Marian and Edward’s big idea
They got married in 1884 in the library of the Shaw-Perkins-Nevins Mansion on Rope Ferry Road in Waterford. He was considered America’s foremost composer and she was a brilliant pianist. Music had brought them together, and music would be the defining motif of their lives. Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, James Baldwin, Willa Cather, Studs Terkel, and thousands of other artists from various disciplines would be the beneficiaries of their professional passion.
Marian Griswold Nevins was born in 1857 into a distinguished family. Her grandfather, Thomas Shaw Perkins, had built the Waterford mansion, which stood on land purchased by her third great-grandfather, Nathaniel Shaw. One of Shaw’s sons, Nathaniel Jr., was the Continental Naval Agent during the Revolution. Marian and her cousin, Florence Griswold, shared a common ancestor, Gov. Roger Griswold, himself descended from an early Connecticut governor. Marian’s father was a prosperous Wall Street broker. You might expect she’d lead a privileged life, but no one lives without challenges.
Marian was a toddler when her family moved into the Waterford home where her mother, Cornelia Perkins Nevins, had been born. Cornelia died when Marian was 8 years old, propelling the little girl into adult responsibilities. Largely home-schooled, she briefly attended the Perkins School in New London, founded by her aunts, Lucretia and Caroline Perkins. Caroline, a music teacher, recognized and encouraged Marian’s musical ability. (Cousin Florence also attended Perkins, and their adult lives would follow remarkably similar paths.)
American artists and musicians of the time felt they had to study in Europe in order to be taken seriously, so in 1880 Marian went to Germany to study piano with none other than Clara Schumann. Schumann, one of the most distinguished pianists of the Romantic Era, was away on a concert tour when Marian arrived. Rather than wasting time waiting, Marian hired composer Edward MacDowell, who was performing and teaching in Frankfurt. Edward wasn’t thrilled with his new pupil, but he soon came to respect, then love her. She felt the same way.
In 1896, after a few years in Germany, they settled in the States. Marian bought a summer retreat in rural Peterborough, New Hampshire, where she hoped Edward could find the perfect environment to concentrate on his work. She even had a separate little log cabin built for him where he could work uninterrupted except when she brought him his meals. She thought composing was more important than performing, so she put her own career aside.
Edward’s productivity soared. Many of his compositions pay homage to the beautiful woodland setting. One composition in his extensive repertoire, “Cradle Song,” was almost certainly inspired by the sad fact that Marian lost a baby either through miscarriage or stillbirth. The couple never had any other children.
Around 1904, Edward’s physical and mental health began a precipitous decline. In his final illness, Edward spoke passionately about how much he wanted their property to become a retreat for artists from all disciplines. Marian assured him that she would try.
In 1907, she deeded the property (450 acres) to the newly formed Edward MacDowell Association and had a large studio constructed. That summer, she welcomed the first resident artists, a sculptor and a writer. Edward died in 1908 before the next summer season.
Marian has been described as energetic, someone who got things done. This trait served her well. She traveled extensively, fundraising, making speeches, and giving performances of Edward’s work. Under her direction, the MacDowell retreat survived two World Wars, the Great Depression, and the ’38 Hurricane. Ill-health and blindness forced Marian to step down from leadership in 1946 when she was 89 years-old. She died a decade later.
The experiment, as the MacDowells characterized their big idea, is still going strong. The complex consists of 32 studios where, over the years, more than 8,000 artists have been inspired by the serenity and by the company of other creative minds.
Marian never stopped insisting that the colony was Edward’s idea and that she was simply carrying out his wishes, but clearly the vision wouldn’t have materialized without her tireless efforts. But it wasn’t just for Edward. It seems to me that in saving her husband’s dream, Marian filled her long years of widowhood with purpose, and thereby saved herself.
The Florence Griswold Museum, the New London County Historical Society, the Library of Congress, and the book ”The MacDowell Colony” by Bridget Falconer-Salkeld were sources for this column.
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