Mesta, Perle (1889–1975)

views updated

Mesta, Perle (1889–1975)

Washington hostess and U.S. ambassador to Luxemburg . Name variations: Pearl Reid Skirvin. Born Pearl Reid Skirvin on October 12, 1889, in Sturgis, Michigan; died of hemolytic anemia in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, on March 16, 1975; daughter of William Balser Skirvin (an oil prospector) and Harriet Elizabeth (Reid) Skirvin; married George Mesta (a businessman), on February 12, 1917 (died 1925); no children.

Perle Mesta was born Pearl Skirvin in Sturgis, Michigan, in 1889, one of three children of Harriet Reid Skirvin , a college graduate (somewhat unusual for the place and time) and William Skirvin, an oil prospector who traveled between the Midwest and Texas. When Mesta was a teen, her father moved the family to Oklahoma, where he built a grand hotel in Oklahoma City. Mesta attended a private school in Galveston, Texas, and studied music in Chicago in hopes of pursuing a career as a singer. In her mid-20s, she met engineer George Mesta, whom she married in New York City in February 1917. Her husband was the founder of Pittsburgh's Mesta Machine Company, and not long after their marriage he was called to government service as a defense-industry consultant when the United States entered World War I. The couple moved to the nation's capital, and in this way Mesta's career as a Washington socialite began, for she immediately became active with the Washington Stage Door Canteen for service personnel.

After the war, the Mestas traveled extensively in Europe. In 1925, George Mesta died, and Perle abandoned Pittsburgh forever, though she did inherit and wield much control of the machine company. With her father, she also began making lucrative investments in oil and land in the American Southwest (she would inherit a great deal of money from him when he died in 1944). In 1929, she purchased a mansion in the posh seafront town of Newport, Rhode Island. Her contacts with prominent political figures continued after her husband's death—he had been a campaign contributor and friend of Calvin Coolidge—and for a time Mesta was romantically linked with Charles Curtis, Herbert Hoover's vice-president. Mesta was an active Republican, and in the mid-1930s she also became a champion of women's rights. She campaigned for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, joined the National Woman's Party in 1938, rising to its executive council, and was also active in the World Women's Party and held the post of its international publicity chair for a time.

Mesta switched political allegiances around 1940 after becoming disillusioned with Republican Party politics, especially with the defeat of the candidate that year, Wendell Willkie, whom she had supported. Instead, she became the great ally of a rising Missouri Democrat, Harry Truman, and held a celebrated fundraiser for him prior to the 1944 elections at her Skirvin Hotel in Oklahoma City. Truman became Franklin D. Roosevelt's vice-president, and succeeded him after Roosevelt's death in April 1945. Mesta's success as a Washington scene-maker and partygiver, it has been said, was tied to the political success of this most prominent ally; moreover, the new president's wife, Bess Truman , disliked large-scale entertaining, and the hostessing tasks thus fell to Mesta. (In 1946, she threw Margaret Truman 's coming-out party.)

Though Mesta was a Christian Scientist and never drank alcohol, she did not hesitate to serve it. Her soirees at both her D.C. home, Les Ormes, and her Newport mansion were a choice mix of the rich and powerful of both political persuasions. She continued to distinguish herself with a savvy business mind as well. She raised a great deal of money for Democratic Party coffers, and

allegedly helped save the party from financial disaster during the 1948 elections. Truman was reelected that year, and, as thanks, named Mesta Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to Luxemburg. She became only the third female ambassador in American history (following Ruth Bryan Owen Rohde , ambassador to Denmark, and Florence Jaffray Harriman , ambassador to Norway). Mesta approached her new job as anything but a ski vacation: although Luxemburg was a tiny European duchy, the fifthsmallest country in the world, it was at the time the world's seventh-largest steel producer, and her long experience with Mesta Machine made her a perfect candidate for the job. She was also pleased that the duchy was governed by a woman, Grand Duchess Charlotte .

Mesta was, however, pilloried in the press. Reportedly, on her first day as ambassador a member of her staff inquired as to how she would like to be addressed, and she replied "You can call me Madam Minister," which the papers misquoted it as the more arch "You can call me Madam." Call Me Madam became the title of a hit musical by Irving Berlin that debuted on Broadway in 1950; it enjoyed a successful twoyear run with Ethel Merman as an exuberant, Mesta-like female ambassador, and was later made into a movie. The tribute was said to have delighted Mesta, especially the musical's centerpiece number, "The Hostess with the Mostes'."

Perle Mesta retired as ambassador in 1953, and divided her time between Washington and Rhode Island. A new Republican presidential administration curtailed her social influence in the nation's capital, but in the late 1950s she was a great supporter of Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson. She abandoned the Democratic Party when Johnson failed to win the presidential nomination in 1960, and that act made her somewhat persona non grata with the subsequent Kennedy administration. Though Mesta had no children of her own, she was deeply attached to her nieces and nephews. She returned to Oklahoma City to be near her brother when her health began failing in her 80s, and died there of hemolytic anemia a year later in March 1975.


Current Biography 1949. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1949.

Lamparski, Richard. Whatever Became Of …? 5th Series. NY: Crown, 1974.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1980.

Sicherman, Barbara, and Carol Hurd Green, eds. Notable American Women: The Modern Period. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1980.

suggested reading:

Mesta, Perle, with Robert Cahn. Perle: My Story, 1960.

related media:

Call Me Madam (117 min. film), directed by Walter Lang, starring Ethel Merman, Donald O'Connor, George Sanders, and Vera-Ellen , released in 1953.

Carol Brennan , freelance writer, Grosse Pointe Park, Michigan