A celebrity in her own right among politicians and public figures of the mid-20th century, Mary (Marietta) Endicott Tree’s (1917–1991) life was defined by glamour, public service, and political pursuits. Her life was also characterized by the limitations and opportunities of being a woman in elite and powerful circles.
Tree’s parents were Malcolm and Mary (Parkman), members of the prominent Peabody family of Massachusetts. She grew up in a household that valued social responsibility and self-effacement, while also maintaining a sense of superiority to the general public. These somewhat contradictory views are summed up in the instructions for good behavior which Marietta’s father gave her when she went to finishing school.
Early in life, she had hoped to become a senator, and while in college, she planned to join the Foreign Service, only to have a professor explain to her that women were not eligible to join. This professor went on to advise her to marry a man in the Foreign Service. By the time she was 21, her ideas about the options available to women had changed, and she resolved to get power “through connection to a man.” (Tree was a very attractive blonde, and many men were drawn to her, including the film director John Huston.)
While Tree believed in the importance of public service, she also enjoyed more frivolous pursuits. When asked to predict her future, she replied that it would involve “parties, politics, and people”; she managed to combine these interests in unlikely ways. During World War II, she spent her days helping Dorothy Paley (broadcasting pioneer William Paley’s first wife) establish a nursery school in Harlem and found Sydenham Hospital, the first multiracial hospital in the United States, and working as a fact checker and shop steward at Life magazine. Her nights were spent socializing with politicians and members of high society, including British aristocrats. A few years later, married to her second husband and living in England, she hosted a party attended by Princess Elizabeth, the future queen of England, and her sister, Princess Margaret.
In the early 1950s, Tree was active in New York City’s Lexington Democratic Club and the Democratic State Committee. Through these organizations, she came to work with the politician and Democratic presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson. Stevenson and Tree shared similar political ideals and developed a close relationship, calling each other by the pet names “Mr. and Mrs. Johnson” and “Mr. and Mrs. Richardson.” In 1961, during Stevenson’s first year as ambassador to the United Nations, he recommended to President Kennedy that Tree be appointed as the US representative to the Human Rights Commission of the United Nations.
Tree was called upon to give speeches representing the UN, and Stevenson often gave her advice and feedback. In the note shown below, he praises her talents but also focuses on her appearance, asking if her glasses are strictly necessary. Tree was with Stevenson on July 14, 1965, when he collapsed on a London street; he died en route to the hospital. Her appointment book contains the brief and poignant entry, “Adlai is dead. We were together.”
Tree’s immersion in the seemingly contradictory worlds of glamour and politics may have influenced her children’s career choices: one daughter, Frances FitzGerald, became a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist; the other, Penelope Tree, a supermodel.