End of an Era

Diana McLellan Queen of the Hill

 The Hill Rag, August 2014

There was champagne and plump strawberries dipped in chocolate, baklava coiled like escargot and topped with crumbled pistachio. The bartenders were busy at the tables set under the trees. The sun shone brilliantly on a polished crowd. Diana McLellan's funeral, held a few days after her death on June 25th, was quite the bash.

Neighborhood friends rubbed shoulders with journalistic glitterati, names you'd know if not the faces: Maureen Dowd, Kevin Chaffee,  Michael Satchell, Chuck Conconi, Annie Groer, Stephanie Mansfield, Mike Mossetig,  Susan Watters, Ann Geracimos, Marguerite Kelly.

Washington's grande dame of gossip, a Brit of fabulous cleverness and style, who lived in wabi sabi splendor on Constitution Avenue for fifty years, was laid to unorthodox rest on a bed of lavender, wrapped in a glorious saffron-colored silk shroud that peeked through the intricately woven wicker basket that served as her coffin for the "green" funeral she had carefully planned in her last days.

Crammed into the tiny chapel at Congressional Cemetery, it was hot. No one cared.  Paper fans were deployed to supplement the ceiling fan's whir.
Her daughter Fiona Newell Weeks, conducted a ceremony both moving and amusing. Grand daughter Tara read a poem she wrote about her beloved Oomi, celebrating her 70th birthday. Son-in-law and wry wit, Joe Weeks, recalled his first Christmas gift, a notepad from Continental Airlines, which deftly summed up her initial sentiments about the marriage. Grandson Sam flubbed the title of her poetry book, Making Hay, solemnly calling it Haymaker. Neighbor, Roy Forey, talked about dinner parties with Diana and her husband Dick that rivaled the Algonquin, where wine flowed, candles dripped, and conversation sparkled.
Then the mourners, or celebrants, whichever, trailed to the grave site behind a funeral director so handsome one suspected she vetted his appearance: Bring on the candidates Fiona darling, one imagines her saying, propped up against downy pillows in a lacy peignoir. 

The casket rested on brass rails, topped with an elegant spray of white flowers, but refused to descend. "She doesn't want to leave us yet," the director said gravely. 

Guests were told they could toss dirt onto the lid -- at which that son-in-law said with a twinkle: "She tossed around enough dirt in her life time."

The guests headed to lunch at Mr. Henry's, her favorite haunt, where Diana's fat-tired Raleigh bike stood in state in the window, the glass patched with photos of Diana and Raquel Welch, Joan Rivers, Ronald Reagan, and Princess Diana. There were snaps of her bandaged head, illustrating a piece about her highly public, rather hair-raising facelift -- a Washingtonian feature.  (You can read the details of her fabulous career in obituaries in the New York Times and the Washington Post - this is about our neighbor).

And there was Diana ... serving a burger at the restaurant in 1974?

"She was writing an article and told me, 'I want to learn about waitressing'" said owner Alvin Ross, a few days later. "I said, come in tomorrow and I'll put you on the floor...that's the only way to write it."

How was she? "Oh she was terrible, just terrible," he said, slapping the table for emphasis. But it made a great story for the Washington Star, her berth for many years before becoming the Post's Ear. You can read it still, on the wall of the  ladies room stall.

"'Miss, am I going to get my orange juice?' 'Didn't I ask for mayo? I thought I asked for mayo.' 'Miss, was that congressman Blah at the next table?' (How should I know? To me he was always Red Tie. He left 50 cents)."

After that, "She tipped very well," said manager, Michael Fry.

Perpetual luncher, long-time acquaintance and political mover Terry Michael, looked up from his computer and remarked, "Today's gossip columnists are hacks. If I want celebrities I'll go to TMZ or People magazine. Diana had a sassy British attitude towards the rich and famous she was covering, funny without being nasty. She gave them what they deserved, without sticking in a knife."

"Yes, savage but sweet so to speak," adds Ann Geracimos. "For that reason, I think of her - and think often of her - as 'the great dissembler,' in a positive sense. She could produce an 'honest lie' - lying by omission, concealing at the same time she was revealing truths."

No matter where Diana's column landed, it was a must read.

Maggie Hall, journalist, and author of the A to Z of Marmite, the definitive work on that indigestible substance, began stealing Diana's stuff in 1980, as a newly arrived correspondent for British tabloid, The Daily Mirror.  

"In the time honored way of a bit of healthy 'lifting' (or plagiarism as the purists would label it) I never had any reservations about using Diana's lively observations on life in DC and beyond," she wrote in an email.  "And that was good enough for my bosses back in London. 'How do you know this?' they would ask. 'Got it from Diana McLellan', I would tell them.  'Great. That's fine then,' was the unfailing response.

Her Facebook page was filled her book bits: the recently reprinted The Girls, Sappho Goes to Hollywood, featuring steamy tales of Garbo and Dietrich (which might yet make it to a theater near you), and the newly published Making Hay (illustrated by New Yorker cartoonist Peter Steiner, of which she was very proud). She made a game of photographing the volumes snuggled against the zucchini and capons at Eastern Market.

And on the counter at Clothes Encounters.  "We just loved Diana," said Linda McMullen, proprietor of our vintage emporium.  Diana loved them too, particularly digging through the bargain basket, about which she'd often remark: "This is a very disappointing $2 bin."

"Nicky, who works in the store, is totally star struck," said McMullen. "It was hard for  her to grasp that Diana was a celebrity too, 'This woman you spoke to every week had her obituary in the New York Times.'"

She wrote about the shop for Washingtonian in 1990.  "She was part of the store, and we miss her, McMullen said. ""She paid as much attention to me and this little store on the Hill as she did to the stars."

Said Maggie Hall, to end it all, "I was in Britain when Diana got the grim news that she was dying. I 'phoned her, my mind and voice wracked with emotion and was promptly told: 'Now Darling Maggie - no blubbering.' Diana's final offering to us was based on that mantra.  She wrote the playbook on how to behave when you - and all those around you - know you're very close to death."

And to that we say, amen.  

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