About Mary

Mary Whitall Smith at the Harvard Annex

Tiffany L. Johnston

When visitors and scholars walk along the elegantly arranged halls of the Villa I Tatti and across the echoing parquet of the Biblioteca Berenson, they can easily imagine the renowned connoisseur and sage of Settignano in their midst. There were, however, two Berensons at I Tatti. Despite having been relegated to the footnotes of history, Mary Berenson, like her husband Bernard, created a legacy intimately tied to both the Villa and Harvard University. Mary (fig. MS.II.1), too, had attended courses (cat. MS.II.3) by Harvard professors, those given at the Society for the Collegiate Instruction of Women, known familiarly as the “Harvard Annex” (cat. MS.II.4).        

Mary’s Harvard experience, while similarly formative and influential, differed significantly from that of Bernard. Mary was the privileged eldest daughter of wealthy and established Philadelphia Quakers, and as she would recall many decades later, Bernard “did not come out of so hide-bound and anti-cultural a milieu as my own.” (cat. MS.IV.2) Mary’s literary and intellectual inheritance came from her father, Robert Pearsall Smith, who in turn descended from James Logan; Logan was the secretary to William Penn, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania from 1731 to 1739, and acting governor of the colony in 1736. From her mother, Hannah Whitall, Mary received not only the financial security of the Whitall Tatum glass manufacturing company, but also her fierce feminism, determined desire for education, and inherent impulse for writing. Hannah, who had achieved moderate fame through the publication of several books, most notably The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life, had a profound impact on Mary during her youth.

Read the Complete Essay

Tiffany L. Johnston. “Mary Whitall Smith at the Harvard Annex” (cat. MS.I.1)

Mary Whitall Smith [Berenson], 1882

(MS.I.2) Mary Whitall Smith, 1882