Essays - Winter 2005

Findings: Another Washington Leak

By Patricia O’Toole | December 1, 2004


A century ago, Washington’s Dupont Circle was a ring of petits palais, the least petite and most palatial of which belonged to Levi Leiter, who had made millions in dry goods and real estate, and his wife, Mary. It was a marble-lined extravaganza that looked like the White House with the wings clipped short. Completed in 1891, 1500 New Hampshire Avenue, N.W., quickly became a center of Washington society.

Six feet tall, Mary Leiter radiated queenliness. She wore ermine, bibbed herself in diamonds, and seemed to believe that a thing of beauty was not only a joy forever but a reason for having another thing just like it. She owned a pair of six carat diamonds and two bracelets thick with pigeon’s-blood rubies. After catching sight of her one evening, Henry Adams reported that poor Mrs. Leiter was “afflicted with an eruption of jewels.” Preferring kings to presidents, Mrs. Leiter insisted on calling the inhabitants of the White House “His Excellency” and “Her Excellency.”

But her joide de vivre was refreshing in a city of cynics.

And Washingtonians lived for Mrs. Leiter’s malapropisms. After a tossy trip across the Atlantic, she pronounced herself thrilled to be back on terra cotta. The most iniquitous quarter of New York registered in her mind as the Gridiron District. Passed along in conversation but rarely recorded, most of Mrs. Leiter’s verbal gems have been lost, so when I found this one recently in the unpublished letters of President Taft’s military aide, Captain Archie Butt, I was, shall we say, glad as a hatter:

In 1910, out riding with Captain Butt, President Taft reported that he had just received a letter from Mrs. Leiter, begging him to prevent the planned construction of a public urinal in her pristine Dupont Circle. Why not put it elsewhere? she asked. Laughing so hard that he nearly fell off his horse, Taft said that Mrs. Leiter, unwitting but ever thoughtful, had even proposed another spot in the neighborhood: P Street.

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