In 1939, Lady Malcolm Douglas-Hamilton, who died on Jan. 14 at 103, had neither that title nor that name. She was Natalie Latham, a fixture of Manhattan society whose beauty drew notice in Vogue magazine. She had achieved a dollop of fame when she and her two young daughters, nicknamed Mimi and Bubbles, appeared together in matching swimwear in a Life magazine photo spread, having captivated a photographer at a beach club one day.
Mrs. Latham, deft with a needle and thread, had made the outfits herself.
At the time, England had declared war on Germany, whose navy was attacking British ships. It was then, already twice divorced at 30, that Mrs. Latham paused to take stock of her life. A former debutante, she had family wealth, a Revolutionary War pedigree and an Upper East Side address. She was busy enough, organizing charity balls, herding two rambunctious children about town and making her own clothes. Like most Americans, she did not want the United States to join the war, but she felt private citizens ought to help somehow.
"I had never had time to think before," she said in an interview with The New Yorker in 1941. "I began to think of Britain."
It was a turning point in a life of privilege that led to one of the 20th century's most inspired relief efforts. Nearly two years before the United States entered World War II, Mrs. Latham started Bundles for Britain, an organization that initially consisted of a few New York women knitting socks and caps for British sailors. It would grow to embrace 1.5 million volunteers in 1,900 branches in every state in the union and begin shipping to Britain not only hundreds of thousands of knitted items but also ambulances, X-ray machines and children's cots -- all labeled "From your American friends."
Manhattan society matrons pitched in, along with sheepherders in Oregon, apple growers in Michigan and Indian blanket makers in Oklahoma. South Carolinians raised money with a watermelon-eating contest. Women everywhere baked cakes and took in laundry to buy yarn.
Letters of thanks poured in ("Dear Bundles," most said), so Mrs. Latham sought help in replying to them, recruiting eight women, all former debutantes, at the Stork Club, one of her favorite haunts. For help on the English end, she enlisted Janet Murrow, wife of the legendary CBS reporter Edward R. Murrow, whose live radio broadcasts from London brought the war home to Americans; Louise Carnegie, wife of the industrialist Andrew Carnegie; and Clementine Churchill, wife of the prime minister. (Mrs. Churchill sent wish lists back to New York.)
Joan Crawford asked her fans to forgo giving her holiday presents and contribute instead to Bundles. For a raffle, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, mother of the current queen, donated a bejeweled cigarette case in red (rubies), white (diamonds) and blue (sapphires), as well as a piece of shrapnel from the bomb that had hit Buckingham Palace.
"It's like a fairy tale," Mrs. Latham told The New Yorker. "I just go around pinching myself, it's so thrilling."
It was also exhausting: she sometimes collapsed at her desk with fatigue. King George VI made her an honorary Commander of the British Empire, the first non-British woman to be so honored.
She died at a nursing home in Andover, N.J., her family said. After living for many years on the Upper East Side, she had retired to Stillwater, N.J.
Bundles for Britain, which continued through the war, was but one milestone in the life of Lady Malcolm Douglas-Hamilton. At the request of the White House, she created a spinoff group, Bundles for America, to aid Americans in need during the war; one project involved scavenging junkyards for upholstery to make into clothing.
In 1947 she founded and became president of Common Cause (not to be confused with the liberal government watchdog group started in 1970), a moderate anti-Communist organization whose leaders included the historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. She formed a group to aid Haiti; another to stem erosion of the nation's morals; and still another to encourage good taste. (That group built the House of Good Taste at the 1964 World's Fair in New York.)
In the mid-1940s she worked for The New York Times Company as a liaison to women's groups.
What turned out to be her longest endeavor, promoting Scotland in the United States, grew out of her marriage to Lord Malcolm Douglas-Hamilton, a member of the British Parliament from Scotland. They met in 1951, when, representing Common Cause, she spoke to the House of Commons about Communism. They married two years later, after the death of Edward Paine, her third husband, and the lord's divorce from Pamela Bowes Lyon, a cousin of the queen mother.
In the mid-1950s the couple moved to New York, where they founded the American-Scottish Foundation to promote mutual understanding. After Lord Malcolm died in a plane crash in 1964, Lady Malcolm helped establish the annual American-Scottish Ball at the Plaza Hotel and Scotland House as a center for all things Scottish. After the first ball, in 1971, The Times reporter Charlotte Curtis observed that Lady Malcolm was "probably the first person to characterize the historically ubiquitous, rich and powerful Scottish-American as an ethnic group."
Lady Malcolm was born Natalie Scarritt Wales on Aug. 8, 1909, in Cohasset, Mass. Her father, Nathaniel Brackett Wales, invented an early electric refrigerator. He was descended from another Nathaniel Wales, who arrived in Massachusetts in 1635. Her mother, the former Enid Mariner Scarritt, was descended from a governor of colonial Virginia.
Natalie attended private schools in Manhattan. Classmates recalled her being "annoyingly popular with the opposite sex," The New Yorker said; she once invited 30 boys and no girls to a tea party. On a European tour at 17, she said she immediately felt "utterly familiar" with England, even though it was her first visit. While there, she became engaged to the son of a baron, but her mother thought she was too young to marry and squelched the romance, taking her home to enroll in courses at Columbia.
She made her debut in 1928, and the next year married Kenelm Winslow, whom she had met on the debutante circuit. The marriage, short-lived, ended in divorce. In 1937 she married Edward Latham, a former diplomat. Another divorce ensued, in 1939. Not long afterward, in January 1940, Bundles for Britain was born.
Her daughter Natalie Wales Winslow (known as Bubbles) died in 1988. Lady Malcolm is survived by her other daughter, Mary-Chilton Winslow Mead (Mimi); six grandchildren; and 11 great-grandchildren.
Lady Malcolm once said she was "hopelessly fond of organizing." Her Barkers for Britain initiative -- a follow-up to Bundles -- involved selling memberships to dog owners for 50 cents, with each dog getting a special tag to wear. The recipient of the first tag was Fala, President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Scottish terrier.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.