By Bryan Marquard, Globe Staff
Women from households where money was scarce went looking for a social worker and found in the office of Jean Saltonstall Haussermann a haven from pain.
“The word that I think of when I think of Jeannie is cozy,’’ said Sunny Cross of Cambridge, who worked with Mrs. Haussermann in the Malden offices of Tri-City Mental Health and at Associates in Counseling and Psychotherapy, a private practice Cross opened in Cambridge. “Her office was like a little nest. When you walked in, you were enveloped.’’
While that welcoming warmth might be what many hoped for when visiting a social worker, not all knew the origins of the woman who attentively listened to their stories and helped them solve their problems. A former debutante whose teen years were chronicled in the society columns of newspapers, Mrs. Haussermann was in her 50s when she stepped outside her life of privilege to help those who had little.
“Jeannie had the capacity to sit with people and not be judgmental and be open to them, and they opened to her like flowers,’’ Cross said. “Why was that? Privilege is external. She could connect with the real emotions that she felt and they felt in their lives, with loss, pain, envy, love, hope - the experiences we have in common.’’
Mrs. Haussermann, who was a clinician in social work offices into her 70s, until macular degeneration dimmed her sight, suffered a stroke in January, a few days after her 90th birthday. She had lived most of her life in Cambridge and died yesterday in a hospice in Worcester, where she had stayed the past few weeks.
“She never had to work,’’ said her son, Ben Bradlee Jr. of Cambridge, a former deputy managing editor at the Globe. “She came from a privileged background, and it always made me really proud of her that she went back to school and decided to become a social worker, which she loved. She would come home and tell these incredible stories about who she had met that day and who she had dealt with. It was a different world.’’
Just how different is apparent in press clippings that recorded the activities of the debutante set in the late 1930s. When composer Igor Stravinsky conducted a program of his work in Boston on a December afternoon in 1939, a Globe reporter surveyed the crowd at Symphony Hall. Among “the many debutantes in Friday’s familiar audience’’ was “Jean Saltonstall, her lovely yellow hair bare above a nice gray tweed coat collared in mink.’’
“My mother shocked some of her family and friends by casting aside the comfortable but staid life of a society matron to return to college, get her education, and become a social worker, working with families in places like Medford, Malden, and Everett,’’ her son said.
Slightly less surprised were some who knew her best.
“She was always focusing on the other person,’’ said the Rev. Tom Kennedy, a longtime friend who is associate pastor for outreach at Trinity Church in Boston. “People gravitated to her because she had a magnetism and a way of speaking her mind and not worrying about what other people were going to think, and it just endeared her to us. She lit up the area around her. When you left her presence, you said, ‘Wasn’t that wonderful?’ We knew we were in the presence of a special gift that was given to us.’’
Jean Saltonstall grew up in Boston, the daughter of John L. Saltonstall, an investment banker who served two terms in the state House of Representatives, and the former Gladys Rice. Her parents divorced when she was young, and her mother, who later married writer Van Wyck Brooks, published three memoirs.
The Saltonstall family was prominent in Massachusetts politics. Her cousin Leverett Saltonstall served as governor and was a US senator, and her brother John L. Saltonstall Jr. served on Boston’s City Council.
In 1939, Mrs. Haussermann graduated from St. Timothy’s, a girls’ boarding school in Maryland, and later that year her parents held a coming-out party at the Copley Plaza Hotel. She began studies at Wheelock College, but left to marry Benjamin C. Bradlee, the future editor of The Washington Post, in 1942.
After Bradlee served in World War II, the couple lived in Paris while he was a Newsweek correspondent. They divorced in 1955.
“Everybody adored her,’’ said Nancy Bush Ellis of Boston and Kennebunkport, Maine, who met Mrs. Haussermann upon her return from Paris.
“She was adorable looking, which is so nice, and she was quite a talented painter,’’ Ellis said. “But she also had an absolutely wonderful sense of humor. She saw the funny side in things. . . . It’s just the way she saw life that was wonderful.’’
In 1957, Jean Saltonstall married Oscar William Haussermann Jr., who became a senior partner at the Ropes & Gray law firm. He died in 2009.
“Bill was a saint, and he was absolutely terrific for her in every respect,’’ Mrs. Haussermann’s son said. “He doted on her and was very, very supportive of her going back to get her education. There wasn’t anything he wouldn’t do for her. He was a fabulous husband, and she missed him terribly when he died.’’
Mrs. Haussermann received an associate’s degree in liberal studies from Middlesex Community College in 1978. By then, she had begun working for Tri-City in a social work career that lasted from 1975 to 1993. She also studied at Emmanuel College and Boston University before receiving a master’s in education from Cambridge College in 1985.
Her home, meanwhile, was as welcoming to friends as her office was to clients.
“You walked in, and it was like two people put their arms around you,’’ Cross said. “I miss them more than I can tell you.’’
In addition to her son, Mrs. Haussermann leaves a brother, David Saltonstall of New York City; a sister, Anne Saltonstall of Scarborough, Maine; and three grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at noon Tuesday in Trinity Church in Boston. Burial will follow at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge.
“I think she had a quality that every good therapist has,’’ Cross said. “She was curious about people; she was really interested in their stories. And she remembered when people told her things, so if they left and came back years later, she wouldn’t have to go to the files to say, ‘Yes, your Aunt Betty died of cancer.’ ’’
Mrs. Haussermann also “was a great storyteller, by the way,’’ Cross said. “She had a way of describing her childhood so that her images are imprinted on my mind. It’s as though I lived them. That’s a gift, you know. How many people can you say, in your life, ‘I wouldn’t have missed knowing them’? I felt so enriched knowing Jeannie.’’
Bryan Marquard can be reached at email@example.com.