ON November 20, 1967, at a dinner at Washington DC's Mayflower Hotel honouring the US Senate's Republican leader Everett Dirksen, a 53-year-old Scots-born woman suddenly collapsed. She was carried from the hotel's ballroom at about 8.45pm and was pronounced dead, apparently of a heart attack, a short time later.

President Lyndon B Johnson had arrived at the hotel 45 minutes after her collapse to make an unannounced speech in honour of Dirksen. He was informed of her death but, because the 500 guests knew nothing of what had happened, thought it better not to mention it.

The woman, Nancy Kefauver, had been a well-known figure in Washington in her own right. She had married Estes Kefauver, a senator from Tennessee who in 1956 ran as vice president in the Presidential election.

Four years earlier, in 1952, when Kefauver first sought the vice-presidential nomination, Life magazine had put Nancy on its front cover, next to the words 'Political charmer'.

When Estes died in August 1963, Nancy was left in charge of their son and three daughters. An artist by training, she was appointed by President Kennedy to run a special programme that put art onto the walls of American embassies.

NANCY Kefauver was born in Helensburgh, on January 21, 1911. According to Helensburgh Heritage, she was born at St Anne’s, in Charlotte Street, and while she was still a toddler, the family moved to Highwood, 133 Sinclair Street, where she, her brother Stephen and her sisters Eleanor, Maureen and Patricia were brought up by a Scottish nanny.

Nancy's parents were Stephen Pigott (later Sir Stephen) and Mary. Both of them were American, Stephen from New York and Nancy from Tennessee. Sir Stephen was a noted marine engineer who came to this country and in 1909 began an association with the celebrated John Brown shipyard in Clydebank. He rose to become managing director, and played a key role in the building of two great liners, Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth.

After leaving school Nancy studied at Glasgow School of Art for three years, and later lived in Paris and London.

In London, says a biography of Estes, she found it hard to make a living, and for almost a year she worked in dress designing, book illustrating and interior decoration. Her father disapproved of such activities, but Nancy's own view was that, "I wanted to eat."

In 1934 she went with one of her sisters to America, to visit an aunt and an uncle. In Chattanooga, Tennessee, she went on a blind date with a charismatic lawyer. They were smitten with each other, and when she returned home there was a long and passionate correspondence. Kefauver wrote to Sir Stephen to ask for his permission to marry Nancy, which was granted.

Nancy and Estes were married on August 8, 1935, at the Pigott family home at 24 Kensington Gate, Glasgow. The bride, said the Glasgow Herald, “wore a bridal gown of white faille, cut on medieval lines”; Kefauver’s sister, Nora, was one of the bridesmaids. The ceremony was attended by 100 guests, including many American friends of Kefauver’s.

The couple honeymooned in the Highlands and in Ireland before sailing across the Atlantic to begin a new life in Chattanooga. In time they had four children: David, Lynda, Diane and Gail.

Khristy Wilkinson, of the Hamilton County Democratic Party and committeewoman for Tennessee's 10th Senate district, says, “Estes Kefauver is sort of a local patron saint of the Democratic Party in Chattanooga because of the legends that surround his vice-presidential candidacy and his time as a congressman from Tennessee’s third Congressional District, which includes Chattanooga, and his time in the US Senate.”

Wilkinson encloses in her email a link to a blog post she wrote about Kefauver in 2016. "Kefauver," she writes, "was a revolutionary in every sense of the word – a heavy smoker and drinker and a badass politician.

"Between 1939 and 1949, the progressive Democrat served as representative for the third Congressional District, supporting Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal and the TVA [Tennessee Valley Authority] when his more conservative Democratic counterparts were against them.

"He worried about the economic power of giant corporations, worked to close loopholes in anti-trust and legislation, made it easier for consumers to protect themselves, and fought for congressional reform."

When Kefauver ran for US Senate in 1948, Wilkinson adds, he faced significant opposition from EH Crump, then Mayor of Memphis and a powerful Democratic party boss.

Kefauver's progressiveness "caused Crump to chide him for being a raccoon-like, pinko-commie-liberal. Kefauver responded by donning a coonskin cap during a televised speech and denouncing Boss Crump. He went on to win his Senate primary and then the Senate seat, wearing that cap throughout the remainder of his career.

"His time in the Senate was spent fighting against the pharmaceutical industry and organised crime, and for civil rights for African-Americans even though it took him out of his comfort zone."

Kefauver's tenacious chairing of the Senate investigation into organised crime throughout 1950 and 1951 made pioneering use of television, and gripped the nation.

In March 1951, an estimated 30 million Americans watched the live proceedings. Life magazine later reported that one man in Philadelphia was so mesmerised by the coverage that he failed to notice that a fire had destroyed his backyard shed; he only noticed it when it reached the upper storey of his home.

“Trolley cars rolled along empty,” the Washington Post wrote last year of the hearings. “In New York, cabbies fought over passengers, whose numbers were few. Dishes went unwashed.” Blood banks ran low on donations.

Over 15 months the committee met in 14 US cities and interviewed hundreds of witnesses, including "gunmen, racketeers, gamblers and hoodlums."

By the end of it all, Kefauver was a national figure; one polling agency even put him on its list of the 10 most admired men in America. He even, in 1952, won an Emmy “for special achievement” from the Television Academy.

That same year Kefauver sought to run alongside Adlai Stevenson on the Democratic ticket in that year's presidential election. He failed, and could only watch as Dwight D Eisenhower – running-mate, Richard Nixon – swept to victory that November.

Four years later Kefauver tried again, this time beating John F Kennedy to become Stevenson's running-mate. Once again, however, Stevenson suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of Eisenhower in November.

In September 1957 Kefauver was one of a group of US senators and representatives, all members of the American delegation to the International Parliamentary Union, who visited Edinburgh on a brief sightseeing tour.

As for Nancy, she became an indispensable presence at Estes's side. In 1956 he described her as his “special secret weapon.”

"She was active in many of the Senator's campaigns," the New York Times wrote in 1967, “often speaking at one meeting while he spoke at another miles away.

"When he ran for Congress, Mrs Kefauver would take down the names of those who came up to shake his hand, then write letters to them saying she and her husband were glad to have met them.”

The paper's obituary noted that Nancy was an “attractive woman with auburn hair, green eyes, a gentle voice and a trim figure” and it was said that she was “as friendly and gracious with a precinct captain as with heads of state.”

On August 8, 1963, he suffered a heart attack on the floor of the Senate and was taken to hospital. Khristy Wilkinson observes that the heart attack happened while he was “arguing for an anti-trust amendment to a NASA appropriation during the height of the Space Race. Estes Kefauver went down swinging, he fought for what he believed was right, even when it offended his own party."

Nancy and two of her daughters were on holiday in Colorado at the time when word reached them of Estes's serious condition. They rushed back to the capital but he died in hospital, on August 10, before they could see him.

The funeral, in Tennessee on August 13, attracted a substantial crowd of mourners. Adlai Stevenson was among those who attended; he later wrote to Nancy, “Your buoyant spirit turned a funeral into a bright memory for all of us. I think Estes would have liked it just that way.”

In the weeks after her husband’s death, Nancy received more than 20,000 telegrams and letters of condolence. She needed the help of her late husband's personal secretary to answer every one.

Among the letters of condolence was one from the White House, signed by President Kennedy and his wife Jackie. They had suffered their own heartbreak in August, when their baby son, Patrick, died two days after he was born.

Nancy’s letter, written from 4929 Hillbrook Lane, in D.C., is in the JFK Presidential Library and Museum. ‘Dear Jackie and Jack,” it reads. “You were wonderfully kind to think of us in the midst of your own sorrow and the beautiful red roses happened to be Estes’ favourite flower. My children and I wish to thank you for your warm and understanding sympathy. It makes life easier at a time when it just isn’t.

"We, like everyone else shared in your great loss of one so little."

The following month, Nancy made it clear that she would not be a candidate for Estes's Senate seat. “I appreciate the confidence and kindness of the people of Tennessee,” she told the UPI agency, “but my first responsibility is to my children, and I am not trained or qualified for public office.

“I am confident that a candidate will emerge with the dedication and purpose to carry out the principles and program for which Estes fought so faithfully.”

President Kennedy and his wife had long taken a keen interest in the arts and in 1963 he set up an Advisory Council on the Arts, including Nancy, the first director of the Art in Embassies programme, whom he appointed in November, not long before he was assassinated in Dallas.

The programme had been conceived by the Museum of Modern Art in 1953, with Kennedy formalising it at the Department of State ten years later.

Nancy was the ideal choice for the role of director. She once said that she and Estes had noticed how “drab” US embassies were on the inside: “As a practising artist it just killed me to see all that marvellous wall space going to waste.”

She also said: “I knew President and Mrs Kennedy very well and we used to talk about the lack of representation of our culture abroad. After my husband died I found myself with four children in college or about to enter. I had taught painting at my studio for years, but I needed a full-time job.”

Nancy's first project was the residence in Mexico City, where she staged an exhibition of works by American artists who had worked or studied in Mexico.

Nancy travelled widely as director, and enjoyed her responsibilities hugely. By the time of her death in 1967, no fewer than 97 exhibitions were in place at US embassies across the globe.

She was buried next to Estes in the cemetery of his family farm near Madisonville, Tennessee.

Four years ago, John Kerry, President Obama's Secretary of State, stood up to address the Art in Embassies (AIE) Medal of Arts Award Luncheon in Washington DC.

"AIE," Kerry told the audience, "was commissioned in 1963 under the very premise that American fine art could reach out to people thousands of miles away, people who speak different languages, practice different customs, worship different gods or perhaps not even any at all.

"So the first director, Nancy Kefauver, used her position to bring color and light to embassies from Kuala Lumpur to Moscow. She sent Mark Rothko’s oil paintings to New Delhi, placed Andy Warhol’s acrylic flowers in Madrid and Nepal, and she shipped Reginald Marsh’s harbor scenes to Copenhagen. Her goal, she said, was to show all the world what America stands for, and in her words, to make sure that it was more than 'our Cokes and Frigidaires'."

** Sources: US Dept of State, State Magazine, November 2004; http://www.helensburgh-heritage.co.uk; US Senate website; Estes Kefauver: A Biography by Charles L. Fontenay; Washington Post ‘Retropod’; Knoxville Focus, The Last Years of Nancy Kefauver, Nov 5, 2017; Adlai Stevenson and the World, by John Bartlow Martin; New York Times, obituaries of Nancy Kefauver and Estes Kefauver; https://art.state.gov; John F Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum; Chattanooga Times Free Press website - 'Nancy Kefauver, ambassador for the arts'.