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Hats off to Ursula Trudeau, gone at 87

She was ‘an artist, a model, an equestrian, a Canadian, a Saranac Laker and a friend’

Dr. Francis Trudeau Jr. and his wife Ursula Trudeau (Photo provided)

SARANAC LAKE — Sitting in her green recliner at Saranac Village at Will Rogers, surrounded by keepsakes of a lost loved one, Natalie Leduc said Ursula Wyatt Trudeau, or Ula as she called her, was more than a best friend.

“She and I –“ Leduc hesitated, fighting back tears. “She was my soul mate in every sense of the word. She had several surgeries, and I stayed with her, and I slept in the same bed. How do you define ‘soul mate?’ I guess you’ll have to ask old man Webster.”

Ursula, whose husband was Dr. Francis B. Trudeau Jr. and whose stepson was “Doonesbury” cartoonist Garry Trudeau, died Thursday morning at the age of 87. Francis, who died in 1995, was the founder of the Trudeau Institute medical research center in Saranac Lake and the grandson of Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau, the doctor who pioneered tuberculosis research in the same village in the late 1800s. Garry Trudeau could not be reached for comment before publication.

In the last few years of Ursula’s life, Leduc lived next door to her at Will Rogers. Her apartment is adorned with mementos of Ursula. A comical painting of Ursula’s, depicting a French-Canadian nun ice skating, hangs above Leduc’s bed. Next to that is Ursula’s flapper headdress from a past Hotel Saranac gala. In her bathroom is a collection of Ursula’s postcards. And next to her two recliners, easily within reach, is a one-inch binder containing photos of Ursula, some dating back to her childhood. Leduc’s favorite photo shows Ursula and her twin brother Tudor as children sitting on top of their dog Danny, an Irish wolfhound.

One of Ursula Trudeau’s hats is seen outside the Harrietstown Town Hall Monday. (Enterprise photo — Griffin Kelly)

The icon

When people around town talk about Ursula, it sounds like they’re describing a cross between Jackie Kennedy, Frida Kahlo and Twiggy. They describe a person who is confident, artistic, stoic, classy, elegant. The adjectives are infinite.

To many folks in Saranac Lake, Ursula was an icon.

“There’s never been another person like her in Saranac Lake,” said Amy Catania, executive director of Historic Saranac Lake. “She was our local Trudeau. Ursula represented a family that’s impacted our community for generations. She was the face of that history. It’s very sad to see her go. It feels like the end of an era.”

Outside of being attached to the most famous family in Saranac Lake history, Ursula left her footprint in the community.

Ursula Trudeau (Photo provided)

Originally from Montreal, Ursula gained acclaim as a model. She was in advertisements for Pond’s face creams and Clairol hair dye. She would have her hair dyed, go to a photoshoot, strip the color out and dye it again for another shoot. She traveled around the globe for her modeling work.

Ursula’s sense of style and worldliness was apparent throughout her life.

Adirondack Health Foundation Executive Director Hannah Hanford moved to the area in 2010, and that summer she visited an art opening at the Lake Placid Center for the Arts. When she arrived, her eyes were immediately drawn to two women in huge, glamorous hats and small dogs in tow. It was Ursula and her good friend Mili Distin. Their styles radiated a confidence and zest for life Hanford found attractive.

“Ursula had a distinctive, elegant sense of style which was evident in the way she decorated her home, in her sense of fashion (think glorious hats, colorful scarves, latest clothing trends) and her artwork,” Hanford said in an email. “She even accessorized her beloved Saab with a signature hood ornament.” Ursula’s ornament was a little mouse. Leduc’s was a skier that she ripped off a trophy she won in her younger days.

The Trudeaus

According to a 2007 Lake Placid News piece from columnist Naj Wikoff, the first time Francis’s kids met Ursula, it was a surprising and unconventional experience.

“When the first time two out of three of Ursula Trudeau’s future stepchildren met her, about 40 years ago, she was sitting in the forbidden zone, their very proper grandmother’s favorite chair, wearing a bikini and with a huge mass of bright orange hair floating above her head, the result of a Clairol hair commercial gone wrong, and she arrived a week late.

“‘I’m the new wicked step-mother,’ she said. ‘Call me Ursula.'”

A life in hats

Ursula was known for her hat collection. She had hundreds. Some were chic sun hats perfect for a summer day. Others had a Kentucky Derby vibe. And some were simply outrageous, such as a bicorne hat akin to something Napoleon Bonaparte would’ve worn at the Battle of Waterloo. Her collection was showcased in the “Ursula Trudeau: A Life in Hats” exhibit at the Saranac Lake Laboratory Museum in 2013.

“I remember when I read a speech during her exhibit,” Catania said. “I listed off a whole bunch of adjectives describing her — an artist, a model, an equestrian, a Canadian, a Saranac Laker and a friend.”

Leduc has one of Ursula’s hats hanging on a hook above her fridge.

The artist

Ursula was an avid painter and a long-time member of the Adirondack Artists Guild on Main Street. She studied painting at Montreal’s Ecole des Beaux Arts. At the Guild, she would display her acrylic paintings. They were bright, colorful and impressionistic, depicting Adirondack landscapes, log cabin interiors and scenes of people in the Virgin Islands.

Local artist Eleanor Sweeney described Ursula’s pieces as charming and happy.

“She spent a lot of time in St. John’s and the Virgin Islands,” Sweeney said. “She would paint these acrylic pieces of women in hammocks or people visiting the local market. She used beautiful, bright colors, and often her landscapes would have these large, orange suns on the horizon.

“These weren’t supposed to be exact replicas. She added a real sense of fun to her pieces.”

Hanford said the Adirondack Medical Center has one of Ursula’s landscapes of a snowstorm, and right next to it is a promotional poster for her “A Life in Hats” exhibit, which was drawn by Diane Leifheit.

“It’s a black and white drawing of Ursula from the back,” she said. “She’s in her big hat, black, size-2 skinny jeans and high heels. The only thing in color was her red leash — the signature red leash. I had that framed and put next to the snowstorm. I love the juxtaposition of the two.”

The community advocate

Aside from a notable personality and style, Ursula had been an active member of the community, serving on boards for the Trudeau Institute and the Lake Placid Center for the Arts. She was known for helping out her organizations on any level.

In a 2007 Lake Placid News article, then-LPCA President Parmalee Tolkan said, “(Ursula) has been willing to help attend to the smallest detail, which could be bringing flowers from her garden to decorate the tables of our benefits, to making her contacts available to help the Center exist.”

At the 1980 Olympic Winter Games in Lake Placid, Ursula served as a recruitment officer and volunteered as a hostess, donning a long red overcoat and matching red hat.

Ursula painted murals at local shops and decorated windows around town for big events such as the Saranac Lake Winter Carnival and the Saranac Lake General Hospital antique show when it was still around.

She donated her paintings to fundraisers for multiple groups such as the Lake Placid Sinfonietta, the American Cancer Society, St. Agnes School and Historic Saranac Lake.

When she moved from her home to Will Rogers a few years ago, Ursula sold many of her possessions and donated part of the proceeds to the Adirondack Health Foundation.

Skiing

Leduc and Ursula first met shortly after Ursula got married in the 1960s. Francis called up Leduc and asked if she would go skiing at Whiteface with his new wife.

“I liked her immediately,” Leduc said. “She was not a super-duper skier, but, my god, she was strong. She was daring and had lots of guts.”

Skiing was at the heart of Ursula and Leduc’s relationship throughout the years. In the summers, Leduc said the two would go their separate ways. Ursula liked to take the season off to be alone and go paddling every morning.

The two plus another friend, Betsy Minehan, would often go to Whiteface and have candlelit picnics in the snow.

“We had a little candle, and a sack and little tea napkins,” Leduc said. “And we had a pin, Winter Carnival-sized, that said ‘Whiner of the Day.’ And at the end of the day, it was awarded to the one of the three of us who whined the most.”

Leduc remembers one time when she and Ursula went skiing, but Ursula had to drive up to Canada that same day for a modeling gig. It’s a story that epitomized her carefree, humorous and jovial attitude.

“She brought her suitcase with her, and as she was driving up the road, she started changing into her other clothes,” Leduc said. “She took off her long underwear and started putting on her pantyhose when she felt eyes upon her. It was a truck driver looking down at her. ‘What did you do?’ I asked. ‘I waved, I smiled and I threw him a kiss. Then I kept driving,’ she said.”

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