AFTER THE TALENTED young pianist Marian Nevins married her teacher, Edward MacDowell, in 1884, she decided to devote her life to fostering her husband’s musical career rather than pursuing one of her own. Edward found success as a concert pianist and educator, and at the time of his death in 1908 was considered America’s foremost composer.
In 1907 Marian founded the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, transforming Hillcrest Farm, the summer home she and Edward had shared, into an artists’ retreat. She was 50 years old at the time, and she would dedicate the next 48 years of her long life to sustaining and growing the institution.
Marian could easily live on the royalties she received from her husband’s compositions, but sustaining the Edward MacDowell Memorial Association (as the Colony was known at the time) was another matter. After the great success of the Association’s outdoor theatrical event, the “Pageant of Peterborough” in August 1910, the national press began paying attention to the organization.
Marian decided she needed to go on tour to raise funds. She perfected her skills on the piano, and in the cold months, when the Colony was shuttered, she traveled throughout the U.S. and into Canada performing recitals of her husband’s works.
Marian was a fine pianist, and she was soon celebrated as the foremost interpreter of Edward’s compositions. At most of her recitals she would deliver a lecture promoting the MacDowell Colony.
Marian’s performance circuit included appearances in front of many of the MacDowell music appreciation clubs that had been established in her husband’s honor beginning in the late 1890s, and to groups of philanthropists who wished to help the Colony thrive. Marian also appeared at many other types of assemblies, including meetings of the local affiliates of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs.
Over her more than 35-year stage career Marian MacDowell was able to sustain the Colony’s operations through the receipts from her hundreds of performances, and through donations from organizations, individuals, and philanthropists. Her arrival in a city or town was celebrated as a notable event, and the details were published in the local newspapers. For example, on March 14, 1937 the “Salt Lake City Tribune” printed a charming photo of Marian with the headline “Distinguished Guest Coming — Mrs. Edward MacDowell, widow of famed composer.” The article explained that she would arrive on March 30 and would be staying with Mrs. P.O. Perkins (no doubt a distinguished lady). She would also meet with other friends in the city and would visit the Marian MacDowell Chapter of the MacDowell Colony League. On March 31 she would deliver one of her famous lecture-recitals to the Salt Lake City Ladies Literary Club.
In 1924 Marian had been awarded the $5,000 Annual Achievement Award from “Pictorial Review” magazine which was given annually to “the American woman who makes the most valuable contribution to American life during the year.” Later in life she would be presented with several other awards in recognition of her contributions to the arts, as well as honorary degrees from the University of New Hampshire, New Jersey State College for Women, and Middlebury College.
Marian managed the MacDowell Colony for 40 years, retiring in 1947 at the age of 90 due to health concerns. She remained engaged in the work of the Colony, and was always full of ideas of how to better serve the creative people who came there for inspiration. An Associated Press writer interviewed Marian in 1949, and wrote “She is still as interested in the colony as a mother in her child’s career … After years of strenuous activity she sits quietly in her chair these days, a slender little lady in a royal purple frock. But the sparkling dark eyes … are as lively as ever and her words pour out in a steady stream of happiness and hope.”
During her late years Marian lived in Los Angeles with her long-time assistant and friend Nina Maud Richardson. She returned each summer to the MacDowell Colony, her true and beloved home. Marian died in Los Angeles on Aug. 23, 1956 at the age of 98. She and Edward MacDowell are buried in the private cemetery on the grounds of the MacDowell Colony.
Next week: The MacDowell Colony flourishes through the decades.