OKLAHOMA CITY – Perle Mesta, Washington hostess to presidents and top political figures, died Sunday night at Baptist Medical Center, a hospital spokesman said. She was 83 years old.
Mrs. Mesta entertained along Embassy Row and posh Foxhall Village during the Truman and Eisenhower years.
President Harry S. Truman named her ambassador to Luxembourg, and she used the post to entertain as many as 25,000 American GIs.
A hospital spokesman said cause of death could not be immediately released, nor was it disclosed how long she had been hospitalized.
Funeral services were pending, with burial arrangements being made in Pittsburgh, Pa., where her husband is buried.
She was the queen bee of Washington society for 30 years and became famous worldwide as the prototype of “The Hostess With the Mostest” in the Irving Berlin musical, “Call Me Madame.”
Mrs. Mesta was the daughter of Billy Skirvin, a one-time Michigan farm implement salesman who struck it rich in the oil fields of Texas and Oklahoma.
Brought up in Oklahoma City, the future hostess of presidents attended music school in Chicago, hoping to become an opera star. She gave up the ambition after one concert and married a wealthy Pittsburgh machinery manufacturer, George Mesta. She found Pittsburgh dull, however, and edged into society at Newport, R.I., in the 1920’s.
Upon Mesta’s death in 1925, she became heir to his fortune and then to her father’s after his death following an auto accident.
Mrs. Mesta appeared on the Washington scene in 1941, widowed and childless but with a down-to-earth Oklahoma liking for people and parties. One of those she struck up an early friendship with was a down-to-earth Missouri senator – Harry S. Truman.
She sponsored a coming-out party for his daughter, Margaret, and was one of the few persons who could call Mrs. Truman “Bess” when Truman became President on Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death.
But like any sensible Washington hostess, Mrs. Mesta had friends in both political parties for her entertaining at Uplands, her spacious mansion.
She enjoyed cordial relations with every president except John F. Kennedy and either campaigned or contributed money to the election efforts of Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Johnson and Nixon.
Truman gave her the first paying job in her life – the $17,500-a-year ambassadorship to the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. Her appointment and her tenure in the tiny country provided the background for the Broadway musical starring Ethel Merman.
“I like to mix people, the uppers, the middles and the lowers, the sours and the sweets,” she explained to an interviewer. “If there are too many dull ones, I put some aside for the next occasion.”
Tulsa World, Mar. 18, 1975
Perle Mesta Loved Oklahoma, Was Champion of Underdogs
By MALVINA STEPHENSON
World Washington Bureau
(Editor’s Note: Malvina Stephenson was a longtime personal friend of Mrs. Perle Mesta, who died Sunday in Oklahoma City. In the following story, she tells of how she saw Mrs. Mesta in some of her private moments.)
In an era that creates indelible public images, Perle Skirvin Mesta’s name probably will always be synonymous with “party giver.” The famous Broadway musical, “Call Me Madam, clinched her reputation as the “Hostess with the Mostest.”
But she worried about being considered merely a frivolous socialite who played her life away.
She was self-styled “ham” who had dreamed of a musical career and always lapped up the spotlight, but she had more depth than showmanship.
She was a warm-hearted dynamo who championed many cases and was touched by the plight of the underdog. Her name was identified with numerous organizations – political, civic and charitable, but she also helped many individuals. She had countless private projects.
She charged big fees for her lectures and some critics accused her of commercializing her name by lending her prestige to business enterprises, such as hotel openings. But they should have known that her incentive was to fatten her budget of contributions.
Many of her “good works” were unknown to the public.
Perle Mesta knew enough to write volumes on the private lives of the mighty. Many a famous woman poured out her troubles to Perle, and she gave them moral support and guidance.
I remember well three cases she would discuss when in an occasional mood to reminisce …
1. She had bucked up a noted general’s wife whose hero-husband was talking divorce. She helped stage-manage the preservation of the marriage. She kept the friendship of both. The wife, now a widow, remained one of her closest friends to her dying day.
2. When a powerful New York magazine publisher became infatuated with a younger girl with a famous British name, Perle played a role in saving the marriage. This woman also outlived her husband and visited Perle as long as she was in Washington.
3. The daughter of a former Texas governor got the short end of her father’s will. Perle encouraged her to press her rights in the courts, and the resulting litigation yielded millions to the disinherited daughter who continues to hold forth in a Washington mansion.
But Perle did not confine her solace to women in distress. Age had not dimmed her fascination for handsome, brilliant gentlemen. She had a personal favorite in Harrisburg, Pa., whom she invited to her special events in the year or two before her illness.
In 1972 she broke her hip, which prevented her from going to Oregon to campaign for liberal Republican, Sen. Mark Hatfield.
She worried more about disappointing the Hatfield campaign leaders, than her own plight.
Perle’s parties usually had purpose, one or more.
To understand her complex goals, you must keep in mind that she was a Democrat who also liked Republicans. She was a pioneer for women’s right, and she doted on children although she had none of her own. She favored the Italians because of her husband’s background, but most of all she was loyal to her adopted state.
Nothing irritated her more than Oklahomans who spoke disparagingly of their home state, or even failed to toot its horn. Down-to-earth herself, she deplored pretense in any form.
Only two Congressional wives from Oklahoma were classed as “disloyal” by Mrs. Mesta, and she never forgave them.
She took pride in Oklahomans who distinguished themselves and went out of her way to help those on the way up.
Mrs. Mesta had close family ties. Her sister, Marguerite Tyson, often paired with her until she died about 10 years ago. When Mrs. Mesta became incapacitated, her brother Bill managed her affairs and was constantly at her side.
She tangled with her father in earlier years over family finances, but never spoke disparagingly of him and his portrait had an honored place in her apartment, along with her husband, George Mesta, who died in 1925.
She and her husband began to move at the top level in Washington when he had a dollar-a-year job during World War I. Mesta contributed $100,000 to the campaign of Calvin Coolidge, giving them a White House entrée in the 1920s.
After her husband died, Mrs. Mesta figured in the social news on the arm of Vice President Charles Curtis from Kansas. Her prestige soared as he visited her a week in Newport, and later sponsored her presentation at the court of St. James in 1931.
A stunning photograph of Mrs. Mesta, in her long dress and royal plumed headdress, always was displayed in her living room, along with the autographed portraits of Presidents. Her presentation at the British court, and her entrée at the U.S. White House, represented her biggest social coups.
The story of her friendship with the Trumans and her resulting appointment as minister to Luxembourg is well known. Returning to Washington in 1953, she continued her career as party-giver and guests, at top level of official society.
Gradually, as the years advanced, and Washington life became more difficult, she retrenched her style. From the French chateau she sold to then Vice President Johnson, she moved into a three-bedroom apartment in a Washington hotel.
She always struck a bargain. In the last years, she did not have a car of her own, and maintained her apartment with one live-in maid.
She occasionally referred to having less money than in earlier years, but she still could give a lavish party at a hotel or club, and she spent considerable money on her sister’s children.
The brightest spark she showed during her illness was after the decision was made to return to Oklahoma. The Washington in which she had reigned was rapidly fading. She was glad to spend her last days with her brother and the state she loved.