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Ruth Buchanan, Philanthropist and Hostess Extraordinaire, Is Dead at 101

Ruth Buchanan, the Dow Chemical heiress who entertained world leaders as the wife of an ambassador and White House chief of protocol and dazzled American society in her own opulent mansions in Washington and Newport, R.I., died on Nov. 18 at her home in Washington. She was 101.

Mrs. Buchanan’s death, which was not widely reported at the time, was confirmed on Monday by her daughter Bonnie Matheson.

A granddaughter of Herbert Henry Dow, who founded the Dow Chemical Company in 1897 and laid the foundations of one of the world’s largest corporations, Mrs. Buchanan led a fairy-tale life of privilege and almost unimaginable riches. She presided over society gatherings at Under Oak, her French-Norman estate in the nation’s capital, and Beaulieu, her 16-bedroom oceanfront “cottage” in Newport, formerly owned by William Waldorf Astor and Cornelius Vanderbilt III.

She attended elite schools, earned a degree from the Connecticut College for Women and married two wealthy and accomplished men, one of whom became the United States ambassador to Luxembourg and Austria and chief of protocol for President Dwight D. Eisenhower. She was also a philanthropist, a leader of cultural institutions and one of the grande dames of American society.

With maids, butlers, chauffeurs and gardeners, she grew up an only child in Midland, Mich., where her father, William J. Hale, a scientist who had married Mr. Dow’s daughter, Helen, was chief of organic chemistry research for Dow. Shortly after Ruth’s birth, her mother died at 24 in the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918. Ruth was raised by her father, who never remarried, and by a retinue of servants. She was sent to preparatory schools in Washington.

When she was 22, she was married in Midland to Wiley T. Buchanan Jr., a 26-year-old Dallas man whose family had made fortunes in oil, timber and cotton. The wedding, which was also a marriage of Texas oil and Dow Chemical millions, was one of the social events of 1940.

ImageMrs. Buchanan with her husband, Wiley T. Buchanan Jr., in an undated photo. Their marriage was one of the social events of 1940.
Credit…Getty Images

A descendant of James Buchanan, the 15th president of the United States, Mr. Buchanan joined the War Production Board in World War II and was later with the National Production Authority. Both were government agencies that supervised war production. He was also close to Richard M. Nixon, who became vice president in 1953 after Eisenhower was elected president.

In 1953, Mr. Buchanan was named minister to the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, replacing Perle Mesta, the American socialite and ambassador. When the two countries raised their missions to the status of embassy in 1955, he became a full ambassador. Contributing their own funds, the Buchanans spent lavishly on entertainment, putting the legation’s level of spending only slightly below that of embassies in London, Paris and Rome.

Mrs. Buchanan soon adapted to life in trilingual Luxembourg, a representative democracy with a constitutional monarchy whose landlocked location, surrounded by great powers, has historically made it strategically important. She became conversant (in French, German or English) with European affairs and gave dinner parties for kings and queens, diplomats and celebrities.

Returning to Washington, Mr. Buchanan was protocol chief from 1957 to 1961, a greeter and guide for guests like Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip of Britain, King Baudouin of Belgium, the Soviet premier Nikita S. Khrushchev and King Saud of Saudi Arabia. Mrs. Buchanan also hosted white-tie diplomatic parties at Under Oak, in northwest Washington, named for a 400-year-old tree on the 2.75-acre estate. Mr. Buchanan wrote of the experiences in the 1964 book “Red Carpet at the White House.”

Credit…Slim Aarons/Getty Images

In the early 1960s, the Buchanans bought and restored Beaulieu, one of Newport’s oldest mansions. Completed in 1859 by Calvert Vaux, a designer of Central Park in New York, Beaulieu, with its library, billiard room and wraparound veranda overlooking the Atlantic, was a setting for memorable summer entertainments given by the Astors and Vanderbilts during Newport’s Gilded Age.

After Cornelius Vanderbilt III’s widow, Grace, died in 1953, the place fell into disrepair. But in 1961 the Buchanans moved into the gatehouse and, with hands-on supervision and trips to Europe for fireplaces and fixtures, restored the mansion to pristine condition.

Crown Prince Juan Carlos of Spain attended a gala for the reopening in 1962. Parties at Beaulieu were summer events for years.

Ruth Elizabeth Hale was born on Feb. 22, 1918, in Ann Arbor, Mich., to William and Helen Dow Hale. She attended the coeducational Potomac School and the all-girls Holton-Arms School, which were both in Washington at the time, and Connecticut College for Women in New London (now Connecticut College), where she received a bachelor’s degree in sociology in 1939. (In 1954, the Hale Laboratory was built on the campus with gifts from Mrs. Buchanan and others.)

She studied painting while in Luxembourg with her husband, and continued her studies after returning to Washington, specializing in miniature oils. Her paintings were exhibited at the Washington Gallery of Art.

She also became an avid gardener and flower arranger, and her exhibits won several prizes at the National Flower Show in Washington. She served on the boards of the Hospital for Sick Children and the Corcoran Art Gallery and as a trustee of the Holton-Arms School. In 1969, President Nixon appointed her a trustee of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington.

Mr. Buchanan, who served as ambassador to Austria from 1975 to 1977, died in 1986.

Credit…Bill Cunningham

In 1999, Mrs. Buchanan married Edward Kendall Wheeler, whom she described as her high school sweetheart. Mr. Wheeler, a Washington lawyer, was the son of Burton K. Wheeler, a former four-term Democratic United States senator from Montana, who joined his son’s law firm after retiring from the Senate in 1947.

Besides practicing law, Edward Wheeler was an early investor in cable television, satellite and paging interests. His first wife, Charlotte, died in 1995. During her three-year marriage to Mr. Wheeler, Mrs. Buchanan was known as Ruth Buchanan Wheeler, but after Mr. Wheeler’s death in 2002, she reverted to her first married name, Ruth Buchanan.

In addition to her daughter Mrs. Matheson, she is survived by two other children from her first marriage, Diane Dow Wilsey and Wiley Buchanan III; seven grandchildren; and 17 great-grandchildren.

At a club in Washington in 2008, some 150 family members and friends celebrated Mrs. Buchanan’s 90th birthday with dining, dancing, reminiscences and a “This Is Your Life” video of her favorite tunes.

“Wherever you are, Mother, is where the party is,” her daughter Diane said.

“This is all very lovely,” Mrs. Buchanan shot back, “but I’d rather be dancing.”

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