Helen Stedman Cluett, a Palm Beach resident for more than 50 years, died Monday. She was 93.
Born May 4, 1920, in Shanghai, China, she was the daughter of Theodore Winthrop and Mary Idella (Lunt) Stedman.
She moved to the United States with her parents when she was 3, speaking only Mandarin at the time.
“I spoke pigeon English as a 6-year-old,” she told the Palm Beach Daily News in a 2010 interview.
Her mother died when she was 8, at which time she went to a boarding school outside Vienna. She attended until she was 10, then lived with her family in California and New York.
It was in New York where, at age 16, her beauty landed her a job as a runway and print model. In 1942, she married John Briggs. They had one son before divorcing in 1950.
Four years later, she married William Gorham Cluett. The couple moved to Palm Beach in 1959.
“I was so insecure, I hated it,” she said in the 2010 interview. “I was very shy, and I had heard about this great Palm Beach, but I thought everybody was a snob. I’d never been here, but I’d read about it — very bad publicity. The place to go in those days was Hobe Sound.”
In spite of her reservations, Mrs. Cluett grew into her role as a young Palm Beach matron, becoming active in civic, church and charitable affairs.
Her volunteer efforts included the Norton Museum of Art, the Historical Society of Palm Beach, Palm Beach Crime Watch, the Kravis Center, Hospice of Palm Beach County, the Society of the Four Arts, and the Garden Club of Palm Beach.
Palm Beacher Sharon Neri, a Garden Club member, knew Mrs. Cluett for five decades.
“The one thing everyone would say about Helen is she was always gracious and generous in her spirit,” Neri said. “She was one of the last real gentle ladies of Palm Beach. Everybody who knew her was touched by her in some way.”
Mrs. Cluett was especially dedicated to Opportunity, Inc., where volunteered for more than 50 years as a member, board member and chairwoman. In 2002, she received its Winifred Anthony Award, the organization’s highest honor.
“Helen was passionate about the children at Opportunity,” said Cecilia St. Hilaire, operations director. “During her tenure on the board, she was able to harness and bring new friends to Opportunity, Inc. at a time when we needed help with the expansion of the center to Westgate. She continued to serve in many capacities, often spearheading and chairing benefit events. She was a compassionate and very gracious, Christian, loving woman. Her incredible contribution and support to the work of Opportunity will always be remembered.”
She was a longtime parishioner at The Episcopal Church of Bethesda-By-The-Sea, serving on nearly every committee, as a lay reader, and as a vestrywoman.
After her husband’s death in 1975, Mrs. Cluett became a career woman. She joined Christie’s as the auction house’s first Florida international representative, and remained there for nearly 20 years.
Mrs. Cluett is the recipient of the Community Service Award from the Palm Beach Chamber of Commerce in 1986; the Woman of Distinction award from Palm Beach Atlantic College in 1996; and the Town of Palm Beach United Way Tocqueville Society’s Outstanding Community Citizen Award in 1998.
“Helen’s contributions to this community for 50 plus years were many and varied,” said Beth Walton, CEO of the Town of Palm Beach United Way. “She was a woman that could make things happen. Her acts of selfless service will not be forgotten. “
A longtime Republican party activist, Mrs. Cluett was active in a number of local, state and national campaigns. She was a Town of Palm Beach Centennial Anbassador.
In addition to her son, John Alden Briggs Jr. of Frisco, Colo., she is survived by step-daughter Barbara Cluett Williams and son-in-law Thomas Williams of Inverness, Calif., and their son T.G. Williams of Petaluma, Calif.; step-grandchildren, David Cluett of Greenwich, Conn., Caryn Cluett Gregg of Berkeley, Calif., and Christina Cluett of Santa Barbara, Calif.; a niece, Heath McDonell Missner of Wilmette, Ill.; two nephews, Theodore W. Stedman of West Newbury, Mass., and Alexander McDonell of Bend, Ore; and a godchild, Mary MacMillan Morse of Palm Beach.
Mrs. Cluett will be remembered at a private inurnment service on April 24, followed by a memorial service at 11 a.m. April 25, both at Bethesda.
In lieu of flowers, donations in her memory may be made to Opportunity, Inc., 1713 Quail Drive, West Palm Beach FL 33409.