecution in Europe and sailed to the United States aboard a refugee ship that was nearly turned back to Europe.
“She never spoke of her life before arrival in Washington — ever,” her son said. “She didn’t want to ever be seen as a refugee. She came here to start a new life, and that was that.”
Mrs. Ginsburg, whose second husband, David Ginsburg, was a prominent lawyer and liberal activist, became a founding member and honorary trustee of what is now the Washington National Opera. She was a trustee emeritus of the American Film Institute and was instrumental in starting the Federal Reserve’s fine arts advisory panel.
“The first time I went [to the Fed] for a reception, I noticed the walls were embarrassingly empty, with no art to speak of, unlike nearly any other central bank of prominence,” she said in an unpublished oral history. “The main reception room had a still life of a dead fish.”
Imagining that an “atmosphere of beauty and art” might positively influence financial decision-makers, she approached a friend, Fed chairman Arthur F. Burns, who agreed to create the fine arts panel in 1975. The organization has since presented more than 150 arts exhibitions, including paintings by Jackson Pollock, photographs by Alfred Eisenstaedt, portraits by Arnold Newman and illustrations by Howard Pyle.
Mrs. Ginsburg’s former home in Georgetown — decorated with Warhol’s silkscreen-on-canvas portrait of her — became a meeting place for visiting movie stars, ambassadors, business tycoons, political leaders, Cabinet members, U.S. Supreme Court justices and socialites.
About a decade later, Mrs. Ginsburg threw a party in Washington for Warhol, the Manhattan-based Pop artist known for his silk-screen images of Campbell’s soup cans and who started a magazine, Interview, that celebrated celebrity.
At the gathering, Warhol’s retinue sized her up in her Dior gown and her knowledge of the city’s social life. She once said that Bob Colacello, the editor of Interview, told her, “ ‘We decided you’re all right, and we want you to join us. We’re going to show you life.’ I said, ‘Great, fine.’ Though having been born in Central Europe, and having lived in Paris, I wasn’t certain it was necessary.”
He tapped Mrs. Ginsburg to write for Interview with a focus on Washington, a city he once called “Hollywood on the Potomac.” For years, including after Warhol’s death in 1987, she contributed stories about members of the political establishment, diplomatic spouses and visiting cultural figures.
She created a stir with her 1983 interview of former defense secretary Robert S. McNamara, who had long avoided discussing his role in prosecuting the Vietnam War. Mrs. Ginsburg flattered and lulled him into revealing that he thought the war was unwinnable as early as mid-1965.
“It was obvious early on that there was no military solution to the problem,” he said before catching himself and refusing to discuss the matter further.
Mrs. Ginsburg was born Ida Spira in Vienna on Oct. 10, 1916. Her father was an officer with a shipping company, and her mother was a dressmaker who started a knitware business that copied the latest French fashions.
Around the time of the German annexation of Austria in 1938, the family converted to Catholicism to improve their chances of receiving travel visas. She said her blond hair and light eyes helped her avoid confrontations with Nazis.
By that time, she had married an Austrian champion fencer twice her age, Kurt Ettinger. They managed to get to Paris, but Ettinger, who was Jewish, was ordered for a time to a concentration camp.
He later was released, she said in her oral history, “but I never saw him again, although we spoke by phone on several occasions when he moved to the United States.” Her immediate family survived the war.
Meanwhile in Paris, she was a film extra, work she detested because of the “casting couch at its worst.” She managed to obtain a French passport and a Spanish transit visa and made her way through Franco’s Spain to Lisbon. In 1940, she bribed her way onto a small Portuguese cargo ship, the Quanza, which was bringing more than 300 war refugees to the West.
Some American citizens were allowed to disembark in New York, but most of the refugees — many of them Jewish — were denied political asylum. The scene was repeated when the ship docked in Veracruz, Mexico.
Mexican authorities did not recognize the refugees’ hastily arranged transit visas. She said someone proposed suing the Mexican government as a means of getting off the boat, even if that meant going to jail. She said she volunteered, and that the French film actress Madeleine LeBeau, who would go on to sing “La Marseillaise” tearfully in the movie “Casablanca,” rushed forward to accompany her.
As Mexican police came for her, she was urged by a friend to reconsider.
“She took me to the side of the ship and pointed to the deck below where there was a man who was completely bandaged — his face, his hands, everything,” Mrs. Ginsburg recalled. “All you could see was his eyes. She said, ‘This is a leper, and he’s cleaning the ship, and you want to go to a Mexican jail? You cannot do that.’ Luckily, I had the guts to say I’d changed my mind. . . . It was probably the best decision I ever made.”
The ship moved on to Norfolk, Va., to restock coal for the return trip to Portugal. Before the ship turned back, however, first lady Eleanor Roosevelt interceded on the refugees’ behalf. The State Department granted them visas to enter the United States.
Mrs. Ginsburg made her way to Chicago, where she found help from a relative of a childhood friend: Abram Nicholas “A.N.” Pritzker, the Chicago lawyer and billionaire who became the patriarch of a business dynasty that included Hyatt hotels.
Pritzker helped her become an American citizen. Under the stage name Christina Esslay, she performed with a Baltimore troupe called the Hilltop Players, often portraying what one reviewer called “slinky and seductive” native women, such as Tondelayo in “White Cargo.”
After the war, when she returned to Vienna to try to reclaim family property, Pritzker recommended she seek out David Ginsburg, an aide to Gen. Lucius D. Clay Sr., who oversaw U.S. forces in Europe after World War II.
The Ginsburgs wed in 1950, and became active in Washington’s social, political and artistic scenes. David Ginsburg was a founder of Americans for Democratic Action, a liberal advocacy group, and was tapped by President Lyndon B. Johnson to serve as executive director of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders after race riots exploded in the late 1960s.
Her marriage to Ginsburg ended in divorce. Survivors include their three children, Jonathan Ginsburg of Fairfax County, Va., Susan Ginsburg of Alexandria and Mark Ginsburg of Berlin; and two grandchildren.
Warhol was a defining influence for Mrs. Ginsburg, who was once described by a fashion writer for the old Washington Star as one of the “best-dressed women” in her set. She told Capitol File magazine that Warhol helped open her mind to the personal expressiveness of outre fashion. She recalled sharing a cab in New York on the way to the nightclub Studio 54.
“We had stopped at a red light and saw two young men crossing the street,” she said. “One had green hair, standing up so strange. And I was about to say, ‘How awful,’ you know, but just then Andy said, ‘Oh, Ina, look. How wonderful. They’re really trying to say something, and that’s beautiful.’ From that, I changed my outlook. In that sense, and in many others, he did a lot for me.”