Transcripts

A Washingtonian Remembers A Capitol Hill Long Gone

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:03
But we start our show today by looking back.

MS. MARY GRAY

00:00:06
I was born Jan. 6, 1919. And at that point, everybody just flops over. Even born in 1920s, it would be different, but 1919 puts you in a whole different category.

SHEIR

00:00:21
And this 93-year-old Washingtonian is definitely in a whole different category. Her name is Mary Z. Gray.

GRAY

00:00:28
And I always have to have the Z in there because there's so many Mary Grays. We have to be differentiated from the usual Mary Grays.

SHEIR

00:00:36
Aside from that middle Z, which is short for the maiden name Zerherst, this Mary Gray has differentiated herself in a number of ways. Her writing first appeared in the Washington Post in 1940. She became a speech writer for the Kennedy-Johnson White House in 1963. And, now, she's written a nonfiction book about her childhood and family. It's called "301 East Capitol: Tales from the heart of the Hill." And in it, she recounts her memories growing up at 301 East Capitol Street in the 1920s and '30s.

SHEIR

00:01:07
Nowadays, Mary lives in Silver Spring, Md. where I recently paid her a visit. And 301 East Capitol houses the Folger Shakespeare Library's Haskell Center. But, as Mary remembers with uncanny clarity, the upstairs of 301 once housed her family, of course, while the downstairs housed her family's fourth generation funeral parlor business. In fact, Mary says at least five generations of her family had lived within 10 blocks of one another on Capitol Hill, starting in 1840.

SHEIR

00:01:36
In the introduction to your book, you talk about two different worlds on Capitol Hill. You quote Alexander Hamilton. You talk about the world where the people rule. And you talk about the one where the people live. What was it like for you, growing up in a place where those two worlds coexisted?

GRAY

00:01:54
Well, it was a great privilege. We were literally connected to the Capitol by looking at it. You couldn't miss it, but also, it became part of my life, just like, you know, a tree with lovely birds in it or something right outside your window. It becomes part of your life, especially looking to see if the (word?) light was on. The (word?) is a light that a lot of people don't notice. There's always a light on the Capitol Dome at night. But there's a light that somebody has to turn on manually.

GRAY

00:02:34
And it means that Congress, one or both Houses, is in session after dark. And the first thing I learned to say was now I lay me down to sleep, and the second thing was, they're in session. And then I would tell the family they were in session, and so I got very politically-oriented young. But it really was the Capitol, the idea that Alexander Hamilton said, here, the people rule. And the Capitol Hill that we lived on, shared with this noble building, was, here, the people live. The Capitol Hill was home.

SHEIR

00:03:15
Can you paint a picture of the Capitol Hill of your childhood? I'm reading about all these old institutions in your book, like Grubb's Pharmacy, Sheryl's (sp?) Bakery and Restaurant, McPhee's (sp?) Men's Haberdashery. Can you illustrate for us what things looked like, what they sounded like?

GRAY

00:03:31
A lot happened on the streets. For instance, there was a man who came around every night and turned the gas lights on on A Street. He didn't come on East Capitol Street, maybe there was an electric system on East Capitol. And the boys, newsboys used to stand on the corner and yell headlines. Tom the Huckster, (sp?) who had a cart, it was drawn by a horse, and Tom the Huckster used to yell, strawberries.

GRAY

00:04:07
And he'd kind of sing it, strawberries. And, watermelon, watermelon, fresh off the vine. And people used to run out the front doors and get all excited because it was time for strawberries, for instance. And then there was a pony, this man owned him, used to bring him, and that sound would go up. Pony's here. And everybody would run at him, take stupid-looking pictures. There's an awful picture of me in an incredible bonnet, sitting on this pony. The pony never moved.

GRAY

00:04:47
It would just sit there, and then a little organ guy, an organ guy, and with a little tiny monkey. It was just adorable. And he would grind away "Come Back to Sorrento" or some Italian -- the monkey didn't grind the organ, his owner. It's kind of strange to be 93, you know. When you realize that you can tell about something that happened almost 100 years ago, and you remember it, that gives me the creeps.

SHEIR

00:05:26
One of my favorite chapters in the book is a story about you and a mysterious man called Mr. President. Can you tell us that story? I love that story.

GRAY

00:05:37
Well, thank you. Well, our minister was Mr. Pettis. (sp?) This was St. Mark's Episcopal Church. He was a good friend of ours, and he offered to take me somewhere. I was only five. I can see my boots, red boots, like Wellingtons. But, anyway, he was to take me somewhere, and it was a -- something important. But it was a very nasty day. It was snowing and sleeting. This is in January.

GRAY

00:06:10
And Mr. Pettis and I took the streetcar downtown. So we went inside the building, and I can remember this 'cause I was looking down, so I didn't see much above me. And there was a red carpet. We stopped at a certain place in this red carpet, and there was a man who was on the other side of the carpet. And he had bulbous-toed shoes. They were like a little ball on top of the shoe, very strange-looking. And he was kneeling over, trying to get me to say something.

GRAY

00:06:42
And he kept calling me Little Red Riding Hood. And I kept pulling this hat down over my face 'cause I was just confused about the whole situation. And he would say something about how, you know, he was glad to see me and Little Red Riding Hood, and then I would pull this visor down. And he called our minister Billy, and our minister called him Mr. President. And that didn't ring a bell with me, nothing. But we got home, and everybody wanted to know what happened, what he said because it was Calvin Coolidge's first New Years Day reception, I found out later.

SHEIR

00:07:34
Well, Mary Z. Gray, you have some amazing memories.

GRAY

00:07:38
Well, don't ask me what we had for lunch yesterday.

SHEIR

00:07:44
Mary Z. Gray is the author of "301 East Capitol: Tales from the heart of the Hill," published by Overbeck History Press. She'll be reading from the book at two events this coming week, first on the 12th at the Hill Center at the old naval hospital, then again on the 13th at her former home, 301 East Capitol, now the Folger Shakespeare Library's Haskell Center. For more information, and to see photos of Mary as a young girl in Capitol Hill, including that shot of her in that big bonnet on the pony that never moved, visit our website, metroconnection.org.
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