Evie Symingon’s Last Radiant Beads Slipped Away On a Beautiful Day Before Christmas
A beloved supper club singer, she had given up a glamorous career to become a beloved wife and mother.
The thread of life is filling with the hours
Each one a slipping, multicolored bead.
Who knows what lies beyond the clasping,
Or where the slender, shining thread will lead?
We only know we strive to make them perfect,
Each symmetric, full and gay,
Well knowing that beyond the radiant center
The other half will dwindle fast away.
— Evelyn Wadsworth Symington
The Washington Star, February 1972: On the day before Christmas, while she was attending the Redskins-Green Bay Packers playoff game with good friends, Evie Symington’s shining thread of life received its last few gay beads. Minutes after she returned home to the Wadsworth house on N Street, she was stricken with an aneurysm of the aorta from which she died less than an hour later at Georgetown University Hospital. The life she looked ahead to, in a poem she wrote 51 years ago when she was 18, was over.
That was the way she had wanted it to end. Driving to RFK Stadium that day with her husband, Sen. Stuart Symington, D-Mo. and Sen. Howard Cannon, D-Nev. and his wife, Dorothy, she commented sympathetically on the plight of former President Harry Truman who, at that moment, was dying slowly in a Missouri hospital. “You know, Dorothy,” she said. “When my time comes, I want to go fast. I have no desire to linger on.”
Mrs. Cannon does not believe that Evie Symington had a premonition of imminent death. She and her husband later assured Sen. Symington they’d noticed no signs of illness or discomfort in his wife. “We were all feeling so fresh and nice and happy that day,” said Mrs. Cannon. “It truly was one of the most delightful days I’ve ever spent.”
Essentially, Evie Symington was classifiable as a “homemaker,” or any of the other euphemisms used to describe the woman who stays home and tends her family. Hers was a family of notable men: she was the granddaughter of a Secretary of State, the daughter of a Senator and a Representative, the wife of a Senator and the mother of a Congressman.
Many women, particularly of Evie’s generation, assume their role as keeper of the hearth by default. They take for granted that they have no other destiny. Mrs. Symington had to make a choice.
A rising star as a supper club singer in New York’s best hotels in the mid-1930s, she was earning $1,700 a week, was deluged with Hollywood offers, and had passed a Paramount screen test. She was planning to go to California to make a movie in 1938, when her husband, then a drivingly successful New York businessman, received an offer to become president of, and rejuvenate, the Emerson Electric Manufacturing Co. in St. Louis, Mo.
Soon after these developments, Stuart Symington received a call from Evie’s agent, Sonny Werblin (later owner of the New York Jets) who wanted to know, “What’s going on? She’s cancelled everything.”
That evening, Evie told her husband, “I’m either going to be a singer or I’m going to be a wife and mother. I’ve decided to be a wife and mother.”
A young woman who later became known as “the incomparable Hildegarde” took over the singing contract. If Evie ever had any regrets about giving up fame and fortune, she never told anyone. Her husband, her sons, her friends never heard her mention her career again.
Younger son, Jimmy (Rep. James Wadsworth Symington, D-Mo.) says, “I don’t know what women’s lib would have to say about it, all I know is she did what her heart prompted her to do. Dad’s needs for her had always been tremendous — as a listener, a helper, a counselor and a refuge.”
Jimmy adds that Evie knew what kind of a man she had married. He had entered the Army in World War I as a private at 17 and come out as a second lieutenant. He’d already made a considerable fortune when he took over the Emerson Co. In 1945, President Truman offered him the chairmanship of the Surplus Property Board. Over the years Stuart Symington rose from one prestigious position to another. He served successively as Assistant Secretary of War for Air, Secretary of the Air Force, chairman of the National Securities Board, and administrator of the Reconstruction Finance Company.
He was first elected to the Senate in 1952 and was a serious contender for the Presidency in 1956 and 1960.
“In a way, Washington was Evie’s town,” said Sen. Symington the other day, recalling how he had met her at a dance in 1920 at what is now the Sheraton-Park Hotel. In 1915, when she was 12, Evie’s father, James W. Wadsworth, was elected Republican Senator from New York. The family moved to the Hay house, across Lafayette Park from the White House where the Hay-Adams Hotel now stands.
The house was built by Evie’s grandfather, John Hay, who served in turn as special assistant to President Abraham Lincoln, Ambassador to England and Secretary of State under Presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt.
President and Mrs. Calvin Coolidge were among the guests when Evie married Stuart Symington on March 1, 1924. This was at St. John’s Church, across the street from the Hay house.
Symington’s ushers had given him a silver bowl engraved with their names. On the morning of Evie’s death, as she and her husband sat in the library of their home with the Cannons prior to leaving for the Redskins game, Sen. Cannon noticed the bowl and asked about its significance. This brought forth a flood of wedding reminiscences. Evie laughed about the problem “those great big ushers had going down those narrow church aisles.” And the Senator observed with satisfaction, “In 14 months, we’ll celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary.”
Sen. Symington is a man of sentiment. In 1969, an illness necessitated two operations for Evie and the Senator asked her at that time to write out four lines of poetry she’s written for him before they were married. (She wrote poetry all her life, though many close friends never knew it.) Sen. Symington has the poem still, on a small piece of stationery with a cheerful red apple at the top. It has been folded and refolded so many times that it has come apart at the creases.
“Oh, will the heart be rover? Life, sad surprise? Turn your sweet head, discover my steady eyes.”
He had brought her to Rochester, N.Y. where he worked first in his uncle’s business as an iron moulder, and where their sons were born; Stuart Jr., who is now a St. Louis attorney, in 1925, and Jimmy, in 1927. The Senator remembers how in those days Evie used to sing at charity functions and with her family. Evie’s father was a tenor; her mother, a soprano; her brother James J. Wadsworth (who in 1960 and 1961 was U.S. Representative to the United Nations), was a bass. Evie was a contralto.
One evening in 1934, a few years after the Symingtons had moved to New York City, the Senator recalls, “We were at a benefit at a ritzy place called the Place Pigalle where there were a lot of professional singers and somebody said, ‘Let’s have a song from Evie.’ She sang “The Very Thought of You’ — which became her theme song and brought down the house. She could sing. Golly, she could sing. She had a voice that could break your heart.”
Two weeks later, the owner of the Place Pigalle called Evie and asked if she’d like to work there as a professional singer. It was fine with her husband, but he suggested she’d better ask her father. “Is the place East or West of Broadway?”, Wadsworth wanted to know. (West of Broadway was “what you’d call the wrong side of the tracks,” Sen. Symington explained later.)
“It’s two doors West,” said Evie.
“Well, then I guess it’s okay,” said Wadsworth, who evidently didn’t think a matter of 24 feet would tarnish the family reputation
Sen. Symington remembers the night his wife, as Eve Symington, society singer, opened at the Place Pigalle: “A close relative turned to a friend and said, ‘Let’s clap like the dickens and then get out of here. The best amateur isn’t as good as the worst professional.” Evie sang “The Very Thought of You’ and halfway through, the man burst into tears.”
Another time, the Senator brought along his friend, boxer Gene Tunney. The two men sat at the bar. According to the Senator, “Gene suddenly noticed that the bartender was Jack Renault, the French fighter he’d beaten in 1923. They went over the fight blow by blow. Then Gene said, “By the way, my friend’s wife sings here and you just watch out for her.”
“Are you Eve Symington’s husband?,” asked Renault, I said, yes, and he said, seriously, ‘Anybody displeases that lady, we kill him.’”
During the next four years Eve Symington also sang at the St. Regis Hotel, the Waldorf Hotel and the Persian Room of the Plaza, accompanied by such orchestras of the ’30s as those of Leo Reisman and Emile Coleman.
Mrs. John Sherman Cooper, the wife of the former Republican Senator from Kentucky, remembers: “The room would be perfectly dark and then out Evie would come like a waft of fresh air, a spotlight on her, her blonde hair glowing. She had a lovely laughing face. She had magic. It’s the thing that held you. She had an intimate, caressing quality as if she was singing only to you.”
Mrs. Cooper was an acquaintance and fan of Evie in those days. “When I began to know her as a friend,” Mrs. Cooper says, “she became my heroine. As a Senate wife, she was the way we all wanted to be.”
When the Symingtons first came to Washington in 1945, they had an apartment at the Shoreham Hotel. But in 1952, just before Symington was elected to the Senate, Evie’s father died, and the couple moved in with her mother on N Street where they lived ever since. (Evie’s mother, who remarried, died in 1960.)
It is a five-story house filled with antiques and paintings by Botticelli and Sir Joshua Reynolds and some of the things Evie collected such as figures of lions and Battersea boxes. Portraits of ancestors hang on all the walls, and John Hay presides over the formal dining room downstairs.
Carrie Williams, who has been doing housework for the Symingtons for five days a week for 16 years — “and I only missed two days in that time” — last saw Evie on a Saturday. It was like every other morning. “I’d come in and she would have her bedroom door open and I would put her paper inside and ask her what she wanted for breakfast. After breakfast, we would have our little chat.”
What about? “Oh the weather mostly. And we laughed a lot. That last day I said to her in fun, ‘Are you going to fire me?’ And she said, “No, I’m not going to fire you. I want you to work for me as long as I live.’ “She was the sweetest lady I ever met in the world.”
Georgia Winters also did housework and some cooking for Evie for many years and she says, “She was so nice and so gentle. She liked to come into the kitchen and we’d do things together. She wanted to fix everything the way the Senator liked it.”
On Thursday, Evie patted Mrs. Winters on the shoulder and said, “Just do your work little by little, don’t get too tired.” Then she added, “I’ll count on you for next week.”
Mrs. Winters heard about Evie’s death on the 11 o’clock news Christmas Eve. “I couldn’t sleep. It took so much out of me, the same as my mother’s death.”
Saturday night, the night before Evie died, Jimmy and his wife Sylvia came to dinner. Jimmy says, “We’d only go over about once a month so it was great we got to see her the night before. In very gesture she seemed to be expressing the fulfillment of her life. She was about to go to St. Louis to see young Stuart and Janey and their children. Our son Jeremy was here and our daughter Julie was about to arrive from Paris and she knew she’d see them all.
“I remember when we arrived at the house. You know, she’d always give me a hug and this time she gave me a particularly warm hug. I noted it at the time.”
Jimmy is silent for a few moments. Then he continues: “That night she wore a good dress when she went downstairs to cook our dinner. And I remember that Dad commented the day after she died how strange this was. “Normally she wore an old dress, then changed for dinner.”
Evie was a good cook. That night she served “baked chicken in cream sauce with halves of black olives looking like little truffles and a marvelous sort of mixed salad,” Sylvia recalls.
Next morning it being Sunday, Evie got up early and fixed the Senator breakfast. Then she packed a football lunch of bouillon and ham and cheese and chicken sandwiches for the two of them and the Cannons. (The Symingtons had four seats in their box at RFK Stadium and always took friends to the Redskins games.)
The two couples had been planning the outing for a month, ever since they had been together for a trip to the Iron Curtain countries after the North Atlantic Assembly in Bonn. “We decided right then, if the Redskins got into a playoff, we’d all go to the game together,” says Sen. Cannon.
Mrs. Cannon also remembers. “I’ve lived that last day we spent with her in retrospect dozens of times,” she says. “Evie was in such a lovely mood.”
Sitting next to Evie at the game was Mario F. Escudero. He and his wife had adjoining seats with the Symingtons for 10 years. Escudero, an attorney with Morgan, Lewis and Bockius of Washington, says Evie was “a very devout Redskins fan. She knew everything about football. That day, I lit two cigarettes for her which isn’t much for a three-hour game. She cheered a lot.
“They left about 3:03, there were about three minutes to go and we were winning 16 to 3. The Senator said to me, ‘Esky, we’ve got it won, we’re leaving.’ Twenty minutes later she had the attack.”
Just before the game started, Dorothy Cannon remembers that Evie lost her gloves. It was a common occurrence for her and the Senator teased her about it. He gave her one of his gloves so they each wore one glove and kept the other hand in a pocket.
On the way home, Evie turned to her husband who was driving and said, “I did so appreciate your lending me your glove.” He said, “I hope you didn’t lose it.” “No, I didn’t” she said, handing it back to him. “Thank you, darlin,” said Stuart Symington.
“I just happened to look at her when he said that,” Mrs. Cannon says. “She had that special twinkle in her eyes. Later I told the Senator, ‘If you could only have seen her face at just that moment.’ She was happy all the way home.”
When they arrived at the N St. house, Evie asked the Cannons in. “But we said no because we knew they were getting ready to leave on the 5:10 plane for St. Louis; their bags were packed and waiting in the hall,” says Mrs. Cannon.
As Sen. Cannon started up his car across the street, Evie, at her open door, turned and waved goodbye.
Inside, Sen. Symington had started upstairs to see about their plane tickets when he heard Evie cry out. Sylvia tells the story as she heard it from him. “She had a sudden sharp pain in her back, but she said she didn’t think it was her heart. Almost immediately, she became unconscious and my father-in-law called the ambulance and then he called us.”
The sirens brought the neighbors to their doors, Mrs. Herman Wouk, wife of the author on one side, and Mrs. McCook Knox, who had been living on the other side since the Wadsworths’ time. Mrs. Knox saw the ambulance pull up and watched as Evie was carried “Oh, so carefully on a cot down the little curve of her stairway. I saw her face. She was in no pain. She looked very beautiful. “Even though she’s been gone since Christmas Eve, I always think I’ll see her walking down those steps again.”
Most people learned of Evie’s death when they glanced quickly at the paper, as most people do on Christmas day. The next few days, for most, were filled with holiday activity, but the letters, telegrams and personal messages poured into the house on N Street in a flood that has not crested yet.
One Washingtonian said he rarely has written letters of condolence in the past, but on this occasion somehow found himself impelled to write both the Senator and Jimmy. He had never met Mrs. Symington. He told the Senator that as a boy in boarding school, he and his dormitory mates had been smitten to their adolescent souls by one of Evie’s songs. It taught them, he said, what a real woman was supposed to sound like. “I can’t remember the name of the song,” he wrote, “but if I heard it again today I would know in an instant.”
There were several songs he might have had in mind: “My Romance,” possibly, or “Hands Across The Table”or “Just One of Those Things”. It could well have been “The Very Thought of You”. But one of Eve Symington’s numbers, pretty much forgotten since she popularized it in 1934, was called “Be Still My Heart”. The last four lines went:
“Be still my heart, Even though our love has gone away he’ll be coming back to us someday. Be still my heart.”
The Senator has not expressed an opinion on this, but Jimmy Symington thinks it not unlikely that “Be Still My Heart” was the song in question.
[This article appeared originally in The Washington Star, February 1972 as Where the Thread Leads #198 in a collection of more than 100 newspaper articles by Judy Flander from the second wave of the Women’s Movement reflecting the fervor and ingenuity of the women who rode the wave.]