Zimbalist, Mary Louise Curtis (1876–1970)

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Zimbalist, Mary Louise Curtis (1876–1970)

Music patron and philanthropist who founded and was president of the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Name variations: Mary Louise Curtis Bok. Born Mary Louise Curtis on August 6, 1876, in Boston, Massachusetts; died on January 4, 1970, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; only child of Cyrus Hermann Kotzschmar, known as Cyrus Curtis (a publisher) and Louisa (Knapp) Curtis (an editor); attended Ogontz School for Young Ladies, Abington, Pennsylvania; married Edward William Bok (a publisher), on October 22, 1896 (died 1930); married Efrem Zimbalist (the violinist), on July 6, 1943; children: (first marriage): William Curtis (b. 1897), and Cary William (b. 1905).

The only child of publisher Cyrus Curtis (Ladies' Home Journal and Saturday Evening Post) and editor Louisa Knapp Curtis , Mary Louise Curtis Zimbalist was born in 1876 in Boston, but was raised in Philadelphia, where her parents moved three months after her birth. While publishing brought the Curtis family wealth, it was music that nourished their souls. Both of Mary's parents were excellent amateur musicians; Cyrus played the organ and Louisa sang. Mary took piano lessons from an early age and studied music at the Ogontz School for Young Ladies, where she received her formal education. In 1893, she became engaged to Edward Bok, a Dutch immigrant who succeeded Louisa Curtis as editor of Ladies' Home Journal. They married on October 22, 1896, and had two sons, William and Cary.

Zimbalist continued to pursue her love of music through philanthropy. In 1910, following her mother's death, she donated a building in her honor to house the Settlement School of Music, which served the children of a disadvantaged neighborhood in Philadelphia. In 1924, she established a separate conservatory branch of the school, which she called the Curtis Institute of Music, after her father. The two schools initially shared one building, but within a year the Curtis Institute was relocated to two mansions in downtown Philadelphia's Rittenhouse Square. Johann Grolle, a member of the Philadelphia Orchestra and the first director of the Settlement School, served as director of both institutions for one year, after which he was replaced at the Institute by William E. Walter, an experienced administrator who within his two-year term established the school's sound business framework. Embittered by having been replaced, Grolle continued on at the Settlement School but severed his friendship with Zimbalist. She, however, with characteristic generosity of spirit, continued to finance the maintenance of the school, and even provided Grolle's pension upon his retirement in 1957. He was succeeded by Sol Schoenbach, a member of the Philadelphia Symphony and the Curtis Institute faculty.

At the time of its founding, the Curtis Institute was a pioneering venture in music education, providing training in musicianship and academic subjects as well as applied instruction. Through Zimbalist's outside affiliations, students also had access to recitals, lectures, and contact with some of the leading musical artists of the day. Leopold Stokowski, conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, led the student orchestra, and many of the orchestra's principals joined the faculty. Under the directorship of Josef Hofmann (1927–38) and the presidency of Zimbalist, the Institute flourished. In 1927, she increased her initial grant, making it possible for the school to abolish tuition. Zimbalist additionally supplied housing for needy students and their families, provided pianos and other instruments, and financed European tours. She also established one of the most outstanding music libraries in the United States, and created a summer music colony in Rockport, Maine, where the family had a summer home.

Over the years, legions of musical greats benefited from her largesse including Samuel Barber, Gian Carlo Menotti, Leonard Bernstein, and George Antheil, the futuristic composer whom she supported for 19 years, despite aesthetic differences and her frequent disapproval of his behavior. In later years, her conservative tastes frequently placed her in opposition to modern and popular music, but she managed to remain neutral in her support of artistic talent. She also contributed generously to such musical institutions as the Berkshire Music Center, the Spoleto Festival, the Philadelphia Grand Opera Company, and the smaller Philadelphia Opera Company. Her generosity extended to countless other civic and cultural causes.

Following the death of her husband in 1930, Mary nursed her father through his final illness until his death in 1933. In 1943, she married Efrem Zimbalist, a Russian-born concert violinist who had joined the Curtis Institute's faculty in 1928 and became its director in 1941. She retired from her own position at the Curtis Institute in 1968, succeeded by Rudolf Serkin.

At a tribute to her on the 50th anniversary of the Curtis Institute, Mary Zimbalist was described as "calm, wise, gracious, understanding, tolerant, a lady of exquisite taste and poise: a woman of enormous strength and determination." Many honors were bestowed upon her, but she remained unassuming. In 1932, she declined an honorary degree from Rollins College (to which she had donated a theater), stating that she did not want "any more alphabetical decorations." Her greatest reward was the success of the Curtis Institute's students. "You're all my children, in a way," she said in one of her last addresses to the student body. "I've kept track of you more closely than any of you realize, and with the greatest affection." Mary Louise Curtis Zimbalist died of heart failure on January 4, 1970, at age 93.


Garrety, John A., and Mark C. Carnes, eds. American National Biography. Vol. 24. NY: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Sicherman, Barbara, and Carol Hurd Green, eds. Notable American Women: The Modern Period. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1980.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts