Tree, Mary Endicott Peabody FitzGerald (“Marietta”)

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Tree, Mary Endicott Peabody FitzGerald (“Marietta”)

(b. 12 April 1917 in Lawrence, Massachusetts; d. 15 August 1991 in New York City), socialite, Democratic party activist, and first woman to serve as a U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

Mary Endicott Peabody was born into the prestigious Peabody clan. Her paternal grandfather founded Groton School and her maternal grandmother helped found Rad-cliffe College. Her father, Malcolm E. Peabody, was an Episcopal minister and eventually bishop of central New York; her mother, Mary Parkman, was active in community volunteer work. Tree was nicknamed “Marietta” at a young age and remained thus throughout her life. She spent her early years in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Maryland, attending the progressive Shady Hill Country Day School in Chestnut Hill, Pennsylvania, and St. Timothy’s School, where she graduated in 1934. Tree was a bright, articulate child who loved school and excelled at making friends. When she graduated a year early, she persuaded her parents to let her spend a year abroad in Italy. She returned determined to make her career as a senator or a diplomat. Her family understood her desire for public service, for the Pea-body family had a long history of involvement with government and service; her brother Endicott Peabody was the governor of Massachusetts. Her other siblings were Malcolm, Jr. (whom she called “Mike”), George, and Samuel. Tree dropped out of the University of Pennsylvania during her junior year to marry Desmond FitzGerald on 2 September 1939. She supported herself at the time by modeling for the John Wanamaker department store in Philadelphia. The married couple had one child, Frances (“Frankie”) FitzGerald (who became a Pulitzer prize—winning writer for Fire in the Lake), before Desmond went to fight in World War II. To supplement her family’s income, Tree worked as a researcher at Life magazine in New York City. Her interest and involvement in civil rights was sparked at work, where she shared an office with Earl Brown, an African-American writer and activist. She moved into higher political circles, beginning with a position as union shop steward at her magazine and eventually becoming vice-chair of the Congress of Industrial Organizations’ political action committee.

With her husband abroad in the military and with Tree’s newfound interests, the marriage began to dissolve. Marietta was linked romantically with John Huston, the film director, when she and her husband, already in the middle of divorce proceedings (which would be a fait accompli on 25 July 1947), vacationed at the Barbados home of Arthur Ronald Lambert Field Tree, called Ronald. An Anglo-American many years older than Marietta and Desmond, he was an investment banker and the grandson of Marshall Field. Ronald admired Marietta’s cool, blonde, slim looks and her quick mind; she, his quiet authority and unquestioned love for her. The combination proved irresistible; the two fell in love and decided to marry once their respective divorces were finalized. Marietta and Ronald Tree married on 28 July 1947 and stayed together until his death in 1976, though their last years were strained. Their one daughter, Penelope Tree, became a fashion model.

Tree continued her political activity, organizing women to work on civil-rights issues and raising money for children’s hospitals, when she met a man who would focus the direction of her political calling. Vacationing in the summer of 1952 in Maine, she met Adlai Stevenson, then the governor of Illinois and a presidential candidate.

The relationship between Tree and Stevenson was one part friendship, one part mentorship, and one part thinly veiled flirtation. Stevenson was Tree’s greatest advocate; she, in turn, escorted him to parties, teased him about his long list of “ladyfriends,” and was his staunchest supporter in his two failed bids to become president. To Tree alone would Stevenson admit how humiliating and painful his 1956 presidential election defeat felt. With Stevenson alone would Tree be truly herself: intelligent, probing, and quick.

Tree began to implement her political and organizing skills for Stevenson in 1952, when she actively sought support for him in New York City’s inner circles of rich and influential women. Ushering the Democratic women “volunteers” out of their usual tasks of philanthropy through charity balls or magazine shoots, she brought the elite into the ranks of the activist branch of the Democratic party. She held house parties for Stevenson, and the two came to rely on each other on a more than professional level. Their relationship continued and, four years later, she took an even more active role on Stevenson’s campaign, crossing the country so many times that Ronnie Tree implored her to spend even a little time with him. The 1956 election was again unlucky for Stevenson and the two embarked on a world tour, accompanied by various family, friends, and press.

In 1961 Stevenson used his influence as the newly appointed U.S. ambassador to the United Nations to have Tree appointed as the U.S. representative to the Human Rights Commission. For the first year she was there she sat behind the former congressman Sidney Yates, who represented the United States on the U.N. Trusteeship Council. Her responsibilities for the commission included traveling to places of unrest such as Kabul and Teheran and articulating U.S. policy on human rights. Three years later when Yates reentered the political arena, Tree took his place on the Trusteeship Council with the honorific title of U.S. ambassador.

Tree remained close to Stevenson for the rest of his life. On the evening of 14 July 1965 the two were walking in London when he collapsed and crashed his head on the sidewalk. Tree ran to the nearest club to summon a doctor and the American ambassador. She began to administer mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, but it was too late to save him. He died instantly of a heart attack. Tree was devastated but still maintained her composure enough to notice that several confidential State Department documents had spilled from his pockets during his fall and to pick them up before she went to the hospital.

Tree moved back to New York City after Stevenson’s death and took up residence in a twenty-room town house that she turned into a salon for politicians, journalists, celebrities, and social activists. She also began a new career by becoming a partner at Llewelyn-Davies International City Planning Consultants, along with John Weeks and Richard Llewelyn-Davies, from 1968 to 1980. She was an able networker, convincing city administrators as well as architects to work with her company. During this time, she and Llewclyn-Davies were both professionally and romantically linked. She followed her tenure with the firm by working for various community-improvement groups in the 1980s. Tree died of cancer at the age of seventy-four. She was cremated and her ashes are buried in the Peabody family plot in Northeast Harbor, Saint Mary’s-by-the-Sea in Maine.

Tree left behind an impressive legacy of political activism. She was an enormously influential figure in the Democratic party, bringing women from her social circle into campaigns and political philanthropy. As one of the first women in a high position in the United Nations, she strengthened the U.S. position on human rights while still charming heads of state and the New York City social scene. Her talent at maneuvering through both the social and the political worlds made her a fascinating character.

The authoritative biography is Caroline Seebohm, No Regrets: The Life of Marietta Tree (1997). Seebohm spent time interviewing many of Tree’s family and friends, and she also had access to Tree’s correspondence. John Bartlow Martin interviewed Tree extensively for his Adlai Stevenson and the World (1978). Porter McKeever, Adlai Stevenson: His Life and Legacy (1989), also devotes many pages to the relationship between Tree and Stevenson. Inez Robb wrote an extended analysis of Tree in “The Democrats’ ’Golden Girl,’” in the Saturday Evening Post (20-29 Oct. 1960). Obituaries are in the Washington Post and New York Times (both 16 Aug. 1991). The documentary film The Female Line (1979), by her sister-in-law Pamela Peabody, focuses on Marietta Tree, her mother, Mary Parkman Peabody, and Tree’s daughter Frances FitzGerald. It was a television production that was broadcast nationally and ultimately displeased Tree, who believed her personality was not adequately reflected in it.

Judith A. Parker