Fenwick, Millicent (1910–1992)
Fenwick, Millicent (1910–1992)
U.S. Republican Congresswoman who was celebrated for her political independence. Name variations: Millicent Hammond Fenwick. Born Millicent Vernon Hammond in New York City on February 25, 1910; died on September 16, 1992, of heart failure at her home in Bernardsville, New Jersey; second of three children of Ogden Haggerty Hammond (a financier and state representative) and Mary Picton Stevens Hammond (an heiress and humanitarian); attended Foxcroft School, Middleburg, Virginia; studied philosophy under Bertrand Russell at the New School for Social Research; attended classes at Columbia University's extension school in 1933; married Hugh Fenwick, in 1934 (divorced 1945); children: Hugh H. Fenwick; Mary Fenwick Reckford.
Elected councilwoman for Bernardsville, N.J. (1958–64); elected New Jersey State Assemblywoman (1969–72); appointed New Jersey director of consumer affairs (1972); elected U.S. Congresswoman (1974–83); served as U.S. envoy to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (1983–87).
Vogue Book of Etiquette (1948); Speaking Up (1982).
Millicent Fenwick spoke with the cultivated accent that is acquired only in the most select finishing schools; yet in her 60s, when she sat back after delivering a political speech, she would reach into her handbag, take out a pipe, and light it. Fenwick gave two reasons for this particular eccentricity: her doctor told her to give up cigarettes, and, after the birth of her seventh grandchild, she felt she had the right to do as she pleased.
One of three siblings born early in the 20th century to a wealthy, well-established family, Fenwick used her connections to further her aims at the same time she chafed against convention. Her father Ogden Hammond was a businessman in New York and New Jersey and served two terms as a Republican member of the New Jersey House of Representatives. Her mother Mary Stevens Hammond , active in humanitarian work, was a descendant of John Stevens, a colonel in the American Revolutionary Army who became an inventor and builder; he established the family fortune by buying 500 acres of land across the Hudson River from New York City. The Stevens home is the site of the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey.
As a tiny child standing on the porch of the family home, Millicent Hammond watched her parents don goggles, gloves, and driving coats to take spins in their first Packard. At age five, in May 1915, she learned that her mother had drowned when a German submarine sank the Lusitania off the coast of Ireland. Mary Stevens Hammond had been traveling with her husband to Paris to set up a hospital for war victims. "Daddy was never the same," Fenwick told Elisabeth Bumiller of the Washington Post. "Before that, he loved riding the hounds. He was gay, dark, quite a handsome man. When he came back, he was taciturn and different." A few years later, he married Marguerite McClure Howland , with whom Millicent Hammond constantly clashed. Millicent attended Foxcroft in Virginia, until Calvin Coolidge appointed her father ambassador to Spain. Her formal education ended when she joined the family in Madrid, but she did become fluent in Spanish, French, and Italian as a result of her European stay. Living a privileged, pampered life, Millicent and her sister had at their disposal a car and chauffeur. "Whenever we went out to play golf, a maid would go along with us. And if we wanted to play golf with a man, a married woman had to be present. There was a lot of drama to life—every man was dangerous dynamite," Fenwick recalled.
The family returned to New Jersey when Millicent was 19. She took some courses at Columbia University and studied philosophy with Bertrand Russell at the New School for Social Research. They struck up a friendship, and Fenwick dined with Russell and his wife Alys Berenson on a weekly basis, but they grew apart, reportedly because Fenwick objected to his negative attitude toward the United States. The social side of her life continued to claim her attention. At a lawn party in New Jersey, Millicent became spellbound by a married man named Hugh Fenwick, who was five years her senior. While his wife spent the summer on Long Island, a scandalous romance ensued. "There was a terrible row. It was rather seamy," Fenwick said of her courtship. "The family, of course, was furious. But I was determined." Millicent's cousin Mary Baird described his appeal to People Weekly: "Hugh Fenwick was heavy, and he never had much hair, but he was full of charm. I remember sitting with him on a screened porch one night and a moth was circling the light. Instead of getting up and turning off the switch, Hugh pulled a
pistol from his belt and shot out the bulb."
Millicent and Hugh were married after his divorce, but the ceremony was overshadowed by the scandal, and her stepmother unplugged the lights so a photographer could not properly record the event. The marriage produced two children and lasted less than a decade, during which time Millicent occasionally modeled for Harper's Bazaar. The Fenwick fortunes were battered in the Wall Street crash of 1929, but when her marriage ended, Millicent paid off his debts by going to work for Vogue in 1938. Her first assignment was to interview Mary Martin . "I was so scared. I didn't want to be rude, but I also wanted to get everything for my story. As it turned out, it was also the first time anyone had interviewed her," said Fenwick.
After Pearl Harbor, Millicent became war editor for the magazine, assigning features on the conflict abroad and on the home front. "Actually, it was Hitler that got me into politics. I was pushed into [joining] the National Conference of Christians and Jews by hearing him," she told Louise Sweeney of The Christian Science Monitor. Fenwick banned flattering photos and stories about those who were collaborating with the Nazis from the magazine. Notably, she refused to run a picture of J.P. Morgan's daughterAnne Morgan in Vogue because Anne gave a party for the Vichy ambassador. Although Vogue had to scramble for fashion coverage, when Fenwick learned that a Swiss man, who was selling fashion sketches, was actually representing a designer working in German-held Paris, she announced, "I would rather publish Vogue with blank pages than send one cent to support the Nazis." Meanwhile, her economic difficulties continued. Friday evenings, when she returned home to New Jersey, she was regularly greeted by a process server and presented with a fresh suit for non-payment of her former husband's debts.
The whole point of government is justice.
After the war, in 1948, Fenwick compiled Vogue's Book of Etiquette, which sold a million copies. While she was reportedly embarrassed to be writing on the placement of dessert spoons, she enjoyed promoting the book, traveling by train to regions of the country she had not seen before. In 1952, a belated inheritance from her mother and the growth of the family real-estate interests enabled her to retire from Vogue. To economize, she tore down two-thirds of the family's 38-room mansion and lived mainly, and elegantly, in what had been the library. She volunteered for local New Jersey causes like legal aid and prison reform and worked for Republican candidates. She would later disdain her volunteer work as "the typical female pattern." "I always wanted things in the most foolish, over-modest, hesitant way. I finally learned that when a man wants more he says, 'Listen, George. I want a bit of the action.' Well, we've been taught: 'you have to wait to be invited to dance.'" In 1958, she ran for the borough council in Bernardsville and was twice re-elected. She left office in 1964, suffering from a nervous disorder.
In 1969, Fenwick was elected to the New Jersey General Assembly, where she earned the nickname "Outhouse Millie" because she lobbied for better working conditions for migrant workers, including portable toilets. In 1972, she resigned to become the state's director of consumer affairs. There she battled deceptive auto advertising and required funeral homes to itemize their bills in advance. In 1974, she won election on the Republican ticket to the 94th Congress. She was 64 years old and her victory was described as "a geriatric triumph." At a dinner of the Washington Press Club soon afterward, she told the story of her exchange with a male delegate to the New Jersey assembly when they were debating the Equal Rights Amendment. He said, "I just don't like this amendment. I always thought women were meant to be kissable, cuddly and sweet-smelling." Fenwick retorted, "That's what I thought of men—and I hope, for your sake, you haven't been disappointed as many times as I've been." The remark became famous and made her a Washington celebrity. She captured the imagination of the cartoonist Garry Trudeau who caricatured her as Lacey Davenport in his Doonesbury comic strip. (Beholding a group of striking workers, Lacey exclaimed, "You poor dears!") Fenwick had an affinity for Lacey, "She's useful, unpretentious and kindly," and the popular strip honed her image as the Katharine Hepburn of politics. Fenwick was in fact tall, patrician, and idiosyncratic. Frugality was a hallmark. She wore 40-year-old designer suits that flattered her modelthin frame, drove a Chevrolet when she could have afforded a Cadillac, and carefully counted change due her from the office coffee fund.
One of her closest allies in the House of Representatives was Bella Abzug , a New York liberal, who had begun life as the daughter of a butcher. In March 1975, they traveled together to Vietnam and Cambodia with a Congressional delegation to investigate Gerald Ford's request to increase funds for South Vietnam. During a heated discussion while driving though Saigon, Fenwick sided with those who feared a bloodbath if funds were cut off. Abzug said a bloodbath was already in progress and that the corrupt government in Saigon was selling off the arms the United States provided. A congressman traveling with them was upset when the two women began shouting, but they told him to let them continue their debate and when they were done, recalled Fenwick, "Bella said, 'Wasn't that fun?'" Soon after, Fenwick joined Abzug in opposing increased funding for Vietnam. She wrote in a New York Times piece, "I think we must face the fact that military aid sent from America will not succeed. It will only delay the development of the kind of stable situation—whatever form that takes—that will at least stop the horrible suffering of war." She supported humanitarian assistance, however, saying, "We oughtn't to worry who's in the palace when people are hungry; we should just send food."
Working 12- and 14-hour days, often arriving at her office at seven in the morning, Fenwick espoused a number of causes, including civil rights, peace in Vietnam, aid for asbestos victims, help for the poor, prison reforms, strip-mining controls, urban renewal, gun control, reduction of military programs, and restrictions on capital punishment. She also voted in favor of most of Ronald Reagan's budget cuts. She came from a long line of Republicans, but said that her party allegiance was philosophical: "It is because I don't trust government that I am a Republican," she wrote in her book Speaking Up. "Democrats don't mind mandatory laws, regulations and ordinances…. Republicans tend to ask 'Why? Is the situation such that we must order people around?'"
Fenwick was a lead sponsor of the resolution creating the commission to monitor the 1975 Helsinki accords on human rights. She was re-elected to Congress three times by increasing margins—in 1980, she received 78% of the vote. In 1982, at the end of her Congressional term, she refused political-action committee (PAC) money and ran for the U.S. Senate but was narrowly defeated by Frank R. Lautenberg, a Democrat and millionaire who portrayed her as an aging eccentric. Ronald Reagan appointed her the first American envoy to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome, where her fluent Italian charmed her hosts. Millicent Fenwick retired in 1987 and died at her family home in Bernardsville on September 16, 1992.
Bumiller, Elisabeth. "The Wit and Grit of Millicent Fenwick," in The Washington Post. January 20, 1982, p. C1.
Current Biography. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1977.
Diliberto, Gioia. "Millicent Fenwick," in People Weekly. September 13, 1982.
Fenwick, Millicent. Speaking Up. NY: Harper & Row, 1982.
The New York Times. March 3, 1976, p. 33; September 17, 1992 p. 25.
Sweeney, Louise. The Christian Science Monitor. June 25, 1975.
Seebohm, Carolyn. The Man Who Was Vogue. NY: Viking Press, 1982.