The Eulogizer: Socialite, senator’s wife Casey Ribicoff


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Casey Ribicoff, 88, senator’s wife, socialite

Casey Ribicoff, the second wife of onetime U.S. Sen. Abraham A. Ribicoff of Connecticut and a socialite and philanthropist in her own right, died Aug. 22 at 88.

Ribicoff “became something of a Manhattan legend after Abe’s death, playing generous hostess in her Sutton Place apartment and treating her pals to the glories of Shun Lee Palace East Chinese food,” New York gossip columnist Liz Smith wrote in a loving tribute.

Ribicoff “was invariably described as elegant” and “maintained dozens of such friendships as she moved through the upper circles of New York society,” the New York Times said. Casey Ribicoff’s dinner parties were a fixture of New York’s glitterati, and accounts of events she put together in recent years from the website New York Social Diary can be found here and here

“She was just a great dame,” said former NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw. “She knew everything that was going on in New York. She knew the social gossip, and she had real insights about Manhattan’s politics, economics and culture.”

Vanity Fair, the magazine of high society, treated Ribicoff’s death with the attention it might offer royalty, and called her “chic doyenne of Manhattan society.” The magazine noted it had inducted her into its International Best-Dressed List Hall of Fame in 1988 and described her “sleek pull-back hairstyle and tinted circular spectacles (worn both indoors and out).” In its own note on Ribicoff’s style, the Times noted how Ribicoff was invariably “dressed in black, with bright red lipstick, red nails and heavy black glasses in the Diana Vreeland style, she held sway with a martini glass in one hand and a cigarette in the other.”

Former First Lady Nancy Reagan described how she and Casey Ribicoff – despite being spouses of political foes for decades – became close over the shared “pain of having husbands with Alzheimer’s. She understood what I was going through. And I turned to her for encouragement time and time again. She was a great woman.”

Casey Ribicoff was born Lois Ruth Mell in Chicago. Her father was a successful businessman. She attended University of Chicago, married and divorced young, and then moved to Miami, where she married A. Herbert Mathes, an architect. She became the first woman to join the board of trustees at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami Beach in 1963.

She met Abe Ribicoff in 1962 when he was Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare and preparing a run for the U.S. Senate from Connecticut. After Ribicoff’s first wife died, they attempted to “keep the press in the dark” about their relationship by leaving the code name  “Dr. Casey” on phone messages at his office. At the time, the series, “Ben Casey,” was a big hit on TV. The senator continued using that name for her; they married in 1972.

One society writer described her romance with Sen. Ribicoff this way: “The autumn love affair between the senator and Mrs. Mathes evidently was begun in an instant. It was an ideal for two mature people. They just liked each other and they both brought their own kind of dynamic to their life together. He was smart and personable, and she was outgoing, always curious about people and fascinated by life.”

In later years she served on the board of organizations such as the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington; and WNET, the New York public television station. She co-founded the AIDS Care Center at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital with designer Bill Blass and later raised millions for it as a principal executor of Blass’ estate, by running sales of his art collections.

In her column, Smith placed Ribicoff’s age “in her 90s,” even though other journalistic accounts placed her at 88. “So long, sweetheart. I lift an egg roll and barbecued rib to you,” Smith wrote.

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