Mary McConnell Bailey leaves $20 million to nonprofits
Courtesy the New York Post Purchase photo reprints »
NORTHAMPTON — A city native who lived a modest life until her death in early 2011 shocked those who knew her when she left $20 million to two New York City institutions in her will.
Mary McConnell Bailey, who lived most of her life in New York City, willed $10 million each to the New York Public Library and the Central Park Conservancy.
The quiet, private woman who died at 88 was the heiress to a fortune from the Roaring Spring Blank Book Co., according to reports published Tuesday in the New York Times and the New York Post.
“Nobody had any idea she had that much money,” said Northampton resident David Holden, who said he and his wife, Marcia, knew the late Bailey “fairly casually” through family members. “She lived a modest life. She had simple pleasures, like going for walks in the park.”
Bailey was the best friend of Lillian Rosenfeld, the great-aunt of Holden’s brother-in-law. Bailey often came to parties and holiday dinners at Marcia Holden’s sister’s home in New York City as Rosenfeld’s guest.
“We got to know them both pretty well that way,” he said. “I always tried to sit next to her at dinner.”
He said he was fascinated with the lifestyle that Bailey led. She was a childless widow who had lived alone in the city for decades. Holden said he thought she lived in the same small apartment for more than 60 years.
“She didn’t dress fancy, she was well mannered but not stuffy, with absolutely no pretense,” he said. “She was just a lady that was polite, outgoing and friendly.”
The New York Times reported that Bailey’s mother’s family were directors of the Roaring Spring Blank Book Co., which makes the iconic marble-covered composition books used in schools.
Her stepfather was Broadway star James Rennie, who lived in Northampton from 1918 to 1924 and acted in plays at the Academy of Music, according to stories in the Gazette archives.
According to Gazette stories, her mother lived at 17 Woodlawn Ave. while in Northampton.
Marcia Holden’s sister, Abbey Berg of New York City, said in an email to the Gazette that Bailey became as much a part of the family as her great-aunt Lillian. Despite her close relationship with Bailey, Berg was also unaware her late friend was an heiress.
She recalled Bailey as a private person “with much sadness in her life,” including the death of her father, brother and husband. Frederick Bailey died in World War II less than two years after they married. Her only other love in life, whom Berg described as a “companion of many years,” also died suddenly. “She was never bitter,” Berg said.
“Although a lover of the arts, she was not above joining us for a New York Mets game and riding the subway,” Berg said. “She and our great-aunt walked Manhattan from one end to the other, enjoyed concerts, plays, film, museums, dinners out and Scotch, which she always took with a little water on the rocks.”
Bailey taught elementary school briefly as a young woman, but stopped when her mother died and left her and her siblings the fortune, the Post reported. After that, the Post wrote, she traveled, volunteered at hospitals and schools, and was an active donor to both the New York Public Library and the nonprofit that oversees Central Park, where she enjoyed walking.
Holden said Bailey loved New York City, and he admired her self-reliance. “She was kind of a bachelorette,” he said. “For her generation, she lived a really independent life.”
Berg called her a “sophisticated New Yorker.”
“She was also very practical, modern and independent; had a wealth of knowledge, experience, and openness,” Berg said. As a “modest and proper New Englander,” Bailey always sent a handwritten thank-you note after any dinner at Berg’s home, she said.
Holden said he only talked to Bailey about Northampton once, and it was a brief conversation he can’t recall clearly.
“We used to live in Northampton in the 1970s and moved back 18 months ago,” he said. “I remember at one Thanksgiving talking about what Northampton was like in 1975 and she talked about what it was like earlier when she lived there, but that was the extent of it.”
The Post quoted Bailey’s friend and neighbor, Lizanne Stoll, as saying Bailey did not want a funeral, obituary or any other fuss when she died.
Stoll reiterated that her late friend did not care about spending money on herself, recalling her simple apartment that had not been redecorated since the 1950s. “Mary didn’t give a damn. It was quixotic. Those were not her priorities,” she said.
Material from the New York Times and the New York Post was used in this story. Rebecca Everett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.