She was a debutante from a prominent Washington family, educated at Holton-Arms. She was a nightclub singer who made her debut at the Powhatan Hotel, crooning “Two Sleepy People” in an aquamarine lamé gown. But Peggy Townsend’s biggest public moment? Welcoming 50,000 people to the Tidal Basin while serving as 1939’s Cherry Blossom Queen.
The above image, snapped three days before the March 31 festivities, caught Townsend posing for five (well, six) photographers while getting a preview of the petals. The ceremony itself was held in East Potomac Park, where Townsend was crowned by Senator Alben Barkley, later Harry Truman’s veep. Irving Berlin even wrote a song for the occasion, titled, unmemorably, “Cherry Blossoms in Potomac Park.”
Afterward, Townsend continued to excite the media, from an account of some driving difficulties—she was fined $19 after getting busted doing 40 mph on Connecticut Avenue—to a 1941 story about “Washington’s biggest social surprise of the season,” which involved Townsend marrying a man just a few weeks after announcing her engagement to (yikes) somebody else. In 1951, the Evening Star ran Townsend’s obituary on the front page, above the fold. The Cherry Blossom Queen had died from a viral throat infection, just 29 years old.
Two years after Townsend’s big cherry blossom moment, photographer Martha McMillan Roberts snapped a series of photos of Washingtonians enjoying the blossoms. Below, take a look at some of our favorites.
A version of this article appears in the March 2019 issue of Washingtonian.