Curtiss, Mina (Stein) Kirstein

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CURTISS, Mina (Stein) Kirstein

Born 13 October 1896, Boston, Massachusetts; died October 1985

Daughter of Louis E. and Rose Stein Kirstein; married Henry T.Curtiss, 1926 (died 1928)

Daughter of a prosperous Boston merchant and noted philanthropist, Mina Kirstein Curtiss was tutored at home by a governess until the age of ten. She completed her secondary education with two years of prep school, received a B.A. from Smith College in 1918, and an M.A. from Columbia University in 1920. During three periods (1920-34, 1940-41, and 1977) Curtiss taught in the English Department at Smith, where she attained the rank of full professor. Her younger brother, Lincoln, became director of the New York City Ballet, while George became a publisher of the periodical, Nation.

In 1928 Curtiss' husband died. From 1935-38, she worked as a research assistant for the Mercury Theater and Mercury Theater of the Air, and during World War II edited and wrote radio scripts for the Office of War Information. Between 1947 and 1957, Curtiss spent many months in France researching the letters of Marcel Proust and the life of Georges Bizet. For her subsequent books on these subjects and for her donation to the Bibliothéque Nationale of her Bizet collection, she was awarded the Legion of Honor by the French Government in 1960.

Curtiss' first publication, Olive, Cypress and Palm, An Anthology of Elegiac Verse (1930), is a selection of nearly 150 poems by authors including Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dryden, Donne, Spenser, Shelley, Byron, Poe, Dickinson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Christina Rossetti. Letters Curtiss wrote to her husband were compiled in The Midst of Life: A Romance (1933), excerpts of which ran serially in the Atlantic Monthly.

In her 1978 autobiography, Other People's Letters, Curtiss wrote: "Femme de Lettres, if it had an English synonym, would most accurately describe my profession. For letters have literally been the driving force behind every book I have produced." She traced her interest to a childhood incident when she was caught looking at a packet of her parents' love letters, which her mother quickly snatched away from her. After this she concluded that letters intended for someone else held clues to a person's secret life and the creative process. The first book of other people's letters she edited, Letters Home (1944), was an anthology of enlisted men's letters about their lives in various branches of the armed services. Next she edited and translated the Letters of Marcel Proust (1949), which, she indicated, were "chosen primarily, to provide readers of Remembrance of Things Past with clues to the development of the personality and the creative process out of which the novel grew."

Curtiss' research in France also led to her first biography, Bizet and His World (1958), and to her editing and translating Daniel Halévy's Degas parle…, published in English as My Friend Degas (1964). A second biography was about Anna Ivanovna, the 18th-century ruler whose encouragement of European and native artists laid the foundations for the flourishing of Russian ballet, opera, music, and drama. Called A ForgottenEmpress (1974), it was inspired by Curtiss' travels in Russia with her brother's ballet company. Curtiss recounts the incidents which led to her books and to some of her periodical articles in her autobiography, with emphasis on her Proust research in France.

Curtiss' writing is characterized by its lively character portraits; its judicious evaluation of people within the contexts of their cultures, periods, and relationships; and its combined tone of scholarship and enthusiasm. Reviewing Other People's Letters in the New York Times Book Review, Nancy Milford referred to Curtiss' "having lived passionately more lives than one, in eras other than [her] own," and concluded that Curtiss "has become a source to the very past she once sought."


Smith Alumnae Quarterly (April 1977).