Esther Coopersmith, Washington Hostess and Diplomat, Dies at 94


At a private fund-raising reception last year, the president of the United States introduced himself this way: “My name is Joe Biden. I’m a friend of Esther Coopersmith’s.”

Mrs. Coopersmith’s name has been a calling card in Washington for seven decades. As one of the longest-reigning hostesses, best-connected diplomats and top fund-raisers in the nation’s capital, she greased the machinery that helped keep political, diplomatic and journalistic circles spinning; a place at her dinner tables, which sat 75, (with room for many more elsewhere and outside) provided access to networks of money, influence and power across cultural and political divides.

Among her many matches, she introduced Bill Clinton, who was then the governor of Arkansas, to Boris Yeltsin on a trip to Moscow. She introduced Jehan Sadat, the wife of President Anwar Sadat of Egypt, to Aliza Begin, the wife of Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel, before the Camp David peace accords. Anatoly F. Dobrynin, the longtime Soviet ambassador to the United States, had his first Thanksgiving at her table.

“People need a place out of the public spotlight to meet and talk,” she told The New York Times in 1987.

Mrs. Coopersmith, who had multiple affiliations with the United Nations but who also reveled in her role as a freelancing citizen diplomat, died on Tuesday at her home in the Kalorama neighborhood of Washington. She was 94.

The cause was cancer, said Janet Pitt, her longtime chief of staff. Rather than seek treatment that might have only postponed the inevitable and made her miserable, Ms. Pitt said, Mrs. Coopersmith “wanted to live her life.”

Mrs. Coopersmith at a reception at her Washington home with President Biden in October 2023.Credit…Janet Pitt

The last public event Mrs. Coopersmith attended was the Gridiron dinner in mid-March. That annual political roast was one of her favorite outings, Ms. Pitt said, because she could bring dignitaries from other countries and show them “how we could poke fun at our politicians and our government and live to tell about it the next day.”

President Biden said in a statement after Mrs. Coopersmith’s death that she was one of his “early boosters” when he was 29 and ran for the Senate in 1972. “Her belief in me,” he said, “meant the world.”

Nancy Pelosi, the former speaker of the House, said in a statement, “For all my years in politics, I have been in awe of her.” In an obituary published on Legacy.com, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called her “the indomitable doyenne of Washington.”

Mrs. Coopersmith grew up on a farm in Wisconsin and caught the politics bug while listening to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fireside chats on the radio. She moved to Washington in the early 1950s, landed a lobbying job and quickly parlayed her skills — personal warmth, self-confidence, smarts about people — into fund-raising.

Mrs. Coopersmith was fascinated by power and the alchemy that it produced. As she told The Times in 1987:

“I do it because I love the activity, the excitement, I love to mix people up, I love sharing my home. In New York if you have a lot of money you can buy your way into anything. Here it is power that counts — what your position is or could be. It is wonderful to watch power and how power affects people, how they run with it, how they adjust to it.”

While bipartisan in her pursuits, she was a Democrat at heart and over the years raised millions of dollars for the party’s candidates. By 1958, she was rubbing shoulders with the likes of former President Harry S. Truman, who scribbled on a photo of the two of them, “Kindest regards to an able and efficient Democrat from one who knows!”

Such mementos accumulated and in time occupied nearly every square inch of space in Mrs. Coopersmith’s four-story brick mansion. They included signed photos of decades of Washington players and international personages and a telegram from Mr. Carter thanking her for introducing Mrs. Sadat and Mrs. Begin and helping to get the peace accords off the ground. She later introduced Mrs. Sadat to Richard Berendzen, president of American University, who then hired Mrs. Sadat to teach.

Mrs. Coopersmith donated some of her treasure trove to the newly minted National Museum of American Diplomacy in Washington. To help promote the museum, she held a discussion at her home last year featuring Debora Cahn, the creator and showrunner of the popular Netflix series “The Diplomat,” starring Keri Russell, and Elizabeth Jones, a longtime foreign service officer and one of the figures on whom Ms. Russell’s character was based.

During the discussion, Ms. Cahn paid homage to the importance of personal relationships in geopolitics: “In a crisis, you can pick up the phone and call somebody who you sat next to at Esther Coopersmith’s and didn’t think it was a good seating choice in the beginning, but by dessert it seemed like you had a lot in common.”

Mrs. Coopersmith was proud of the sometimes unconventional pairings at her dinner table. In 1990, she seated an Israeli diplomat next to an emissary of Saddam Hussein, the president of Iraq; shortly thereafter, Iraq invaded Kuwait and started the Persian Gulf war.

“It’s my home, and I can do whatever I want,” she told The Jerusalem Post in 1993. “They didn’t talk much, but as far as I was concerned, it was a start.”

She was born Esther Lipsen on Jan. 18, 1930, in Des Moines. Her family soon moved to the small town of Mazomanie, Wis., which is just northwest of Madison in the southern part of the state and at the time had a population of 891. Esther’s father, Morris, who came from Belarus, was a cattle rancher. Her mother, Pauline, who was born in Romania, managed the household of five children. They were the only Jewish family there.

By the age of 8, Esther was hooked on politics, thanks to F.D.R. By 12, she was raising money for the Red Cross.

She attended the University of Denver and later the University of Wisconsin. In 1952, she went to a rally for Senator Estes Kefauver, a Democrat from Tennessee who was running for president. Leaving college behind without graduating, she helped Mr. Kefauver win the Wisconsin primary; after he lost the nomination to Adlai Stevenson, she helped organize for Mr. Stevenson.

Esther Coopersmith, center, with Bess and Harry S. Truman to her right in an undated photo.Credit…Estate of Esther Coopersmith

She decided that the real power was in Washington and moved there at Mr. Kefauver’s suggestion. She refused to learn to type, to avoid being stereotyped as a secretary, and she eventually got a job as a lobbyist for the Federation for Railway Progress.

She married Jack Coopersmith, a real estate developer, in 1954, and they settled in Potomac, Md., where she began hosting dinners, buffets and book signings and organizing events. A decade later, she was staging Texas-style fund-raising barbecues for President Lyndon B. Johnson all over the country.

She soon branched out to philanthropy, raising money for service organizations and helping to save Washington’s Union Station from the wrecking ball. She threw an intimate dinner for Barbra Streisand in 2015 the night before Ms. Streisand lobbied on Capitol Hill for the Women’s Health Alliance.

Mr. Coopersmith died at 80 in 1991. Soon thereafter, Mrs. Coopersmith moved to Washington, where she overhauled the Kalorama house, not far from Embassy Row, with the help of a White House decorator.

She is survived by three sons, Jonathan, Jeffrey and Ronald; a daughter, Connie Coopersmith; a sister, Rita Rabinowitz; and eight grandchildren.

Over the years, Mrs. Coopersmith was given several quasi-official roles, most of them involving the United Nations. She served as a public member of the United States delegation to the U.N. under President Carter from 1979 to 1980; the position, also once held by Eleanor Roosevelt and Paul Newman, entails representing the United States on committees, attending debates in the General Assembly and showing up at receptions given by member nations.

President Ronald Reagan sent Mrs. Coopersmith to important U.N. conferences. She received the U.N. Peace Prize in 1984. President Clinton named her as a U.S. observer at UNESCO. In 2009, UNESCO named her a goodwill ambassador.

The posts gave her diplomatic cache, but she especially enjoyed practicing her own brand of soft diplomacy, defined by her own protocol, in the political kaleidoscope that is Washington.

“I don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t play cards and don’t belong to a country club,” she told The Times in 1978. “Politics is my vice.”

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