C. Wyatt Dickerson Jr., a Washington dealmaker, entrepreneur and real estate investor, and for 20 years a leading figure in the capital’s social glitterati as the husband of TV newswoman Nancy Dickerson, died Nov. 29 at a hospital in the District of Columbia. He was 92.
The cause was complications from esophageal cancer, said a son, John Dickerson, moderator of the CBS Sunday morning public affairs show “Face the Nation.”
Dickerson formed and managed investment companies, developed real estate in Northern Virginia, and had a hand in starting and managing high-end clubs and restaurants. They included the private Pisces Club in Georgetown, where diners arrived by limousine; the Federal City Club, organized in 1963 as a riposte to the whites-only policy of other private clubs; the Palm Restaurant downtown; and the Chinoiserie restaurant in Georgetown.
He was best known for his residency and ownership of the storied Merrywood estate, a 36-room Georgian mansion on the Potomac River in McLean, Virginia, that had been a childhood home of first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and author Gore Vidal.
Wyatt and Nancy Dickerson made their home a showcase for entertaining the nation’s political and social elite. Ronald and Nancy Reagan dined there in 1981, a few days before the presidential inauguration.
Merrywood invitees over the years included show-business figures such as Frank Sinatra, James Stewart and Jack Benny, as well as businessman and former New York governor W. Averell Harriman and his wife, Pamela; publisher Walter Annenberg; and lawyer Edward Bennett Williams.
“When my parents gave parties,” John Dickerson wrote in a New York Times article in 2006, “it was my job to open the door, look each new arrival in the eye and say: ’Welcome to Merrywood.’ “
“Both my parents,” he added, “had come from small towns but had the quaint good sense to make new money look old, starting with their purchase of Merrywood in 1964. They studied antique furnishings so they could buy the right ones, and arranged them around the house in careful, tidy order. Everything a visitor could see, including the children’s rooms, was perfect. The totems - an ashtray from the Iranian ambassador, delicate pill boxes and pencil cases - were placed with geometric precision on the coffee tables. The spine of every book was aligned one inch from the edge of the shelf on which it stood.”
Hidden by Merrywood’s size, John Dickerson wrote, was “the mayhem of my parents’ marriage, but only up to a point. It was hard to hear them fight when they took it to a remote room, though I pressed my ear to the old iron register to try. Their parties continued, with all the smiles and tipping silver jiggers of gin, even when they’d been having curt exchanges at the breakfast table in the morning. My father finally moved out in 1981.”
Claude Wyatt Dickerson Jr. was born in Roanoke on Aug. 25, 1924. His father was a druggist who would eventually own his own store. His mother was a teacher. Growing up, he was an Eagle Scout and a high school football player, and, in 1942, he entered Duke University on a football scholarship.
He left Duke to join the Navy during World War II, later taking officer training at Tulane University and the University of California at Los Angeles. In 1944, he received a medical discharge.
Briefly, Dickerson was a stage actor and had small parts in Hollywood films, his family said. For a while, he managed a theater in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and sold magazine advertising.
In 1948, he married Ruth Fowler Johnston and settled in Leesburg, Virginia. He found work investing money for Pan Am pilots and began buying up farms in Northern Virginia, which then was on the cusp of becoming a burgeoning suburbia surrounding the nation’s capital. His wife died of cancer in 1960.
Two years later, he married Nancy Hanschman, who had been CBS’s first female correspondent. She later joined NBC’s Washington bureau. A party in honor of their wedding was hosted by Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg and Sen. Abraham Ribicoff, D-Conn.
The Dickersons became wealthy and would get even richer in the coming years. There would be a private Learjet at their disposal, leased by a conglomerate managed by Dickerson. They would travel to Europe and the Soviet Union in the company of assorted VIPs. On more than one foreign trip, they were met at the airport by a U.S. embassy car and driver, who remained at their disposal for the duration of their visit. At home, a chauffeur drove them to and from social events in a Rolls-Royce convertible.
Changes of administration - and political party - did not end their social entree or privileges. Nor did Dickerson’s various legal entanglements involving his management of conglomerates that bought and sold other businesses. There were issues with the Internal Revenue Service over tax matters and with regulators and investors over compensation, but Dickerson seemed to emerge unscathed.
In 1982, Wyatt and Nancy Dickerson divorced. John Dickerson chose to live with his father in Washington. “My relationship with Mom became so bitter it turned the playland into a cage,” he wrote in the Times. He said he refused to attend a goodbye party his mother gave for Merrywood when the property was sold in 1984. He reconciled with Nancy Dickerson two years before she died in 1997, he said.
Meanwhile, Dickerson continued in his business career and did some consulting. He lived at the Watergate complex in Washington.
Survivors include his wife of 22 years, Mary Tandy Meem Dickerson of Washington; three daughters from his first marriage, Elizabeth Sinclair of Washington, Ann Pillion of Villanova, Pennsylvania, and Jane Dickerson of St. Davids, Pa.; two sons from his second marriage, Michael Dickerson of Atlanta and John Dickerson of Washington; a sister; 13 grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.
When the Dickersons sold Merrywood to real estate magnate Alan I. Kay in 1984, they received $4.2 million for the property. Wyatt Dickerson said at the time that he had received a larger offer in the interval between the signing of the contract to sell and the closing of the deal.
“But when you get into those numbers, a few hundred thousand dollars doesn’t matter,” he said.
The estate is now owned by Steve Case, a founder of the online services company AOL.