On February 17, 1935, the headline of the Buffalo Times dramatically declared, “Death robs Buffalo of its most renowned woman resident.” This was no exaggeration, as the woman was tireless community leader and accomplished writer Marian de Forest. Her prolific work during her 40-year career propelled her to achievements that appear to be more than possible for one lifetime. De Forest was a pioneer newspaperwoman, theater critic, music promoter and clubwoman. Not surprisingly, her motto was “work, work, work.” She is perhaps best known today as the founder of Zonta International, a global women’s service organization. During her lifetime, she was lauded internationally for her adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s novel “Little Women,” the first to be performed in theaters.
Born on February 27, 1864, Marian de Forest was the youngest child of Cyrus Hawley de Forest and Sarah G. Sutherland of Ohio. Cyrus came to Buffalo in 1827 from Chenango County, and established himself in furniture manufacturing and later in the coal industry. He was also a community leader, serving as a Justice of the Peace, a trustee of the Buffalo Orphan Asylum and an elder at the First Presbyterian Church.
De Forest was raised in the family home at 36 Oak Street near South Division. Her childhood was shaped by an eye affliction that forced her to spend three years in almost total darkness to avoid further damaging her vision. Schooling came in the form of spoken lessons at home, forcing de Forest to memorize what she could not see. She later claimed this experience helped develop her memory and strengthened her determination. Glasses eventually helped and she was able to attend high school at the Buffalo Female Academy in Johnson Park, now known as the Buffalo Seminary.
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A Writing Career
Marian’s interest in writing developed early; she wrote her first play at 11 years old, using dolls as her actors. While at school, she directed classmates in theatrical productions and contributed essays and poems to the student publication, The Magnet. De Forest was chosen as the editor of the paper in 1884, the year she graduated. One of her editorials discusses the technical proficiency that women writers were contributing to newspapers, a field she hoped to join. At graduation, de Forest was awarded the gold medal for highest scholarship and excellence in English literature and composition.
Not long after graduating, she began her career as one of the first female newspaper reporters in Western New York. She started at the Buffalo Evening News and then moved to the Buffalo Commercial Advertiser, where she stayed until 1901. She resigned as the city editor after hearing rude words from a supervisor, declaring, “no man can swear at me.” She then joined the Buffalo Morning Express as drama critic and eventually as editor of the Women’s Department for over 20 years.
De Forest became a respected presence in the Buffalo arts scene and had the opportunity to become acquainted with the renowned theater personas who performed here. Her column in the Express, “As I Go to the Play,” featured her take on upcoming productions and a character she invented called The Theater Cat, who interrupted with his own humorous opinions on the theater.
In 1893, Charlotte Mulligan, a music critic at the Buffalo Courier, established the Scribblers, a club for local women writers. De Forest was one of the first invited to join. Membership was open to any woman author or professional journalist in Buffalo. The club aimed to raise the standard of writing, discussing their work at monthly meetings. De Forest remained active with the Scribblers for most of her life, serving first as treasurer and later as president. Meetings were occasionally held at her home at 26 Irving Place in Buffalo’s Allentown neighborhood. De Forest was also a member of the Author’s League of America and the Lyceum Club of London, an exclusive women writers’ society. When the Buffalo Historical Society began to include women in 1894, de Forest was one of the first elected female members. These associations as a young woman began her lifelong commitment to civic responsibility.
An Equal Footing at the Pan Am
By 1900, Marian had about 15 years of journalistic experience, and was respected for her work in local organizations. Planning for the upcoming Pan American Exposition in Buffalo was underway and the all-male Board of Directors began to see the benefit of adding women to their leadership. Marian was appointed to the Board of Women Managers, along with others known for their social, charitable and business work. Fittingly, she served as Executive Secretary, writing promotional pieces and reports of the Board’s activities.
The role of women leaders in previous expositions was largely kept to entertaining visiting dignitaries, and women’s work was displayed in a separate building. The women of Buffalo aimed to be more progressive. As de Forest explained, “the work of women, as exemplified in clubs, organizations of various kinds, in many kinds of industry, in art, in science, in literature, and in education, will be shown side by side with the achievements of men.” Working alongside Kate Hamlin, Evelyn Rumsey Cary and Dr. Ida C. Bender, de Forest wanted the women of the Pan Am to be more than just hostesses. They formed committees for Executives, Entertainments and Ceremonies, Fine Arts, Education, Clubs and Organizations, Publicity and Promotion and Applied Arts, working in tandem with their male counterparts.
Female representatives of each state and country exhibiting at the Pan Am were considered honorary members of the Board of Women Managers. Seeing an opportunity to promote the Exposition among women nationwide and beyond, de Forest wrote to these women, urging them to spread interest in the Pan Am in their communities. She also contacted every women’s club in the U.S. and encouraged them to hold their summer meetings in Buffalo. Due to the efforts of the Women’s Board the artistry of female bookbinders, leatherworkers, potters and painters were shown alongside their male peers. They also managed a Women’s Administration Building that welcomed distinguished visitors and clubwomen. When Vice President Theodore Roosevelt visited on opening day, he peppered de Forest with questions about the Women’s Building before declaring, “Well, it’s great and practical.”
Marian traced her love of theater to her youth. As a child, she met Lillie Langtry; the British actress’ manager was a friend of the de Forest family. Langtry became de Forest’s first connection in the world of theater, one of many actors and producers she would befriend. Minnie Madden Fiske, known to audiences as Mrs. Fiske, encouraged de Forest to use her writing talent to create a professional theatrical piece.
The perfect opportunity occurred in 1911 when Jessie Bonstelle, a theater company manager in Buffalo and Detroit, asked de Forest to write a stage play adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s novel, Little Women. The 1868 story of the loves and losses of the four March sisters was an intimate portrayal of a New England family and continued to be popular among new generations of readers. Yet the story of Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy had never been seen in theaters. Author Louisa May Alcott’s descendants were concerned the semi-autobiographical story would become tawdry on the stage. After eight years of effort, however, Bonstelle finally convinced John Sewall Pratt Alcott, nephew and heir of the author, that de Forest’s adaptation would be sensitive to the family’s wishes.
When de Forest read Little Women as a child, she identified with the character of Jo – headstrong and clever, with a love of play-acting and writing. “I have lived with the play all my life,” she said. “I read the book with enthusiasm as a girl, and I wrote the adaptation…with the greatest care of which I was capable.” De Forest’s career even paralleled Jo’s; by her admission she first copied Jo by writing “lurid tales” for the weekly sensation papers, and later emerged onto “Newspaper Row.” De Forest spent three months writing the play while continuing her duties at the Express. Her script was heartily approved by Alcott’s descendants, and they even loaned items from Orchard House, Alcott’s family home, for the production. De Forest had never written a full theatrical play, but she was up to the challenge, stating, “You never know what you are going to be able to do until you are right up against a proposition.”
The play debuted in Wilkes-Barre, PA, in January 1912, before opening at the Teck Theater in Buffalo later that month. Before the play premiered, some newspaper outlets called it too old-fashioned, predicting that modern girls would not waste their money on “an old frump like Louisa M. Alcott.” Others eagerly anticipated seeing a beloved story on stage. Buffalo newspapers reported almost daily on the rehearsals, and the Teck was inundated with requests for ticket reservations.
The play opened to rave reviews in Buffalo, praising de Forest and Bonstelle for preserving the spirit of the novel. As one critic stated, “Miss de Forest has opened the covers of the book and allowed the well-beloved characters to step alive upon the stage.” On opening night, the performers received a standing ovation, and the enthusiastic audience yelled “author” for de Forest to speak. Buffalo audiences were quick to support Marian’s work; the Superintendent of Buffalo Schools even closed school for a day during opening week so students could attend a special matinee.
“Little Women” became the hit of the 1912 theater season; the much-lauded cast traveled through the winter and spring to Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, Rochester and Pittsburgh. The year’s success culminated in a Broadway run at the Playhouse Theater that began on October 14, 1912. The New York reviews praised de Forest’s dramatization, calling it the “season’s joy, instant success” and a “sentimental tour de force.” The play ran on Broadway for over 180 performances, through March 1913. Productions based on de Forest’s script continued to be staged, most notably Broadway revivals in 1916, 1931, 1944 and 1995.
Buoyed by their success, de Forest and Bonstelle decided to take “Little Women” to England in 1919. The play debuted internationally in Manchester and after a month’s run it opened on November 10, 1919 at the New Theater in London. A young actress from Buffalo in Bonstelle’s stock company, Katharine Cornell, was chosen to portray the spirited Jo. She was the only American in the otherwise all-English cast. Reviews in London spoke glowingly of Cornell’s clever performance, in which a “tomboy becomes a woman.” Cornell was at the start of her distinguished career as “The First Lady of the American Theater.”
When asked about the biggest moment in her life, de Forest replied, “the night that ‘Little Women’ was produced in New York, and the next morning when I read the criticisms. It seemed too wonderful that a simple little story of family life with its fun and its sorrow could have swept blasé New York theater-goers right off their feet.”
After the initial run of the play, de Forest and Bonstelle took a “sentimental journey” to Concord, MA, to visit Orchard House. The women climbed to the attic where Alcott tucked herself away to write, and had the chance to read the family’s journals and letters. They encouraged Alcott’s descendants to allow the writings to be published as part of America’s literary heritage. The family agreed, and in 1914, de Forest published the annotated collection called Little Women: Letters from the House of Alcott.
Marian’s playwriting career didn’t end with “Little Women.” In 1916, she wrote the script for “Erstwhile Susan,” based on a novel by Helen R. Martin. This comedy about an independent woman who marries into a Pennsylvania Dutch family starred Mrs. Fiske. It opened in New York City in January 1916, and played later that year in Buffalo at the Star Theater to acclaimed reviews. Another play, “Mister Man,” was staged by the Bonstelle Company in 1922. She also collaborated with novelist Zona Gale in the national radio production of “Friendship Village,” one of her last projects in the 1930’s. De Forest continued to be a prolific writer; several unpublished plays and short stories were still on her desk when she died.
Social Clubs and the Founding of Zonta International
In March 1919, Marian began another major project when she was elected one of the first directors of the Quota Club, a new women’s organization in Buffalo. Similar to the Kiwanis Club for men, this group provided opportunities for women to band together for camaraderie, networking and community service. Women who had been active in recent wartime efforts wanted to continue directing their energy and talents toward worthy endeavors. One of the Quota Club’s first projects was a substantial fundraising effort for the post-war Victory Loan campaign. The club grew rapidly, and later that year, de Forest and a few others who disagreed with Quota’s open membership system decided to create a new organization. De Forest met with Mai Davis Smith, Philomena Cavanaugh, Genevieve Kraft and Louise Michael at the Hotel Statler in September 1919 to form the club that would become Zonta International. Membership would be exclusive to women in management positions, and they would focus on professional development and improving the general status of women.
On November 8, 1919, the first Zonta clubs were established in Buffalo, Rochester, Binghamton, Elmira, Syracuse, Ithaca, Utica, Detroit and Erie, PA. De Forest didn’t actually attend the first official meeting; she was in London with the cast of “Little Women.” The first members of the Zonta Club of Buffalo were managers in retail and manufacturing shops, banks, offices and libraries, and professionals in the arts. De Forest served as the Buffalo president for the first three years and traveled throughout New York State to officiate at the openings of new clubs. By 1922, when she was appointed the national chair of the organization, there were clubs in 16 cities in New York, Michigan and Ohio.
De Forest described Zonta’s aims as high ethical standards, good fellowship and community service. The name “Zonta,” the Sioux word for honest and trustworthy, fit their goals. Meetings addressed the group’s serious ambitions, but she also asserted that they were a congenial and fun-loving group. Some members shared de Forest’s passion for theater, and she wrote short productions for Zontians to perform.
Marian envisioned Zonta having an international impact, and in 1923 they raised funds to care for women and children in war-torn Turkey. Clubs outside of the U.S. were established soon after, first in Toronto and Vienna, Austria. In her words, “this is the woman’s age and in distant lands and foreign climes women of all nations are rallying to the call...Zonta is given the opportunity of uniting them into one great glorious whole.”
When she resigned from active membership in 1933, de Forest was made an honorary member for her outstanding civic achievements. Zonta was the embodiment of her personal ideals of leadership and community service, and her legacy continues today. In its 100th year, Zonta International has grown to 33,000 members in 67 countries, with a history of service projects that include relief work and education efforts in Africa, South America and India. The Zonta Club of Buffalo continues to improve the lives of women by funding scholarships for college students and local programs that assist homeless young women and single mothers.
A dedicated “clubwoman,” Marian was also a member of the Buffalo Seminary Graduates Association, the Buffalo Athletic Club and an honorary member of the Twentieth Century Club. At a time when women were rarely in leadership positions, de Forest served on the board of directors and executive committee of the Buffalo Public Library for 15 years. The only female member of the board, she was valued for her literary expertise. She was also on the board of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, serving on the executive and publicity committees. Friends described her as an animal lover who adored her orange cat, Sammy. During Buffalo’s Centennial celebration in 1932, Marian was an active member of the program committee. “There is hardly a welfare or cultural project or any betterment movement in Buffalo with which Marian de Forest was not identified,” wrote Kate Burr of the Buffalo Times.
De Forest’s partner of over 25 years, Mai Davis Smith, was the first professional impresario in Buffalo. The two shared a love of classical music and opera at a time when the city did not have an established orchestra. Smith began managing concerts in 1905 and for the next 19 years brought renowned musicians, singers and symphonies to Buffalo audiences. She sold tickets to her subscription concert series from an office in the Denton, Cottier & Daniels music store on Court Street. Marian handled the publicity for the series, writing about upcoming performers for press releases. Their home on Irving Place became a salon, hosting visiting musicians, conductors and friends in the theater. Smith is credited with introducing Buffalo audiences to Mahler, Paderewski, Rachmaninoff and Toscanini, among many other musical greats.
When Smith died in 1924, Marian continued the concerts in tribute to her partner’s memory. She retired from newspaper work and established the Buffalo Musical Foundation. With a committee of music-loving citizens, including Dr. Roswell Park and Edward H. Butler, she brought orchestras from Detroit, Cincinnati and Philadelphia to Buffalo. She also started a youth concert series with the Buffalo Public Schools, providing students a rare opportunity to hear great orchestras at the Elmwood Music Hall. Marian believed it was important for children to develop an appreciation of music and theater, as these arts had brought much joy to her own life. In the summer of 1932, she organized the first “pops” concert series with the Buffalo Symphony Orchestra.
Despite her busy professional schedule, de Forest did find time to relax. She read detective stories when not writing her own works. She vacationed each summer, usually at the Lake of Bays in Canada, spending weeks enjoying the outdoors with friends. During trips to the Adirondacks, Marian enjoyed telling stories around the campfire. Colleagues described her as chatty, good-natured and “a ripping good dramatic critic.” Helen Z.M. Rogers, a Zonta colleague, wrote, “I think the outstanding characteristics of Marian were her great courage and humor. She met every new problem with gallant spirit, including the end of her own life. Her friends got the better part of her—better than the public.”
Marian de Forest died on February 17, 1935, just a few weeks shy of her 71st birthday, after a short battle with cancer. She is buried in a family plot in Forest Lawn Cemetery alongside Mai Davis Smith. Buffalo journalists wrote admiringly of her leadership and writing talents, calling her death “a formidable blow to the city.” In a fitting tribute, the newly-established Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra performed Marian’s favorite Beethoven and Mozart pieces in a memorial concert. William R. Ramsdell, former publisher of the Buffalo Express, wrote that she had “done so much to promote the best music in Buffalo available to all the people, the city owes a great debt to Miss de Forest.”
Just before she died, de Forest gave the Buffalo Public Library a collection of materials that documented her life in the arts. Items included concert programs, typed manuscripts and over 150 photographs of performers, autographed to Smith and de Forest. Lillie Langtry, Geraldine Farrar, Nellie Melba, John Philip Sousa and Camille Saint-Saëns, among many others, were befriended by the pair during their time in Buffalo.
Marian’s legacy lives in the work she left behind, and in more recent honors by the local community. In 1961, the Buffalo Parks Department commissioned Larry W. Griffis Jr. to create a sculpture in her memory. The bronze work in Delaware Park, entitled “Spirit of Womanhood,” is not a likeness of de Forest, but an allegorical female figure. Zontians have worked hard to make sure their founder is not forgotten. In 1998, they supported her inclusion in the WNY Women’s Hall of Fame. Zonta leadership was also the driving force behind de Forest’s induction into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 2001, the first woman from Buffalo with this honor. And much more recently, the Zonta Clubs of Buffalo and Grand Island hosted a dramatic reading of Marian’s “Little Women” at the Kavinoky Theater on June 1, 2019, as part of their observance of Zonta’s centennial. These great honors, years after her passing, are an example of just how impactful Miss de Forest was in the community.