Shy’ Wife Expresses Creativity, Whether in Social Work or Greeting Cards
Lola Poisson Joseph, born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and reared in Brooklyn, N.Y., is one sophisticated doll. Wife of Haitian Ambassador Raymond Joseph, this cheerful woman says she’s “shy,” though she expresses herself beautifully through painting, doll making and her own new line of greeting cards.
“I am a playful person who likes to connect to other people, one at a time,” she told me as she warmly welcomed me into her home, with Cecile, her fluffy Pomeranian, by her side. “My husband is the diplomat. He talks to everyone. He doesn’t mind going to all these big events, but my heart starts pounding when I do. We are very different.”
Outside of diplomacy, Raymond Joseph is best known as a journalist and activist. From 1964 to 1970, he became a radio personality, founding the first radio broadcast in New York beamed against the François Duvalier dictatorship back home.
In 1970, Raymond joined the Wall Street Journal as a writer, covering mostly financial stories for 14 years. Meanwhile, he and his brother Leo Joseph founded the Haiti Observateur in New York, the first crusading commercial Haitian weekly, which today remains the premier newspaper abroad for the Haitian Diaspora.
In 1990, as Haiti’s chargé d’affaires in Washington and the country’s representative at the Organization of American States (OAS), Raymond signed the first OAS accord to allow unarmed election observers into Haiti, which made the country’s first democratic elections possible.
Lola, meanwhile, is the proud daughter of Louverture Poisson, a well-known Haitian painter whose pure and simple oils depicting his native homeland were among the first to be appreciated outside this Caribbean country.
“I never painted with him,” Lola said as she showed me around the residence to see her father’s striking artwork, which hangs side by side with her own charming paintings. “He was a high-ranking military official and painting was more of a hobby for him than a way to make money,” Lola explained.
“I was the middle child and extremely shy and quiet,” she recalled. “I never knew I had this talent. I was tall and skinny, like a broomstick”—a description that’s difficult to reconcile with Lola’s image today as a well-educated professional woman who is not only full of life, but outspoken and very pretty.
“I am a simple person,” Lola said, “but I live my life to the fullest. And when I do get involved in something, I give my best.”
For example, after graduating cum laude from Brooklyn College, she went on to New York University to receive a master’s degree in public administration. She then attended the Hunter College School of Social Work to earn another master’s degree.
Lola has long had a passion for helping her fellow Haitians. In New York, she worked as a medical staff coordinator for St. John’s Episcopal Hospital and its Interfaith Medical Center, and then as project director for the Haitian Coalition on AIDS. She also founded and served as the executive director of the Haitian Community Health Center, for which she raised million over the life of the agency.
Now in Washington, Lola enjoys a quieter career as a stay-at-home diplomatic wife who enjoys a variety of pursuits, which include developing a new greeting card line, painting in her art studio, designing wood sculptures, and creating Haitian dolls for fundraising organizations and friends.
In 2004, only eight months after she and her husband arrived in Washington, Lola took the lead on a project that showcased artwork created by members of the diplomatic community. The program, which was organized by THIS (The Hospitality and Information Service at the Meridian International Center), included work by 29 artists from 22 countries. More than 350 people attended the exhibit held at the Haitian Residence, which Lola transformed into an art gallery by removing all of the furniture and adding track lighting. Afterward, Lola treated the artists and their families—more than 100 people—to a 10-course meal that she had prepared. Lola has been a favorite at THIS ever since.
Just before President’s Day this year, Lola organized a Black History Month program at the Haitian Embassy—right down to personally designing and sending out the invitations and preparing all of the food herself for several hundred guests, cooking for a solid four days before as well as the day of the event.
In addition to cooking, Lola has an affinity for doll making. She told me prior to our interview that someone would be dropping by to pick up a special doll she had just made. When the doorbell rang, a young Japanese mother and father walked in with their shy 9-year-old daughter, Tamako Okano, who’d just had her last day at Chevy Chase Elementary because this World Bank family was returning to Japan. Lola met the mother in a THIS French conversation group and offered to make a doll for her daughter when she heard how unhappy the little girl was to be leaving her friends in America.
Tamako hugged her doll and Lola told her, “Your dolly’s name is ‘Angelina’ or ‘Angel,’ not because of Angelina Jolie, but because you’re an angel.” The family immediately pulled out their camera to capture the moment, thanking Lola profusely.
In addition to always naming her dolls “to give them life,” Lola creates actual birth certificates for them. “I delivered the birth certificate to Tamako just as they were leaving for the airport,” she later told me. “She was still hugging her doll and refused to put her in the suitcase. Instead, she carried it in her arms all the way to Japan. Imagine everybody looking at that little Japanese girl with a black Haitian doll—she must have gotten so many questions on the plane.
“Mrs. Bush has my best doll,” Lola added proudly, showing me a picture of another dolly dressed in a blue dress and red silk scarf. In another photo, Lola and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice are hugging as if they were old sorority sisters. “Since I never know when we’re leaving,” she said with a wink, “I better start doing Condi’s doll.”
To Lola, a trained social worker, “playing with dolls is relevant to a child’s psycho-social development. In Haiti, children learn to be creative very early, and I have always loved dolls myself and made them from the time I was a little girl.”
Like doll making, painting is another outlet through which Lola expresses her creativity. As we toured her art studio, Lola pointed out her self-portrait, titled “The Black Orchid,” noting, “My husband took the picture. Look, I’m naked!”
Lola is certainly full of surprises and delightfully confident for a person who claims to be so shy. As we went back through the kitchen, Lola made sure to mention that “I’m an artist in the kitchen too. I cook just like I paint—I put my whole self into it.”
Later, her husband enthusiastically praised his wife. “She usually says I’m her best PR man, and I say she is femme extraordinaire. She excels at almost everything she has ever tried to do: social worker, administrator, artist and chef.”
Lola and her husband have been together for more than 25 years. Lola’s two grown children live in New York City, where the daughter works in human resources and the son as a sound engineer. “But they definitely don’t want a part of diplomacy,” Lola said, noting that they prefer to stay out their country’s politics, particularly given its turbulent past.
But Haiti’s political ups and downs have always been a part of Lola and Joseph’s lives. The couple met while he was a reporter for the Wall Street Journal. “I was working on a story on immigrants and as an immigrant myself, I wanted to know what interesting things other Haitians were doing. When I met Lola, it was love at first sight,” Ambassador Joseph recalled.
There are many years between them, but both look much younger than their actual ages. “People often underestimate my age by 15 to 20 years,” said this distinguished, gray-haired ambassador. “And that’s a good thing. I need that to compete with Lola!”
Indeed, Lola loves being unique. “That’s why I don’t like to dress like anyone in the room. One time, I ended up in a room in the same dress as a girl who was not really my friend. I freaked out. I decided right then and there that it would never happen again. I very much identify with the ‘red dress incident’ at the White House,” Lola explained, referring to the Kennedy Center Honors gala in 2006 when first lady Laura Bush and three other women wore the same ,500 bright red Oscar de la Renta evening dress.
“So now, any time I am going to a function, I psyche myself into how I want to look. Depending on the audience and crowd expected, I will choose what I know nobody else will have at that particular time. And if I can’t find that dress, I make it.”
One time, she even made a dress right before a wedding. “It was embroidered see-through deep pink with blue lining—no chance for someone else with the same combination at the same point in time,” she quipped, though she emphatically added: “I never compete with anyone—only with myself.”
About the Author
Gail Scott is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat and lifestyle columnist for the Diplomatic Pouch.