Keeping Faith: Former Delco politician is the focus of new biography
By PATTI MENGERS
Delaware County Daily Times, October 7, 2012
For Delaware County residents, Faith Ryan Whittlesey’s life has always seemed to be an open book.
From the time the former Haverford resident entered the political arena as state representative for the 166th District in 1973 until she entered the West Wing of the White House as President Ronald Reagan’s public liaison in 1983, the “Kennedy Democrat”-turned-Republican made headlines in her old hometown.
Along the way, the mother of three suffered the loss of her husband to an apparent suicide, became Delaware County’s first female county council chairman, was appointed ambassador to Switzerland and survived a congressional investigation into her management of the embassy and its link to the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages deal supervised by fired National Security Council aide Oliver North.
“We worked closely together,” Whittlesey said of North during one of her many interviews with Daily Times reporters over the last 40 years. “That’s why I was investigated. That’s why I was hauled before a congressional panel and investigated. They were criminalizing policy differences.”
Now part of the story of the 73-year-old attorney’s colorful life is officially available to the world in a book penned by academic historian Thomas J. Carty, chairman of the social sciences department at Springfield College in Massachusetts.
“Backwards in High Heels: Faith Whittlesey, Reagan’s Madam Ambassador in Switzerland and the West Wing” officially debuted Friday at the Institute of World Politics, a graduate school of national security and international affairs in Washington, D.C., where Whittlesey chaired the board of trustees for six years.
“There’s quite a bit about Delaware County in it,” she said of her book last Wednesday from her room in Washington’s Mayflower Hotel.
The 368-page book, with 32 pages of photos, is published by Casemate Publishers of Haverford.
It retails for $29.95.
“Ambassador Whittlesey” as she is known by many, was not only preparing for the premiere of the book that focuses on her time in public service, she was preparing to receive a lifetime achievement award from the American Swiss Foundation, established to preserve the historic friendship between the United States and Switzerland. Chairman emeritus since 2008, Whittlesey joined the foundation as chair and president in 1989 and initiated its flagship program, the Young Leaders Conference, that annually sponsors about 30 American professionals between ages 28 and 42 who meet in Switzerland with Swiss counterparts for a week.
The award was presented Thursday night to the self-described “committed conservative,” “Cold Warrior” and “Reaganite” by archconservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia before a crowd of nearly 400 at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum.
“I introduced Judge Scalia to President Reagan. Judge Scalia swore me in for my second term as Swiss ambassador in the West Wing of the White House,” recalled Whittlesey, who noted that a short time later, Scalia was appointed by Reagan to the Supreme Court.
Her life needs no embellishment to make good reading.
The title of Carty’s book refers to a quote often credited to Whittlesey that she reportedly delivered when she was representing Reagan at a Teamsters convention in 1984: “Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, except backwards and in high heels.”
Others who have been credited with variations of that quote include “Frank and Ernest” comic strip writer Bob Thaves, the late Texas Gov. Ann Richards and TV journalist Linda Ellerbee. Carty’s book is not Whittlesey’s official biography.
“There’s a big section about Delaware County, about my time in the (Pennsylvania) Legislature and on county council,” said Whittlesey.
“I’m also doing my own memoirs, which I’m still writing. I’ve written about 500 pages.”
Among her Delaware County friends expected at last week’s festivities in the nation’s capital were Whittlesey’s former assistant, Nancy Price, and attorneys Jeanne Cella and George Cordes.
Whittlesey, who was born in Jersey City, N.J., and raised in a housing project in Williamsville, N.Y., has always taken pride in the solid work ethic she said she inherited from her parents, Martin Roy Ryan and Amy Jerusha Covell.
“I worked very hard and wasn’t married to a famous person. I didn’t have an independent fortune, but I had my Irish heritage,” she once told a Daily Times reporter.
Whittlesey noted that her mother was working on her second million, made from an initial investment of $100, at the time of her death.
“My father never made more than $100 a week, but he believed in the American dream,” said Whittlesey, whose one sibling, Thomas Martin Ryan, and his wife, Joan, are also former Haverford residents.
A 1960 history graduate of Wells College in Aurora, N.Y., Whittlesey attended the University of Pennsylvania law school on full scholarship and was awarded a Ford Foundation grant to the Hague Academy of International Law in the Netherlands. She learned to speak German in high school when she was an exchange student in Germany and in college when she traveled to Austria as an exchange student.
While attending law school, Whittlesey worked as a substitute teacher in the Philadelphia public school system.
Her experiences there and as a special assistant to the attorney general in the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare caused her to become disillusioned with the Democratic politics of President John F. Kennedy’s “Camelot” era.
“I saw the wastefulness and potential for corruption, so I decided that less government is better. I trust ‘the people’ more,” she said.
Whittlesey has described herself as “an ideological conservative.”
“I’m against the wars and I’m for limited government, low taxation and limited spending and traditional moral values,” said Whittlesey, an ardent abortion opponent who was raised Methodist but converted to Catholicism in 2000.
She especially admired Reagan’s peaceful approach to the Cold War with the Soviet Union.
“Ronald Reagan never shed American blood to win the Cold War. Today, they use his legacy to justify the current occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan and he never would have done that. He was much too prudent and cautious in foreign policy,” Whittlesey noted in February 2011, before the end of the Iraq occupation begun by fellow Republican George W. Bush in 2003.
While married to advertising executive Roger Whittlesey, whom she wed in 1963, the future Swiss ambassador began her own political career as Haverford’s state representative in 1973. In 1974, her husband, who was accused of misappropriating funds and was sued by his business partners, was found dead by Haverford police in an apparent suicide at age 37 in his car in the garage of the Millbrook Lane home he shared with his family.
Faith Whittlesey, who was left to raise their three school-age children, Henry, Amy and William, was approached that same year by Pennsylvania House Minority Whip, the now-late Matt Ryan, to run for Delaware County Council.
She initially demurred, suggesting that he instead approach multimillionaire John E. du Pont of Newtown Square, who, 23 years later, became the richest American ever convicted of murder for the 1996 shooting of Olympic wrestler David Schultz. Du Pont, who died in prison in 2010, turned Ryan down and Whittlesey went on to become the first female to chair Delaware County Council in 1977.
She was one of the “New Look” Republicans who replaced the long-entrenched GOP War Board, along with former district attorney Frank Hazel and former fellow county councilman Charles Keeler who she had to convince to distribute her signature campaign “potholders.” Hazel and Keeler later became Delaware County judges. Delaware County Republican bosses “never owned me,” Whittlesey once proudly declared.
She defied local Republicans again when, as an alternate Delaware County delegate to the Republican National Convention in 1976, she threw her support behind Reagan for president instead of Gerald Ford, who ultimately won the nomination but lost the presidency to Jimmy Carter.
Her unsuccessful primary bid for Pennsylvania lieutenant governor in 1978, Whittlesey believes, was her punishment from local Republicans for supporting Reagan over Ford in 1976.
Nevertheless, Whittlesey proved victorious in 1980 when, with Montgomery County’s Drew Lewis, she co-chaired the Reagan for President campaign in Pennsylvania. Reagan’s first campaign stop was in Folcroft after announcing his candidacy in New York in November 1979.
“His last stop in 1980 was Upper Darby High School before going home to California to get the results, the night before the election,” said Whittlesey.
She noted that the band from Cardinal O’Hara High School in Marple played for Reagan on the eve of the 1980 election in Upper Darby and again in his inaugural parade. President Reagan, who won Pennsylvania over Carter with a plurality of 300,000 votes, rewarded Whittlesey with the ambassadorship to Switzerland twice, first from Sept. 28, 1981, to Feb. 29, 1983, and again in his second term, from April 4, 1985, through June 14, 1988. In between, Whittlesey served as assistant to the president for public liaison and was the highest ranking woman in the White House from March 1983 to March 1985.
In addition to surviving scrutiny for her association with Oliver North during her days in the Reagan White House, Whittlesey weathered a congressional inquiry over her management of the Swiss embassy.
After she completed her second stint as Reagan’s Swiss ambassador, Whittlesey served for 19 years as president and chairman for the American Swiss Foundation and traveled internationally as a diplomat and corporate consultant on government issues.
In 2006, Whittlesey was honored by the American Rose Society with an off-white rose bearing her name, some of which were conveyed from South Carolina by her assistant, Gene Waering, to her gala at the Smithsonian last Thursday. In 2010, she was presented with the International Friend of the Rose Award for helping establish a relationship between gardening communities in the U.S. and the People’s Republic of China.
Whittlesey has also served on the board of six corporations, including Sunbeam, where she was among the directors who voted to fire Al “Chainsaw” Dunlap, the former Scott Paper chief executive officer who was notorious for eviscerating the work force at the old Chester company. She still serves on the boards of Schindler Elevator Corp. and Valassis Corp., a sales and marketing company that produces Sunday newspaper coupons.
Her archives are housed at Boston University, where Whittlesey was awarded an honorary doctorate and where there is an ongoing exhibit about her in the Mugar Library. She also has honorary doctorates from Widener University in Chester, and King’s College in Wilkes-Barre.
Whittlesey has had her share of challenges since she returned to the private sector, including supporting her daughter through “a terrible divorce” from George D. O’Neill Jr., a great-grandson of John D. Rockefeller Jr., and her son, Henry, through his struggle with schizophrenia.
Whittlesey herself has beaten a rare form of cancer called ocular melanoma that caused her to lose her right eye in 1994, and in 2001 she underwent lung cancer surgery. Whittlesey said last Thursday that she is now cancer-free. In 2003, she sold her homes in Cambridge, Mass., and New York and made her sole residence in Florida where, she has said, “the sunshine makes me feel very healthy.”
Some of Whittlesey’s 10 grandchildren, who range in age from 6 to 21, live with her and her daughter in Palm Beach County. The rest reside with her sons in the Boston area. They are all a source of joy for Whittlesey, an accomplished pianist, who likes to sing songs with them, make them pancakes and teach them about American history.
The former Swiss ambassador has even been known to engage her grandchildren in discussions about international affairs.