Washington Social Diary: The Last of the Georgetown Dames
YOLANDE BETBEZE FOX: THE LAST OF THE GEORGETOWN GRAND DAMES by Carol Joynt
“One of the most interesting people ever to come out of my hometown. And Mobile, Alabama is pretty full of interesting people.” Those words were for Yolande Betbeze Fox, with a link to her obituary, posted on Facebook by Washington lawyer Ann Brown, making it easy for me to add this observation: Yolande was also one of the most interesting people ever to make her home in Washington, and when she died on February 22 she left a sad and notable void, as she was the last of the great Georgetown grand dames
President Barack Obama, when he learned in November that she was in declining health, sent her a personal letter, praising her “resolve” and “courage,” and wanting her to know “you are in our thoughts and prayers.”
Yolande died of lung cancer at Sibley Hospital in a private room where she limited visitors to a very few. She lived in Washington for almost half a century – as well as New York, Paris and Palm Beach. The official obituaries highlighted that she was Miss America of 1951, and that she bought and lived in the N Street house that Jackie Kennedy moved into after JFK’s assassination – both true – but there’s much more.
The famous Georgetown home of Yolande Betbeze Fox, who died last week.
It's been called “the end of an era” with the passing of each of Georgetown’s formidable women of the last several decades – Susan Mary Alsop, Lorraine Cooper, Pamela Harriman, Evangeline Bruce, Katharine Graham – and now, with the passing of Yolande, it feels like the end of the book. There is none left in that league of women with private privilege, public profile and social graces, who were equal to, if not a step above, the capital’s most powerful men.
The special qualities Yolande had can’t be taught or bought. They included a low tolerance for B.S., wrapped in natural elegance, organic beauty, heat-seeking wit and sophisticated reserve, and delivered to the world with a deep Alabama drawl that was money. Of course she was ambitious, but she didn’t wear her ambition as an outer garment. Most of all she was a loyal and supportive friend, and fun. Lot’s of fun.
Yolande with Edit Piaf.
Yolande with Muhammed Ali.
Yolande with Andy Warhol.
Yolande with Henry Kissinger.
She was a big D democrat, too. She loved to talk about politics and politicians and routinely was appalled by the words and actions of any number of standard bearers of the GOP. Cancer may have claimed her, but I doubt she could have survived a possible Donald Trump presidency.
Yolande was a top supporter of Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, and candidate Hillary Clinton, and President Obama, and put whatever she could behind her loyalty. She was landlady to various White House officials over the years, including the fun-loving Carter Administration trio of Pat Cadell, Hamilton Jordan and Jerry Rafshoon, who in the '70s, according to Yolande’s daughter, Dolly Fox, rented her mother’s hidden, charming R Street cottage with pool on the edge of Georgetown. Word of their hell-raising got back to the President.
Yolande with President Carter.
Yolande on different visits with Hillary Clinton at the White House.
“Jimmy Carter came over and caught them all smoking pot,” Dolly recalled. “Before his visit he called up my mother and said, ‘I don’t trust anything those boys are doing and do I have your permission to come over and check,’ and she said, ‘You can do whatever you want, Mr. President.’”
Clinton-era deputy White House chief of staff Harold Ickes and his wife rented another of her homes, a townhouse on Dumbarton Street. Ickes and his family were close friends for years. She invoked his name often, and sought him out for advice. “We always spent Thanksgiving with them,” Dolly said.
Ickes sent a note to Dolly which she shared with NYSD: “What a loss for you in particular, and for the many who loved her and were fortunate to know her ... what a grand life she had. She was one of a kind — beautiful, graceful, sophisticated, compelling, very much of her own mind, and a wonderful friend .... Her death brings her relief from her recent state of being that she hated. But her loss leaves a big hole, particularly for you, which time will only partially fill.”
Daughter and mother, Dolly Fox and Yolande Fox.
Other tenants of the Dumbarton house, at different times, included Carter’s OMB Director, Bert Lance, and Jason Furman, Obama’s chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers. Within the last few years, Dolly, who lives in New York, sold the R Street and Dumbarton houses, and the homes in Paris, Palm Beach and New York. The N Street house will eventually be sold, too.
Yolande with her long-time companion Cherif Guellal.
Yolande was an Alabama native with a Basque pedigree, no doubt the well for her striking, dark beauty. She had a talent for singing opera, became a beauty queen, won the Miss America title, balked at the obligation to model swimsuits on tour, studied in New York at the New School, married the president of Universal Pictures, Matthew Fox, became his widow a decade later, and moved with Dolly to Washington where she bought 3307 N Street, (she said for $75,000), the Georgian mansion that Mrs. Kennedy bought after the assassination and a temporary stay at the nearby home of Averell and Marie Harriman.
Yolande met and fell in love with Cherif Guellal, a handsome and dashing Algerian resistance fighter, and his country’s U.S. ambassador, who became her long-time companion until his death in 2009.
Cherif and Yolande never married but they were devoted to each other, a bonded team, friendly and loving, a glittering social couple (before Sally Quinn became a byline, and force of nature, she was Cherif’s social secretary), but seriously sharing the duties of parenting Dolly, who became a widow very young, and also helped to raise Dolly’s daughter, Paris Campbell, who was an 6 ½ months old when her father, musician John Campbell, died in 1993. Paris also lives in New York.
Yolande with granddaughter Paris Campbell.
Paris and Yolande about a decade years later.
John Campbell and Dolly.
That’s how Yolande and Cherif came into my life. Paris and my son Spencer were in the same playgroup, Intown, in the basement of the Mount Zion Church on 29th Street in Georgetown. It is easy to recall the first morning Yolande and Cherif charged glamorously into the big playroom, carrying trays of food and treats because they had “snack duty” that day. Their charismatic presence diminished the rest of us, a group of harried moms and caregivers, skittering about, picking up toys, wiping noses, happy to see snacks that weren’t Goldfish or popcorn. Yolande had her cook whip up a homemade toddler feast.
Paris Campbell, all grown up.
Out of our many morning drop-offs and pick-ups at Intown, we became friends – Yolande, Cherif, my husband, Howard Joynt, and me. We spent time at the N Street house, chatting in the formal, stylish living room with the grand piano, which held so many framed photos of her with so many famous faces, while the children played; or we’d meet up in New York, especially enjoying Sunday buffet brunches at our hotel, The Carlyle. We’d take the children to Central Park to play. All the time we’d talk, and she would tell me fascinating stories.
Cherif with President Kennedy — a photo that adorned Yolande's grand piano.
For example, the provenance of Intown Playgroup. According to Yolande, and I have no reason to doubt her, when Jackie Kennedy moved from the White House to N Street she brought with her the playgroup she’d started for Caroline in the White House solarium. When Jackie moved to New York, the playgroup was relocated a couple of blocks over to basement of the Mount Zion Church, where it became Intown.
Also, the house. The myth is that Yolande bought it directly from Jackie, but she said she did not. There was another buyer in between, and they may never have moved in or lived there only briefly, and that owner sold it to Yolande. What that meant, according to Yolande, was that she found the house pretty much as Jackie left it, and in fact on the verge of a planned overhaul by decorator Billy Baldwin. The departure for New York was so hasty (Jackie’d had it with Washington) that she left behind the bolts of fabric Baldwin had ordered, and some of Caroline and John’s toys, which Yolande pointed out to me during a tour of the basement.
Yolande's long hair was almost always pulled back in a tight knot.
Yolande took this in her stride, as she did the tour groups that stopped outside (and still do) on buses or on foot. She knew it was a good story – the Kennedy provenance – but it didn’t define her. It was very much Yolande’s house.
Every room was interesting, but the dining room had remarkable wall murals. They were designed for producer Billy Rose, who bequeathed them to Yolande when he died. They are a homage to Fragonard, but the 18th century characters have the faces of Rose’s family and friends (Fanny Brice, Esther Williams, Marlene Deitrich, Marilyn Monroe, Arthur Miller) and non-friends; he had Elvis’ face painted on the body of a dog. There was also a big bust of George Washington, perched at the dining room window, looking out onto giant Magnolias and, across the street, to the mansion of Ben Bradlee and Sally Quinn.
When Yolande wasn’t in New York or Palm Beach she was in Georgetown, and she was in Georgetown a lot, and very visible. She and Cherif loved to take walks with their poodle. She liked to go out to eat, too, and was a regular at local pubs, preferably not too fussy. She wasn’t formal, at least not in Georgetown in the years I knew her. She dressed smartly but casually. She was a former beauty queen who did not like to wear heels. She liked designer deck shoes. She eschewed makeup, because she didn’t need it. Her long hair was tinted a raven hue, pulled back in a tight knot.
Returning to Atlantic City.
Another lovable trait of Yolande’s was her always reciting her “what I’m going to do” list, whether it was to go gray, to sell Palm Beach, Paris and New York, to redecorate, to travel or not to travel. So many ideas and goals. Some happened, some were just conversation. She gave sage advice, too. Her mantra to me, after I became a widow, was “get out of this town as fast as you can. Washington is bad for women. They dry up here.” (Note to Yolande: you were right.)
I recall festive birthday parties for Paris that were hosted by Yolande, Dolly and Cherif – big, boisterous affairs with loads of games and treats for the children. Easter Egg hunts in the big back garden, and the best ever Halloween treats that she personally handed to every child who knocked on the big front door – little paper bags with chocolates, lollipops and homemade popcorn balls.
Yolande with Dolly and Luciano Pavarotti.
Yolande and Cherif wrapped their arms around us after Howard died. We did a lot together. One memorable Labor Day weekend I drove all of us out to our place on the Chesapeake Bay. Yolande, Cherif and I lounged by the pool and gabbed while Paris and Spencer splashed, tried to drown each other, laughed, splashed and repeated the antics. Periodically Cherif would have to pull them apart, with Yolande admonishing: “Paris! Paris! Don’t beat up that boy.” It was, though, a very happy and relaxing time.
That was the weekend Princess Diana died. After the children and Cherif had gone off to their bedrooms, Yolande and I sat in the dark den, before the glow of the television, watching live coverage from Paris and London, and well into the wee hours, barely able to absorb the shock, the sadness, and glad to not be alone.
Yolande didn’t have an emotion that wasn’t deep, and what she cared about she cared about with passion. Family and friends first of all. When Toby and Myra Moffett moved in next door to her, she was delighted, especially because Myra was a fellow southerner. This was after Cherif died and it was good that Toby and Myra were there to pop over and visit with her, check in on her.
Yolande visiting the Sphinx of Giza.
Toby shared this anecdote: “Being her next-door neighbor was a wonderful treat. We have six children and one of them was into a kind of (wild behavior) phase. He did a few things that made a couple of the neighbors somewhat unhappy. We had that terrible feeling we were fast becoming the black sheep of the street, but whenever I saw Yolande, whether in the street or in her lovely home, she was the one who brought up the issue, saying, ‘I don't want the neighbors to get you down. You have a wonderful family.’ Something tells me she may have been thinking back to her own childhood. You just instantly knew she understood and wanted to welcome and comfort you."
Yolande as Alabama's first Miss America, 1951.
Jamie Peva recalled the easy way she dropped names, not to impress but just because these were the people who were or had been in her orbit. “One time I commented on a coffee table that I thought was cool, and she said, ‘hmmm, yes, Jawaharlal Nehru gave me that.” Jamie added, “She was one of the last of the '60s Hollywood/Palm Beach/Washington celebrities. The things she would say were so fascinating but she usually wanted to talk about her family and friends so you felt lucky when you could get the other stuff out of her. For me, trying to get her to talk about miss America was near impossible.”
Making an appearance ...
She didn’t volunteer conversation about Miss America. I brought it up to her, though, in a way she didn’t expect. After we became friends I revealed that in 1969, my first days as a cub reporter at a wire service, I was assigned to work on a national “where are they now” wrap-up of former Miss America winners.
My assignment was to call her. It was my first time interviewing a famous person, and I was nervous, and I shut myself in an office, picked up the receiver, and dialed her number, fighting sweaty-palm syndrome. She was somewhat “dear, that’s way in the past” about the experience, but she put me at ease, talked to me, gave me her time, and I got a story. She laughed at my retelling and was “glad as hell” that the encounter had a happy ending.
Dolly, who gave us access to her family photos, said her mother was adamant there be no funeral or memorial service, though she is considering a gathering of friends at the N Street house to remember the life and times of her mom.
Just as at the beginning, a last word from Facebook, posted by a fellow Miss Alabama and Miss America (’95), Heather Whitestone McCallum: “I miss her terribly. I miss sitting next to her (at the pageants) and hearing her thoughts on the talent/evening gown competitions. She made me laugh. Yolande, you're always a Southern Belle with a firecracker spirit.”