For local fire fighters, the midnight alarm awakened a sense of déjà vu. Twice in 11 years major fires have ravaged Wolf Trap Farm, the nation’s only national park dedicated to the performing arts. The first, in 1971, gutted most of the 3,500 seats in the park’s Filene Center amphitheater. Then last April an even more devastating blaze completely destroyed the amphitheater, with rebuilding costs pegged at an awesome $17 million.
The good news is that neither fire came even close to diminishing the spirit or determination of Wolf Trap’s greatest asset: 86-year-old Catherine Filene Shouse. Standing in the ashes the morning after the April blaze, Shouse resolutely announced: “We will build again.”
No one who knows Kay Shouse doubts that she will see the job through personally. Wolf Trap’s 117 acres of rolling Virginia countryside outside Washington, D.C. were her gift to the nation in 1966, and she has been the facility’s guiding force ever since, ruling it with what the late Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas called “a whim of iron.” “I love challenges,” Shouse says, fingering a “Wolf Trap Lives” button on her dress. “You never know what the day is going to produce—a crisis, a world leader coming for a visit, or a fire. It never occurred to me not to rebuild Wolf Trap. I thought the public would want it done.”
Apparently a lot of people in high places agree. Postmaster General William Bolger has signed on as national fund-raising chairman and obligingly provided Wolf Trap with its own zip code (Washington, D.C. 20260) to facilitate donations by mail. Congress is considering a $9 million rebuilding grant, and the Saudi Arabian government shipped a huge, elaborate tentlike structure to serve as a temporary concert hall. With that, Wolf Trap has managed to continue its full summer program, ranging from Buddy Rich to the San Francisco Ballet, from Judy Collins to the National Symphony Orchestra. At a time of diminishing federal funding for the arts, such success is a tribute to Shouse’s clout in capital circles. “The arts don’t pay for themselves, but I don’t think Reagan understands that,” she grumbles. “Motion pictures and the performing arts are very differently financed and planned, and I don’t think this Administration knows about that.” Still, the President was among the first to call her after April’s fire to offer “whatever we can do to see that the show goes on.” A month later Reagan proposed federal assistance in rebuilding the Filene Center.
Presidential bonhomie comes as no surprise to Shouse, who has been a major force in Washington society for half a century. Boston born and bred, Kay descends from the family that founded the Filene department stores and helped establish the Boston Symphony and the Harvard Business School. “Our home,” she remembers, “was always filled with professors and musicians,” among them the young Arthur Fiedler and Serge Koussevitzky. All Filenes were expected to be rock-ribbed Republicans, but young Kay took a political fancy to Woodrow Wilson. While never an active suffragist, she admired Wilson’s “recognition of women” and enraged her family when she moved to Washington in 1918 to help with the war effort. She later became the first woman to earn a master’s (in education) from Harvard, and she published a landmark book, Careers for Women, which stayed in print for 54 years.
In 1921 she married Alvin Dodd, a New York City business executive. When he became an official of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, they moved to Washington, cultivating capital society with bipartisan impartiality. “Washington was such a small town then,” Kay says, recalling the times when Mrs. Wilson would drop by to help care for their newborn daughter, Joan, or when President Calvin Coolidge called to say, “The Cabinet is off this afternoon—come on over for some tennis.” Her marriage to Dodd, however, was far less lively and ended in divorce after nine years. Says Kay simply: “I was bored.”
Two years later she married Jouett Shouse, a former Kansas Congressman who had become chairman of the Democratic National Committee in 1929. Shouse couldn’t abide FDR’s New Deal, however, and so regarded himself as a Democrat without a party until his death in 1968. Yet such a declaration did not prevent the Shouses from becoming a hub of the Washington social circuit. They entertained at their Georgetown house and threw charity bashes for 5,000 guests on their 168-acre Wolf Trap Farm (so named because colonial settlers trapped marauding wolves there). The role of country gentlewoman suited Kay perfectly, and she was never a stickler for protocol. Her daughter Joan recalls, “I’ve seen my mother up to her neck in diamonds, in a mink coat over old boots, shoveling manure around the plants.”
By the mid-’60s Shouse had decided to give a part of her farm (and a hefty $2.3 million) to establish an amphitheater for outdoor performances. “Wolf Trap had been enjoyed by so many friends,” she says. “I wanted people to continue using it.” President Lyndon Johnson signed Public Law 89-671 in October 1966, designating Wolf Trap as a national park for the arts. Since its official opening in 1971, the park has drawn 5.5 million music lovers to its programs of opera, folk, ballet and the blues.
A broken hip from a fall three months ago has slowed Shouse very little; she gets around the farm now in a golf cart. “She has a 25-year-old’s youthfulness and vitality,” marvels her good friend Beverly Sills. Shouse is quick to brush aside any notion that she is rebuilding Wolf Trap in a spirit of charity. “I never do anything out of a sense of doing good,” she says. “I do it because it needs to be done.” And as for grieving over Wolf Trap’s charred past, she doesn’t: “I’m too busy moving ahead.”