Lady Mary Henderson Saved a Bundle for Britain by Turning Her Embassy into a Capital Showcase

updated 08/09/1982 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/09/1982 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Specially stitched shades for the grand staircase windows arrived six feet too short, a once lovely lamp was delivered in fragments, and half the border of a custom-made carpet was missing. That alone might have put a tremble in even the stiffest upper lip. But Lady Mary Henderson, 63, bravely forged ahead on a task that would daunt any designer: refurbishing Great Britain's 30-room, neo-Georgian mansion on Washington's Embassy Row.

Then, on the very week she was scheduled to unveil her newly done-up digs at a gala embassy dinner for 250, Royal Marines were moving toward the Falklands. While husband Sir Nicholas Henderson, Britain's towering (6'2") 63-year-old Ambassador to the U.S., spent his days trying to sew up American support for his government, Mary and her decorators were frantically "hemming or trying to make frills look prettier," she recalls. "It was a job we had to finish, and we went ahead just like all life in London went ahead."

For all the crises in decor and diplomacy, the result is a smashing success. Awed compliments come from the likes of Henri Bendel's Geraldine Stutz ("a triumph"), the National Gallery's J. Carter Brown ("every embassy should do it") and publisher Kay Graham ("great taste and style"). The embassy, a massive pile of rose-colored brick designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens and built in 1930, now sparkles with renovations. It boasts floral chintz in nearly every room and the imprimatur of England's best interior designers. It reflects, says Mary proudly, "the best of English taste."

When the Hendersons arrived three years ago, however, Mary found little but neglect. Layers of paint covered Lutyens' original scagliola columns, floors were scuffed, walls were scarred, and colors leaned toward dirty oranges and browns. "And there wasn't one decent bedroom for a visiting VIP," Mary adds. An imminent drop-in by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher prompted an emergency call to designer Laura Ashley, whose flowered cottons Mary had long favored for her own dresses. After some quick re-wallpapering and reupholstering with Ashley's fabrics, Mary added Victorian prints to the guest room walls and antique silver bottles for the dressing table—all part of the "decorative junk" she had carted from embassy to embassy over the years.

Thatcher was charmed, but Mary, aware that plans to extend the renovation to 23 rooms would meet resistance from Britain's budget-conscious Foreign Office, concocted her grandest scheme. She persuaded English designers like Ashley, David Hicks and John Stefanidis to donate their services to the fix-up campaign and asked manufacturers to contribute their wares. One designer remembers sniffing at the time that "it was the most idiotic idea I'd ever heard of," but now even he concedes that Mary has made the embassy "a showcase of British material and talent." In the end the estimated million-dollar job actually cost her government only $25,000.

For Mary, at least, life has not always included such luxury. Born of well-to-do Greek parents and educated in London as a child, she was vacationing near Athens when World War II broke out. During the war she worked as a Red Cross nurse and in an Athenian soup kitchen. Arrested by the Gestapo in 1944, she survived four months in a Nazi concentration camp before being freed by the invading Allies. In 1951, after a brief postwar marriage and a short-lived but successful career as a TIME-LIFE foreign correspondent, she married Nicholas Henderson, a young career diplomat known as "Nicko" to his friends. Mary soon began her tour of foreign capitals, including Warsaw, Bonn and Paris. In Washington she quickly became one of the diplomatic community's most popular hostesses.

After 30 years of partnership, the couple is retiring this month to Combe, England, near their daughter, Alexandra, 29. "I shall be busy getting my own neglected house in order, cooking for my husband, seeing my daughter," says Mary happily. But her achievement in Washington will endure. "It is satisfying to leave something tangible," she says. "I think that's what everybody wants to do."

From Our Partners