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A Washingtonian Remembers A Capitol Hill Long Gone

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Mary Gray, a 93-year-old writer, remembers her childhood on Capitol Hill in her new book, 301 East Capitol: Tales from the Heart of the Hill.
Alice Jackson, Overbeck History Press
Mary Gray, a 93-year-old writer, remembers her childhood on Capitol Hill in her new book, 301 East Capitol: Tales from the Heart of the Hill.

Mary Z. Gray, 93, says she keeps “the Z in there before there’s so many Mary Grays, we have to be differentiated from the usual Mary Grays!”

But this Mary Gray already has differentiated herself in a number of ways: her writing first appeared in the Washington Post in 1940. She became a speechwriter 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.

Nowadays, Gray lives in Silver Spring, Md. 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, Gray says at least five generations of her family had lived within ten blocks of one another on Capitol Hill, starting in 1840.

She says one of her favorite things about growing up in the neighborhood was looking for the tholos light: “The tholos is a light that a lot of people don’t notice,” she says. “There’s always a light on the Capitol Dome at night, but there’s a light that somebody has to turn on manually. And it means that Congress, one or both houses, is in session after dark.” So the first thing Gray recalls learning to say was “Now I lay me down to sleep.” The second was “They’re in session.”

“Then I would tell the family they were in session,” she says. “So I got very politically oriented young. But really it was the Capitol and the idea that Alex Hamilton said ‘Here the people rule,’ and that the Capitol Hill that we shared with this noble building – it was here the people lived. The Capitol Hill was home.”

Memories… nearly 100 years later

Gray distinctly remembers the sights and sounds of the Capitol Hill streets in the 1930s and 1940s, from the man who turned on the gaslights on A Street, to the newsboys who shouted the headlines on the corners. Then there was Tom the Huckster.

“Tom had a cart that was drawn by a horse and used to yell ‘Strawberries!’ He’d kind of sing it,” she remembers. “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.”

Gray also remembers the organ grinder and his monkey, but most of all, the pony.

“The man who owned him used to bring him, and that sound would go up: ‘Pony’s here!’” Gray says. “And everybody would run out and take stupid looking pictures. There’s an awful picture of me in an incredible bonnet sitting on this pony. The pony never moved it would just sit there.”

One of the book’s chapters tells the story of a mysterious man called “Mr. President.” Gray says she was 5 years old when her minister took her downtown on the streetcar on a blustery January day.

“So we went inside the building and I can remember there was a red carpet,” she says. “And there was a man who was on the other side of the carpet. And he was leaning over, trying to get me to say something. And I kept pulling this hat down over my face. I was just confused about the whole situation.”

Gray says the man called her minister “Billy.” And her minister called the man “Mr. President.”

“That didn’t ring a bell with me!” Gray says. “But we got home and everybody wanted to know what happened, what he said. Because it was Calvin Coolidge’s first New Year’s Day reception, I found out later!”

“It’s kind of strange to be 93,” Gray adds with a laugh. “When you realize that you can tell about something that happened almost a hundred years ago and you remember it, that gives me the creeps!”

When commended on her impeccable memory, Gray responds with another laugh. “Well, don’t ask me what we had for lunch yesterday!”

[Music: "Folks Who Live on the Hill" by Peggy Lee from The Best of Smooth Jazz... Ever!]

Photos: Mary Gray

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