Asbury Park (NJ) Press, November 7, 1976

Biography Shakes Up Mount Holyoke

by Myrna Lippman, Press Staff Writer

Psicataway Township - Biographer Anna Mary Wells Smits' penchant for thoroughness in researching her subject has led to newspaper headlines, an unresolved controversy over literary rights, and the antagonism of some Mount Holyoke College alumnae.

What started two years ago as a biography of Mary Emma Woolley, college president from 1900 to 1937, changed focus when the author came across a batch of letters revealing Miss Woolley's longtime intimate relationship with a Mount Holyoke English literature professor, Jeannette Marks.

Rumors of the forthcoming book's revelations began to circulate early last summer, with harsh reactions coming from some alumnae who had revered Miss Woolley.

The protests came to the attention of the media in August. At the time, Mrs. Smits, who retired from the Douglass College faculty in 1972 after 18 years, was touring the Greek Islands with her oldest grandson.

"At one point, I thought I'd give up the project," said the author of six books, written under her maiden name, Anna Mary Wells.

"I was sick of the whole thing by July when I turned the manuscripts in to my publisher," she said the other day at her Middlesex County home here.

The Boston-based publisher, Houghton Mifflin, has, in fact, two manuscripts, tentatively titled "Miss Marks and Miss Woolley," by Mrs. Smits. One, the author said, "quotes freely" from personal letters written over a period of 52 years by the two educators.

The other, reflecting the unsettled question of who owns the literary rights to the letters, paraphrases them without identifying the source. This version, for which Mrs. Smits said she had "equivocal permission" to use the materials, is the one expected to be released next year unless the literary rights issue is resolved in favor of the more documented manuscript.

Regardless of the version published, the book deals with the relationship of two women. The friendship began in 1895 at Wellesley College where Miss Woolley taught and Miss Marks was a student. It continued until Miss Woolley's death in 1947, pre-deceasing her friend by 17 years.

Mrs. Smits, who had been a reporter for the Asbury Park Press in the early 1950s, would not elaborate on how the Woolley-Marks letters came to her attention.

The correspondence, some of which has an "explicitly sexual interpretation," according to the biographer, indicated the women shared a bed, but Mrs. Smits emphasized that "the language of the letters is not offensive."

She told of her findings last June at her 50th reunion at Mount Holyoke.

"I asked for reactions from my classmates," she recalled. "Some were openminded about it while others were really shocked, really horrified."

The response surprised her, she said, because while a student at the all-girl [sic] Massachusetts college from 1923-1926 "the fact was widespread... There was gossip around school, not about Miss Marks and Miss Woolley but about Miss Marks and students."

Her own recollection of the two was that Miss Woolley, as president, was "remote," and Miss Marks, who headed the English literature department, taught a playwriting course she took and that the women lived together in the president's house.

Mrs. Smits will address the Mount Holyoke Club of New York next month when she will point out "the importance of the college's acknowledgement of the letters. There is a lot of material there other than for vulgar curiosity. The letters represent a valuable holding for the college whether they want them published or not."

The alumnae will also hear how the project developed. Mrs. Smits, author of numerous magazine articles and five murder mysteries, wrote her last book in 1963, a biography of Thomas Wentworth Higginson.

"I wanted to write another book, and I was casting around for a subject. Someone suggested doing a biography on Miss Woolley who had been an excellent administrator and fund-raiser. She had made herself a national reputation - she was the first woman appointed, by President Herbert Hoover, to the Conference on Reduction and Limitation of Armaments (in Geneva)."

Miss Woolley had also worked on behalf of women's education, pacifism, labor legislation, and feminism, among other social causes.

"When she left Mount Holyoke in 1937, long past retirement age, she was succeeded by a man and was outraged. Miss Marks stayed on for four or five more years making the new president's life miserable," Mrs. Smits said.

In 1955, Miss Marks wrote a biography of Miss Woolley which "gave no indication of their relationship," Mrs. Smits said. "It was not a good one either, and the college was pleased that I decided to write a new one.

While researching her subject, "the letters came to my attention... They were in a coffin-like box which had been hammered shut," Mrs. Smits said, adding there is a packet of letters relevant to her subject, now in the office of college president David Truman and clearly marked not to be opened until 1998.

In the August Alumnae Bulletin, Mrs. Smits wrote a letter to answer the rumors that her book had taken a different direction and was about both women.

"As I progressed, I discovered that their lives and careers were so intertwined that I could not possibly write about one without the other. The record of their friendship may well be unique in the annals of American feminism."

Despite this explanation, there is still a great deal of agitation among some alumnae, according to Anne Barrett, Mrs. Smits' editor at Houghton Mifflin. Letters continue to come into the publisher's offices, she told The Press, both to her and to the president. "The balance appears more approving," she said, adding the situation is "unprecedented before publication of a book."

Mrs. Smits is not now involved in a new writing project, having recently returned from doing what she likes best - traveling. She has been around the world and made a separate trip to South Africa.

Another favorite pastime is tape recording textbooks for blind students. Each Tuesday morning, Mrs. Smits goes to Recordings for the Blind in Princeton, and recently, she participated in taping texts on psychiatry and mass communications.

The author, who is divorced, has two daughters, both of whom were graduated from Asbury Park High School when the family lived in Ocean Township. The elder, Jean, is the wife of Professor Hamish Miles, director of the Barber Institute of the University of Birmingham in England. Helen, a doctor of internal medicine and associate administrator of the University of Pennsylvania Hospital, recently became Mrs. Roger LeCompte.

Mrs. Smits, who received her masters degree from Southern Methodist University in Texas and did doctoral studies at New York University, had taught at the University of Detroit and Wayne University. She was a part-time instructor at Rutgers University's evening division before joining the Douglass College faculty as teacher in creative writing and freshman composition.

For the future, Mrs. Smits, 70, said she would like to dig out the first book she ever wrote "and rewrite and reorganize it." It was a study of the wives of Mormon leader Brigham Young and had been published as an article in the now defunct American Mercury.

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