In Remembrance: Mary Kaplan

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Dear Friends,

In memory of our Trustee Emeritus, Mary Kaplan, we invite you to share remembrances below.

Mary Ellen Kaplan
January 3, 1936 – November 18, 2021


Mary Ellen Kaplan, philanthropist, patron of the arts and activism, above all, humanist whose generosity knew no bounds, died surrounded by friends and family at Beth Israel Hospital in Manhattan on Thursday, November 18th. She was 85.

Born on January 3rd, 1936 in New York City to Alice Manheim and Jacob M. Kaplan, Mary grew up in a family that fostered social awareness and dedication to the arts. She attended Dalton, followed by the Putney School in Vermont and Radcliffe College.

A lifelong New Yorker, Mary spent most of her life in various townhouses in the West Village, and over the years also owned property in Upstate New York, Nova Scotia, and Paris. Many of her homes were architecturally significant and it was often noted that their true brilliance lay in Mary’s interior arrangements, imaginative and often extraordinary. She curated the rooms as theatrical spaces and changed them constantly, once hanging mid-century modern chairs upside-down from the first-floor ceiling of her townhouse.

Mary welcomed those who were overlooked by society, advocated for them, and took them under her wing. An engaging, highly literate, and articulate conversation-loving and exceedingly generous person, Mary was the center of a bohemian community of artists, would-be artists, and intellectuals from around the world, some of whom enjoyed the privilege of living in her residences for years, entirely rent-free.

She was an ardent supporter of literature, particularly poetry, and played a major role in establishing Poets House in Manhattan.  As a trustee of the J.M. Kaplan Fund, a New York foundation established by her father, Jacob M. Kaplan, Mary contributed to the arts and to a wide range of social causes.

Mary’s wit, warmth, and disarmingly honest commentary will be remembered and cherished by all whose lives she impacted. She was an unconventional thinker who challenged  opponents, as well as a deeply compassionate friend.

Mary is survived by her sisters, Elizabeth Fonseca and Joan K. Davidson, her sister-in-law Edwina Sandys and many nieces and nephews.  A memorial will be held at a later date.


  1. All the artists at the Ensemble Studio Theatre (EST) are deeply saddened by the loss of Mary Kaplan who has been an extraordinary friend to our community. Our collective hearts go out to her family and to her colleagues at the J. M. Kaplan fund.

    EST would not be where it is today, a vibrant and holistic home for artists where new work is continually coming to life, without the generous support Mary provided through the Fund for many years. Mary understood and appreciated the importance of our mission and put her faith in us at critical point when our future was hanging in the balance.

    Mary cared deeply about the work we were doing and came to the theatre often to see the productions she worked to support. Even when she had to use a wheel chair in the later years, she would still show up. She loved experiencing the work, meeting the artists and sharing her always perceptive thoughts.

    There are numerous productions over the last twelve years that never would have happened without Mary’s help, including Hand To God which transferred from EST to Broadway. In 2015 EST was given a special Drama Desk Award for our unwavering commitment to producing new American plays, most of the productions cited had received J. M. Kaplan Fund support through Mary.

    We feel so fortunate to have had such a loyal and considerate friend. We will miss Mary showing up at EST, we will miss her extraordinary interest, her lively, continuously curious mind and her generous, caring spirit.

    William Carden
    Artistic Director
    Ensemble Studio Theatre

  2. Bob Jaffe on said:

    Time spent with Mary was always fascinating – full of wide-ranging conversation and marked by her infectious passion for any subject about which she engaged. She will be sorely missed.

  3. I have known Mary since I was a child almost 40 years ago. She was a close friend of my mother and we all kept in touch with her as much as possible before her sudden passing. During COVID when she was more or less homebound I would talk with her for hours at a time about my photography. She was always so interested in the story behind each photo and would keep asking more about them. I could feel a child like wonder from her every time I sent her a new series of photos I was working on.
    I will always remember her as she was until the end. She was a strong woman who never shied away from telling you exactly how she felt. She was always trying to help elevate others to their full potential. She would always ask how my mother and I were doing and how she could assist. She took the weight of the world upon her shoulders and was always solution oriented. She never let anything stand in her way. To me she was like a second mother and guardian angel. Her loss has left an immense chasm in our lives and is a loss for the world. I will never forget her and regret not having seen her one more time as she had mentioned.

  4. Vasi on said:

    Through these many years I may not have often said how much I care and love you. As we go along life’s way, so now I have to say my goodbye forever. My last words to you will be: Mary, you were such a gift to us all. Your kind heart was rare and precious, and I will treasure our memories. I hope now you are enjoying that special happiness you left behind for all of us.

    With Deepest Love, Vasi and family, Andrew, Sebastian, and Andreas

  5. Hal Weston on said:

    I was introduced to Mary Ellen many years back by my special pal, and her bother. Richard…….She was a delight to talk to and just be around……..She transcended dignity, charm and gracious personage……and this saintly person shall be missed by all whose path she crossed……and now, dear Mary Ellen shall reunite with her distinguished parents, J.M and Alice and brother Rich. R.I.P dear Mary and with profound reluctance, I just conclude by saying GOD BLESS……..Hal Weston

  6. Mark Jay Mirsky on said:

    I met Mary Kaplan at the very end of the 1960’s—she was living on the upper East Side of Manhattan at the time, in a rented apartment though I believe she was already in possession of her building on Morton Street. Mary was several years ahead of me at Harvard College, graduating before I entered in the fall of 1957, so we had a different circle of friends, but somehow in the wake of whatever party or literary reception, we intersected, we immediately “clicked” and became close, life-long friends. Mary was one of the patronesses of Partisan Review, and I was happily linked to that world through Caroline Herron its managing editor. Donald Barthelme, who was of the few truly experimental writers of fiction published by The New Yorker, had become a friend and he was smitten by Mary’s older sister, Betty, so that was another point of entry to Mary Kaplan’s close, if often complex, family circle. Mary and I (in the wake of her death I can admit it) briefly considered each other as romantic partners, but we were far too similar in temperament and both of us after a long hard look realized that. Instead we became close in a way that was lasting as intimate friends and sometime confidants of each other, trying to make sense of the twists and turns of our lives.

    Mary was my advisor, really my teacher in many respects. If I was going abroad, she volunteered advice on the best choice for an inexpensive hotel during a brief trip to Paris, and when several years later I went to Morocco, what was the best route to explore that country; telling me to go east rather than west, on my way to Marrakesh, exploring the route from Tangiers, by rail to Fez, and then by bus to Ksar es Souk, down through the desert to the camel port of Rissani, on to Ouarzazate, only then heading west to Marrakech). That brought me adventures among the Berbers and a chance to write about it in Partisan Review. Mary would ply me with books I had never heard of and which the golden circle of literary figures that swirled through Donald Barthelme’s living room or were his friends, the New Yorker editor, Roger Angell, Susan Sontag, John Barth, had either not heard about or paid little attention to, the work of Gombrowicz, Milosz, Alexander Wat, Celine, Malaparte, some of whom Mary like to call “the bad boys.” Mary would go into rages over the telephone when I contradicted her or bored her, and I responded with an equal dose of over-the top impatience, and this would go on and on, until we both calmed down and begin to reconsider. Those phone calls were epic experiences though sometimes I would beg my girlfriend, now my wife, Inger who was equally under Mary’s spell, but much better at terminating a conversation to please get on the phone and take over.
    I realize as I write it that what was to weld us together even closer was a Kaplan family affair at her sister Betty’ Fonseca’s extraordinary home the studio of a famous American sculptor, where J.M. Kaplan, the patriarch of the clan, Mary’s father was attending. I was invited and found myself sitting next to J.M. at one point in the evening and because I had heard Mary talking about his childhood in Chelsea, Massachusetts, asked him about his first years growing up there. As an amateur historian of Boston Jewish history, working on my father’s biography I was riveted to my seat for the next thirty minutes or so as I listened to a seemingly inexhaustible series of sharp anecdotes of Chelsea and Boston’s poor Jewish neighborhoods in the late 19th century, from J.M. I was heartbroken—these memories were precious—and I rued the fact that I had no way in this noisy exuberant room of taking them down.
    Some years later the chance however to take some of them down. Mary called me one morning and asked if I had a decent suit, shirt and shoes, could dress appropriately (for no matter how relaxed she was at home, she was alert to the dress code when she cared to be) and would rush uptown in an hour wait downstairs at the Harmony Club for a call from her—as I might be required to come up and join her for lunch. To my pleas as to what this was all about, she was deaf. “Just do it, and dress as I told you. And bring a tape recorder.” Since I was already the beneficiary of Mary’s attention at many moments, sudden invitations to the theater, supper, books, I searched my closet for the appropriate items, rushed up on the subway, and took a seat downstairs at the Harmony Club, where after about fifteen minutes sitting, I was told to go up to the dining room. There was J.M. and seated with him and Mary, and I was introduced to a third man who proved to be one of the legendary of 20th century scholars of Jewish history, Salo Wittmayer Baron, author of the magisterial series A Social and Religious History of the Jews, whose volumes were on my shelf, particularly Volume XVI on Poland and Lithuania, from 1500 to 1650, where I was beginning to trace the world of my family in Pinsk and Slonim. I had no idea that Professor Baron was still alive. Mary had summoned me up to their table, after getting her father’s permission, wanting to have someone else whom she suspected could add to the conversation. J.M. had helped fund Salon Baron’s professorship at Columbia I learned later, but for me it was a precious chance to draw this eminent figure out about his own background in his native Poland. After what was for me a thrilling hour of stories, everyone rose to go home, but J.M, motioned for me to follow him and Mary to his house. There we began a series of conversations about his life in America and the precious stories for me of the family’s trek to America and J.M.’s memories of Chelsea, Massachusetts, and his subsequent career, told to me and Mary.
    These notes however, are about my friend, Mary Kaplan, but I cannot talk about Mary, I think without talking about J.M. because right to her last moments, I imagine, though we did not hear from her except for one far too brief phone call in the last two years, J.M., the desire to please, to impress, to be praised by J.M., to emulate him, was there in the back of her mind. No matter how dramatic the quarrels between them were, Mary’s love of her father, and her sisters, their children, the family, tugged at her. I remember her telling me after a frustrating moment with J.M. how her father would tiptoe into her room when she was sleeping with a bowl of her favorite fruit, raspberries, to put it beside her bed. When I sat at his house, one afternoon, taping, as she brought tea and biscuits to his chair, he smiled suddenly, “You’re a real baleboste,” meaning a fine housekeeper, or mistress of the house, and her cheeks glowed with happiness—whether or not she understood the Yiddish, she felt the compliment. And she did emulate J.M., again and again; she rescued people, projects, institutions that she believed in. If the wife recently divorced of a great European writer came into New York with no place to say, Mary found one for her. She did it with a burst of personal passion, “passionate preference,” which Robert Frost told me when I went to visit him as a student at college,” was the key to his life and poetry.
    Mary deserves many more pages from me than are appropriate to brief remarks on a memorial pages, laughing pages and grateful pages. She drew me into her family and I suspect, since the Kaplans were originally the Levins, and as I traced J.M.’s family history came from the same town as my great grandfather, and great-great- grandfather did, Slonim, in northern Belarus, a part of the old Lithuanian kingdom, the world of Jews identified as Litvaks, speaking the same dialect of Yiddish, blonde haired and blue eyed, we may have had an actual connection, but we were family to Mary by adoption. She helped promote my wife’s career as a painter, she became a fairy godmother to my children Ruth and Israel. She showed up at one my daughter’s birthday with a gift of shoes, but not one box but four, five, six, as she opened them dazzling a little girl who instantly became a princess in a fairy tale. At my son’s bar-mitzvah she offered her home on Morton Street for a reception after he recite the Torah and Haftorah the day before in the synagogue. Mary with the frantic energy she brought to an event she was involved in rushed about arranging tables, making sure a back door was boarded up in that room so often in a process of reimagination, to make sure none of the guests fell out into the garden a floor below, ran out to get flowers and returned just as the guests arrived, dripping wet with arms filled with blossoms and watery boxes, scrambled up the stairs to get dressed, and came down moments later in three bedsheets, two wrapped around her waist and shoulders, one around her head. She was regal, she made that costume regal, and there she sat in an armchair, in conversation with a fellow graduate of Harvard in her generation, one of the most distinguished scholars of medieval religious Judaism, Professor Haim Soloveitchik of Yeshiva University I drew my breath in admiration. She amazed me, and in memory she continues to amaze me. Mary was, and remains, a love whose friendship was priceless, whose presence endowed my life.

  7. John Oakes on said:

    Mary Kaplan was one of the most original people I’ve had the pleasure to meet. Her independence, her unsparing wit, her fierce dedication to creative originality continue to inspire us at The Evergreen Review. She often questioned us about publishing decisions, and while she wasn’t an easy judge, she helped us set priorities. It was an honor to know her.

  8. Todd Paglia on said:

    The last time Mary and I got together was for a dinner in NYC. I was in town and had too many meetings which pushed our dinner meeting until late into the evening. Coming from the West Coast, I was a bit jet lagged but I was excited to spend some time with her. This was obviously pre-Covid. We met for dinner late – at 8:30 – and talked about our work at which Mary always followed and supported – she asked great questions, was clearly reading up on what we were doing in detail, not just scanning headlines. We talked about old growth forests, our struggles to protect them, her passion for alternatives to trees for paper-making, coal use in Southeast Asia, leadership, art, family, the Foundation, real estate, and on and on. I think Mary was at this point 80 or 81. The conversation went far and wide and before I knew it it was past 11:00 and I was fading. Mary seemed to be just hitting her stride! The bottom line: she wore me out even though I was 30 years her junior. I will always remember her kinetic energy, her love for making change happen, her passion for the underdog, her investments in long-shot initiatives, her creative and agile mind, and most of all her generosity of spirit. Mary was a great one and she is and will be missed.

  9. Jesse Cardenas on said:

    Mary was a wonderful caring beautiful woman. She was always ready to support and assist my nonprofit organization American Community Enrichment.
    We continue to work with Native American Tribes in support of economic development as well as renewable energy development projects. Mary was always interested in our projects and it was a joy sharing our progress with her.
    It goes without saying that she will be missed as a businesswoman and special friend.
    On behalf of American Community Enrichment I extend our sincere condolences to Mary’s family.
    God bless,
    Jesse Cardenas
    American Community Enrichment

  10. Emily Jones on said:

    Mary was a loyal supporter of The Putney School since her graduation in 1953. Her generosity over the years had a positive impact on generations of Putney students. She loved her time as a student and carried her Putney experience with her throughout her life. Although she had not been to campus for many years, she kept in touch through her old friend Christopher Lehman-Haupt ‘52. She had a piece of land in Cape Breton, a place she had learned to love while a Putney student. A few years ago she made it possible for Putney to sell that piece to the Nova Scotia Land Trust so as to complete a larger area that was already under conservation. The school community is deeply grateful for her thoughtfulness and generosity all these years.
    Emily Jones, Head of School

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