Frank DeFilippo: Happy Centennial, Bootsie Mandel!

Government House, the official residence of Maryland's governors. Former first lady Bootsie Mandel holed up there after her husband, then-Gov. Marvin Mandel, ran off with another woman. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

Former Gov. Marvin Mandel had five words that he lived by: Don’t get mad, get even.

His first wife, Barbara “Bootsie” Mandel, did exactly that: She’s lived to be 100.

But the coronavirus crashed her birthday party. And what a party it was to be. Bootsie’s centennial was to have been celebrated on March 24 with a grand reception at Government House where she once presided as chatelaine and her portrait hangs in a gallery of former First Ladies.

It’s a milestone, for sure, one for the history books, Maryland’s longest-lived First Lady.

Government House — or the Governor’s Mansion, as Bootsie preferred, because “Government House sounds too much like a prison,” though the nameplate on the gate says “Government House” — is also the 54-room fortress that she once held hostage for five months after her husband of 32 years announced that he was dumping her for a young divorced mother of four, Jeanne Blackistone Dorsey. The formal invitation reads:

“The Governor of Maryland and Mrs. Hogan request the pleasure of your company at a reception to celebrate First Lady Barbara Mandel’s 100th Birthday. . . .”

Frank!
Frank A. DeFilippo

Contagion is a party-pooper. As the pugnacious pathogen, COVID-19, crept closer to Maryland, it became ever more doubtful that the event would actually happen. Finally, Gov. Larry Hogan put into practice what he has been preaching — stay home, stay well, be vigilant — and no gatherings of more than 10. The follow-up communication read:

“We regret to inform you that the Governor of Maryland and Mrs. Hogan have canceled the Reception scheduled for Tuesday, March 24th. We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused.”

But Bootsie is still having the last word, party or not. She has, so far, outlived Mandel by five years. He died, at 95, in late August 2015. Earlier in that year, in May, Maryland’s 56th governor was toasted by several hundred of his closest friends at a lavish party, at the Marriott Waterfront — Harbor East, where Hogan was the principal speaker, among many other principal speakers.

Revenge, the lethal saying, goes, is a dish best served cold. And what could be better revenge than living long and well.

But revenge is really not what Bootsie had in mind. For at the end, she was First Lady again at her high school sweetheart’s funeral, with a slew of kids joining her in the receiving line – those that she bore, and those that she kind of inherited. The other first lady who displaced her had also died, years before in October 2001.

The blended family of Mandel stood shoulder-to-shoulder in the receiving line at his funeral services on Sept. 3, 2015, led by the Mandel matriarch, Bootsie, and her two children, Gary Mandel (since deceased) and Ellen Mandel Maltz, and the four children of Jeanne Blackistone Dorsey — Paul, Philip, Helen and John Michael, who was represented by his son, John. The formation included a swath of Mandel grandchildren.

Cent’anni is an Italian toast meaning “may you live to be a hundred.” Bootsie has made it to there and beyond, so junk the out-lived toast.

When last seen, at Mandel’s funeral, Bootsie was well and looking terrific, youthful and exuberant as ever in a new-found life and a long-term relationship. Then, she was dividing her time between Florida and her encampment at the Imperial Apartments, in Northwest Baltimore, where she had established herself after the divorce.

She was, in a sense, a better politician than Mandel, not as cunning at vote-counting, perhaps, but outgoing and vivacious with people and a gift for chatting up in groups where Mandel was shy, almost, and occasionally uncomfortable. He was more at home in back rooms, she out front. They were truly and visibly a power couple, one complementing the other. Until errant love did its insidious work.

She was (and is) barely visible these days, except for occasional dinners at the Woodholme County Club and other celebratory occasions, far from the familiar daily “sound bite” that she became during the five months that she barricaded herself in the governor’s mansion after Mandel announced that he was leaving her for Jeanne, a statuesque blond 18 years younger than he.

In the funeral receiving line, Bootsie confided that in recent years (before his death) she and Mandel had become friends again, phoning regularly and visiting occasionally. According to a report in The Washington Post on the occasion of his funeral, Bootsie shoveled the first scoop of earth on Mandel’s lowered coffin, as is the Jewish custom, with the parting sentiment, “God bless you, darling.”

It would have been fascinating to watch Bootsie return to Government House, a homecoming of sorts, to witness the various transformations that have occurred under succeeding First Ladies, commissions and governors since she packed up and left in December, 1973, following the divorce settlement.

Bootsie loved to fuss over the mansion and putter around its massive, vaulted rooms.

When Bootsie moved in, she said the mansion was run down and neglected. A real Shonda. Even worse, the immediate past occupant, Spiro T. Agnew, had made off with the mansion bank account and all of the crystal except for several jelly glasses. Agnew also removed all of the wine from the cellar bins except one bottle of Manischewitz, perhaps his idea of a middlebrow ethnic joke.

Bootsie busied herself organizing the house to her taste and comfort. She ordered a new supply of matchbooks embossed with the state seal and the words, “Governor’s Mansion.”

When Bootsie saw the mansion walls crumbling around her, she responded in the only way she could. She intensified activity in the big house, a frenzied rearguard action calculated to show that she was still its occupant and the governor was still by her side.

And it was Bootsie who instituted the gallery of First Ladies to assure that her portrait would always hang in the majestic house.

Since Bootsie’s days as First Lady, the governor’s official residence (Maryland law says the governor must reside at the seat of government) has had numerous facelifts and historic touch-ups – under the administrations of Govs. Harry R. Hughes, William Donald Schaefer and Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

Governors and First Ladies come and go on a constitutionally fixed schedule, depending on luck and pluck, every four or eight years. And so do decorators, less regularly, with their fabric swatches and tape measures. The public areas are now recreated to reflect authentic historic period-piece themes.

But imagine, if you can, Bootsie Mandel, ever the habitual Jewish mother, patrolling the Georgian mansion as if it were Downton Abbey, smoothing a stubborn carpet fringe, aligning a hanging portrait frame with the horizon, or scolding a limping candle to attention.

In her own words, she was First Lady, but a lady first. Happy centennial, Bootsie.

Frank A. DeFilippo
Frank A. DeFilippo is an award-winning political commentator who lives and writes in Baltimore. DeFilippo has been writing about the comic opera of politics for more than 50 years. He reported on the Maryland General Assembly for 10 years before joining the administration of former Gov. Marvin Mandel (D) as press secretary and speechwriter. Between times, he was a White House correspondent during the administration of President Lyndon Baines Johnson, and he has covered six national political conventions. DeFilippo is the author of Hooked, an alleged work of fiction, and an unpublished manuscript, Shiksa: The Rise and Fall of Marvin Mandel.