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Millicent Fenwick, 82; Congress' 'Conscience'

September 17, 1992|ERIC MALNIC | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Millicent Fenwick, the elegant heiress whose four terms in Congress provided an ethically impeccable model for the House of Representatives and gave Americans the "Doonesbury" character Lacey Davenport, died Wednesday at her northern New Jersey home.

The 82-year-old grandmother had been in declining health, said her son, Hugh Fenwick, and "her heart just stopped beating" in the early morning.

She had undergone a series of pacemaker operations in 1990 and the antibiotics she had been taking affected her vision.

Mrs. Fenwick had been living in the family home in Bernardsville, N.J., an affluent suburb, since retiring from public life. She had last served her government in Italy as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, a post to which she had been appointed by President Ronald Reagan.

That appointment followed the liberal Republican's first political defeat--by Democrat Frank Lautenberg in the 1982 U.S. Senate race in New Jersey.

It was a race she had entered after winning national acclaim as the "conscience of the Congress" for her righteous indignation over the sometimes questionable tactics of her colleagues.

When fellow members of the House of Representatives rammed through a package of tax eductions for themselves in 1981 in a legislative maneuver that took no more than 20 seconds, Mrs. Fenwick condemned them as "pickpockets" and refused to utilize the benefits herself.

First elected to the House at the age of 64 in what she termed a "geriatric triumph," Mrs. Fenwick quickly established a work schedule that put younger colleagues to shame, marching to her office at 7 a.m. every day to join the battle for human and civil rights.

"Everyone asks me whether I'm a liberal, a maverick, a neoconservative or whatever," she told a reporter who tried to typecast her. "I simply try to stick to what I believe in."

In addition to her other idiosyncrasies, Mrs. Fenwick smoked a pipe, which she took up after her doctor advised her to quit cigarettes.

"I was so hurt when I got to Congress. All the media would say was 'pipe-smoking grandmother.' And I would say, 'For God's sake, hard-working grandmother, same number of syllables.' But I couldn't persuade them," Mrs. Fenwick said in 1987, when she retired as ambassador to the U.N. agency.

During her eight years in Congress, Mrs. Fenwick attacked special interests and power brokers, taking on Rep. Wayne Hays (D-Ohio), then the powerful chairman of the House Administration Committee, to keep House committee meetings open to the public.

"Hays once said 'If that woman doesn't sit down and keep quiet, I'm not going to sign the checks for her staff,' " Mrs. Fenwick reminisced in 1991.

She also was frequently at odds with her party's leadership. She opposed President Gerald R. Ford's support of the B-1 bomber and voted to override his veto of strip-mining regulations.

Some of the things she believed in most fervently were legal aid, food, abortion rights and consumer protection laws for the poor.

Rep. Jim Courter, a New Jersey Republican who served with Mrs. Fenwick, praised her Wednesday as one who "really made no compromises, and I think people miss that in politicians sometimes today."

He called her "feisty right up to the end" and said she told him a few months ago that "old age is not for sissies," paraphrasing the famous Bette Davis quote.

Born in New York City to Ogden Haggerty Hammond, a successful financier, and the former Mary Picton Stevens, a descendant of Revolutionary War hero John Stevens, Millicent Vernon Hammond grew up in luxury, summering as a child at the family's handsome estates in the lush hill country near Bernardsville.

"I remember my father in his hunting pinks, standing on the lawn," she recalled years later in an interview with The Times. "I remember my mother in a white duster coat with big, mother-of-pearl buttons on it, waiting to go motoring. . . . It was lovely then."

But those memories were shattered in 1915 when a German submarine sank the British passenger liner Lusitania off the coast of Ireland.

Her mother, en route to Paris to establish a hospital for war victims, was among the more than 1,000 passengers who died. Her father, rescued by passing fishermen, moved to Madrid, where he served as President Calvin Coolidge's ambassador to Spain.

The young girl, who had missed the voyage, eventually joined her father in Europe, later spending two years at a fashionable finishing school in Virginia and studying philosophy with Bertrand Russell in New York.

During the early 1930s, the 5-foot, 10-inch, stunning socialite modeled for Harper's Bazaar, catching the eye of Hugh Fenwick, a neighbor she fell in love with while his wife was vacationing in the Hamptons. Millicent and Hugh Fenwick were married in 1934, divorcing four years and two children later.

The divorce left her too hurt to try marriage again. "Once bitten, twice shy," she would say.

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