Ada and Archibald MacLeish

19 Aug

In May of 2008 Smith College dedicated 243 acres in Whately, Massachusetts used for outdoor classes and research to Ada and Archibald MacLeish, in recognition of the couple’s close friendship with the school’s first woman president, Jill Ker Conway, and their passion for the environment.

This year, my summer research was conducted with the goal of providing visitors to the Ada and Archibald MacLeish Field Station an understanding of the expanse of contributions the property’s namesakes provided both in the arts and public service.


Archibald MacLeish was strongly influenced by his mother’s family’s propensity to follow all their many interests. His life pursuits and accomplishments were multifaceted. He was a lawyer, editor at Fortune magazine, appointed Librarian of Congress by FDR, Assistant Secretary of State, and chairman of the American delegation of UNESCO. As a writer, he was a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner for poetry and drama as well as recipient of a Tony Award. None of these accomplishments would have been realized without the support of his wife of 65 years, Ada, who was herself an accomplished pianist and concert singer.


After Ada’s graduation from the Westover School and prior to her marriage to Archibald, her parents sent her to Paris to study piano as a viable means of earning a future income. While there, she also studied voice. Later, in the 1920s, Ada returned to Paris with Archibald, alongside many notable early 20th century writers, artists and composers such as Hemingway, Picasso, and Cole Porter. This trip proved advantageous for Ada as her singing career blossomed. However, shortly after the MacLeishes returned to the United States, buying their home in nearby Conway, Ada essentially put an end to her professional singing career to support Archibald and raise their children.

Sources used for researching the MacLeishes, aside from publications available in Smith College libraries, have been the Archibald MacLeish Collection located at Greenfield Community College and the Conway Historical Society. Based on the findings of Ada and Archibald’s rich life histories and their close connection to Smith College, I plan to continue my research as a special studies project under the guidance of Reid Bertone-Johnson during the coming fall semester.

-Jo Harvey

Jo Harvey ‘AC is an ES&P major who likes to spend time outdoors and with family.

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