Marian MacDowell was a 50-year-old woman tending a sick husband in 1907 when she founded the New Hampshire institution that nurtured some of America’s greatest composers, writers and artists.
Two tragedies sent her on the path to starting the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, N.H. One, the death of her mother; the other, the death of her husband, four decades later.
Marian Griswold Nevins was born in New York City on Nov. 22, 1857, the third of Cornelia and David Nevins’ five children. Her father was a successful Wall Street banker. Her mother died when she was eight — and her father was away. The doctor and her grandmother made her give her father the news. She recalled,
I heard the carriage come up to the front door and then they all looked at each other with consternation; neither one could dare to go out and meet him… knowing the very strong affection my father had for me, they pushed me out into the hall and said, “You have got to tell Father Mother is dead.” He came in, looked at me and said, “What is the matter?” I said, “Mother is dead,” and he fell as though he had been knocked over the head with a heavy blow.
David Nevins sent the children to live with two aunts, Lucretia and Caroline Perkins, in Waterford, Conn. Caroline, who taught music, recognized Marian’s musical talent and encouraged her to pursue the piano.
In 1880, 23-year-old Marian Nevins sailed to Europe – where all serious American musicians studied — to train with Clara Schumann. Schumann wasn’t available, however, and Marian studied instead with a young American composer, Edward MacDowell. Three years later, he asked her to marry him. She agreed on one condition: That he would devote his life to composing and live off her savings. They were married in 1884 in Waterford.
The young couple eventually settled in Boston, which gave MacDowell membership in the group of New England classical music composers known as the Boston Six. Three months into the marriage, Marian MacDowell realized she had to choose between her husband’s career and her own. She chose his. (Listen to MacDowell’s piece To A Wild Rose from Woodland Sketches here.)
Realizing he needed a quiet place to work, she bought Hillcrest, an abandoned farm in Peterborough, N.H., in 1896, without consulting him. She telegraphed the news to him and he replied, “All right, in your name, your responsibility.”
Nevertheless, he loved Hillcrest. Marian surprised him after their first summer by having a log cabin built with a view of Mount Monadnock. It was a perfect place for him to compose, and he wrote most of his significant piano works from it. (Listen to From A Log Cabin here.) She would leave his lunch in a wicker basket and leave it on his doorstep so he could work undisturbed – a tradition that continues to this day at the art colony.
Edward MacDowell had taught music at Columbia University since 1896, but in 1904 he quit his job during an academic dispute. Soon afterward he was hit by a Hansom cab and he went into a severe mental decline. A friend said, “His mind became as that of a little child. He sat quietly, day after day, in a chair by a window, smiling patiently from time to time at those about him, turning the pages of a book of fairy tales…”
Even as they relied on friends for financial support, Marian MacDowell began to realize their dream of a summer colony where artists could find inspiration in quiet and solitude. In 1907, she deeded their farm to the Edward MacDowell Association and founded the MacDowell Colony. During that first season, the guests were sisters Helen Farnsworth Mears, a sculptor, and Mary Mears, a writer.
The MacDowell Colony
Edward MacDowell died on Jan. 23, 1908. Marian MacDowell was 50 years old, but she would remain involved with the art colony for the next 48 years. She resumed her career as a pianist and went on the road to raise money, visiting 600 cities in a 15-year period. Again, at the age of 73, she embarked on a concert tour to raise money in the United States and Canada.
Over time the colony expanded and produced a considerable body of work.
An estimated 6,000 artists have been supported in residence, including the winners of at least 61 Pulitzer Prizes.
Fellows included Leonard Bernstein, who wrote MASS while there, and Amy Beach; poet Edwin Arlington Robinson; painter Lilla Cabot Perry; novelists Willa Cather, James Baldwin and Spalding Gray; and playwright Thornton Wilder, who was inspired by nearby Peterborough to write Our Town. L. M. Kit Carson wrote The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 while at the MacDowell Colony, and Michael Chabon worked on The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.
In 1946, on her 89th birthday, Marian MacDowell resigned her job as head of the MacDowell Colony but continued on as ‘corresponding secretary.’ On her 96th birthday, the Town of Peterborough sent her a cake with the message ‘To Marian MacDowell, Peterborough’s First Citizen, Beloved by All New Hampshire.’ It was the last year she managed to come to the Colony. She died three months shy of her 99th birthday, on Aug. 23, 1956.
She summed up her achievements simply: “I am a very ordinary woman who had an opportunity—and I seized it.”
This story was updated in 2023.