Drue Heinz (1915–2018)

Count Guido Brandolini and Drue Heinz at a party hosted by Elsa Maxwell, Hotel Danieli, Venice, circa 1959

Some time ago, Drue Heinz said to me about dying, “It’s rather disconcerting to realize that you can’t take even a book with you.” We were in a very brown and velvety study done up by her favorite decorator, Renzo Mongiardino, in her house in New York, on Sutton Place. Renoirs here, a Modigliani there, and a great deal of trompe l’oeil in between. On March 30, after false alarms, when her doctors had written her off but she bounced back, this weird and wonderful woman finally passed away, peacefully enough, they say, after a few weeks of decline, of talking to the radio, asking for her ski boots, and seeing a man in a cloak. She died at Hawthornden, the lovely castle nestled in a glen in Scotland that she was proud of having made into a writers’ retreat and named a literary prize after.

Drue was 103. I had worked out her age from a story she once told me about having been smuggled aboard the Queen Mary in 1935 by Bing Crosby, crossing in the company of his Catholic wife, who would not give him a divorce. Thirty-five minus whatever age a debutante was supposed to be equals 1915 or so (I figured she would have to have been of debutante age). Her friends said Drue didn’t want to die, because she didn’t want people to find out where she was from. She said different things: an orphan watched over by lawyers; an orphan brought up in girls’ schools in Ireland; an orphan brought up by spinsters in Norfolk. Where she ended up was pretty fascinating, everyone pointed out, wherever she was from. They used to say that Drue Heinz and Grace Dudley treaded carefully around each other. Each knew the truth about the other: they had both been in Switzerland during World War II, at embassy dinners and parties where they gathered information helpful to the Allies. I am not as embarrassed as I should be that I am interested in Drue’s obituaries, in order to find out answers to some of the mystery of her.

I only knew her as an older woman who got even older, not as the stunning, fiery redhead who for three decades was the second wife of Jack Heinz, the ketchup tycoon, big donor to the Republican Party, and philanthropist. It was a torment, Drue remembered, to get stuck in a limo with Ronald Reagan, whose conversation took the form of delivering one-liners to the Secret Service. She said Jack’s psychiatrist recommended that she pick a fight with her husband every day. When he stopped running the family company, they took a house in Ascot. Nobody had heard of them, and then the Queen turned up at their…

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