Obituary: Millicent Fenwick
Saturday 19 September 1992
MILLICENT Fenwick was described posthumously by her chief political rival as 'grand, eloquent, tough and charming'. A political ally remembers her as 'the Katharine Hepburn of politics'. Fenwick, who chose to retain the 'Mrs' and to pronounce her name 'Fen-wick' in the American manner, was a four-term member of the US House of Representatives, and much more besides.
Born in Manhattan in 1910, the daughter of a wealthy financier named Ogden H. Hammond, Millicent Hammond grew up in a 50-room mansion in Bernardsville, New Jersey. When Millicent was five, her mother was drowned when the Lusitania was sunk by a German submarine. Her mother, the former Mary Stevens, was sailing to Paris to establish a hospital for war victims. When President Calvin Coolidge appointed her father US ambassador to Spain, she went with him and, though she never finished high school or obtained a degree, she went on to study philosophy under Bertrand Russell at the New School for Social Research, in New York, and to attend classes at Columbia University. She became fluent in French, Italian and Spanish.
To the distress of her father, Millicent fell in love with a married businessman named Hugh Fenwick, whom she married. The marriage did not last more than a few years and she was left with her two children and her husband's debts. Refusing family money, she began a lifelong habit of frugality. She worked as a fashion model for Harper's Bazaar, a writer and editor at Vogue, and in 1948 compiled Vogue's Book of Etiquette which sold a million copies.
At the age of 59 Fenwick won a seat in the New Jersey legislature, and also served as the state's first director of consumer affairs, and instituted a law requiring funeral homes to provide itemised bills in advance of all funerals.
Five years after her state electoral victory, she beat the future New Jersey Governor Thomas Kean for the Republican Party nomination to the US House of Representatives. She was then elected representative from the Fifth Congressional District, at the age of 64, and it was in that role that she established herself as the most liberal and progressive Republican in the country.
In Congress she fought for passage of laws supporting civil rights, peace in Vietnam, ethical conduct in election campaigns, reductions in the US military budget (specifically, she opposed funding the B-1 bomber and aiding anti-government rebels in Angola), limits on strip mining, gun control, and federal aid to the poor, prisoners and workers affected by asbestos poisoning. She led the fight for a law that created a US commission to monitor the 1975 Helsinki accord on human rights. These were all causes far from the hearts of most of her fellow Republicans - she was one of the few blue-bloods of the party who adhered to the concept of noblesse oblige. Her campaign to mandate toilets for migrant farmworkers won her the sobriquet 'Outhouse Millie'.
A woman of 5ft 10in in height who smoked a pipe after her doctor ordered her off cigarettes, Fenwick was annoyed that the press noted her entry into the Congress by calling her the 'pipe-smoking grandmother'. 'For God's sake,' she exclaimed, 'hard-working grandmother, same number of syllables.'
The greatest measure of her media appeal, however, was that the cartoonist Garry Trudeau rolled all the adjectives - patrician, independent, witty, down-to-earth, pungent, stylish, stately - into Lacey Davenport, a character in his Doonesbury cartoon strip. Most articles noting her passing in this week's US press were accompanied by a frame from Doonesbury.
Fenwick herself was a wry wisecracker. Her greatest one-liner may have been her response when a fellow (male) legislator attacked a law for women's rights by saying: 'I've always thought of women as kissable, cuddly and smelling good,' Fenwick replied: 'That's the way I feel about men too. I only hope you haven't been disappointed as often as I have.'
In the 1970s Fenwick had a heart bypass operation, but, undaunted, in 1982 she ran for the Senate. She refused to accept campaign contributions from pressure groups known as Political Action Committees (PACs) and she lost a tight race to Frank Lautenberg, a millionaire Democrat. But, despite her liberal views, she was a Republican stalwart, and Ronald Reagan appointed her US representative to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, a post she held until her retirement in 1987.
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