A Night to Remember

Margo Howard attends a star-studded evening in honor of her mother, the beloved advice columnist Ann Landers

Last Saturday, November 20, was a night like nothing I have ever experienced, and surely will never again. There was a dinner in my honor at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. It wasn’t really in my honor, but I was the logical figurehead, since the evening was a celebration of my mother and the portrait of her which I’d donated to the museum. It was an oil portrait by Roger Robles that had hung in her Chicago apartment for many years, and when she died it came to live with me. In the beginning, perhaps because I was mourning, I basically avoided looking at it. I didn’t know if I would ever be able to look at it … or love and admire it as I had for as long as I could remember. But then, after a while, I would go downstairs in the morning, make a detour to the living room and say, “Hi, honey.” Then, after a while, I would go to gaze at the picture and tell her all my news. Eventually I probably went over the line of sanity and began to ask the portrait for favors for sick friends and to look out for people I felt could use a little divine intervention. I had turned her into a Jewish saint … sort of Our Lady of Lourdes, via Chicago.

The dinner was hosted by Martin Sullivan, director of the Portrait Gallery, Patty Stonesifer, head of their Board of Regents, and her husband, Michael Kinsley. Patty had become a friend when she married Mike … a superb journalist, an early editor of mine, and a great mentor/friend. (Patty is one of the most capable, effective, and important women I know. Prior to the Smithsonian, she headed the Gates Foundation.) Because of the friendship – and being from Chicago – I figured the fix was in regarding the portrait, the dinner, and me.

But what a night it was! Sixty-six guests gathered in the long hall of “new arrivals” where Mother had been unveiled and hung. (Well, you know what I mean.) After a lovely long cocktail hour, we all went up one floor to the magnificent Great Hall where Abraham Lincoln held his inaugural ball. It had once been the nation’s Patent Office – although the gorgeous wood, tiles, and mosaics didn’t look like any “office” I had ever seen before.

Before dinner, the curator of a marvelous new show took us all on a tour and talked about some of the works. The exhibition was “Hide/Seek; Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,” a collection by noted artists dealing with stealth homosexuality in art. It is worth a trip if you are anywhere near Washington. Then we had dinner, which was splendid. The guests were a mix of journalists, Washington figures, and my posse from Chicago – old and dear friends of mine who had known my mother. Milling around, I was touched by the memories and affection so many people had for her. It is unusual, to be sure, to entertain the idea that one’s mother is an icon. But that night I really understood it. The National Portrait Gallery is, after all, home to iconic Americans.

You knew, of course, that there would be at least one faux pas if I was anywhere in the vicinity. It came when I was introduced to a lovely man named Jeff Minear. In my very non-European manner I asked what he did. The answer was that he was the Chief of Staff to the Chief Justice. That would be Justice Roberts. As is usual with me, before I could turn on my inner censor, I said, “Listen, can you do something about your boss?”

17 comments so far.

  1. avatar Dan Patterson says:

    I grew up reading Ann Landers and admired her immensely. She shaped my life, often providing a voice of reason and understanding that was otherwise lacking. She was certainly the very best of the advice columnists, and I’m pleased that her daughter has assumed her mantle, for she too is the best of them. Congratulations!

  2. avatar Linda Myers says:

    Beautiful painting Margo, your mother was class. For my 50th birthday a friend of mine who is an visionary artist did a painting as a present after years of refusing any artwork being done without paying her for it, and frankly the size painting she did I could not afford. When I went to pick up the painting, the tears really started flowing and she thought I was upset with the painting she had done, not the case. She had never met my mother, though in the painting was my mother the way she looked in her late twenties and done a few years after she had died. It was hard for awile to even look twice at it, but over time a peace comes with seeing the painting on my wall. They make you want to reach out and touch and knowing you can’t made it diffulcult initially.

  3. avatar Maggie W says:

    Love that gorgeous painting! Your mom was most definitely in a league of her own, and she would be proud to see you carrying the torch so well.

    I really love, love your last quote! Perfect ! Thanks for the grin, Margo.

    I understand your communications with her painting. I sometimes go to the cemetary to talk to Dad. Before I say good-bye to “The Fox”, I take a handkerchief and wipe off my head lights. When I was returning to the university after a holiday at home, that was his final loving gesture before I pulled out of the drive way.

    • avatar Margo Howard says:

      Maggie — what a dear story about the headlights. Many people go to the cemetary and “converse” with a loved one. An older woman I loved in Chicago used to go to where her husband was buried, and she told me she would often yell at the stone, “Harry, how could you leave me to run that damn store?”

  4. avatar Joan Larsen says:

    Margo . . . For years, as I saw 209 E. Lake Shore Drive from my window – right next to the Drake (and one could do no better than that) – I would think of your lovely mother. My own mother’s best friend, Bernice Bartlett, lived up in the clouds of that building close to her, but somehow our paths never crossed. Chicago is my city I have always thought . . . but I deigned to share it with a select few who exemplified the city to me. You know their names as well as I do, but your mother always had that “class” that lifted us high. And for a long time now, her daughter Margo has seemingly so easily carried on her snappy repartee and straight answers, filling a niche as no one else could. Just reading about the nostalgic and wonderful evening touched me as it touched you — for we still can “remember when” as we relish the memories of the past.
    And I think of that song as I write: “These are the moments to remember”. . . for these were moments of the heart. Joan

    • avatar Margo Howard says:

      Joan – I was really touched to read your note. Re 209, her wish was to have her ashes scattered across from her apartment in Lake Michigan – and so we did. No one seems to know if this is even legal or not, but she can forever rest in her beloved neighborhood!

      • avatar Joan Larsen says:

        How perfect and “right” — the Oak Street Beach — and why not??? Margo, I know I am NOT getting older, but once in a while these thoughts of “ashes” cross my mind as this has become a more common practice. I pray that my family – who knows that I consider Antarctica “my other home” from the vast number of times I have had to return to The Ice – will all go down to the bottom of the earth and leave me there for all eternity. It gives me a sense of peace. . . I don’t know how else to say it. Knowing your mother’s view of her beach and her love of her city, I know she felt the same and is smiling right now. I just know it.

  5. avatar Baby Snooks says:

    I have this vision of the Smithsonian turning slowly into a shrine with lines of people waiting in line to ask for intercession by St. Ann of Landers.

    I cannot think, honestly, of a better place for the painting but at the Smithsonian among the other icons who are icons simply by setting an example for others to follow.

    Of course now you have to fly to Washington every time you need a favor instead of just going downstairs!

    By the same token the rest of us won’t be invading your living room.

    • avatar Margo Howard says:

      Baby – Sweet, funny, idea. And you should know I have transferred my “visitations” to some marvelous photographs. My husband went to the Portrait Gallery the afternoon of the dinner, and he said it was quite something to see people just lingering in front of the portrait and remembering how she touched their lives.

      • avatar Baby Snooks says:

        Hers was a face that greeted most if not all of us each day in the newspaper. Like an old friend. Whose advice was often taped to refrigerators or bathroom mirrors or slipped in with notes of displeasure about something. Advice usually heeded. She was indeed an icon.

        Hers is a face that will now greet others at the Smithsonian. There was a serenity about her as well as her advice. A serenity captured by the painting. The serenity was one of the examples she set for us. One which perhaps we need to be reminded of in these troubled times.

  6. avatar Deborah Key says:

    I grew up in “interesting times”. Your mom’s columns helped me know what “normal” was supposed to look like.

  7. avatar Lizzie R. says:

    Your mother’s portrait is exactly where it now belongs,and how nice of you to let it go so others can see it. She was so much a part of everybody’s lives that being able to see it will touch so many. After my son was killed I took a snapshot of him to a small studio in Newport Beach. The oriental artist there clained to be able to reproduce it in oils. When I picked it up I was beyond stunned, as this small picture was reproduced beyond belief. It was very large and looked like my son had sat for the painting. It was so him that it took my breath away. It hangs in the hall to my bedroom where I see him smiling every time I walk by. Years later it is still such a comfort..

    • avatar Margo Howard says:

      Lizzie — how really nice for you. Art and memories often go together. How wonderful that your portrait brings you comfort.

  8. avatar Jon T says:

    What a stunning portrait. That must have been hard to part with it. I would have been having conversations with it too!

  9. avatar Erick says:

    What a wonderful night! I only found this posting today.
    I too adored your mother, I met her at the Art Institute, I think in the late 90′s. I had told her how much she meant to me and my grandmother. One of my  most cherished memories of my childhood is listening to my grandmother read Ann Landers to me. When she became ill I would read the column to her.
    Mrs. Lederer listened to me tell her this story with grace and patience! She also told me I had beautiful blue eyes and winked!
    I’ll treasure it always.
     

  10. avatar Tabatha01 says:

    Margo,
    5 days before this was published, my house caught fire and I did not have a computer for quite sometime.  By the time I got back on-line my old name – TabathaV – would not work again.  But the minute I had a chance I started reading all your columns (backwards) until the last one I could find was one in December.  So I just got to see this today.  I have no idea if you will ever see it as it was published 3 months ago.  But I have to say, until your mothers advice column I never read them.  But the very first time I read one of her columns I knew I would never stop, nor did I.  Thank you so much for sharing her portrait with the world and thank you even more for taking the helm so well and carrying on her wonderful work.  God Bless.