Nancy T. Wehr, 101, socialite who played piano and sang

November 05, 2005|By FREDERICK N. RASMUSSEN | FREDERICK N. RASMUSSEN,SUN REPORTER

Nancy T. Wehr, a former Baltimore socialite, died of respiratory failure Sunday at Blakehurst Retirement Community. She was 101.

She was born Nancy de Wolf Theobald in Baltimore several weeks before the Great Fire of 1904.

"She always said she was a Baltimore Fire Baby," said a granddaughter, Nancy de Wolf Smith, a Wall Street Journal editor and Cockeysville resident. "She lived a rather full Baltimore life, and still had many friends of all ages due to that life and the sort of town this is."

Mrs. Wehr, who grew up on Beech Avenue and Bolton Hill, spent summers at Wilton, her family's home in Catonsville.

She had been the oldest living alumna of Roland Park Country School, having graduated in 1923. She also made her debut that year at the Bachelors Cotillon.

One of the most enduring and constant components of Mrs. Wehr's life was playing piano and singing, both of which she enjoyed until her late 90s.

As a young woman, she sang with legendary tenor Enrico Caruso in New York City.

"I remember the day a piano was moved into our house, when I was four or five. I had never had my hands on a piano, although I had always sung. I fiddled around for about two minutes with one finger and in about five, I was playing "My Hero" with both hands," Mrs. Wehr wrote in an autobiographical sketch.

She was married in 1924 to Frederick Lewis Wehr, whom she had met a decade earlier in dancing class. Mr. Wehr, who later became president and chairman of Monumental Life Insurance Co., died in 1975.

For 73 years, until moving to the retirement community two years ago, Mrs. Wehr lived in the home she and her husband had built in 1930 on Berwick Road in Ruxton.

"After marriage and two children, my husband encouraged me to go back to my singing," she wrote. "This I did locally on the radio and in recitals, and also with the Columbia Opera Co. of New York, where I joined them for their tours. Although I sang seriously, I also played the piano entirely by ear, and I played for many hospitals and fashion shows."

Songs from Mrs. Wehr's repertoire included such 1920s and 1930s standards as "Tea for Two" or from Broadway shows such as My Fair Lady.

"The family favorite was her rousing rendition of "42nd Street" -- played like everything else -- in some key that involved almost exclusively the black keys and a heavy foot on the loud pedal," Ms. Smith said.

At times opinionated and blunt, Mrs. Wehr also had a rapier wit.

"She had a fantastic sense of humor that at times bordered on the ridiculous. Her home was a very happy house," said Eleanor P. Baker, a friend of 70 years.

"In the 1980s, during the Reagan era, she went to one of the inaugural balls in Washington, where someone introduced her to Frank Sinatra. `How do you do, Mr. Sinatra. I am a singer, too,' she told him," Ms. Smith said. "`What did he say?' I asked. `Nothing,' she replied, `but he looked jealous.'"

"Nancy was full of life and talent and was very capable of giving great parties," said Beatrice Houghton "Beatie" Marty, a friend for 50 years. "She was always so enthusiastic about things."

Mrs. Wehr was a direct descendant of two people who arrived in America on the Mayflower and two signers of the Declaration of Independence. She also was a distant cousin of Betsy Patterson, who was briefly married to Jerome Bonaparte, Napoleon's brother.

When it came to household and culinary matters, she was fond of quoting Patterson, who reputedly said, `There are two things a Maryland lady should know about: fine furniture and that the art of serving a good meal is no more complicated than serving good cuts of meat and vegetables in season."

Mrs. Wehr was a decade younger than her cousin, Wallis Warfield Simpson, who married the Prince of Wales in 1937. That marriage, which disrupted the British empire, provoked a dismissive reaction from this representative of Baltimore's nobility.

"My grandmother, without mentioning his name, said, `She married a foreigner and left town for good,'" Ms. Smith said.

For years, Mrs. Wehr volunteered in hospitals and helped run fairs that raised money for the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd, where she had been a longtime communicant.

She was an early environmentalist, before the movement came of age, fighting development in her neighborhood. She also enjoyed the outdoors, on snowy days careening down Berwick Road on top of a Flexible Flyer sled.

"She continued to do this into her 70s," the granddaughter said.

Mrs. Wehr bred and showed champion Yorkshire terriers and was a member of the Yorkshire Terrier Club of America.

She had been a board member of the National Society of Colonial Dames of America in Maryland, Children's Hospital, SPCA, and a trustee of the Peabody Institute. She was a member of the Society of Mayflower Descendants in Maryland, the Roslyn Garden Club, the Mount Vernon Club, Elkridge Club and L'Hirondelle Club.

"She lived a wholesome life, didn't smoke, and enjoyed an occasional glass of wine. She had good genes. Her mother, grandmother and cousins all lived into their 90s and 100s," Ms. Smith said.

Services were held at her church Thursday.

Also surviving are five other grandchildren. A son, Frederick Theobald Wehr, died this year; and a daughter, Nancy de Wolf Wehr Smith Niermann, died in 2004.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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