New Orleans socialite and activist Mickey Easterling dies

Mickey Easterling, a New Orleans socialite known as much for her grand lifestyle and outlandish hats as for her civic, cultural and political activism, died Monday at her Lakefront home.

Her family declined to release her age, noting she once said, “Age is a number, and mine’s unlisted.”

Easterling, born Marycathyren Gambino, hosted many charity and political fundraisers at her home, welcoming such guests as singers Paul Simon and Robert Goulet, actor Larry Hagman, writer and composer Paul Bowles and a range of political figures including former Gov. Edwin Edwards and retired Gen. Wesley Clark.

“Thinking about her, I thought about the phrase ‘the grand gesture,’ ” retired University of New Orleans professor Kenneth Holditch said.

Holditch, co-author of the book “Galatoire’s: Biography of a Bistro,” recalled one of those gestures occurred when a controversy simmered several years ago among fans of the historic French Quarter restaurant over a decision to replace hand-chipped ice with machine-made cubes for customers’ drinks.

While Easterling and friends were dining at Galatoire’s one day, “Mickey had a block of ice from an icehouse delivered to her table with icepicks, all in a huge tub,” Holditch said.

Easterling had an infectious laugh and “a very distinctive voice, which I guess was cured by all those years of smoking cigarettes and drinking champagne,” he said.

“At some point in her life, she was carrying around her own champagne flutes because she didn’t like the glasses some of the restaurants used,” he said.

Easterling’s daughter, Nanci Easterling, said her mother once told a friend, “Darling, don’t be afraid to be original,” a sentiment that seemed to define her life.

Easterling “grew up in a large Catholic family of nine,” her daughter said.

Her flamboyant personality didn’t really show itself until after she divorced her husband, Vern, her daughter said. For example, she said, she doesn’t remember seeing her mother wear eye-catching hats before then.

“My mother was coming into her own as being her own person, becoming the Mickey Easterling we’ve come to know,” Nanci Easterling said.

Easterling was active in charitable affairs. She served as chairperson of the New Orleans Easter Seals Society and on the boards of the Spring Fiesta and several charities that assist sick or handicapped children.

“Mickey Easterling was a remarkable lady,” said Sister Jane Remson, founder of New Orleans Artists Against Hunger and Homelessness. “When she heard about NOAAHH’s mission, she wanted to help feed people and provide shelter.”

Easterling sponsored musicians and artists and contributed to cultural activities and events at the New Orleans Museum of Art, the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts, the Saenger Theater and Loyola University, where she endowed a chair in theater.

She was a world traveler and, until her failing health made it impossible, spent a portion of every summer at Tangier, Morocco. Her love of Tangier was something she shared with Bowles, who lived there from the 1940s until his death, and with Tennessee Williams, who visited Bowles there often. As she did at home, Easterling hosted lavish parties in Tangier for visiting friends.

At her New Orleans parties, Easterling entertained guests ranging from local friends, artists and politicians to prominent stars who were performing in the city.

She was active in politics and also was also an active investor and entrepreneur.

“I regret the passing of my old friend,” said Edwards, who has known Easterling since 1971. “Louisiana has lost a wonderful citizen, mother and public servant.”

Survivors also include a son, Ed Easterling.

A “party to celebrate her life” will be held from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Saenger Theater, Nanci Easterling said. “It will feature the food she liked and the drinks she liked.”

Plans for the event sound as outrageous as Easterling’s behavior sometimes was.

Easterling’s body will be seated on a bench, “dressed the way we’re accustomed to seeing her dressed,” her daughter said.

She will, of course, be wearing a hat.