And she readily applied her business acumen to philanthropic ventures, as well, founding the Training School for Public Service, which later became the National
Institute of Public Administration; establishing the Harriman Fund for Orthopaedics at the Yale School of Medicine; endowing a forestry chair at Yale; and, at her
daughter’s urging, creating the Eugenics Records Office at Cold Spring Harbor, Long Island, to study the relationship of heredity and mental deficiency. Mrs. Harriman
served on the national board of the American Red Cross and was an active supporter of the visual and performing arts, founding the American Orchestral Society and
financing the 1925 Tri-National Exhibition of Contemporary Art.
|The New York Anglicans: Twenty Who Shaped the Twentieth Century
|Mary Harriman Rumsey
(continued from page one)
|The Anglican Examiner, Copyright by Donn Mitchell, 2008.
After graduating from Barnard, Mary managed the family’s estate at Arden, New
York, which had more than six hundred employees. She also used this opportunity to
conduct experiments in cattle-breeding, one of the less controversial projects of the
eugenics movement for which she had so much enthusiasm. She would later found
the Eastern Livestock Cooperative Marketing Association, the American Farm
Foundation, and the Emergency Exchange Association, which bartered skilled labor
for merchandise during the Great Depression.
In 1910, Mary married Charles Cary Rumsey, an award-winning sculptor who had
been commissioned for work on the family estate. An early practitioner of the art
deco style, his last major work, “Victory,” decorates a memorial for Jewish soldiers
and sailors who died in World War I. The couple had three children, Charles Jr.,
Mary, and Bronson.
An avid rider and polo player, Rumsey played on every U.S. team in international cup
matches from 1913 to 1921. With Rumsey, Mary enjoyed a glittering social life.
Their Manhattan penthouse and their French chateau at Sands Point, Long Island,
became “gathering places for a richly varied collection of social, political, and
intellectual friends, from foxhunters and polo players and Junior Leaguers” to poets
and writers, such as William Butler Yeats and F. Scott Fitzgerald, according to Rudy
Abramson, the biographer of her famous brother Averell.
During the First World War, Mary took an active role in the Community Councils of
the United States Council for National Defense. After the war, she encouraged the
community councils of the New York metropolitan area to keep working, taking on
the role of promoting parks and playgrounds. At her urging, the councils advocated
public swimming pools, the use of schools as community centers, improved housing
and transit, and lower utility bills. A playground in Central Park named in her honor is
just one of many lasting achievements from this fruitful period in her life.
|Mary Harriman Rumsey circa 1930
Harriman Family Collection
|Mary's parents, E.H. and Mary Williamson Averell Harriman, relaxing
In 1918, Mary joined the board of the Maternity Center Association, which had
appointed Frances Perkins as its unpaid executive secretary, thus deepening a
friendship and professional partnership that would last until Mary’s death.
Founded by public health pioneer Lillian Wald, the Maternity Center provided
post-natal care and instruction for poor women in an effort to reduce the era’s
high rate of infant mortality.
Four years later, on a day when Mary had just returned home from a gala
wedding, her husband called to let her know he was bringing two guests to
dinner and would be riding with them in their car to the Rumsey home on Long
Island. What started as a minor skid near a railroad bridge became a major
tragedy when Charles Rumsey was thrown from the car, sustaining head injuries
that led to his death within hours.
Mary never re-married. Instead, she threw herself into her work even more fully.
While much of Mary’s talent for organization may have been innate gift, she was
also surrounded by stellar role models. As E.H Harriman’s eldest child (an older
brother had died in infancy), Mary was close to her father and privy to the
secrets of his business success.
At the age of seventeen, she accompanied him on a none-too-sentimental journey
“countin’ every mile of railroad track” in the Harriman demesne. Riding in a
special car pushed ahead of a slow-moving locomotive, Mary and her father
could see every bridge and cross-tie of their 5,000-mile journey, along with a
backyard glimpse of the America that postcards rarely immortalize.
Beyond this, Mary had also whiled away the hours with “Siberian Eskimos,
drunken whalers, and down-and-out gold prospectors” as a participant in the
legendary Harriman Expedition of 1899.
What began as a doctor-ordered vacation cruise for her father grew into epic
proportions when C. Hart Merriman, head of the U.S. Biological Survey,
|John Muir of the Sierra Club
and George Bird Grinnell of
the Audubon Society were
among the 126 passengers and
crew of the legendary 1899
was asked to select scientists from varied disciplines to join the trip to document the flora and fauna of the previously uncharted coast of Alaska.
Notables such as John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, and George Bird Grinnell, founder of the Audubon Society, and best-selling nature writer John Burroughs, were
among the 126 passengers and crew. Lasting two months, the expedition returned with 100 trunks of specimens and five thousand photographs and hand illustrations,
which fueled a ten-year long project to digest the new data.
Stellar Role Models
|A New York Times clipping from 1932.
But Mary’s father was not just a man of science and industry. In 1878, he founded on Manhattan’s Lower East Side the nation’s first club for underprivileged boys.
According to the family’s chief pastor, the Rev. D.J. Holmes McGuinnis, rector of St. John’s, Arden, Mr. Harriman once carried a present to a little boy several miles
away who had been inadvertently overlooked in a Christmas distribution. On another occasion, upon learning of the illness of the wife of one of the men who worked on
the estate, he had called the man five times in a single day, both from his home and from his office in the city.
As if all this were not enough inspiration, Mary’s mother was herself something of a tycoon. One Union
Pacific executive said Mary Williamson Averell Harriman had a knowledge of railroads equal to any man he
had ever known. She put the knowledge to good use. Upon her husband’s death, Mrs. Harriman took over
the management of the family fortune and business empire until her sons were old enough to assume
|Mary's mother was herself something of a tycoon.
|In 1928 Mary and Averell broke ranks, endorsing
Democrat Al Smith for President.
Although Mrs. Harriman’s father was an active Democrat (and vestryman in his parish), she and her
husband were lifelong Republicans. Their children had followed suit, but in 1928 Mary and Averell
broke ranks, endorsing Democrat Al Smith for President. Mary’s efforts on Smith’s behalf again put her
in close contact with veteran Junior Leaguer Eleanor Roosevelt, who headed up women’s activities for
Smith at the Democratic National Headquarters, and with Frances Perkins, who campaigned for Smith
throughout the country.
In September of 1932, Mary combined her flair for party-making with her enthusiasm for politics in a
memorable coming out party for her daughter, Mary Harriman Averell Rumsey. Eager to raise
consciousness about rural issues, the elder Mary decorated her Long Island estate with cornstalks and
vegetables and hosted a “barn dance” for her daughter’s debut. The invitations encouraged guests to
wear overalls, and both mother and daughter set the tone, receiving in black satin and red satin
overalls, respectively. More than 1,000 guests sat down to a supper of ham and eggs, various cereals,
and apple sauce.
But the message was not limited to rural development. Mary was aware that many of the young
people in attendance would be voting for the first time that November. With family friend and political
ally Franklin Delano Roosevelt on the ballot, Mary was not about to pass up an opportunity to promote
the vote. So she obtained a voting machine with the names of the Presidential and Gubernatorial
nominees on the ballots and staged a mock election as part of the entertainment.
It is not known how Mary’s election turned
out, but FDR did go on to win the
Presidency. Within a few months, many of
Mary’s closest associates were en route to
Washington, and Mary decided it was time
she, too, stepped onto the national stage.
It all began with a brilliant solution to a
knotty problem facing her friend Frances.
|Within a few months, many of
Mary’s closest associates were en
route to Washington, and Mary
decided it was time she, too,
stepped onto the national stage.