Lauretta Lauchner Gordon, who re-invented herself as a dressmaker and then took up ballroom dancing to show off her creations, died Feb. 22 of complications of dementia at Roland Park Place, where she lived for the past decade with the love of her life. She was 93.
"She was in her late 60s and she wanted an excuse to continue making her beautiful dresses," said her younger daughter, Ferebe Streett. "So she went to Arthur Murray and very quickly got to the point where she was competing and she would win lots of prizes.
"It was an excuse for her to get out and show off and dance," said Ms. Streett, who added her mother would come out each week in a new dress and dance as her daughter sang with the Last Chance Jazz Band in Columbia.
"She would twirl around and the dress would just open up. They looked more like a floral arrangement than dresses. Everyone loved watching her."
Mrs. Gordon was born to James E. and Ethelyn T. Lauchner on a farm near Monie Creek in Somerset County on Maryland's Eastern Shore, where she and her younger sister Irene helped care for the farm's animals and rode their pony, Lucky Lindy. Both girls attended Washington High School in Princess Anne, where Mrs. Gordon won first prize for her declamation — an excerpt from Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" — when she graduated in 1937.
After the birth of her daughter Ireva, her marriage to Harlon Townsend failed. Though she held clerical jobs at the Pentagon and at Baltimore's Rustless Iron and Steel, she found that she could earn more money as a seamstress and went door to door in Bolton Hill and Guilford, impressing the society women with her expertly sewn dresses, suits and hats. Her label was "Lauretta of Baltimore."
But she also sewed clothing for members of the bohemian culture typified by the crowds that frequented Martick's, a Baltimore speakeasy favored by artists, writers and musicians. And in the 1950s, she earned a full scholarship to the Maryland Institute College of Art, though she'd never had an art lesson in her life.
She married fellow student Tylden Streett and her second daughter was born. But she nearly lost her scholarship when she refused to sign a McCarthy-era document declaring that she was not a Communist. She graduated cum laude with a degree in painting in 1960.
She continued to sew uniforms for area girls' schools and was the head dress designer and pattern maker for The American Golfer. She was skilled at creating dress patterns freehand by simply looking at sketches and went on to teach classes in pattern drafting at the Maryland Institute and the Community College of Baltimore.
Her marriage to Mr. Streett ended in divorce and she married Towson psychiatrist Bernard S. Gordon in 1968. It was after she and Dr. Gordon retired to Blakehurst in Towson that she took up ballroom dancing.
After the death of her husband in 1998, she renewed her friendship with John B. Howell, whom she had first met in the early 1950s at a costume party.
He saw her at a bus stop the next day, carrying a large bag of fabric and heading to see a client, and offered her a lift, said her daughter.
"He always says he regrets that he didn't pursue her then because things would have been a lot different," said Ms. Streett. Mr. Howell, now in his 90s, continues to work part time at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health as an electrical engineer.
In addition to Ms. Streett of Richmond, Calif., and Mr. Howell, Mrs. Gordon is survived by her daughter Ireva T. Metcalf of Gambier, Ohio, stepson Gerald Gordon of Chapel Hill, N.C.; stepdaughter Janice Gordon of Bow, Wash.; two grandchildren; three great-grandchildren and two great-great-grandchildren; a sister, Irene Owens of Lake Helen, Fla.; and a nephew, James E. Gladding of Pocomoke City.
A celebration of her life will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday, March 15, at Roland Park Place, 830 W. 40th St.
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