We have our crowning architectonic icons: the pediment atop the State Capitol, the low dome of the Science Museum of Virginia and the clock tower above Main Street Station. But for sheer impact, it was hard to beat the soaring hair braid that adorned the elegant -- regal, really head of Georgina Olivia Marraccini Rawles. Richmond's grande dame died Feb. 27 at age 90.
Did she wear her signature design statement theatrically, like a heroine's helmet from a Wagnerian opera? Or to proclaim her European lineage? Probably both. She was the last of that generation of Southern ladies who considered themselves belles: She loved being turned-out, in-the-moment, unblinkingly attentive and therefore noticed. Gina, as she was called, never appeared in public without spectacular jewelry. To see her Modiglianiesque neck adorned in her multi-strand pearl choker was to witness sheer elegance.
For decades, she moved gracefully and purposefully about town, attending concerts, theatrical performances, functions at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and Maymont, board meetings of historical and cultural organizations, and church activities. Her presence at an event was the equivalent to a Good Housekeeping seal of approval: If Gina Rawles was involved, it must be worthy, because if nothing else, she didn't suffer a fool. She was generous but quiet in her philanthropic endeavors.
Many people who never had the pleasure of her cheerful social company were aware of her as a ubiquitous shopper at the Carytown Ukrop's. Although a lady of considerable means and grand taste, she did her own grocery shopping often attended by liveried servants. When she became ill in January, some 40 of the grocery store's employees sent her a greeting card.
I asked her in recent years if I could write an article about what had apparently been a fascinating life that had included residences in Turkey, Tunisia, Italy, Greece and Switzerland. Was it true that as a girl she'd been chosen to present a bouquet of flowers to Benito Mussolini, only to hurl them at his feet, hiss at the Italian dictator and scamper off? What had been the circumstances, at age 20, of her move to Richmond to live with well-connected relatives? Here she would meet her future husband, James W. Rawles, on the tennis court. He later said she had him on bonjour as she proceeded to keep score in French. She contributed her fluency in a number of languages to the Allied Forces and the American Red Cross during World War II.
But Gina declined the interview. She is of that generation who believed a lady's name appeared in the paper only twice in marriage and in death.
On March 3, after she was placed near her husband in an elaborate granite mausoleum she had recently designed and had built in Hollywood Cemetery, family, friends and admirers packed venerable old St. Paul's Episcopal Church for a memorial celebration. The standing-room-only crowd sang the old Protestant hymns "Rock of Ages" and "Onward Christian Soldiers." The Rev. Canon Robert Hetherington, who was Gina's pastor at St. Paul's for many years, had the last word after many moving and amusing tributes from her family.
"I wonder if Jim saw it coming," Hetherington said of Gina's reunion with her late husband. "But he had a break for a few years." There was laughter. Gina would have laughed the loudest.