By Nick Charles
May 24, 1999 12:00 PM

Answering the phone on a cold December morning in 1983, Frances Peabody shuddered with fear and confusion as her daughter Barbara delivered the news that her son Peter Vom Lehn, 28, was gravely ill and had been hospitalized. An unfamiliar term, “AIDS,” was also mentioned. “We didn’t know a thing about the disease,” says Peabody. “I scarcely knew the word.”

A few months later, Peabody, then 80, went from her home in Portland, Maine, to Santa Fe, where she and other family members buried her grandson’s ashes in the rose garden behind his great-uncle’s hilltop house. There and then, Peabody decided she had to act. “We had been through this awful year with him,” she says now. “I knew it was going to happen again to other people, and I knew they weren’t prepared.”

Within months of the funeral, with the help of a group of Portland gay residents, Peabody, now 96, established Maine’s first AIDS information hotline, which grew into a network of social services for people with AIDS. Then, five years ago, she spearheaded the effort to found the state’s first AIDS hospice. (The facility was initially meant for those in the last stages of the illness, but with advances in treatment, some residents now use it as a halfway house between hospital and home.) In honor of her efforts, the four-story, 18-room, Victorian bears her name: Peabody House.

But Peabody, known as “Hurricane Frannie,” is not merely a figurehead for the house that has been home for 36 men and women (half have died). In addition to a sprightliness that belies her age, Peabody, whose own family dates back to colonial days, brings access to funding and an understanding of the politics of organization. Tapping her blue-blood ties, she persuaded Portland philanthropist Peter Haffenreffer, 62, to secure a $165,000 loan for the house. “She really made me into an activist,” says Haffenreffer. She also gave speeches, helped raise money and, so the story goes, even stripped wallpaper during the building’s renovation. “I didn’t do that,” Peabody insists. “I brought some food or something.”

Once inside the hospice, Peabody sheds her celebrity and becomes, as her purple badge reads, just “Frannie.” Equal parts deity and den mother, she offers words of encouragement and every so often a batch of her famous custard. “She’s like the mother I didn’t have,” says Maria Santana, 43, herself the mother of nine, who was diagnosed with AIDS in the late 1980s. “She’s just the sweetest lady.”

At first, the politically conservative great-grandmother of eight might not seem the likeliest candidate to spark an AIDS movement. But Peabody has always championed causes. The older of two children of the late Francis Wilson, a lawyer, and Charlotte Wilson, a home-maker, the Washington, D.C.-born Peabody rolled bandages during World War I. After graduating from Smith College in 1925, she got a job at Macy’s in New York City. There she met Millard Peabody, one of the store’s several managers. Married in 1927, the couple moved back to Boston, where Millard ran his family’s shoe manufacturing company and Frannie dove headlong into motherhood (they had five children) and charity work. “It seemed as if she were stuffing envelopes all the time when I was a kid,” recalls daughter Louise, 57, an artist in Southampton, N.Y.

But good deeds couldn’t shield Peabody from tragedy. In 1931 her eldest son died of crib death at the age of 3 months, and six years later three of her children contracted polio (only one, Charlotte, 69, still has lingering effects of the disease). Overcome by the family’s woes, she avoided medical causes. “I had enough of it in my own family,” says Peabody, whose husband died of a heart attack in 1962. “[But] I felt differently after AIDS started.”

As daughter Barbara, 66, an artist in Albuquerque, says, “The whole experience of losing Peter kind of changed her.” As has the fact that Peter’s uncle Sandy, 62, a developer, is openly gay. Peabody, who sports a feather boa in Portland’s annual gay pride parade, also wears a red ribbon pinned with a golden angel—a gift from an AIDS patient who died just before Peabody House opened. “I’m going to wear it until the epidemic is over,” Peabody says, “and I’m afraid that will be a long time.”

Nick Charles

Tom Duffy in Portland