Mary Louise Curtis Bok: A Portrait of Curtis’s Founder

Date: August 5, 2013 Category:

Mary Louise Curtis Bok, portrait by Norman Rockwell

Mary Louise Curtis Bok, portrait by Norman Rockwell

 

As heiress to the Curtis Publishing Company fortune, Mary Louise Curtis Bok had the means to turn her ideals into reality.

Mrs. Bok was a celebrated patron of music and the arts in Philadelphia, and her most important contribution was establishing the Curtis Institute of Music. After founding the school in 1924, she served as president of its board for more than 40 years; and was a daily presence for most of her life, beloved by students and faculty.

This exhibit highlights the achievements and legacy of Curtis’s founder, illustrated by materials from the archives of the Curtis Institute of Music.

 

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An heiress with a passion

Mary Louise Curtis Bok (1876-1970) was the only child of Cyrus C.K. Curtis (1850-1933), founder of Philadelphia’s Curtis Publishing Company, and Louisa Knapp (1852-1910). They had earned their fortunes with The Saturday Evening Post and Ladies’ Home Journal, of which Louisa Knapp was the editor.

Mary was raised with a love of music. She played the piano and—like her father—the organ. Her parents helped to support several musical organizations, including the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Settlement Music School. When Mary married Edward Bok in 1896 (her mother’s successor as editor of the Journal), she and her new husband continued this tradition.

While Mrs. Bok’s sons Curtis (born 1897) and Cary (born 1905) were still young, she found an outlet for her interest in music in the Settlement School of Music in South Philadelphia. Settlement Music School was founded in 1908 by Blanche Wolf Kohn and Jeanette Selig Frank to provide music education to culturally deprived children from the neighborhood. Mary Bok became Settlement’s president in 1914, and in 1917 she donated funds for a larger building on Queen Street in memory of her mother, who had died in 1910.

Realizing that some Settlement students had sufficient talent but lacked the funds to train properly for a professional career, she helped organize a conservatory department at the school in 1922. This would become the nucleus of the Curtis Institute of Music in 1924.

Mary Louise Curtis Bok, c. 1928

Mary Louise Curtis Bok, c. 1928

Photograph of Mary Louise Curtis Bok a few years after she founded the Curtis Institute of Music. [Curtis Archives Photograph Collection; Photographer: Kubey-Rembrandt Studios]

Mary Louise Curtis Bok, c. 1928
Louisa Knapp by Irving Ramsey Wiles, 1907

Louisa Knapp by Irving Ramsey Wiles, 1907

This portrait was painted by Irving Ramsey Wiles three years before Louisa Knapp died. When founding the Curtis Institute of Music, Mary Louise Curtis Bok named the building adjacent to the main building Knapp Hall, in memory of her Mrs. Bok's mother.

Louisa Knapp by Irving Ramsey Wiles, 1907
Cyrus C.K. Curtis by Richard L. Partington, 1926

Cyrus C.K. Curtis by Richard L. Partington, 1926

Mary Bok’s father helped purchase the building on 235 South 18th Street next to the school, donated an organ for the concert hall, and was a member of the Curtis Institute board until his death. This painting, which currently hangs near the entrance to Field Concert Hall, is by Richard Langtry Partington (1926).

Cyrus C.K. Curtis by Richard L. Partington, 1926
Settlement Music School's statement of principles, 1928

Settlement Music School's statement of principles, 1928

Settlement’s founding principles included the beliefs that music offers relief from economic pressure; leads to full recognition of true values, mutual understanding, and development of good will; and helps build “world unity and the universal brotherhood of man.” [Annual report 1908-1928. Courtesy of the Settlement Music School]

Settlement Music School's statement of principles, 1928
Settlement Music School students, circa 1917

Settlement Music School students, circa 1917

Courtesy of the Settlement Music School

Settlement Music School students, circa 1917

 

Friendships with Leopold Stokowski and Josef Hofmann

Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977), conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra from 1912 to 1941, and Josef Hofmann (1876-1957), the Polish piano virtuoso, were long-time friends of Mary and Edward Bok. The four of them spent many evenings discussing the possibility of an American conservatory that would provide training to the Settlement School’s most talented pupils. The charismatic conductor and world-famous pianist were instrumental in realizing Mary Louise Curtis Bok’s dream.

Stokowski with the Boks in their garden, c. 1920

Stokowski with the Boks in their garden, c. 1920

[Curtis Archives Photograph Collection]

Stokowski with the Boks in their garden, c. 1920
Stokowski to Mary Curtis Bok, Feb 26, 1924 (1)

Stokowski to Mary Curtis Bok, Feb 26, 1924 (1)

Stokowski, who always signed with Mary Bok’s nickname for him, ‘Prince,’ writes: “I see how wonderfully [the school] could fit in with the growth of the [Philadelphia] Orchestra by educating talented young men in all the instruments of a modern symphony orchestra … . Such a Conservatory ought to have its students’ orchestra, and if you like I would be very happy to help you in that.” [AD 2.3: President of the Board correspondence] View second page of this letter.

Stokowski to Mary Curtis Bok, Feb 26, 1924 (1)
Stokowski to Mary Curtis Bok, Feb 26, 1924 (2)

Stokowski to Mary Curtis Bok, Feb 26, 1924 (2)

View first page of this letter.

Stokowski to Mary Curtis Bok, Feb 26, 1924 (2)
Josef Hofmann as Little Lord Fauntleroy, c. 1920

Josef Hofmann as Little Lord Fauntleroy, c. 1920

The photo is taken at a dress-up party in the Boks', garden [Curtis Archives photograph collection]

Josef Hofmann as Little Lord Fauntleroy, c. 1920
Josef Hofmann to Mary Curtis Bok, March 28, 1924

Josef Hofmann to Mary Curtis Bok, March 28, 1924

Hofmann always addressed Mary as ‘Marussia’ and signed as ‘Pepi.’ After observing that Curtis’s first director, Johann Grolle, had so far been unsuccessful in securing the services of an ‘adequate piano teacher’ he writes: “I should like to investigate whether I could not help you out at least for the first year—season 1925, in order to give the piano department a good start and a ‘sound’ foundation.” [AD 2.3: President of the Board correspondence]

Josef Hofmann to Mary Curtis Bok, March 28, 1924

 

The founding of the Curtis Institute of Music, 1924

The Boks purchased three neighboring mansions at Locust and 18th Street. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania issued the school’s charter on April 18, 1924. During the first year the building at 1720 Locust (now the Rock Resource Center) housed a preparatory school for young students, and subsequently the Department of Stringed Instruments and Theory. Through the influence of Hofmann and particularly Stokowski, Mary Bok was able to secure eminent faculty, including the opera star Marcella Sembrich (voice), Carl Flesch (violin) and Carlos Salzedo (harp). Hofmann himself was in charge of the piano department, and Stokowski directed the Curtis orchestra.

Diversity

Diversity

Curtis’s student body was diverse from the very beginning, with a balance between male and female students and many students from immigrant families. Statistics from the dean’s annual report show that one-third of the students were immigrants during the first school year (including the preparatory school). Seven years after the Russian Revolution, most were from the former Russia. Since many faculty members at the school were born or educated in Russia themselves, Curtis was sometimes called ‘St. Petersburg Conservatory-in-Exile.’ [AD 3.1 annual reports of the Dean, 1925]

Diversity
Charter of the Curtis Institue, April 18, 1924

Charter of the Curtis Institue, April 18, 1924

The charter, issued by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, stated the school's purpose was "to train exceptionally gifted young musicians for careers as performing artists on the highest professional level."

Charter of the Curtis Institue, April 18, 1924
"A Statement by Mrs. Bok"

"A Statement by Mrs. Bok"

This printed statement of the founder’s aim for the school was used to advertise in newspapers, and also printed in the Catalogue. Signed by Mary Bok herself, it states that students “should learn to think and to express their thoughts against a background of quiet culture” and that school’s aim was “quality of the work rather than quick, showy results.” [AD 1.3: Scrapbooks]

"A Statement by Mrs. Bok"
Drawing of the Curtis Institute by Louis Ruyl, 1925

Drawing of the Curtis Institute by Louis Ruyl, 1925

During the first years of the school's existence the annual Catalogue contained drawings of its buildings and interiors. This drawing by Louis Ruyl, whose illustrations were used during the 1925-26 school year, shows the school’s three buildings, with Knapp Hall on the left and the building at 235 18th Street (the “Executive Department”) on the right, where the main entrance was until the building of the new concert hall in 1927. [Catalogue, 1925-26]

Drawing of the Curtis Institute by Louis Ruyl, 1925
First Director: Johann Grolle, 1924

First Director: Johann Grolle, 1924

The Curtis Institute’s first director was Johann Grolle, who had been in charge of the Settlement Music School. He resigned after a few months and returned to his previous post, due to “differences” with Mary Louise Curtis Bok. His successor, William Walter, was director from 1925 to 1927. [AD 2.3: President of the Board correspondence]

First Director: Johann Grolle, 1924
The Catalogue about the Curtis's facilities, 1924

The Catalogue about the Curtis's facilities, 1924

The Catalogue contained information about the school’s courses and facilities for prospective students and particularly parents. In a description of the buildings, the first Catalogue emphasized the “elegance and the home-like quality” of the former residences, in keeping with “the desire of the founder.” Ruyl’s drawing of the Common Room illustrated this characteristic.

The Catalogue about the Curtis's facilities, 1924
News article about the school's opening, October 1924

News article about the school's opening, October 1924

The first day of school was supposed to be Wednesday, October 1, 1924. Because the building was not ready on schedule, opening day was moved to Monday, October 13. According to this newspaper article, Curtis’s founding had prompted one of the largest shipments of pianos in Philadelphia’s history. The “piano fleet” attracted considerable attention. [AD 1.3: Scrapbooks]

News article about the school's opening, October 1924

 

President of the board

As founder and president of the board, Mary Louise Curtis Bok had her own office and secretary. She arrived each day in a maroon car driven by a chauffeur in matching uniform. She maintained personal relationships with students, faculty, and staff and worked closely with Joseph Hofmann, who had become Curtis’s third director in 1927.

After the deaths of her husband in 1930 and her father in 1933, Mary Bok poured herself more fully into leading Curtis. The 1930s saw many new developments at the school despite the challenges caused by the Great Depression—including its first commencement ceremony in 1934, weekly radio broadcasts, a recording studio, and a new cafeteria (see our exhibit LIFE at Curtis before the War). When Hofmann resigned in September, 1938, Mary Bok became acting director until a new director was found.

A saint with style

A saint with style

In contemporary descriptions of Mary Bok, she is described with saint-like qualities. One article in the Morning Telegraph that sang her praises seems to particularly have amused her. “Friendly—tho rather sentimental?” she penciled at the top. The reporter described a cello student kissing her hand, upon which she gently “touched the head of the young fellow.” Commented Mrs. Bok, “I never did!” [AD 2.2: Founder’s records]

A saint with style
Free tuition, 1928

Free tuition, 1928

When Hofmann became director in 1927, many students were already exempt from the school’s low tuition fees. Hofmann suggested dropping them altogether. From the 1928–29 school year, free tuition was listed among the benefits the school offered. [Catalogue, 1928-1929]

Free tuition, 1928
Mary Bok at the first commencement, 1934

Mary Bok at the first commencement, 1934

Hofmann had opposed the idea of a diploma for graduation for a long time, because he thought musical excellence should speak for itself. When he finally capitulated, Mary Bok was very involved in the preparations for the ceremony, as well as the design of the diplomas and gowns. [Curtis Archives Photograph Collection]

Mary Bok at the first commencement, 1934
Class photo at the first commencement, 1934

Class photo at the first commencement, 1934

Among the graduates seated in the foreground are (top row, fourth from left) Samuel Barber and (second row, third from left) Orlando Cole.

Class photo at the first commencement, 1934
Gian-Carlo Menotti to "Aunt Mary," 1937

Gian-Carlo Menotti to "Aunt Mary," 1937

Mary Bok had personal relationships with many students and graduates, who sometimes called her ‘Aunt Mary’ or ‘Mother Bok.’ In the letter on display here, Gian-Carlo Menotti (Composition '33) thanks Mary Louise Curtis Bok for a book she sent him about yoga, with a drawing of himself standing on his head. She sent it to him, probably jokingly, after a previous letter in which he described how little time he had to relax, due to feverish preparations for his opera Amelia Goes to the Ball. [AD 2.3: President of the Board correspondence]

Gian-Carlo Menotti to "Aunt Mary," 1937
Max Aronoff to "Mother Bok," 1938

Max Aronoff to "Mother Bok," 1938

In the letters on display here, Aronoff suggests starting a “men’s club or fraternity” at Curtis, which Mary Bok turned down. [AD 2.3: President of the board correspondence]

Max Aronoff to "Mother Bok," 1938
Acting director: President’s annual report to the board, 1938-1939

Acting director: President’s annual report to the board, 1938-1939

When Josef Hofmann resigned in September 1938 (“wishing more time for concertizing” according this annual report to the board), Mary Bok took on an executive position. She appointed the composer Randall Thompson as the new director, and Rudolf Serkin as head of the piano department. She concluded her report: “To me personally it has been an extraordinary year, the school in very truth having been my own for this one year.” [AD 2.3: President of the Board correspondence]

Acting director: President’s annual report to the board, 1938-1939

 

The Zimbalist years

Curtis’s fourth director, Randall Thompson, stayed for less than two years. His successor was Efrem Zimbalist, head of Curtis’s violin department and a widower. He and Mary Bok married in 1943. Under Zimbalist’s directorship the school regained financial strength and flourished. President Mary Zimbalist stayed actively involved in the school, and continued to have her own office.

Efrem Zimbalist retired as director after 27 years in 1968. By then his wife was in frail health. Mary Louis Curtis Bok Zimbalist died on January 4, 1970, at the age of 93.

Efrem Zimbalist and Mary Louise Curtis Zimbalist in front of the school, c. 1944

Efrem Zimbalist and Mary Louise Curtis Zimbalist in front of the school, c. 1944

[Curtis Archives Photograph Collection]

Efrem Zimbalist and Mary Louise Curtis Zimbalist in front of the school, c. 1944
Clipping about the wedding, July 7, 1943

Clipping about the wedding, July 7, 1943

[AD 1.3: Scrapbooks]

Clipping about the wedding, July 7, 1943
Cary and Curtis Bok

Cary and Curtis Bok

Mary and Edward Bok’s sons, Curtis and Cary, were involved with the school throughout their lives. Curtis Bok, a Pennsylvania judge, was a secretary and treasurer of the board until he became vice-president in 1937. Cary Bok, who ran the Curtis Publishing business, was secretary of the board from 1929 until his brother’s early death in 1962, when he took over the vice-presidency. Also on the board were Curtis and Cary Bok’s respective wives, Nellie Lee Bok and E. Margaret Storm Bok; Margaret Bok served as president from 1977 to 1988. Members of the Bok family’s third and fourth generations have served as members of the boards of trustees and overseers, and continue to do so today. In this photo: Curtis Bok with his mother during the President's Party, 1950. [Curtis Archives Photograph Collection]

Cary and Curtis Bok
Mary Louise Curtis Zimbalist with Cary Bok, 1960

Mary Louise Curtis Zimbalist with Cary Bok, 1960

Cary Bok and his mother at the Bok Tower Gardens at Lake Wales, Florida in 1960. The Bok Tower Gardens were commissioned by Edward Bok, who was buried at the foot of the Bell Tower in 1930.[Curtis Archives Photograph Collection]

Mary Louise Curtis Zimbalist with Cary Bok, 1960
Obituary Philadelphia Inquirer, January 5, 1970

Obituary Philadelphia Inquirer, January 5, 1970

When Mary Louise Curtis Bok Zimbalist died on January 4, 1970, she was lauded as a patron of music and a philanthropist. [AD 1.3: Scrapbooks]

Obituary Philadelphia Inquirer, January 5, 1970

 

The Curtis Institute of Music today

Today Curtis still embodies the ideals of its founder. Its mission and core values are unchanged. The focus of its education and training is performance. Students learn by doing and a faculty of active performers offers personalized attention to the needs of each. The school remains intimate in scope and international in character. And the continuing policy of full-tuition scholarships ensures that admissions remain based solely on artistic promise. Traditions established in the school’s earliest days—such as Wednesday tea and the annual holiday party—endure, still beloved by the whole Curtis community.

In a tradition also established by its founder, Curtis remains a forward-looking institution, as it strives to prepare its extraordinary young musicians for performing careers at the highest professional level.

Nearly nine decades after its founding, Curtis honors Mary Louise Curtis Bok Zimbalist by adhering closely to her innovative, international vision.

DISCLAIMER: The images and documents in this exhibit are made available for purposes of education and research. The Curtis Archives has made every attempt to determine the copyright status of materials displayed, but due to the nature of archival materials we are not always able to identify this information. We are eager to hear from any rights owners, so that we may obtain accurate information. Upon request, we will remove material from public view while we address a rights issue.