As a native Cincinnatian, I am familiar with the name Longworth and that family’s connection to local history. Maria Longworth Storer was the founder of and one of the creators at the world renowned Rookwood Pottery. This new biography of Maria Longworth Storer opened my eyes not just to this formidable woman’s business acumen, artistic sensibility and philanthropy, which were already well known and documented, but also to her religious and political views and ambitions. Maria Longworth Storer came from a wealthy society family, but she was also a bit of a rebel who did not hesitate to promote her own agenda and her husband’s career. This sometimes got her into hot water with the powers that be, but never dimmed her fervor on behalf of her husband and the Catholic Church.
Biographers Moore and Broermann open with a bit of family history, explaining how patriarch Nicholas Longworth I came to live in southwestern Ohio and gain his wealth through law, real estate and horticulture. His granddaughter Maria Longworth (1849-1932) was a famous heiress by the 1860s. She was a polyglot, an accomplished musician, an artist and a writer. Her first marriage was to one of her brother’s Harvard school chums, George Ward Nichols. George and Maria Nichols, like the Longworths, were one of the pre-eminent society families in Cincinnati and as such were actively involved in benevolent organizations and well as support of the arts. One of the Longworth/Nichols’ lasting contributions to Cincinnati art was the creation of the yearly May Festival, a musical event that still occurs and draws talent from around the world. Maria and George had two children, and Maria also founded the Rookwood Pottery during this marriage. She was both a business woman and an artist for the company.
While it might have seemed on the surface as if everything was going swimmingly for Maria, the hint of unspoken troubles appeared upon the death of George from tuberculosis in 1885. Not only was George not interred on the Longworth plot at Spring Grove Cemetery, but Maria, much to the scandal of society, did not follow the traditional path of mourning. She did not wear black or cut back on her social engagements. In fact, a short six months later, she married another of her brother’s friends, Bellamy Storer. While Maria was a prolific letter writer, she does not describe any problems with her first marriage; yet she seemed much happier and more engaged once married to Bellamy Storer.
In addition to her business and her involvement in philanthropy and the Cincinnati arts scene, Maria became more involved in the world of politics. Bellamy Storer was a lawyer and was active within the Ohio Republican Party. The Storers were good friends with William McKinley, Robert Taft and Teddy Roosevelt, hosting parties for them in Cincinnati and Washington; Maria maintained a busy correspondence with all of these men. Maria was, by all accounts, a wonderful hostess and her social gatherings drew together some of the most powerful men in the nation. Unsurprisingly, the expectation was that Bellamy would benefit from his support of these men, and he did. Storer was a representative in the House for a few years and later received diplomatic commissions in Europe. Maria actively lobbied on her husband’s behalf for these posts, and the Storers spent quite a lot of time in Europe as a result.
Maria’s interest in and support of her husband’s political career would be admirable, but she didn’t stop there. In the 1890s, Maria converted to Catholicism, a bold move for the time and potentially a disastrous one for her husband’s political ambitions. Catholics were not trusted in politics due to what was perceived as conflicting loyalties (pope vs. country). Maria’s conversion and her religious beliefs would not have made much difference if she had not turned her activist impulses toward Papal politics and the US government. Maria had a favorite archbishop (John Ireland) whom she thought ought to be made a cardinal, and given her access to people like Roosevelt and Taft, she lobbied them to influence the Vatican to promote Ireland. Maria’s religious fervor and idealism, her dream of helping to reconcile various Christians faiths under Catholic rule and foster world peace (particularly after WWI) led to scandal for the Storers and exile from politics.
Maria Longworth Storer’s biography was a revelation for me and I have mixed feelings about this woman. On one hand, she defied social convention and took up leadership positions that few woman dared attempt. She was certainly intelligent and tremendously talented, and the effects of her generosity and philanthropy are still evident today. One example is the chapel at the high school I attended. Toward the end of their lives, Maria and Bellamy had an apartment at St. Ursula Academy where they briefly lived and attended services. They provided funding for the building of the chapel and one of its windows. On the other hand, she was a privileged woman of the elite who was accustomed to using her wealth and clout to get what she wanted. I think she was the kind of person who made a lot of enemies due to her assertiveness in matters of business, philanthropy and politics. Her attempts at mixing church and state were inappropriate and disastrous.
This biography is on the short side. While the authors left no stone unturned in tracking down Maria’s correspondences and documentation related to her many endeavors, I think the overall picture would be more complete if some other background information had been provided. The business with Archbishop Ireland and the Vatican is central to the narrative, but we don’t know much about the nature of the division in the American Catholic Church. I am also curious about the preaching Maria heard that converted her to Catholicism. A few dynamic priests are mentioned, but their ideas are not explained in detail nor are Maria’s own spiritual ideas. Even though she may not have written specifically about her spiritual journey in letters, she did apparently write several allegorical novels. These are mentioned, but are they available and if so, what do they reveal about Maria’s spirituality?
Overall, this is a pretty interesting read and I would recommend it to anyone interested in Cincinnati history, turn-of-the-century politics and/or women who forged their own path in a patriarchal world.