Nuala Pell, Spouse And Political Partner Of Sen. Claiborne Pell, Dies

Apr 13, 2014

Nuala Pell, widow of revered Sen. Claiborne Pell, confidante of Pastores, Kennedys and European royalty, a force in Rhode Island politics for decades and a woman who was as at ease at a Democratic Party rally at a Portuguese Club as she was with the well-born swells of Newport society at Bailey’s Beach, died early this morning at Newport Hospital. She was 89.

The Pell family has announced a memorial service to be held Monday, April 21 at Trinity Episcopal Church in Newport, at 11 a.m.

Nuala Pell in her Newport home.
Credit Flo Jonic / RIPR

Mrs. Pell, as she was known in Democratic circles, was at the side of her husband through all of his six winning campaigns for U.S. Senate, from his improbable first victory in 1960 until his last campaign in 1990. A patron of the arts who was beloved both around her adopted state and especially in Newport, she was active until her death.

She spoke eloquently at the political coming out of her grandson, Clay Pell, when he announced his candidacy for the Rhode Island Democratic gubernatorial nomination in January at the Rhode Island Convention Center in Providence.

Funeral services are scheduled for April 21 at 11 a.m. at Trinity Episcopal Church in Newport, the site of her husband's funeral in January, 2009.

Well-born and old-monied, Nuala Pell was known for treating everyone, from any of life's demographic groups, with respect, Old World dignity and affection.

``Our entire family is heartbroken by my grandmother's passing,'' said Clay Pell. ``She dedicated her life to her family and the service of others.'' Pell cited his grandmother's support for the arts and education.

``We could not have asked for a better grandmother than Mimi,'' said Clay Pell. We will love and miss her more than words can express.''

Clay Pell last saw his grandmother Friday and she was doing well, said Devin Driscoll, his campaign spokesman.

Tributes to Mrs. Pell poured in this afternoon. ``I join with all Rhode Islanders in mourning the loss of an extraordinary woman,’’ said U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I. ``She had a timeless elegance and charm and was just a beautiful person.

``It was truly an honor to know both Nuala and Claiborne Pell. I will be forever grateful for their enduring friendship, leadership and devotion to our great state,’’ said Reed in a statement. ``Together they touched so many lives and helped so many individuals.’’

``Her legacy of kindness, generosity and working to expand opportunity for others will continue to live on,’’ said Reed.

U.S. Rep. James Langevin, D-R.I. and Providence Mayor Angel Taveras also issued statements. ``Her steadfast commitment and service to Rhode Island will never be forgotten. My thoughts and prayers are with the entire Pell family,’’ said Langevin.

Taveras, who is running against Nuala Pell’s grandson for the Democratic gubernatorial nod, cited Mrs. Pell’s contributions to Rhode Island. ``She spent more than a half century in public service alongside her husband…and was a passionate advocate for the arts, humanities and education – among other noble causes.’’

While Nuala Pell was most identified with her husband’s political career, she was a modern woman who had her own views. In 2008, she very publicly endorsed then-Illinois Sen. Barack Obama for president and hosted a campaign event at the Providence Biltmore Hotel that featured Michelle Obama as a speaker. Her husband, who was close to Bill Clinton, supported former First Lady Hillary Clinton in that year’s Democratic presidential campaign.

In the mid-1990s, she lobbied at the Rhode Island Statehouse for gay rights legislation that banned discrimination against gay people in employment, housing, public accommodations and the granting of credit. While Claiborne Pell was slow to accept his daughter’s decision to come out of the closet as a lesbian, Mrs. Pell campaigned with her daughter, Julia Pell, on Smith Hill for the gay rights legislation. Pell and her daughter button holed lawmakers and the measure, which had lingered for years at the General Assembly due to stalwart opposition from the Roman Catholic Church, was approved by the legislature and signed into law by then-Gov. Lincoln Almond in 1995.

A scion of the family that founded the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company, the A&P, Nuala Pell, considered a young woman of great beauty, was raised amid wealth and pedigree in the last days of Anglo empire before World War II. It was a blush of European vacations, summers in Newport among houses that sported names, debutante balls and Park Avenue parties marinated in Social Register surnames. Her mother, Marie Josephine Hartford, was educated in Paris, became a concert pianist and was a  New York friend and contemporary of the musical Gershwins. Nuala Pell studied at Bennington College in Vermont, which was in those days largely a finishing school for wealthy women.

While her family enjoyed the social circuit of high society, the equally well-born Pells, who came to America well before the Revolutionary War, took a different route to prominence. Her husband was a descendant of Pierre Lorillard, who founded  the nation’s first tobacco company, in the 18th century. Her husband’s family was more about civic service than fancy parties; Pells had served in government and the U.S. Congress since the beginning of the United States. Claiborne Pell’s father was a Congressman from New York and a U.S. minister to Portugal and Hungry. The Pells were old-money WASPs, but believed more in public service that did many of their upper-crust contemporaries, who were busy living in a style reminiscent of F. Scott Fitzgerald novels.

Among Pell's relatives was George Mifflin Dallas, Claiborne Pell's great-great granduncle, who was born in 1792 and was a senator from Pennsylvania and vice-president of the U.S., according to Garrison Nelson, political science professor at the University of Vermont and an expert on Congress. Pell was also a cousin of  the politically prominent Boggs family of New Orleans.

Nuala Pell enjoyed the life she inherited, but yearned for something more. ``I didn’t really agree with my parents way of life; it seemed so superficial,’’ she told her husband’s biographer, G. Wayne Miller, in 2005. ``That’s not to say I did not enjoy it, I had a ball. But I thought Claiborne had it all right. I believed in what he believed in. Plus I found him enormously attractive.’’

The two met at a cocktail party in Newport near the end of World War II. Claiborne Pell was an officer in the U.S. Coast Guard; he was stateside nursing a bacterial infection he contracted in the Mediterranean from consuming unpasteurized dairy products. The couple hit if off immediately, but the road to the alter had an obstacle, Mrs. Pell told Rhode Island Public Radio many years later.

``My family didn’t think Claiborne was good enough for me,’’ she said. It took an intervention from a friend of both families, James Forrestal, a U.S. diplomat and the first U.S. Secretary of Defense, to assure her family that Pell was a ``young man of promise,’’ she said.

The Pells were married at St. James Episcopal Church in December, 1944. The New York News society pages gushed that the ``pretty A&P heiress Nuala ODonnell’’ was to marry ``the blue-blooded Lt. Claiborne Pell of the Coast Guard.’’

Claiborne Pell attended Princeton University. Years later, Nuala Pell would regale dinner guests with tales of the early days of her marriage. She had led such a cosseted life, she said, that she didn't know how to cook dinner or balance a checkbook.  Luckily, the young couple lived near a Princeton scholar who was good with figures - Albert Einstein. ``Can you imagine, it was Einstein who taught me to balance a checkbook, '' she said.

President Franklin Roosevelt and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt could not make the wedding but sent a spray of 36 roses.

In 1960, Pell startled the political world by winning a Democratic primary for U.S. Senate against two better-known politicians, former Gov. Dennis Roberts and J. Howard McGrath, who held several political posts both in Rhode Island and in Harry Truman’s presidential administration. Pell had never won any elective office.

Pell’s friend John F. Kennedy, then a Massachusetts U.S. Sen. who was running for president, famously labeled Pell ``the most unelectable man in America.’’

In the 1960s glory years of the New Frontier, the Pells were close to the Kennedys. The home movies of the Pells sailing with the president and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, are on display at the JFK Library in Boston. JFK’s used Newport, where his wife summered, as a `Summer White House’ vacation venue and the Pells sometimes hitched weekend rides home with the First Family on Air Force One.

The Pells were also confidantes and friends with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and his wife, Vicki Kennedy.

Every July 4th until Claiborne Pell’s death, Ted Kennedy and his wife would sail from Cape Cod to Newport to visit the Pells and stay overnight at the Pell’s home on Ledge Road overlooking Bailey’s Beach in Newport. Mrs. Pell said that Ted Kennedy would always take Claiborne Pell out for a sail, even in the later years when Claiborne Pell was slowed by age and Parkinson’s Disease. Ted Kennedy, voice wavering from the cancer that would later kill him, gave a eulogy Senator Pell’s funeral, along with Vice-President Joe Biden and Bill Clinton.

Beating the toughest opposition our  cozy’s state’s political culture could throw at him, Pell never lost an election in Rhode Island. He rode his Senate seniority to become chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and authored the Pell grant college program that helps finance college education for working and middle class Americans.

If you wanted make John Chafee wince, the Providence Journal political writer John Mulligan wrote years ago, mention to Chafee the 1972 Senate campaign that he lost to Claiborne Pell. Chafee , a former governor and U.S. Navy Secretary, started out with a yawning lead in public opinion polls, but Pell rode opposition to  Richard Nixon’s Vietnam War policy and support from Rhode Island’s then-strong labor movement to victory. (Republican Chafee would later win a Senate seat, in 1976, when Democrat John Pastore retired. Pastore and Pell remained allies; Pastore, a fine orator, would be the master of ceremonies for Pell’s lack campaign kickoff, in 1990. And Pastore’s grandson, Greg Pastore, took a leave from Notre Dame Law School to work on Pell’s campaign that year). In 1990, Pell defeated Republican Congresswoman Claudine Schneider, a popular GOP moderate.

Nuala Pell had an understated humor and was a gracious woman to all comers. M. Charles Bakst, the longtime Providence Journal political columnist, remembers many instances where she used wit to liven up the appearances of her husband, who was by his own account diffident and eccentric.

Bakst today recalled the couple stumping in Woonsocket during the 1972 campaign. Claiborne Pell told a self-deprecating joke to the effect that he had as dull persona and didn’t have much sense of humor.

``Why yes you do Claiborne,’’ piped up his wife.  ``She was often a better salesperson for his campaigns than he was,'' said Bakst.

When the terminal at the T.F. Green Airport in Warwick was being named for his friend, Rhode Island Gov. Bruce Sundlun, Pell quipped that he didn’t have an airport terminal named after himself.  ``No, Claiborne, but you do have a bridge,’’ said his wife.

Two of the couple’s children predeceased her – Herbert Claiborne ``Bertie’’ Pell, III and daughter Julia. In her later years, she lived at the couple’s home, `Pelican Ledge’’ and was often seen at Newport classical music, social and cultural events, including performances of Gershwin at the Newport Music Festival.