Friday, September 4, 2009

Will the Real Sally Adams Please Stand Up: Perle Mesta and Call Me Madam

(Photo: Perle Mesta on the Cover of Time)

Before Klea, before Tyne, before Ethel… there was Perle.


Perle Mesta! The original “Hostess with the Mostes’”

I knew that Call Me Madam was based on a real story, but I had no idea who inspired Sally Adams. I also had no idea that the lives of Sally Adams and Perle Mesta were so closely aligned.

Perle Mesta (originally Pearl Skirvin) was born in 1889 and, like Sally Adams, was the daughter of a wealthy Oklahoma oilman. She married a millionaire Steel manufacturer George Mesta in 1916, but was widowed in 1925 – the only heir to his fortune.

In 1940, she moved to Washington D.C., became active in the National Woman’s Party, was an early supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment, and switched party affiliations (becoming a Democrat). She also became D.C.’s No. 1 hostess, and quickly discovered a useful and economical secret: her kind of guests like to entertain each other. At Perle Mesta's soirées, Harry Truman played the piano, (then) General Ike Eisenhower sang “Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes” (in a shaky baritone), and Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt whistled in a duet.

A staunch supporter of Truman, she served on the Democrats' finance committee during his 1948 campaign and then acted as co-chairman of his inaugural ball.

(Photo: at Truman's Inauguration.  L-R Bess Truman, Perle Mesta, Harry Truman, Margaret Truman)

In 1949, Truman named her minister to Luxembourg. She was the first to hold the post – diplomatic relations with the country were previously handled by the U.S. ambassador to Belgium – and the third woman appointed to a foreign diplomatic post.

She served until 1953, becoming the first woman to receive Luxembourg's highest honor, the Grand Cross of the Crown of Oak.

(Perle Mesta in Luxemburg. Photo by Demitri Kessel)

A woman Ambassador being such a rarity, when asked how she wished to be referred to… she replied, “Call me Madam Minister.” Irving Berlin shortened this retort to the title of his show.

She also relished her new found moniker of “Hostess with the Mostes’” taken from Berlin’s song from the show “Hostess with the Mostes’ at the Ball”.

After leaving Luxembourg in 1954, Mesta spent much of the next decade traveling the world. She met with the heads of 19 different governments, even touring Soviet Russia. She narrowly escaped death in 1955 after getting caught up in a riot between Communist and anti-Communist factions in Saigon, Vietnam.

Mesta died on March 16, 1975, aged 85. However, her memory lives on in Sally Adams and the hearts and minds of many Luxembourgians where she is still thought of fondly.

For more about Perle check out this mini documentary:

Or you can read about her in Paul Lesch's Book Playing Her Part:Perle Mesta in Luxemburg, which he then made into a documentary entitled Call Her MadamAlso check out this fascinating google time line.

Call Me Madam starts previews Sept 23, opening night is Sept 26, and it runs through Oct 18th at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson St. For tickets click here, or call (415) 255-8207.


Perle Mesta was a colorful figure for over three decades. She could be brash, having once remarked “Any B***h with a million dollars and a nice dress can throw a party in Washington.”

Do you remember reading about her? Or did any of you get a chance to meet her? Share your stories in the comments section and win prizes!


DCS said...

Fascinating story!

I remember seeing Perle Mesta on a rerun of a 1956 What's My Line episode. The show was being temporarily broadcast from Chicago, and apparently Harry Truman was slated to be that night's Mystery Guest. When Truman couldn't make it, his friend Perle Mesta stepped in -- a little woman dressed to the nines.

The moderator and his usual patrician panelists (John Daly, Dorothy Kilgallen, Bennett Cerf and Arlene Francis) treated her like visiting royalty...

Ken Levin said...

I'm glad you got a chance to see the episode! That story was the inspiration for my title for this blog.

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