Monday, May 30, 2011

Donna Lee, Sen. John Tower's Office, 1962

This is an excerpt from Donna Lee who worked as a secretary in the office of Sen. John Tower (R-Texas) in 1962, and Sen. Peter Dominick [R-Colo.] in 1963. Donna begins by recalling how she happened to get her first job on Capitol Hill:

"My dad, Howard Lee, married [film actress] Gene Tierney in Aspen in the summer of 1960. In September of 1961, Gene went to D.C to make a movie called Advise & Consent, and she and my dad asked me to come along. The movie was directed by Otto Preminger, a friend of Gene's from making Laura many years earlier, and starred many outstanding actors - Charles Laughton, Henry Fonda, Walter Pidgeon, and others.

"At that time, I was at loose ends, out of college and undecided what to do next. My dad took me to visit the Senate in session and to have lunch in the Senate dining room with Sen. Kenneth Keating [R-NY]. I was mesmerized. After lunch and back at the hotel, I got teary-eyed telling my dad how exciting I found Washington and how I would love to work there. He suggested that I call Phyllis Laughlin who was my sorority sister and good friend at the University of Texas, Austin and see if she would be interested in moving to Washington with me."

Donna said the rest was "serendipity." When she called she learned that Phyllis had just accepted a job in the office of John Tower that morning. He was the newly-elected [junior] senator from Texas, and was recruiting his staff. Phyllis offered to see if there might be a place for Donna, too. Much to their delight, Phyllis was asked to come in for an interview with Tower's administrative assistant at 10 a.m. the following day. She got the job and was told, like Phyllis, to refresh her typing skills, take speed writing, and report for work after the Christmas holiday.

"So, that's how the adventure began," Donna recalled. "The day after Christmas we were on the road driving to D.C. We found an apartment at 2500 Q St., N.W., the very same one that John Kennedy [Sen. John F. Kennedy, D-Mass.] shared with 'Scoop' Jackson [Sen. Henry M. Jackson, D-Wash.]. Not very imposing for two such famous bachelors.

"Sen. Tower was a good man with a great sense of humor. I should also mention that he was a graduate of the London School of Economics, and had a fine mind. You may have heard rumors of womanizing. All I can say is that I was pretty cute and he never made a pass at me. He was quite short and, at 5'2", I was the only person in the office who was shorter than him in my high heels."

A month later Donna received an introduction to sexual politics when she was invited to an annual party for Supreme Court justices hosted by her stepmother's friend, famed hostess Gwen Cafritz. Coincidentally, the party took place on Feb. 20, 1962, the day that John Glenn orbited the earth.

"I was standing in front of a TV when a very attractive older man (I was in my mid-20s, and he was nearly 20 years older) joined me. He [name withheld] chatted for awhile, asked where I worked, and walked off. As he walked away, I heard someone say, 'It's nice to see you, Congressman.' I didn't think anymore about it at the time.

"On Wednesday of the following week, I answered the phone at work to his voice. He said his name and reminded me where we met and asked me to join him for dinner that night at a restaurant in Georgetown. Fortunately, caution caused me to suggest that I meet him. He agreed because he said that he would be coming from a golf game at the Congressional Country Club.

"At dinner I learned that he was indeed a member of Congress from Tennessee. He went on in later years to become the junior senator to Albert Gore [Sen. Albert Gore, Sr., D-Tenn.]. We were halfway through our steaks when he said to me, 'I'm not being quite fair to you. I met your dad and stepmother at a party at the Petroleum Club in Houston when my wife and I were there on a visit.' I had never mentioned my dad or stepmother to him.

"'Your wife?!' I said. I guess I was just very naive. He explained that she ran his office back home in Tennessee and they had a very open marriage. Fortunately, I had enjoyed most of a delicious steak, so I excused myself and left.

"I was stunned! Nothing like that had ever happened to me before. Of course, I soon learned that my story was not too unusual in D.C. and the rumors about Kennedy put my little story to shame."

Donna shared other events for the Washington Secretaries History Project including participating in a "sit in" at the Nighthawk Restaurant while a senior at the University of Texas, Austin in 1961. Two years later, on August 28, 1963, Donna elbowed her way through the crowd at the Lincoln Memorial to get a glimpse of Reverend Martin Luther King delivering his "I Have A Dream" speech. In an upcoming post, she'll also describe the atmosphere in the Old Senate Office Building on Nov. 22, 1963 when she returned from lunch and was told by a guard that President Kennedy had just been assassinated.