It is a gorgeous spring day in Washington, and I am sitting in a suite at the Hay-Adams Hotel chatting with Roberta McCain while she is having her nails done for Vogue's photo shoot. So far she's been amenable to—and completely delighted with—everything we've suggested: the nails, a change of clothes, a light hair-and-makeup session. "If I leave here and my glass slippers fall off, I won't know what to do," she says, laughing. Next up is a pose in stocking feet on a narrow five-story balcony, which is making everyone but her slightly nervous. "Just call me Barkis," she says, referring to the character in David Copperfield. "I'm willing."
At 96, Roberta (as she insists everyone call her) is not just willing but almost startlingly able and a good example of the resilient genes that her son has been eager to showcase by taking her out on the campaign trail. The daughter of a successful wildcatter, the widow of a highly decorated naval admiral, and now the mother of the Republican nominee for the presidency, she spent her married life in posts ranging from London to Honolulu and has traveled—relentlessly—to pretty much every point in between. At 88, when she was told she was too old to rent a car in Europe, she simply bought one and drove it from Munich to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan with her twin sister and most constant traveling companion, Rowena. ("I wanted to see Samarkand," she explains, and with that accomplished she continued on to Greece, India, and New Zealand, leaving the car behind in Europe for future jaunts.) Last Christmas she had lunch in Paris at Maxim's and spent New Year's Eve at the Lido before taking off for England and Scotland. A woman of no light convictions, she was rumored, during her son's 2000 presidential bid, to have flown the Taiwanese flag out the window of her apartment in Washington near the Chinese Embassy on the anniversary of the Communist Party's victory in the Chinese Civil War. While her son said, "I would truly not be surprised," his mother wasn't giving anything away. "I'm not saying whether I did or I didn't," she told a reporter. "The less said, the sooner mended. Have you heard that one?"
Despite such uncharacteristic hedging, The Washington Post, in a play on the bus that has become her son's campaign signature, dubbed her "The Even Straighter Talk Express," and it is an apt description. Thoroughly engaging, she is the proverbial open book, albeit a rollicking one that is equal parts history, travelogue, and Who's Who of the twentieth century. In the time it takes for two coats of pale-pink nail polish to dry, the conversation loops from: mutual friends we have in Mississippi (her father grew up there, and the McCain family roots in the state also go deep); the Mae West/W. C. Fields film My Little Chickadee ("the funniest movie I ever saw"); the fate of the shah of Iran ("The way we treated that man was disgraceful.… His problem was he never let anyone beneath him have enough power"); her friendship with J. Paul Getty ("I just loved him—he could tell you about everything"), and the party she has just attended at the Turkish embassy ("It was so glamorous you can't believe it"). She begins almost every sentence with "honey," and when the shoot is over, she tucks, with gusto, into a plate of cold lobster mayonnaise. At her departure, she assures us all that "this was the most fun I've ever had."
She may well have meant it—"I'm happiest wherever I am right this minute," she has told me—but there is no question that she has had a lot more fun than this.
Roberta Wright McCain was born on February 7, 1912, to Myrtle and Archie Wright, who had accumulated lots of land in Oklahoma and Texas just before the oil boom, and subsequently moved the family to Los Angeles. The two youngest of five children, she and Rowena were "always real athletic," she says. "We could run faster and jump higher, and at church suppers or what-have-you, we were always going to win the race. There was no conceit about it or anything; everybody just knew the twins could do it." Her father instilled the travel bug in his children early on, driving them through the Mojave Desert and taking them on trips to see the source of the Mississippi and to learn about the Great Lakes. With their mother the twins went by train to New York. "She always got her linen on sale at B. Altman's in January and June, and she bought our clothes at Best's."
When Roberta eloped at nineteen with Jack McCain, a young Navy ensign ("the lowest of the low," she says of his rank), she took her schoolbooks with her to Tijuana, where they married in a room above Caesar's bar. The event earned the groom a reprimand for going AWOL and merited a headline in the San Francisco Examiner: SOCIETY COED ELOPES WITH NAVAL OFFICER: ROBERTA WRIGHT DEFIES FAMILY. Rowena describes their mother as having a "cat fit" over the nuptials, and looking back, Roberta says she can understand why she "was out of sorts" with her daughter pretty much all the time. "I realize now I was so immature. I just took life as it came—still do."
The latter turned out to be good strategy for a naval wife who occasionally camped out in Quonset huts and moved her three children, Sandy, John III, and Joe, from port to port while her husband was away for long stretches. She insists she loved every place she settled, except maybe Panama, "but that was because it was so hot and there wasn't any air-conditioning." In his memoir, Faith of My Fathers, McCain writes that his mother was obliged to fill the roles of both parents, and that he "became my mother's son," adding that what he lacked of Roberta's "charm and grace," he made up for by "emulating and exaggerating her other characteristics. She was loquacious, and I was boisterous. Her exuberance became rowdiness in me.… She has an irrepressible spirit that yields to no adversity." A touching tribute to be sure, but Roberta will have none of it. "Obviously," she told a reporter when the book was released, "that means all the trouble he got into came from me."
As her husband ascended the ranks, life became a tad more glamorous. Madame Chiang Kai-shek (whom she describes as "misunderstood") gave her presents, and in Hawaii she became close friends with Clare Boothe Luce. While in London she would frequently spend country weekends at the estates of both Getty and Lord Mountbatten. "My eyes were just rolling around in my head like marbles, I was so impressed with the people we were meeting all the time," she tells me. "But they were famous because they'd amounted to something."
It was in London that she learned that "Johnny," as she invariably calls her son, had been shot down in Vietnam. First she waited days to find out if he was alive, and then she waited five and a half years for him to be released. When I ask if she was a nervous wreck through it all, she says, simply, "No. I believe in God's will, I really do. When I pray, I only ever ask for that; I don't ask for things like 'Please help Johnny get into Princeton.' " Besides, she says, "I had talked all that patriotic talk, so in times of fish or cut bait, do I stand up to the claims I've made or not?"
Not only was her husband a decorated admiral, her father-in-law was as well. "I would have been ashamed if my son had not served his country. The ones I feel sorry for are these seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds out there now who lose a leg. But Johnny chose his profession; he was doing his job," she says, adding that I could go down in a plane crash doing mine. "This is life."
"When Johnny was in prison, that woman never made a peep," says Rowena of her twin. "Same thing after Jack died." Still, while Roberta may have been stoic, she never lost her sense of delight in the world. "We were invited everywhere, and I always wanted to go along," Roberta says. When her husband died in 1981, on a flight from Europe to Washington, where they had finally settled, she kept going, traveling with Rowena from the Jordanian desert to Tasmania for two or three months each year. Two years ago, when she could no longer get insurance on the car she had left in Europe, a Mercedes "baby Benz," she had it shipped back to the States and drove it across the country to her nephew in San Francisco—by way of Mississippi, Arkansas ("I couldn't find the Ozarks, or at least I didn't see all the beauty I'd read about"), Louisiana, and Arizona, where she was given a ticket for going 112 miles an hour. "The policeman said, 'Didn't you see me?' and I said, 'Yeah, I saw you,' " she tells me, laughing. "I went straight to the next town and got the money to send to the police. I thought the quicker it was over, the better, so nobody would find out."
"She knows everything that's in every museum in this world," says Rowena. Indeed, when she's not on the road, she avails herself of the offerings of her home city, going to the National Gallery or the Freer (she has a whole room full of the Chinese porcelain she loves, and the Freer has a stunning collection) every Tuesday morning for three hours (as long as she can legally park her car, a red BMW). On occasion, she says, she "hoists herself up to New York," taking the train (with a stop in Philadelphia to visit the Museum of Art there "until my feet fall off") and checking into the New York Yacht Club "because it's cheap." An avid reader, she is currently engrossed in The Odyssey of Chinese Imperial Art Treasures ("It's like a paper chase—it ought to be a movie") and, of course, the newspapers. "I think the treatment they've given Hillary is just awful. She's a human being, and she's certainly worked hard. I mean, anything you say, you can take two ways, even if it's about the weather."
She credits her longevity to good genes (her father remained active until he died of cancer at 98) as well as her California upbringing. Rowena concurs. "We played outside all the time and only ate fresh vegetables and fruits—crates of oranges from California and apples shipped in from Maryland. Our parents had some sense. They never let us drink Coca-Cola or coffee or anything like that, and the only cakes we ever saw were at other children's birthday parties." Both sisters rarely touch alcohol, though Rowena professes to love the occasional glass of champagne and reports seeing Roberta drink beer, but only in Europe.
"I don't do anything I'm supposed to do," Roberta tells me on the phone when I ask her how she manages to maintain her almost astonishing vitality. "I don't exercise, and today I've already eaten half a box of caramel popcorn." The regimen, or lack thereof, seems to be working. Her posture is straight as an arrow, her gait is brisk, and, though a doctor told her once she had arthritis in her hands, she says, "I guess I do, but I've never had an ounce of pain from it.
"Honey, I've had a dream life, and it was all luck," she says. I venture that the impetuosity and appetite her mother so often bemoaned might have had at least a bit to do with it. "I'm glad my mother's not around, because I still don't plan ahead or think things out." She laughs. "Mother told me once, 'If the gardener asked you to go to Chinatown with him, you'd go.' And I thought, Well, of course I would."
"The Firecracker" has been edited for Style.com; the complete story appears in the August 2008 issue of Vogue.
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