Viscountess Eccles: An Anglo-American Patroness of Literature

By Davis, Philip John | Contemporary Review, January 2004 | Go to article overview

Viscountess Eccles: An Anglo-American Patroness of Literature


Davis, Philip John, Contemporary Review


MARY, Viscountess Eccles shared Dr Johnson's opinion that to be tired of London was to be tired of life. Each summer she would leave her home in New Jersey, and decamp to London. She would travel around the city, and elsewhere in the UK, maintaining her engagement with the community of Johnson and Boswell scholars. An energetic round of theatre visits kept her in touch with the latest in dramatic writing and performance. Visits took in her favorite galleries, museums, and, inevitably for a bibliophile of international repute, the British Library. Every year old friendships were renewed and new ones made.

In 2003 Mary's annual London visit was prevented by increasing physical frailty, and she celebrated her 91st birthday on her New Jersey farm, rather than in her London home. Among the pleasures being missed were the activities of the Eccles Centre for American Studies, which she and her late husband had endowed within the British Library. Her frustration at not being involved in her usual round of activities was palpable even an ocean away, and regular faxes--her favoured communication with the Centre--in no way compensated. I was prompted to make up an album of photographs of Eccles Centre events and take these on a visit to Mary at Four Oaks Farm in August. Lady Eccles was clearly pleased with the evidence of the Centre's activities. Gracious, cheerful, and comfortably in charge in spite of relying on constant care, Mary sat quietly for some minutes enjoying the warm feeling brought on by the report and pictures of her Centre's success. Then she said briskly, 'Now, we must consider what we are going to do next!'

Three hundred years earlier, in 1703, Penelope White, descendant of Mayflower immigrants, married Peter (Pierre) Crapaud in Massachusetts. Peter was a young boy in 1680 when he survived the Cape Cod wreck of a ship from Bordeaux. Allocated his surname by the community that saved and cared for him, 'Peter the Great', as Mary Eccles later wrote of him, lived a long and prosperous life. The ten children produced by Penelope and Peter were the first step in the six generations to Mary Morley Crapo's birth in 1912.

The shift from prosperity to the kind of financial autonomy that helped Mary Eccles become one of the most notable book collectors of her generation appears to have come with Peter's great-grandson, and her great-grandfather, Henry Howland Crapo. Henry and his wife Mary Anne Slocum lived initially with her family at Barney's Joy, a property in south-east Massachusetts still surrounded by features and roads named after the Slocum family. Henry went on to become a valuable citizen of New Bedford, Massachusetts, elected town clerk, treasurer and tax collector, founding the horticultural society and helping found the library, as well as showing considerable entrepreneurial skills.

Entrepreneurial concerns prompted Henry's relocation to Flint, Michigan in the 1850s, where he was closer to his lumber interests, and where he could establish a successful farming venture among his growing portfolio of business activities. Election as mayor, state senator, and elevation to Governor continued his commitment to public service. His son (among a family otherwise made up of nine daughters) William Wallace Crapo remained in Massachusetts to make his career as a lawyer, banker and manufacturer; he served as a US Representative and was, like his father, a philanthropist within his community.

The family now had branches firmly settled in Michigan and Massachusetts. Stanford Tappan Crapo--William's son, and Mary's father--continued to build on the family's foundation. A railway executive and manufacturer, he also created a successful inland resort. He managed the Crapo farm, where he kept the horses that Mary learned to ride, and read to her the works of Shakespeare. She claimed that Hamlet was an early favourite--its gory ending appealing to the young reader.

Mary Morley Crapo was the third child of Stanford's marriage to Emma Morley, more than a decade younger than her siblings, William and Catherine.

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