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Eleanor Tydings Ditzen, 102, political family matriarch


Eleanor Davies Tydings Ditzen, a celebrated Washington hostess who was the wife of one U.S. senator from Maryland and the mother of another, and whose presidential friendships ranged from Woodrow Wilson to Bill Clinton, died of multiple organ failure Tuesday at her Connecticut Avenue apartment. She was 102.

"She led a good life right up until the end and was still sharp as a tack. It's a blessing. She wanted to go," said her son, former Sen. Joseph D. Tydings.

Mrs. Ditzen's early years were spent in Washington, at a time when the horse and buggy or streetcar were common conveyances and automobiles an expensive rarity.

"Daddy and I used to ride horseback through [Rock Creek Park], and we rode all the way out to Chevy Chase Club, all the way and never set a hoof on asphalt," she told The Sun in 2000. "Washington was so different! You can't imagine! There was no road for automobiles, all horses and carriages."

She was born Eleanor Davies in Watertown, Wis., to a life of privilege and social standing.

"I've always had everything, health and wealth. I never worried about money," she told The Washington Times in 1997. "My mother's father made a fortune after the Civil War in the lumber business. My father inherited money from an uncle who had a covered wagon factory. We were never without servants and had beautiful homes."

Her father, Joseph M. Davies, was a corporate lawyer and Progressive Democrat with deep political connections. After helping elect Woodrow Wilson, he moved his family to Washington in 1913. Years later, she recalled being bounced on President Woodrow Wilson's knee.

In 1936, President Franklin D. Roosevelt posted her father as ambassador to Moscow. After her parents divorced, her father married Marjorie Merriweather Post, heiress to the Post cereal fortune.

She was a 1921 graduate of Holton-Arms School in Washington and earned a bachelor's degree from Vassar College in 1925. It was the height of the Roaring '20s, and Mrs. Ditzen recalled the era in her 1997 memoir, My Golden Spoon: Memoirs of a Capital Lady.

"Skirts went up, necklines went down, and chaperones went out," Mrs. Ditzen wrote. "At Vassar, it was the same thing. I remember dancing all night at Princeton, into the daylight."

She was married for nine years to Thomas Patton Cheesborough Jr. After their divorce, she married Sen. Millard D. Tydings, a conservative Maryland Democrat considered one of the capital's most eligible bachelors, in 1935.

They lived for years at Oakington, a 550-acre Havre de Grace estate overlooking the Chesapeake Bay that is now an alcohol and drug rehabilitation facility.

Her husband served in the Senate from 1926 until 1950, when his opposition to the witch-hunt tactics of Wisconsin's Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy was a factor in his defeat by Republican John Marshall Butler. In 1956, he won his party's nomination but withdrew because of illness. He died in 1961.

In 1964, she married the Rev. Lowell Russell Ditzen, a Presbyterian minister who died in 1987.

During World War II, Mrs. Ditzen began volunteering at Garfield Memorial Hospital in Washington. In 1943, she formed the Hospital Center Committee with other Senate wives. The committee's work culminated in the building of Washington Hospital Center in 1953.

"Mother was a very political person. She loved politics, the people and enjoyed campaigning," said her son, who was elected to the Senate as a Democrat in 1964 and served one term. "When I ran, we held Teas for Tydings across the state. We copied the idea from the Kennedys."

"She was a grand lady who had a wonderful spirit and was gracious in every respect. Not only was she a political person, she was good at it," Maryland's senior U.S. senator, Democrat Paul S. Sarbanes, said yesterday.

"She was truly a woman of the world. She had a strong bearing and always carried herself with a certain grace," said former Baltimore Mayor Thomas J. D'Alesandro III.

Time had not dimmed Mrs. Ditzen's enjoyment of dancing. Despite a broken hip that had been repaired with three pins, she danced on her 100th birthday at the Chevy Chase Club.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. June 19 at the Washington National Cathedral, 3101 Wisconsin Ave. N.W.

Also surviving are a daughter, Eleanor Tydings Schapiro of Monkton; eight grandchildren; and 14 great-grandchildren.

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