Polly Kraft, Washington hostess and painter of still lifes, dies at 87

Polly Kraft, a painter who turned quotidian objects and scenes – a sliced red apple still bearing its seeds, an unmade bed cluttered with mail, a filleted fish vibrant even in death – into works of art resonant with meaning, died Jan. 1 at her home in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington. She was 89.

The cause was pancreatic cancer, said a son, Mark Stevens, an art critic who with his wife, Annalyn Swan, co-authored the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography “de Kooning: An American Master” (2004).

Kraft spent a half-century at the center of the Washington establishment as the wife of Joseph Kraft, the syndicated newspaper columnist, and later, after Kraft’s death in 1986, of Lloyd Cutler, the high-powered lawyer who was White House counsel to Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. Cutler died in 2005.

Her marriages took her into the thick and thicket of social life in the capital – a world, she once remarked, where “politicians were mixed in with intellectuals, mixed in with academics, mixed in with movie stars.” She counted among her friends members of the Kennedy family, former Washington Post chairman and publisher Katharine Graham, former Post executive editor Benjamin Bradlee and diplomats W. Averell and Pamela Harriman.

Although oft cited as a doyenne of Georgetown hostesses, Kraft professed that she relished neither politics nor Washington’s breed of socializing, which at times approached the intensity of a competitive sport.

She took refuge in her still lifes, earning a reputation as an artist capable of imbuing significance into even the most ordinary tableau.

“When it comes to the poetry of dishevelment, Polly Kraft is one of our more rewarding practitioners,” art critic John Russell wrote in the New York Times in 1981. “She specializes in the domestic pileup – cushions knocked out of shape, books and magazines left askew, hasty departures acted out in verismo style. The point of the paintings lies in the contrast between this archetypal havoc and the order that Mrs. Kraft has imposed upon it.”

Her paintings, mainly watercolors and oil paintings, appeared at venues including the Corcoran Gallery of Art and Addison/Ripley Fine Art in Washington and the Fischbach Art Gallery in New York City. Particularly during her marriage to Kraft, she sought out shows beyond Washington, she told People magazine in 1982, because “I didn’t want to make it by being Joe’s wife.”

Rhoda Norton Winton was born in Spokane, Washington, on July 15, 1927, and spent part of her youth in Minneapolis, where her father helped run the family lumber operation.

She studied French and French literature at the University of Geneva before marrying Whitney Stevens, a scion of a textile-manufacturing family, with whom she had two sons. They resided in New York, where she worked for a period for Flair magazine.

“I was like most women of those times,” she told People, “alone all day trying to raise two tiny kids, sitting by the sandbox, kind of miserably desperate.”

The marriage ended in divorce. In 1960, she married Kraft, a speechwriter for John F. Kennedy’s successful presidential campaign that year. Kraft later penned a column that appeared in more than 200 newspapers, among them The Post.

As a Washington wife, Kraft told People, “I tried to do it all, but it is tough to entertain, cook and paint at the same time, and I was becoming more and more frustrated.”

Eventually, she and Kraft reached an accommodation.

“Look, I never got a story at a Georgetown dinner, and I tend to feel uncomfortable discussing politics at social gatherings,” he said. “Let’s call a halt and just see our friends.”

Kraft painted and exhibited her portraits, among them renderings of Bradlee and James Wolfensohn, the investment banker who served as president of the World Bank. She also painted landscapes inspired by the vistas at her second home, on the East End of Long Island.

Besides Mark Stevens, of New York, survivors include another son, David Stevens, a psychoanalyst, of Denver; a brother; and four grandchildren.

Kraft’s artwork exuded a timelessness not often celebrated in Washington, a city of transients where fortunes shift with each incoming presidential administration. Arts critic Ferdinand Protzman, writing in The Post, likened her work to the poetry of William Carlos Williams, who also found meaning in everyday things: “so much depends / upon / a red wheel / barrow,” the poet wrote, “glazed with rain / water / beside the white / chickens.”

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