FEISTY LADY: Everyone called her “Merci.” She was crusty as a slice of fresh Louisiana ranch bread, politically savvy as an in-crowd D.C. wife, model-beautiful as a young woman, and rich, and, if the cards had fallen exactly right, she just might have been married to a vice president of the United States who would have become president.
Mercedes Eichholz, who died here last week at 96, mingled with Washington New Deal–era movers and shakers back in the Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman days, came to Santa Barbara and spread her money around to nonprofits and the Museum of Art. She was a philanthropist who knew everyone.
If Generosity was her middle name, Feisty was her first and Spunky her last. If she insulted you, it meant she liked you or at least respected you. Eichholz did not suffer fools gladly and was free with her penetrating views on events here and beyond. Her opinions came with a flash of her blue eyes, but her words usually came softly and with the grace of her Southern upbringing. Still, her opinions often had very sharp elbows.
Her walls were lined with enough art to start a museum.
As a young girl, she grew up on a Louisiana cotton plantation during the Depression. She once told me of her French great-grandfather, who owned a shipping agency in New Orleans. During the Civil War, “The Yankees stole a barge load of cattle,” she told me. “He went to get it back, and they threw him in jail. But he escaped.”
At 22, she married a young, Yale-trained lawyer, C. Girard Davidson, and they headed to D.C., where he eventually became assistant secretary of the interior. “Washington was a very small place in the 1940s,” she recalled. She was close to the vortex of power in Washington, D.C., for four decades and, after divorcing Davidson, was the wife of Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas for 10 years. She worked for Congressmember Helen Gahagan Douglas, who in 1950 was defeated for the Senate by Richard Nixon and his smear campaign.
Before their marriage, President Roosevelt had named Douglas to the Supreme Court in 1939 and in 1944 favored him as a running mate, replacing Vice President Henry Wallace. In No Ordinary Time, author Doris Kearns Goodwin tells how FDR’s brain trust vetoed Wallace, considering him “too intellectual, too liberal, too idealistic, and too impractical.”
Instead of Douglas, an obscure Missouri senator, Harry Truman, got the nod and became vice president when Roosevelt was reelected to a fourth term. When FDR died in April 1945, Truman found himself president. Douglas, a mercurial, charismatic character, stayed on the court, and he and Eichholz were married in 1954, having missed their date with presidential destiny by a few years. “In my opinion, she was the best thing that ever happened to Bill, and the whole country owes her a debt of gratitude because her years with Bill were also his best years of service on the court and the period of his greatest opinions,” wrote Yale law professor Charles Reich, formerly a law clerk for Justice Hugo Black.
As for Douglas, “I always thought he had a genius mind,” but he was a difficult person to live with, Eichholz told me. “He knew what was right and wrong. He was also a man who needed total adulation.” Her third husband, tax attorney and art collector Robert Eichholz, died in 1983.
During one chat at her downtown home, she showed me a National Geographic magazine story about her 7,000-mile station-wagon trip in 1957 with Douglas through the rutted roads of the Middle East, from Karachi to Istanbul. Merci was the mechanic. There are photos of the young blonde in a blue dress, under the car tinkering while Douglas snapped photos.
A celebration of her life will be announced later.
LIFELONG LEARNING: With the state cutting off funds for noncredit community college adult ed classes like cooking, woodworking, and jewelry making, Santa Barbara City College has decided to split off such “enrichment” classes and charge fees. The new umbrella Center for Lifelong Learning (CLL) held an open house Saturday at the Wake Center, with a huge turnout and speeches by City College President Lori Gaskin, Assemblymember Das Williams, Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider, Goleta Mayor Roger Aceves, and CLL Executive Director Andy Harper. Tuition starts at $5 per class hour but is much higher in some cases, which has some worried that it will be unaffordable. This fall, 500 classes are available.