Mad Woman At The Peace Corps: Elizabeth Forsling Harris

Betty Harris was what we used to call a ‘a piece of work.’ She was thirty-nine-years old in 1961 and had been a political organizer and a public relations executive in Dallas, Texas, before arriving in D.C. She had also been a pioneering journalist in New York City before women had such jobs, working with among others, Newsweek and NBC.

When she arrived at the Peace Corps in 1961 she had just gone through a bitter divorce with Leon Harris, the son of man whose department store in Dallas that became the model of Neiman-Marcus. Betty always, in fact, looked as if she had just stepped out of the pages of a Neiman-Marcus catalog. ‘Chic’ is the term that Coates Redmon uses to describe Betty in Come As You Are.

Betty Harris knew Shriver longer than anyone else at the Peace Corps, having first met the man in the 1940s when they both worked at Newsweek. Betty would talk about the Shriver she knew back in New York, in Coates Redmon’s book, saying of Shriver, “In the pre-Eunice days every affluent, socially ambitious Catholic-or for that matter, Protestant-family in New York was after Sarge as a potential husband for their darling daughter. He was considered a great catch. He was incredibly handsome, athletic, bright, well-educated, well-born, amusing, and polite. With all of that going for him, the fact that he had no money didn’t matter. He was invited everywhere. And in the late 1950s, he was rising influence in Chicago politics, a likely candidate for governor, when his political career there was cut short on account of the minor matter of his brother-in-law having been elected president.”

Betty didn’t hear the ‘call of the Peace Corps’ down in Texas due to her divorce proceedings. But then, in that magical way the agency had in those early years of gathering talented people, she traveled to D.C. on business in the summer of ’61 and fate changed her  life and the future of the new Peace Corps.

At dinner at the family home of Water Jenkins (remember him?) Betty was pressing Jenkins to have Irving Goldberg, a mutual Dallas friend, appointed to a judgeship. Jenkins said he couldn’t do anything more, that it was up to JFK.

Well, that wasn’t good enough for Betty. She knew Sarge Shriver from the old days in New York, so at 9 p.m. that night, she called the Peace Corps to leave a message for Shriver, and Sarge answered the phone. He was still working at the agency. (This was the way it was done in those first years of the Peace Corps; no one worked nine-to-five.)

After making her case for Irving Goldberg, Shriver told Betty to get him the man’s CV as he was going to Hyannis Port that weekend.

“The next morning,” Betty recalled, “I wrote out Irving’s qualifications on a piece of Mayflower Hotel stationery [yes, the famous Peace Corps Mayflower Hotel] and walked the four blocks to the Peace Corps and ran into Sarge on the street. He was returning to work after lunch.”

Sarge naturally asked about her husband.
“Well, he isn’t, Sarge. I mean, we are getting a divorce.”
“Fine, so why don’t you come to work for the Peace Corps?”
Betty said she couldn’t.
“Well, let’s talk about this over dinner.”

That night at the old La Salle du Bois, on Connecticut Avenue, Sarge talked and talked Peace Corps and again the next day at lunch with Larry Dennis, the first associate director of the Office of Peace Corps Volunteers, they talked and talked Peace Corps.

Betty, it was decided over lunch, would be head of the Women’s Division at the Peace Corps. At the time there was, of course, no such thing as a Women’s Division in the government, but this was the Peace Corps, Betty thought, and the New Frontier, and JFK, maybe there would be a Women’s Division to promote women, which was one of Betty’s passions. Yes, she would burn her Texas bridges and move to DC.

But the Women’s Division never happened at the Peace Corps and soon (very soon) Betty Harris learned how disorganized the agency was, and why women weren’t sitting at the conference table with the Mad Men.

However, once Betty Forsling Harris arrived in D.C., all of that would change at the Peace Corps. [End of Part One]

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  • Betty, as Director of Volunteers and “everything else ” arrived in Colombia in 1962 , and the Director sent me to escort the “high mainataince lady from Texas” to Ron Atwater’s site. Betty had connections at Nieman-Marcus and she wanted the store to order and feature a “reengineered PC craft” product, pastal colored “ruanas”. Ruanas are the shawl like blankets ,with a whole in the middle, used by Andean inhabitants to keep warm, as blankets and to wrap and carry babies. (Today, Colombians have traded up to leather jackets). Atwater, an nuclear engineer by training , worked with wool dyes and created the colorful ruanas in pastal colors replacing the standard white grey and black wool product.

    Well, the high maintainance lady had to use the “latrine without walls “so Atwater and I rigged some “ruanas’ for her privacy.

    Dennis Grubb
    Colombia 1961-1963

    • Dennis,

      There was a Peace Corps co-op in Colombia which produced ruanas. They were of many colors. I bought two in 1965. Your story is great. Do you know how this co-op was linked to the work you described started by Betty Harris’s request?

  • Betty Harris accompanied Group 2 or 3 to the Philippines as the ‘escort officer” in 1962. Somehow, our household was chosen for her field experience. There were four of us in a three room house on poles, no electricity, no running water, a bucket-flus toilet, quite simple. She stayed overnight and was quite game with the conditions, but she was far out of our league sartorially and in the “ways of the world.” I hadn’t before met a woman like her. it was her 40th birthday and we gave her a pair of abaca slippers as a present. She of course had as always her cigarette holder, adding to her sophstication in our eyes. Although I get the credit of being the first woman evaluator, Betty actually had done a guest evaluation first. She also went to India with Dick Lipez, who covered the villages and volunteers, while Betty hobnobbed with Ambassador Bowles and others at high levels. I stayed friends with Betty–in a way–and on several occasions she offered me job opportunities over the years–one of them was to work with her on starting MS magazine. I turned it down. She went ahead and rest is history–though she and Gloria Steinem wound up parting ways, with Betty pushed out of the organization.

  • There’s a photo of her in Coates Redmon’s book, sitting next to Jack Vaughn, but it’s very uncharacteristic–sort of frumpy.

  • Betty was a character with a capital “C.”

    I had been back from being a Volunteer in 1964 and managed the Peace Corps mailroom. For my efforts, I was kicked upstairs, made a GS – 9 [huge, in those days], and told to recruit former Volunteers for the overseas and domesric staff. Three months after commencing my new job, I suddenly was told I had a new boss: Betty Elizabeth Forsling Harris: Fasten your seatbelts, Betty Davis had arrived!
    For the next 18 months, I mopped up blood in the corridors. Betty’s human relations skills had a blunt, Texas impact on many staff members. But I found Mrs. Harris a kick in the ass even when it was my butt she was kicking: funny and charming after work hours, she was a hellion during the day. I’ll never forget her telling me [ and I am not making this up] , “Dick, I don’t want you to hire any men over fifty with paunches and pates. And the women must be smart, driven, dynamic, and glamourous!” Wow. This from the future co-founder of Ms magazine!
    Anyway, Jack Vaughn came to the Agency and brought his crew into the top level and replaced Betty and me.
    A year later Warren Wiggins asked me to help start TransCentury Corporation. I asked him later what caused him to invite me to join him. He replied, “Anybody who can work with Mrs. Betty Elizabeth Harris can work for anybody!”

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