Joan Mondale: A Remembrance

Joan Mondale was a lovely person. I was privileged to know her, first as a Washington correspondent for Minnesota newspapers when her husband was a U.S. senator, then as his press secretary when he was vice president and finally as an editor of The Hill when he was U.S. ambassador to Japan.

Mrs. Mondale, 83, who died at a hospice in Minneapolis Monday, was her husband's equal partner in every office he held. But she made her own name as a patron and promoter of the arts, hence her nickname "Joan of Art."

Which is why one of my fondest memories of her is the dinner she held at the vice president's residence for a group of prominent pop artists in 1978. Her husband, not known for his affinity for pop artists, was not there but I was, and she seated me at the head table with Andy Warhol, Frank Stella, Judy Chicago and Robert Rauschenberg.

I knew little about pop art, and I don't remember the details of the dinner, but I did know that Warhol was an important figure. That's why I got the bright idea of asking one of the Filipino stewards to bring me a can of Campbell's tomato soup because I knew that was of one of Warhol's iconic paintings. The steward informed me that he couldn't find a can of Campbell's tomato soup but brought me a can of mushroom soup. I asked Warhol to sign it and he did, scribbling a drawing on it and signing his name.

I put away the can and forgot about it until after Warhol's death I read that Campbell's soup cans autographed by him were selling for huge sums. I gave it to my older daughter Kitty, who had it appraised. You can ask her what she'll take for it.

I have many other fond memories of Mrs. Mondale, but here are two that come to mind. In March, 1979, I accompanied her and Secretary of Labor Ray Marshall when she led an official delegation to the inaugurals of the presidents of Venezuela and Brazil -- she was standing in for the vice president who couldn't go because President Carter was in the Mideast and both couldn't be out of the country at the same time.

She was the perfect diplomat, charming her hosts in Caracas and Rio de Janiero and Brazilia, especially when her then-17-year-old son, William translated her arrival statement into Spanish in Caracas. She met with top artists in both countries and promised to discuss concerns they had about censorship of art and artists with the new presidents of both countries. She also said the vice president would soon make an official visit, which he did two weeks later.

And in 1995 when her husband was U.S. ambassador to Japan, he arranged a speaking tour for me of ten cities. At the end of the tour, I was scheduled to have dinner with the Mondales in Tokyo when he was called away at the last minute to meet with the Japanese prime minister. But she insisted I come anyway, and I brought a Japanese woman artist whom I knew with me. We had a lovely dinner and the artist and she hit it off instantly.

I have some sad memories of Mrs. Mondale too. I attended the funeral of her daughter Eleanor, who died of brain cancer in 2011, a devastating experience for her and her family. I last saw her at a dinner in Washington in 2012, when she was first showing signs of the Alzheimers disease that caused her death.

She didn't remember me but flashed a lovely smile that was her trademark. I wasn't offended, but grateful that I had been among the multitude of friends who were privileged to know her. Joan Mondale was a gracious and lovely person who brought joy to others through her support of the arts.