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