Posted on April 23 2021
By Carleton Varney- Special to the Palm Beach Daily News
This week, I said to myself: Goodbye, dear Fritz.
That is the name by which I always called Walter Mondale, whom I became friends with when he served as vice president under President Jimmy Carter. I also knew well his artistic-and-fun-loving wife, the late Joan Mondale, and their daughter, the late Eleanor Jane Mondale Polling, for whom I designed an apartment in Chicago some years ago.
I have decorated residences for two vice presidents. One was Republican — Dan Quayle — and the other was Democrat Fritz, so you might say I’m a bipartisan designer.
I first met the Mondales when I was serving as interior design consultant in the Carter White House. My introduction to Joan occurred when I attended a White House dinner and was seated beside her — and proceeded to introduce a glass of red wine onto her champagne-colored chiffon evening gown. I was, of course, embarrassed and distressed, and I apologized profusely. But Joan was a great sport about it: She simply used the club soda and salt technique to remove the red wine stains.
What started with an accident became a longtime friendship, right up to her passing at 83 in 2014. Over the years, I decorated the Mondales’ homes in Washington D.C., on Elliot Street; the U.S. embassy residence for them in Tokyo, Japan; and the vice president’s law offices. I also created a design idea for their home in Minnesota.
The Mondales were a delight to work with. Joan will always be known to many by the nickname “Joan of Art” for her love of ceramics and crafts. There was usually a touch or two of Danish and Swedish modern in her furniture selections. She appreciated the modern style and enjoyed buying furnishings at thrift shops and at yard sales — she loved comfortable designs, as did Fritz.
Chairs upholstered in linen textiles and drapery made of nubby wovens were chosen for her home in colors of soft yellows and creams. I recall purchasing a set of eight splat-back chairs for their dining room at a country antique shop in Batesville, Indiana.
Everything about the Mondale style was warm and happy, a blend of American and Danish country. I always understood the synergy between President Carter and Vice President Mondale, who both had a friendliness and straightforwardness about them. They were harmonically compatible. The Mondales, like the Carters, were American-loving in spirit and delightful to know.
When it came time to redecorate our embassy residence in Japan, Joan and I went with a traditional look in our selection of furnishings and fabrics, as would be expected — lots of Chippendale and formality. Joan was very agreeable to choices — but homespun was her inner style. I am very proud to own a ceramic bowl with its creator’s initials on the bottom, JAM, for Joan Adams Mondale.
My prayers this week are with the Mondales’ sons, Theodore and William Mondale, along with their family and friends. How I have missed Joan, and how I will miss dear Fritz.