Lifestyle & Culture

Super Women: Ellen Proxmire, Mother of Many

August 3, 2015

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Ellen Proxmire at home in Northwest Washington. / MyLittleBird photo..

Ellen Proxmire at home in Northwest Washington. / MyLittleBird photo..

Proxmire died August 3, 2015, at age 90. This interview with her appeared in MyLittleBird on May 8, 2014.

ELLEN PROXMIRE WAS a young mother of five in the early 1960s, married to the maverick senator from Wisconsin, William Proxmire. One summer, she and some  friends were meeting  regularly at the pool at the Washington Hilton while  their kids splashed around. Little by little an idea for a business emerged. Mind you, Proxmire was never the “little wifey” standing in the senator’s shadow; she had been a precinct worker in the Wisconsin Democratic Party, had managed two of the workaholic senator’s campaigns, had run his office and, in 1963, had even written a book about life as a Senate spouse, “One Foot in Washington: The Perilous Life of a Senator’s Wife.”

Bill Proxmire hadn’t yet become a press corps favorite with his Golden Fleece awards, “bestowed” on government programs he thought wasted taxpayer money. But, well, he didn’t waste money at home either, so a small business might mean some non-earmarked cash around the house.

This business idea had less to do with who Ellen Proxmire was married to and more to do with the amount of organizing and detail work she had done over the years, the highlight of which, at that point, was co-chairing the Inaugural balls of President John F. Kennedy in 1961. (That involved coping with a blizzard on Inauguration Day and helping to address, by hand, some 40,000 invitations, but that’s another story.)

So, with their husbands telling them to “Have fun, stay out of trouble and don’t make any money,” Ellen and friends Gretchen Poston, who would become social secretary in the Jimmy Carter White House, and Barbara Boggs, wife of the powerful lobbyist Tommy Boggs, launched Wonderful Weddings. That company planned exactly the kind of event you would expect, then broadened to become Washington Whirl-Around and, in 1967, morphed into WashingtonInc, which became a premier tour and meeting-planning firm, organizing dinners and local tours and “spouse programs” for convention-goers meeting in the nation’s capital.

In fact, it can be argued that Proxmire et al. helped to create the meeting-planning industry. Consider: When Meeting Professionals International was founded, it had 159 charter members; today it has 20,000–and MPI was founded in 1972, five years after WashingtonInc was already in business.

“We had no idea what we were getting into,” Proxmire, now in her 80s, says, chuckling. “Anytime anyone asked if we could do something, Gretchen would say, Oh, we can do that! And we would figure out later how to do it.” Proxmire smiles at the memory of her old friend, lost to cancer in 1992. “I was aghast at some of the things she said we could do!”

What they did, over the years, included a dinner for Polish leader Lech Walesa when he visited the United States in 1989; a celebration for the 20th anniversary of National Public Radio, and the commemoration, with simulcast at the Mayflower Hotel, of the 1997 handover of Hong Kong by the British to the Mainland Chinese. Not to mention dozens of medical conferences and association meetings. Plus one customized visit to the capital for a woman who demanded the best of everything–hotel suite, car and driver, top restaurants, etc.–just to spite her husband and his spending.

There was some early squawking about how their husbands’ positions gave the women an advantage in capturing business, but Proxmire shakes her head and puts it this way: “Anyone can book a tour of the State Department’s Diplomatic Reception Rooms; the difference was, we knew Washington, and we knew about [the rooms]” where other tour companies might not.

Many things changed during the time WashingtonInc was growing to a multimillion-dollar-a-year business. The partners, who by then included the dynamic Harriet Schwartz, sold their firm in the 1990s to a large tradeshow-installation company (since defunct). And Washington itself changed.

The common wisdom about the current rancor in Congress is that it derives not only from newcomers with fixed ideological positions but with newcomers who have essentially run against government. It stands to reason that those members of Congress do not move to the capital with their families, not wanting to give the impression of becoming inside-the-Beltway types. But that also means, Ellen points out, that their children don’t go to school with the kids of other officials, the officials  don’t spend weekends in town, so school functions and neighborhood parties don’t lubricate relationships across the Congressional aisle the way they used to. “They just don’t know one another” outside the Capitol, she says.

The senator brought two children into his marriage to Ellen, a boy and a girl; she already had two girls; and together they had “the baby,” Douglas, now in his early 50s.

These days Ellen performs her motherly duties from a sunny condo high above leafy Northwest Washington where she has lived since downsizing and the senator’s death in 2005. The curtains and a lot of the furniture came from the old house–but isn’t it nice that stepson Teddy is married to interior designer Kelley Proxmire, whose crisp touch can be discerned?

Ellen’s interests these days focus on Alzheimer’s disease, which robbed the late senator of his last years, and raising funds for Copper Ridge, the Sykesville, Maryland, institution pre-eminent in the Alzheimer’s field. And once a year she takes a month-long break from working on a book about WashingtonInc and decamps to the Eastern Shore, where she rents a farm for a month-long house party with a changing cast of friends and family, including some of the young women she has mentored in the meeting-planning business.

This mother of five has become the mother of many.

–Nancy McKeon
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