Barbara R. de Marneffe, 87, longtime champion of The Mount, Edith Wharton’s Home
The Mount, Edith Wharton’s home in Lenox, MA is saddened by the passing on February 1st of one of its most ardent and gracious supporters, Barbara (Bobbie) Rowe de Marneffe. Mrs. de Marneffe served on The Mount’s board of trustees from 1999 until 2007 and was chair or co-chair for six of the years of her tenure. Under Mrs. de Marneffe’s leadership, The Mount transformed from a sad, dilapidated house set on a weed-choked hill to a stunningly beautiful public monument to Edith Wharton.
The Mount made incredible strides during Mrs. de Marneffe’s tenure. She was the driving force behind its grand opening to the public in 2002, the estate’s centennial year. With the mansion’s restoration largely complete but with no furnishings to display, Mrs. de Marneffe conceived a designers’ show house that enlisted leading interior designers, including Charlotte Moss, Bunny Williams, Geoffrey Bradfield and Thomas Jayne, to decorate the main rooms according to the principles laid out by Wharton in her seminal 1897 treatise, The Decoration of Houses.
The show house attracted national and international attention and, in 2005, The Mount received the Preserve America Presidential Award, presented to Mrs. de Marneffe, her co-chair Guy Robinson, and Mount president Stephanie Copeland by President George W. and First Lady Laura Bush at a ceremony at the White House. “Bobbie’s efforts on behalf of The Mount were boundless, and her courage to keep going no matter how daunting the challenge was unshakable,” recalled Ms. Copeland, who worked closely with Mrs. de Marneffe throughout her tenure. Copeland continued, “As all who knew her will attest, The Mount was forever at the forefront of Bobbie’s mind; she gave it her all.”
Mrs. de Marneffe also founded The Mount’s Boston Committee to bring a greater awareness of Edith Wharton to the Boston area. Since its formation nearly 20 years ago, this dedicated committee of women has regularly hosted Wharton-inspired lectures, readings, benefits, and galas, which have both attracted new audiences and raised significant funds for The Mount. In 2012, as part of the 150th anniversary of Edith Wharton’s birth, the Committee hosted a sold-out gala at the Harvard Club to present actor, novelist, film director and “Downton Abbey” creator Julian Fellowes with the Edith Wharton Lifetime Achievement Award. Mrs. de Marneffe and Lord Fellowes and his wife Emma developed an immediate mutual affection and until her death they remained in touch; the de Marneffe’s last visited the Fellowes’ in 2016 while in England to attend the Henley Royal Regatta at which Dr. de Marneffe, at age 92, became the oldest Henley winner (the Kings College Club London victory of 1946) ever to undertake a commemorative row.
Out of all her accomplishments for The Mount, Mrs. de Marneffe was most proud of the 2006 purchase of Edith Wharton’s personal library, which had remained in England since Wharton’s death. This occasion was celebrated with then First Lady Laura Bush, who to this day remains a regular visitor and staunch Mount supporter. Replete with personal notes, inscriptions, and markings in the author’s own hand, these books provide a rare and wonderful glimpse into what Wharton was thinking, and feeling, over the course of her lifetime. “Bobbie understood the magnitude of having the books return to The Mount,” said Dr. de Marneffe, who continued, “the mansion and gardens might be The Mount’s bones, but she knew that the books would be its soul.”
“Yes, it was a stretch for the institution financially,” acknowledged Mount executive director Susan Wissler, “and, thankfully, we have recovered; but there is no question that it was absolutely the right choice and I will be forever grateful to Bobbie for having the courage and conviction to make the acquisition.” To ensure the continued care and preservation of the collection, The Mount is establishing in her memory the Barbara R. de Marneffe Fund for the library and the mansion, where the library is on display.
Funeral services for Mrs. de Marneffe will be held Saturday, March 4, 2017 at 11 a.m. at Trinity Church, 206 Clarendon Street, Boston and will include remembrances by Dr. de Marneffe, her husband of 47 years; Mrs. Edward C. Johnson, 3rd, Mrs. de Marneffe’s good friend since childhood; and Susan Wissler, executive director of The Mount. Donations to the Barbara R. de Marneffe Fund in her memory can be made to The Mount, PO Box 974, 2 Plunkett Street, Lenox, MA 01240 or by calling Susan Wissler at 413-551-5103.