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A Life Redeemed Susan Delano McKelvey and the Arnold Arboretum Edmund A Schofield Fleeing a broken marriage in middle age a wealthy New York socialite came to Boston and created a wholly new life as botanist at the Arnold Arboretum Towards the end of the First World War there came to the Arnold Arboretum a thirty sixyear old woman whose life had just fallen to pieces To be sure she could command resources to cushion the fall that no ordinary person could great wealth family name social prominence but those resources had been powerless to prevent it A native of Philadelphia a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and a member of New York s social elite she was for example a cousin of Presidentto be Franklin Delano Roosevelt the woman had married a New York attorney in 1907 settling into a comfortable life on Long Island as wife mother andsocialite But the Great War soon called her husband away to Washington D C and in 1916 one of her two young sons died At war s end upon her husband s return their marriage broke up No doubt to escape the tempest their separation would cause in New York society she fled to Boston where she apparently had relatives she was descended from the Adamses of nearby Braintree for example and from the Bradfords of Plymouth In Boston she would create for herself an entirely new life she would become of all things a botanist Her training in this new and unfamiliar field started literally from scratch Not long after arriving in Boston she approached Professor Charles Sprague Sargent the founding Director of the Arnold Arboretum about the possibility of working as a volunteer at the Arboretum perhaps as a means of forgetting her marital troubles She wanted to study landscape architecture too In any event The Professor as she came to call Sargent set her to washing clay pots in the Arboretum s greenhouses to test her resolve Presently at Sargent s urging she began to study the plants on the grounds of the Arboretum and in its greenhouses under the tutelage of William H Judd 1861 1949 who was the Arboretum s propagator Early on she took a particular interest in the lilac collection just then under development For the next four and a half decades in one capacity or another this dedicated resourceful and indefatigable woman was affiliated with the Arnold Arboretum During those decades which seem to have been happy ones she became a respected botanist making many collecting forays to the western United States and writing three scholarly works in her chosen field Upon Sargent s death in 1927 perhaps out of gratitude for his and the Arboretum s crucial aid in rehabilitating her life she and her brothers one of them an internationally known architectcontributed generously to the Arboretum s endowment Ultimately she became a member of the Arboretum s Visiting Committee and a staunch champion of the Arboretum during the painful and divisive court battle of the 1950s and 1960s the so called Arnold Arbo 10 return controversy Her name was Susan Adams Delano McKelvey nee Susan Magoun Delano Until now few details of her life have been known Here in brief then is her life s story reconstructed from evidence scattered from California and Mexico to Boston New York and Philadelphia Her Early Years 1883 1919 9 Susan Adams Delano as she preferred to be known was born Susan Magoun Delano in Philadelphia Pennsylvania on March 13 1883 of pure New England ancestry parsons shipbuilders and shipowners schoolmasters bankers and so forth to use her brother William s phrase She was the fifth child of Eugene Delano a merchant and banker and Susan Magoun Adams Delano Her maternal grandfather the Reverend William Adams 1807 1880 Yale 1830 had been instrumental in founding Union Theological Seminary in New York and from 1873 until his death had served as its president While Susan Delano was yet a child the family left Philadelphia for New York City where she grew up Entering Bryn Mawr College s Class of 1906 early in the new century she majored in English and French In her freshman and senior years she played on her class field hockey team Taking not a single botany or biology course she used instead the first year geology course to fulfill her science requirement In 1907 she graduated On October 8 1907 she married a young attorney Charles Wylie McKelvey 18781957 and moved with him to an estate ten acres on which there is a remodeled white frame colonial house large farm group and two cottages in Oyster Bay Long Island only few miles from Syosset home of her brother William Adams Delano 1874 1960 an architect Her husband and her brothers William who was affectionately known as Billy and Moreau 1877 1936 a banker all were graduates of Yale classes of 1900 1895 and 1898 respectively at Yale all had been a Susan Delano in 1898 at about the age of fifteen years Katherine McKelvey Photograph courtesy of Jon members of the Scroll and Key senior society and it was no doubt through the society and her brother Moreau that she met her husband Charles After graduating from Yale Billy studied at the Columbia University School of Architecture and then at the E cole des Beaux Arts in Paris from which he received a diplome in 1902 Returning to New York Billy and his friend Chester Holmes Aldrich 1871 1940 founded the architectural firm of Delano x26 Aldrich in 1903 In the same year he began teaching design at Columbia Over the next several decades Billy Delano would establish a national and international reputation as an architect He would design vast estates on Long Island embassies in Paris and Washington the Post Office in Washington D C and 111 Sprague Sargent s annual funding appeals Though the record is unclear on this point and an exact chronology probably irretrievable it seems likely that there was some kind of connection between the Delanos and the Arboretum before Mrs McKelvey retreated to Boston in 1919 Perhaps her brother William being an architect and therefore interested in the use of plants for landscaping had made the initial contact in the course of some routine business In any event once in Boston Susan Delano McKelvey was able to start rebuilding her shattered life with the indispensable help of Charles Sprague Sargent and the Arnold Arboretum In Lilac Time 1919 1928 Sargent had given her the initial nudge McKelvey threw herself wholeheartedly into mastering the various aspects of botany maintaining her zeal for the subject virtually until her death in 1964 She began her career in classic


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