Nowadays it’s an inconspicuous building on the corner of the 3rd and East Capitol streets on Capitol Hill, the last building in a line of row houses on a quiet, tree-lined street.
But peel back the years, decade by decade, and 301 East Capitol was the center of the universe for Mary Zurhorst Gray—the place where her family made their home in the 1920s and 1930s in an apartment above the funeral parlor they owned and operated.
What better stomping ground for the precocious only daughter in a family of undertakers than this? A little to the right, the steps of the Supreme Court beckoned. Straight ahead, the looming Library of Congress peered over her house. And a little further ahead was the crown jewel, the East Front of the Capitol, rising above all else.
Mary and her nanny Oscie spent many a lazy afternoon exploring the nooks and crannies of this, her personal playground, scaling what seemed to her child’s eyes to be immense stone benches that dotted the walkway, lounging on the lush green lawns of the West Front, and puzzling over the meaning of the statues.
She and Oscie couldn’t go into Sherrill’s Bakery on Pennsylvania Ave. to split a piece of peach pie—as Gray discovered to her chagrin one day—but on the Capitol’s grounds, they were free to roam.
Five generations of her family had lived on a few blocks on Capitol Hill since the 1840s, and from the perch of their third-floor apartment they were afforded an unobstructed view of the Capitol. When the leaves fell away every autumn, it became a winter family ritual to watch the floodlights light up the dome at dusk.
Before she was quite tall enough to reach it, Gray had her own customs: peeking out of that window twice a day--once in the morning, once at night before bed. Every time she was reassured--the building still stood, the country had survived another day.
She’s 93 now, residing in an assisted-living facility in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., a voracious consumer of the news and with biting opinions on just about everything, but in particular, the state of the nation’s affairs.
She was born the year before women won the right to vote, but over the last eight decades, Gray has had a remarkably rich professional life in and around Washington, bouncing from one gig to another as serendipity and circumstances have warranted.
She’s been an advertising copy writer, a journalist, an author, an editor, a speechwriter for the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations, a single mother, and an unabashed political hack.
Recently, she pecked out the recollections of her childhood on her typewriter—a 263-page labor of love two years in the making that resulted in 301 East Capitol: Tales from the Heart of the Hill, full of charming, wry stories about her family and growing up in the heart of old Washington. The book was published earlier this year by Overbeck History Press, a project of the Overbeck Capitol Hill History Project.
The memoir doesn’t wade into overtly partisan waters, but Gray makes no apologies for the fact that she’s a proud Democrat in the New Deal tradition, a firm believer that the forces of government should be marshaled for the betterment of society. “I’m such a damn partisan,” she sighs, when she finds herself wading into political debate with fervor and gusto—which is often.
This is a woman, after all, who sports a rather sizable sticker in support of her congressman, Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., on her walker.
Gray’s not so much a rarity in Washington—the seeming epicenter of cynicism and anger these days—because she’s an avid spectator of the sport of politicking. More uncommon: She’s an optimist.
The institutions Gray grew up surrounded by, after all, have been able to weather the immense tides of change that she has witnessed in her lifetime. Even when the headlines of the day suggest things at their worst, Gray’s faith persists.
“Maybe it was growing up looking at the dome of the Capitol,” she says. “It means this country to me.”
Gray landed a cushy political job at age 3—announcing to the family, “They’re in session!” She knew even then to look for the light at the very top of the dome, right underneath the Statue of Freedom, to discern whether lawmakers were working into the night.
She spent her formative years listening to Franklin D. Roosevelt on the radio. She remembers fondly that certain way the president had of taking fire in stride and disarming his enemies, even when the attacks got personal—such horrible, awful things, Gray remembers, like making fun of his dog, Fala, or taking aim at his wife Eleanor’s teeth.
But Roosevelt himself was the master of ridicule, adept at letting his audiences in on the joke. Gray still cracks up thinking of Roosevelt’s calling out a trio of lawmakers he considered obstructionist, taking such relish in pronouncing “Congressmen Martin, Barton, and Fish” with a certain clip-clop cadence that eventually had his supporters roaring the names along with him.