“Care to Dance, Mrs. Roosevelt?”

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This isn’t a post about beer.

Recently, I’ve spent a good deal of time going through our apartment like a whirlwind. All in the name of “a fresh start,” no stack of dust-covered paperwork or disorganized box of mementos has been safe from the my iron-fisted regime of organization and army of trash bags.

The benefits have been twofold. First, our apartment is cleaner than it has ever been, and the constant claustrophobic sensation of drowning in, well, junk has been kicked to the curb. Second, and most importantly, I’ve had a chance to walk down memory lane as I uncovered forgotten keepsakes. A note from a best friend asking me to be her bridesmaid. A wayward CD of digital photos from our honeymoon. A ticket stub from a Washington Nationals game in 2008.

But the most profound item I came across was a piece of paper I had I never forgotten, but rather I thought I had lost it as a result of my trademark absentminded behavior.


Me and my Aunt Dee, the Watergate Apartments (1986)

I’ve written about the amazing women from my mother’s side of the family who dominated the greater part of my childhood before. But in a bittersweet twist, my parents had me when they were older, so much of the previous generation passed away before I was old enough to realize the significance of their absence. It’s only in recent years have I felt somewhat adrift when trying to connect the dots between myself and those who came before me. That’s the tricky thing about looking backward using the review mirror of your childhood. When you’re young, you only know someone through your own myopic, mortality-oblivious perspective. And sadly it’s often too late when you learn about things that you wish you had known sooner. Sometimes for better, sometimes for worse.

In the case of my Great Aunt “Dee” – Dolores – it was for the better, in the form of a 1989 article from The Washington Times, the contents of which you’ll find below.

“Care to Dance, Mrs. Roosevelt?”
Jeremiah O’Leary | Monday, June 19, 1989

I’ve grown accustomed to circling in the orbit of American presidents for more than half a century, but rarely has it been on a social basis. The reason is obvious: A newspaperman exists to gather news and ferret out secrets. Presidents like to make news on their own terms and keep their secrets to themselves. This comes to mind now because early this month, on the day before I left the White House pressroom after a 10-year stretch, President and Mr. George Bush invited me and my wife to a state dinner for Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

I wore a tuxedo and was suave – I’ve studied David Niven films for years. My tablemates were Julie Nixon Eisenhower and Vice President Dan Quayle; my wife basked in the wisdom of Surgeon General C. Everett Koop. And it was in that exalted company that I fell to musing about the first engraved invitation I ever received from the White House.

It was June 1940, when the hosts were President and Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt and things were quite different – for me and the country. 

So why did the Roosevelts want me at a state dinner? The invitation was solely because I was the newest member of the White House Correspondents Association. I knew precisely what I would wear that long-ago June night. I had only one presentable suit, a blue-serge number better suited to Finland than to the Washington summer. It itched so much, I wore pajama bottoms under the trousers. 

My chief concern was to find just the right woman to take. Most of the girls I knew well were only teenagers. But on that magic night I wanted a perfect grown up female, someone as gorgeous as Norma Shearer or Dolores del Rio. And in my world of a half-century ago, the most beautiful and mature girl I could think of was four years older – an age difference that seemed wider than the ocean. 

I invited her anyway. 

Her name was Dolores Perruso, and her father and mother had a neighborhood bar and restaurant at North Capitol and H streets. Dolores’ parents were Italian immigrants, and she had three tough brothers named Vito [my grandfather], Tony and Jimmy. Until Prohibition put my grandfather out of business, he owned a bar across the street in the heart of this mostly Irish section of town, known then as Swamppoodle. 

Dolores, to me, was as sophisticated as she was beautiful. Her eyes and hair were dark, and she was poised, shapely and well-groomed. 

I barely knew her and telephoned her in fear. But she said yes.

On the big night of that 1940 White House dinner, my blue-serge suit and I showed up at the Perrusos’, undergoing a policelike inspection by her father, her mother, and, of course, Vito, Tony and Jimmy. I sat in her parlor with a corsage box in my lap and made silly small talk. Finally, Dolores appeared – gleaming, with a substance called stardust in her hair. 

When we arrived at the White House, there were about 150 other people there. The president made one perfunctory circuit of the room in his wheelchair and greeted everyone before disappearing for the night. But the president’s wife, Eleanor, hardly a beauty but elegant and hospitable, danced the night away to the kind of prewar music made famous by Goodman, Waller, Kempt, Krupa and the Dorseys. 

Believe me, you have not lived until you have done the Big Apple with Eleanor Roosevelt. 

As I recall, Dolores was easily the most beautiful woman in the room. What we talked about I can no longer say because I was dazed with the grandeur of it all, but eventually I stopped feeling like Ichabod Crane. The ushers blinked the lights and the band played “Good Night, Ladies” at 1 a.m. after one wretch of a journalist fell into the fishpond, where the White House diplomatic entrance is located today. 

I have seen Dolores Perruso only once in the 49 years since, a brief encounter in the corridors of the State Department. I do not know what has become of her. 

But Dolores, you might like to know that the Stardust from your hair kept clinging to my blue-serge suit, which amused all the cops and robbers at Police Headquarters. I don’t think that stuff ever came off. 

Dolores and Mrs. Roosevelt: Thanks for the memories.

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