When Dorothy Height, the grand old lady of the American civil rights movement, died yesterday at the age of 98, it reminded me of a festive dinner nearly thirteen years ago where I was her table partner and saved her from going up in flames -- literally! (Or maybe I just saved a good part of Washington high society from having to take a collective cold sprinkler shower, fully dressed in their finest...)
It was on the occasion of the Sara Lee Frontrunner Awards, $50,000 each given by the cake & food company's charitable foundation to four notable women's favorite nonprofits. Dorothy Height had received the award in its early years and was, therefore, among the honored guests; this year, in 1997, the recipients were Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O'Connor, Washington Post owner Katharine Graham, Brady Campaign chair Sarah Brady and my very own poet laureate, my wife Rita Dove.
Of course Dorothy was wearing one of her elegant trademark hats. During dinner and the awards ceremony at the beautiful National Museum of Women in the Arts in D.C., she was seated immediately to my right. (Rita, in the usual Washington power festivities fashion where couples are seated at different tables, sat across the room, next to Sara Lee's president.) I had an animated conversation with the then 85 year-old, very chipper Mrs. Height about Eleanore Roosevelt, whom she had advised many years ago, about Rita's and my time at Tuskegee Institute, where the two of us had spent a semester in 1982, and about Dorothy's four decades as president of the National Council of Negro Women, a position from which she had just retired that year.
Shortly after we had turned our attention to the ceremony, which had started with a women's choir, I smelled burning cloth right under my nose; when I glanced down, I discovered to my horror that the left sleeve of Dorothy Height's jacket had come in direct contact with the table candle between her and me, and a flame had already caught on to her arm.
"I'm sorry", I said, "but you're about to catch fire", and poured my glass of water on her sleeve, while everybody else at our table, hearing my pretty loudly uttered "fire", jumped up in panic. Dorothy Height, however, after realizing that my unexpectedly aggressive behavior was not meant as an affront by someone who had lost his mind, regained her composure within seconds and pressed her napkin to her wet sleeve, just in case it was still smoldering. "That should do it", she said. "Thanks for saving my hide." The fire was out, she had escaped burns, and everything went quickly back to normal.
I shot some video that night, and uploaded an excerpt to YouTube. It's a bit crude and haphazard, with the camera panning past Dorothy Height once (she seems to be looking a bit embarrassed), then lingering a second or two on the candle that was the culprit; after the incident I moved it further away from its victim.