Mary Swift, doyenne of Washington’s art scene, dies at 95

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Mary Swift, a well-travelled military brat and CIA wife whose divorce marked her as a host, exhibition curator, photographer, writer and editor for three decades as the doyenne of the Washington art scene, died April 24 in 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 marked by adventure and upheaval, Ms. Swift grew up on military bases from New York to Hawaii as her father rose to the rank of major general in the Army Air Forces during World War II. She married a few years after the war and accompanied her husband, a CIA officer, to operations in Baghdad, where she hunted jackals in the desert, and London, where she developed a strong bond with theater while raising four children.

In the late 1960s, she was a divorced mother living in Washington who was looking for ways to “recreate” herself, as her daughter recalled. Ms. Swift earned master’s degrees in acting and art history, and as heiress to the National Cash Register fortune, she became entangled in the city’s thriving arts scene as a shopper and socially connected host.

Her home, then on Reservoir Road in the Georgetown neighborhood, became a meeting place for artists such as Sam Gilliam, William Christenberry and Jacob Kainen to mingle with prominent art dealers, most notably their boyfriend Harry Lunn Jr. She also offered bedrooms for visiting artists, including dancer Lucinda Childs. One overnight guest, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, accidentally (she suspected) left a cache of homoerotic images.

Sometimes she appeared at vernissages in riding breeches and riding boots – costume jewelry that expressed their equal fondness for the equestrian life. In 1977 she became a production assistant at The Washington Review, a publication that had sprung up two years earlier to provide in-depth coverage of the local art scene and had proved instrumental in furthering the careers of several local writers and visual artists.

Co-founder Clarissa Wittenberg described Ms. Swift as outspoken, with refreshing candor and a sense of mission about the magazine’s anti-commercial ethos, which focuses on less-established but promising literary and visual artists working in the nation’s capital. “We’re not market-oriented,” Ms. Swift, who was quickly promoted to editor-in-chief, told The Washington Times. “We prefer to discover talent and feature those who we believe are about to launch a brilliant career.”

Ms. Swift made it clear to Wittenberg that she was not available to subsidize the perpetually tight surgery — that what she wanted most was to work. In addition to her management role, she worked as an author and (self-taught) photographer.

Using her handheld Leica, she peppered her “victims,” ​​as she jokingly called them — including sculptor Martin Puryear and curator Walter Hopps — with quick questions about her art while capturing close-ups in black and white. Many of these images appeared in a 2005 retrospective of Ms. Swift’s photographic work at the district’s Flashpoint Gallery, with artist Sidney Lawrence commenting on that she “perfectly captured the insane small-town charm of mutton chop era DC art.”

According to Wittenberg, the bimonthly magazine helped provide important early publicity for artists like Puryear and was responsible for the inclusion of several local authors in literary anthologies. The Washington Review was discontinued in 2001 as Wittenberg and Ms. Swift neared retirement.

Mary Howard Davidson was born on October 13, 1926 in Mineola, NY and was in Hawaii during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. 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 founded the National Cash Register production company.

After leaving Hawaii after the attack, Ms. Swift graduated from Madeira Private School in McLean, Virginia in 1944 and Vassar College in 1950. 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 plane crash in 1973. Mrs Swift’s brother Stuart Davidson, an investment banker turned restaurateur who owned Clyde’s of Georgetown and the Old Ebbitt Grill, died in 2001.

In addition to their 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.

In addition to her work with the Washington Review, Ms Swift occasionally helped curate exhibitions at area galleries and in 1978 served as assistant curator for a Corcoran Gallery of Art retrospective of the painter Howard Mehring, about whom she had written her art history dissertation.

She has also served on the boards of local arts institutions, including the Washington Project for the Arts; contributed art criticism to the Georgetowner newspaper; and has served on the Corcoran Women’s Committee and other fundraising bodies. From her longtime home in Upperville, she was an integral part of the Virginia hunting country social scene and a master rider until she left the saddle at 85.


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