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Sarah Booth Conroy -- Update

Matt Schudel

With the death of Sarah Booth Conroy this week, The Washington Post lost a little of its color, culture and class. Sarah Booth -- no one but her husband ever called her just "Sarah" -- was a genteel tornado of energy who probably knew more about the ins and outs of Washington society and history than anyone else.

She worked at the Post, in one capacity or another, for more than 30 years. As an editor of the forerunner of the Home section, she became an authority on architecture and decorating and lived for years in a well-appointed house on 16th Street NW. She received the first Glenn Brown Lifetime Achievement Award from the Washington chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

After 1982, she wrote for the Style section, covering primarily parties, social life and Washington history. She continued to write her well-informed Chronicles column about D.C.'s colorful past until 2001.

More than the gallons of ink she put on newsprint for The Washington Post, however, Sarah Booth is remembered here as a true character (in all senses of the word) of the newsroom. I knew her somewhat in the 1980s, when I was a copy editor in the Style section. Sarah Booth was simply unforgettable.

She was short and round and wore voluminous dresses with considerable flair, but what everyone remembers most about her attire is her amazing jewelry. She wore huge breastplates, collar pieces, boomerang-sized necklaces, rings on every finger and huge bracelets snaking up her arm. All the jewelry was designed and made by her husband, a former Foreign Service officer, and it certainly made Sarah Booth stand out.

Of course, the other thing people recall about Sarah Booth is that she was a professional Southerner. When I wrote in the obituary that her Southern accent seemed to grow thicker every year, I wasn't exaggerating. She could identify any Southern accent by state and, in many cases, by county and she always pretended to hold a grudge toward the federal government for seizing the estate of Robert E. Lee across the Potomac and turning it into the burial ground we know as Arlington National Cemetery.

Sarah Booth had impeccable manners, which she sometimes used to her advantage. She was, for instance, the first feature section editor at The Post to have an individual office. When reporters and editors had to share primitive computers in the newsroom, Sarah Booth had one to herself.

She was always attentive and gracious to everyone, even to lowly copy editors and people who could not possibly advance her career. She was generous with her courtesy, which I'm sad to say is not true of everyone. (She also suggested to Post reporter Judith Martin that she write a column on etiquette, which has led to Miss Manners.)

I think Sarah Booth's politeness and charm sometimes overshadowed her accomplishments and doggedness as a reporter. She was the first woman to graduate from the school of journalism at the University of Tennessee. At the old Washington Daily News, she covered the D.C. government under Walter Washington, while doubling as an uncredited stringer of news about women in the White House for the New York Times.

She had dignity and propriety and did not like to be addressed by her first name by strangers. She was "Mrs. Conroy," thank you, until after you got to know her, when she became "Sarah Booth."

In the obituary, I quote from one of her columns in 1995 about her unflappable and unbendable sense of courtesy, but she deserves to be heard in full:
"I grew up in South Georgia, where gentility was valued over wealth -- admittedly in those years we had more of the first than teh second. The genteel were reared to accord all individuals the dignity of a title and a last name, unless they were closely related or under 16."

She ended her column with a delightful tale about former D.C. Superior Court Judge Harriett R. Taylor's visit to a new dentist.
"She was seated in a dentist chair, she recounted over the phone, when the young dentist she'd never met came in and said, 'Hello Harriett, I'm Dr. So-and-so.'
"The judge glanced at the medical diploma on the wall and replied: 'Hello First Name. I'm Judge Taylor.' "

That's Sarah Booth -- or Mrs. Conroy -- to a T.

Update: Please note that Sarah Booth Conroy's daughter has posted information about a memorial service in the comment section below.

Mrs. Conroy's daughter reports that her mother enjoyed entertaining and gave parties filled with writers, government officials, spies, artists and first ladies. One of her close friends, espionage novelist Charles McCarry, reports that Donald Regan -- the former Cabinet official and White House chief of staff -- was once interviewed by Sarah Booth. Afterward, he said, he realized he had "never had my pockets so expertly picked."

By Matt Schudel |  January 14, 2009; 11:00 AM ET  | Category:  Matt Schudel , Washington DC-area people
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Thank you, Matt, for a lovely write-up about my mother.

Our family will be holding a memorial service for her next month:

Friday, February 20, at 10:30 am

Woodside United Methodist Church
8900 Georgia Avenue
Silver Spring, MD 20910

--Claire

Posted by: cconroy1 | January 14, 2009 4:50 PM

I'll be watching the print edition of the Washington Post for an appreciation of Sarah Booth Conroy. The Post lost more than a "little" of its color, culture and class with her passing.

Mrs. Conroy not only encouraged Judith Martin to write about etiquette and become Miss Manners, I believe that as a Post editor she discovered Henry Mitchell and encouraged him to write a column about gardening.

It's a pretty fine accomplishment for an editor to recognize a writer who was the best in his field.

The appreciation Sarah Booth Conroy wrote about Henry Mitchell in November of 1993 and that appeared in the Style section on the Post stands as a tribute to both of them.

Posted by: JLS684 | January 14, 2009 9:18 PM

I never had the privilege of working with Mrs. Conroy during my newspaper days in Knoxville, Tenn., but the ladies I worked with on the women's page in the 1960s did, and they spoke of her in reverence and awe. When I had the opportunity to take her to lunch on behalf of the University of Tennessee School of Journalism, before Alzheimer's got the best of her, it was for me like meeting rock star. I can't think of her without smiling. God rest.

Posted by: sgbarnes1 | January 18, 2009 7:05 PM

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