Mary Swift, doyenne of Washington arts scene, dies at 95





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Mary Swift, a well-traveled military brat and CIA wife whose divorce marked her starting point as doyenne of the Washington arts scene for three decades, as a hostess, exhibit curator, photographer, writer and editor, died April 24 at an assisted-living home in Potomac, Md. She was 95.

The cause was complications from dementia, said her daughter Isabel Swift.

In a childhood and early adulthood defined by adventure and dislocation, Ms. Swift grew up on military bases from New York to Hawaii as her father rose to major general in the Army Air Forces during World War II. She married a few years after the war and accompanied her CIA officer husband to such assignments as Baghdad, where she hunted jackals in the desert, and London, where she developed a strong attachment to theater while raising four children.

By the late 1960s, she was a divorced mother living in Washington and looking for ways to “re-create” herself, as her daughter remembered. Ms. Swift received master’s degrees in drama as well as art history and, as an heir to the National Cash Register fortune, enmeshed herself in the city’s thriving art milieu as a buyer and socially connected hostess.

Her home, then on Reservoir Road in the District’s Georgetown neighborhood, became a gathering place for artists such as Sam Gilliam, William Christenberry and Jacob Kainen to mingle with prominent art dealers, notably her friend Harry Lunn Jr. She also offered bedrooms for performers visiting from out of town, including dancer Lucinda Childs. One overnight guest, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, accidentally (she assumed) left behind a cache of homoerotic pictures.

She sometimes appeared at openings in jodhpurs and riding boots — a sartorial flourish that spoke to her equal fondness for the equestrian life. In 1977, she became a production assistant at the Washington Review, a publication that had sprouted up two years earlier to cover the local arts scene in depth and proved instrumental in boosting the careers of several local writers and fine artists.

Co-founder Clarissa Wittenberg described Ms. Swift as forthright, with a bracing candor and sense of mission about the magazine’s anti-commercial ethos, focusing on less-established but promising literary and visual artists working in the nation’s capital. “We’re not market minded,” Ms. Swift, who was rapidly promoted to managing editor, told the Washington Times. “We prefer to spot talent and feature those whom we feel are about to start a brilliant career.”

Ms. Swift made clear to Wittenberg that she was not available to subsidize the perpetually cash-strapped operation — that what she wanted, most of all, was to work. In addition to her management role, she served as a contributing writer and (self-taught) photographer.

With her handheld Leica, she peppered what she jokingly called her “victims” — including sculptor Martin Puryear and curator Walter Hopps — with rapid-fire questions about their art while snapping close-up pictures in black and white. Many of those images appeared in a 2005 retrospective of Ms. Swift’s photo work at the District’s Flashpoint Gallery, with artist Sidney Lawrence commenting on Artnet.com that she “perfectly captured the manic small-town charm of D.C. art’s mutton-chop era.”

According to Wittenberg, the magazine, which came out every two months, helped bring important early publicity to artists such as Puryear and was responsible for the inclusion of several local authors in literary anthologies. The Washington Review folded in 2001 as Wittenberg and Ms. Swift began to edge toward retirement.

Mary Howard Davidson was born in Mineola, N.Y., on Oct. 13, 1926, and she was in Hawaii during the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Her father, Howard, was a key figure at Wheeler Field near Honolulu at the time and later commanded the 10th Air Force in the China-Burma-India theater. Her mother was the former Mary Patterson, whose father and uncle started the National Cash Register manufacturing company.

Having left Hawaii after the attack, Ms. Swift graduated in 1944 from the private Madeira School in McLean, Va., and in 1950 from Vassar College. She received a master’s degree in speech and drama from Catholic University in 1973 and a master’s degree in art history from George Washington University in 1978.

Her marriage, to Carleton B. Swift Jr., ended in divorce. Their daughter Lila Swift, 13, died in a 1973 plane crash. Mrs. Swift’s brother Stuart Davidson, an investment banker turned restaurateur whose properties included Clyde’s of Georgetown and the Old Ebbitt Grill, died in 2001.

In addition to her daughter Isabel, of Washington, survivors include two sons, Byron Swift of Washington and Bill Swift of Bethesda, Md.; a sister; four grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

Beyond her work with the Washington Review, Ms. Swift occasionally helped put together exhibitions at area galleries and, in 1978, worked as a curatorial assistant for a Corcoran Gallery of Art retrospective on painter Howard Mehring, on whom she had written her art history thesis.

She also served on the boards of local arts institutions, including the Washington Project for the Arts; contributed art criticism to the Georgetowner newspaper; and was on the Corcoran Women’s Committee and other fundraising bodies. From her longtime estate in Upperville, she was a staple of Virginia’s hunt country social scene and a champion horsewoman until leaving the saddle at 85.






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