My Friend, My Mentor

A great, gaping hole opened in the universe when Professor Ellen D’Oench died on May 22.

Her obituary describes the breadth and depth of her contributions to the world as a professional and as a volunteer, but it doesn’t capture the essence of the woman.

Despite her modest disclaimers, she was an awe inspiring person. Ellen Gates grew up in privilege on the Eastern Shore of Maryland in a family that had ties to Steuben glass.

Puffin (no one called her Ellen) attended Miss Porter’s School and spent two years at Vassar, but just as she and  her friend Jackie were deciding to go for their junior year in Paris to study art, her childhood friend proposed. Russell (“Derry”) D’Oench and Puffin married and proceeded to have four children.

I met Puffin and Derry when I went to work for him at the Middletown Press. It was the only place where I worked twice. If Derry and his brother, Woody, still owned the paper, I’d still be working there. The paper’s terrific reputation in that era sent reporters to large dailies all over the country. The man I replaced went to the Washington Post, as did the woman who replaced me.

Puffin and I became close after Derry died. Without her, my books would be far less coherent, and I’d probably still be agonizing over the photographs. My first, selfish thought after I hung up from their neighbor, who had called me to tell me about her death was, “Who is going to help me with my next book?” But I’ll miss her for all sorts of reasons beyond the literary and artistic.

I first noticed her modesty at the goodbye party for the D’Oenches after Derry and Woody sold the paper. Puffin and I were chatting outside on a pavilion overlooking a gorgeous lake, and they asked the guests to come inside. I said to Puffin, “You’ll probably have to sit at the head table.” “Oh, God, I hope not,” she replied in her husky voice.

That impression returned in force when I was working on At Home Inside and she mentioned that her friend Ruth Lord had written a memoir about her own father that I might find helpful. I made a note of it and was floored to learn that Ruth Lord was born Ruth du Pont and the title of the memoir was Winterthur. Her father was Henry F. du Pont, scion of the chemical/gunpowder/ family who designed and built the place that now ranks among the most elegant of museums/estates/gardens in the country.

Eventually I also learned through other channels that her friend Jackie at Vassar was Jackie Bouvier. Puffin never mentioned a last name.

Puffin served as a lode star – a model for women. After having four children she returned to college, graduating magna cum laude, and received a Ph.D. from Yale. She then became the curator of the Davison Art Center at Wesleyan University. When I praised her for her effort, she downplayed her academic credentials, pointing out that she didn’t have to have help paying tuition. That fact made her success even more amazing from my standpoint. She could have stayed home and continued to be the corporate wife and busy volunteer, but instead she taught, and sought funding for the DAC, and traveled the world looking for prints for the collection. She also found time to write books and catalogs and monographs.

And she continued to volunteer, serving on the board of the NAACP, and an organization that helped low-income people secure mortgages. She was also the first woman in central Connecticut to serve on  the board of a bank. Her charity extended beyond the organizational to the personal. I found out from other sources that she had quietly helped a mutual acquaintance of ours who ran out of money and couldn’t find work.

And Puffin retained her sharp mind till the very last day of her life. Her daughter asked me several years ago if I thought P. had lost any acuity. I said, “Good Lord, no. Every time I talk to her I feel like I’ve gone through a grad school seminar.” I loved having her launch challenges at me and to say, “You’re not  answering the question,” if I didn’t respond along the lines she thought appropriate. She challenged me at our semi-regular luncheons – sometimes at a restaurant, often at her house. I shall truly miss those visits as I came home inspired to think, to write, to make use of her verve and wit and energy.

Those challenges were indicative of one characteristic that I plan to cultivate. Her directness caused a mutual friend to observe, “She did not suffer fools – at all.” If she happened to be busy when you called, she’d say, “I’ll have to postpone you.” A woman who headed a local charity that Puffin supported said she hadn’t had the pleasure of meeting P. P. replied, “And you won’t, either.”

She could also be incredibly gracious. The Middletown Foundation for the Arts, which Derry helped to found, paid tribute to him after his death, and P. invited me to sit with her and her family. It was there that I learned of her disdain for British royalty. When the band started to play “The Hallelujah Chorus,”  and everyone stood, Puffin refused. “Why should I stand for some dreadful old English king?” she asked. Her dislike for such things was connected to her love and admiration for the Huguenots. It was from her that I learned of the dreadful treatment they received at the hands of the Catholics. A great many of them managed to escape to the United States, among them ancestors of Derry D’Oench and Ruth du Pont.

She adored my husband. She always talked about how handsome Larry was, which embarrassed him no end. And they never did see eye to eye on Arthur, the little dog she adopted from the pound who tended to bark at anything that moved and reportedly bit the president of Wesleyan when he came to visit.

It was only recently that I discovered that she had a real talent for drawing from a series of sketches, some of them rather bawdy, that she compiled of Arthur and her friend and colleague Nina Felshin, who curates the Zilka Gallery at Wesleyan.

I am still angry at Puffin that she never quit smoking even after she overcame a bout of lung cancer several years ago. In the last couple of years, she kept her oxygen going until she needed a cigarette, then off it came. She didn’t bother to turn off the canister, and I always worried that she might blow up herself and her house.

As was typical of her, she orchestrated her own memorial service, which was held Sunday, May 31, at the Wesleyan chapel before more than 300 people. The cover of the program was an illustration by Laurent de Brunhoff of Babar, clad in his green suit and wearing his crown, sitting before an easel on which he is painting an image of himself holding a harp and dressed in a toga with a laurel wreath in place of the crown. He is copying a trompe l’oeil image of himself, just like the ones at the Davison Art Center. Hurrah for three Babars for the price of one! I found it so wonderfully appropriate that one of my favorite people would use one of my favorite characters to illustrate her final tribute. (See “New York, New York“)

The music included selections from Bach and Fauré. Her sons, her brother, and her good friend, Biff Shaw, talked about various aspects of her life, a life filled with joy and also with tragedy when her daughter died at age 12. The readings were the 23rd Psalm, “To Everything There is A Season” from Ecclesiastes. And a song/poem from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, which the family asked me to read. I had never read the play before, and as I was going through it, I thought, “Even after she’s gone, she’s got me doing homework.” And I was wishing she were still here to give me more, though I know she was more than ready to join Derry and her beloved Jennifer. (She actually is still making me work because I had to look up the proper spelling of “oeil” for this entry.)

What I read in Cymbeline was so typically Puffin. The piece is a duet sung by two men who think they are rough country bumpkins who are actually princes. They are singing to someone they believe is a boy but who is actually a girl and their sister. Plus she’s not really dead. So Shakespeare. A perfect goodbye to a beautiful woman.

Fear no more the heat o’ th’ sun

Nor the furious winter’s rages;

Thou thy worldly task hast done,

Home art gone and ta’en thy wages.

Golden lads and girls all must

As chimney-sweepers come to dust.

Fear no more the frown o’ th’ great;

Thou art past the tyrant’s stroke.

Care no more to clothe and eat;

To thee the reed is as the oak.

The scepter, learning, physic, must

All follow this and come to dust.

Fear no more the lightning flash,

Nor th’ all-dreaded thunderstone;

Fear no slander, censure rash;

Thou has finished joy and moan.

All lovers young, all lovers must

Consign to thee and come to dust.

No exorcism harm thee,

Nor no witchcraft charm thee.

Ghost unlaid forbear thee;

Nothing ill come near thee.

Quiet consummation have

And renownèd be thy grave.


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