The Three B’s

by Editorial

Mrs. Robert Woods Bliss, the former Mildred Barnes, and her diplomat husband came to Washington in 1920 after a nomadic life abroad. They bought a run-down, circa 1802, estate in Georgetown, named it Dumbarton Oaks and spent the next two decades renovating the house and, with the help of landscape designer Beatrix Ferrand, laying out the sumptuous gardens. Mrs. Bliss (1880-1969) was an heiress to the Foster’s Castoria fortune, which helped finance their acquisition of medieval, Byzantine, and pre-Columbian art as well as dazzling parties for the cultural set. Ignacy Paderewski entertained on the piano and Igor Stravinsky composed his Dumbarton Suite in their honor. It is interesting to note the couple were step-siblings, having met when her mother married his father. The younger Blisses married 12 years later and shared a lifetime love of travel, art and high-level social life.

Mrs. Robert Low Bacon, née Virginia Murray (1891-1980), was a descendent of the 4th Earl of Dunmore, the last royal governor of Virginia, and may have been the grandest of the three. (Her servants wore livery and she was driven about in an enormous Rolls-Royce.) She and her husband, an influential G.O.P. Congressman from New York, presided at John Marshall House, their 1824 mansion at 1801 F Street NW. A magazine writer described Mrs. Bacon as “tall, aristocratic and the ultimate Republican grande dame.” At her small salons, he said, “each table is assigned a topic of discussion” and apparently expected to stick to it. One of her most popular functions was a buffet luncheon she served daily to government officials during the hectic days of World War II. Highly opinionated and politically connected, she was not without a sense of humor. Alice Roosevelt Longworth and Speaker of the House Nicholas Longworth were amused by her pets’ tricks. When she would ask one of the dogs, “What does the Speaker of the House do?” the pup put both paws on the knee of the nearest woman.

The Three B’s all had long, successful marriages and large fortunes to keep their historic mansions buzzing with glittering soirées. Each bequeathed their home for public use. Dumbarton Oaks was left to Harvard University as a Byzantine Studies center; its museum and garden are open daily. Mrs. Bacon left her residence to the “Diplomatic and Consular Officers, Retired” organization she had founded for use as a club for former diplomats (hence its current name, DACOR-Bacon House). Decatur House, designed by Benjamin Latrobe in 1819 for naval hero Stephen Decatur, went to the National Trust for Historic Preservation as a museum where all of Mrs. Beale’s furnishings are as she left them. If you stand still in the drawing or dining rooms, you might conjure up the distant sound of an orchestra, the soft clink of silverware and crystal on padded linen, and the murmur of voices from a golden past.

Readers wishing to get in touch with Donna Evers can email: columns@vps3.washingtonlife.com.

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