Human Rights Commission & Marietta Peabody Tree Biography

Human Rights Commission & Marietta Peabody Tree's influence on the United Nations.

Marietta Peabody Tree was born on April 17,1917, in Lawrence, Massachusetts, where her father, Malcolm, was the rector of Grace Episcopal Church. In choosing the ministry,he had followed in the footsteps of his father,the Reverend Endicott Peabody, the founder and first headmaster of Groton School. The Peabodys were one of the oldest families in America, and so known for their emotional reticence that a New Yorker cartoon from the 1930's showed a man saying to his son, "I never knew your mother very well, son-- you see, she was a Peabody."

While the Peabodys may have had the pedigree, they did not have the kind of money that many other so-called "mainline" families had. As a child, Marietta was often taunted by playmates because of her shabby clothes and spartan living conditions. Being the daughter of an Episcopal minister in largely Catholic Lawrence also made her feel apart from her peers. But her mother, Mary, a devout Christian and energetic charitable worker, encouraged Marietta to be involved in the community, and she became more confident in later childhood.

While Marietta's four brothers attended Groton as a matter of course, she was sent to St. Timothy's School, where she was an enthusiastic athlete, but not much of a scholar. Upon graduation she toured Europe, and tried to duck college, as did many upper-class girls in the 1930's. The Reverend Peabody insisted that she enroll at the University of Pennsylvania, and she later remarked, "I'll never stop being grateful to my father for forcing me to go to college. It changed my life."

After her graduation, Marietta entered into a courtship with Desmond FitzGerald, a graduate of Harvard who was working at a law firm in New York. They married on Sept. 2, 1939, and Marietta gave birth to a daughter, Frances. Soon after, she began working as a writer for Life magazine. An ardent liberal Democrat, Marietta often quarreled over politics with her Republican husband. But politics was not the only problem in the FitzGerald marriage.

Ronald Arthur Lambert Field Tree was born on September 26, 1897, the heir to two immense fortunes: on his father's side, real estate, and on his mother's, the Marshall Field's department store. An Englishman, he was married and working in the Ministry of Information under Prime Minister Winston Churchill when he met Marietta. Shortly after the end of World War II, they divorced their respective spouses, and on July 26, 1947, they were married. Marietta moved into Tree's estate, Ditchley, but soon found herself bored with English country life. Ronald and most of his friends were conservatives, and once again, Marietta found herself the political odd man out.

Recognizing his wife's unhappiness, and for the first time in his life, short on cash, Tree sold Ditchley and moved to New York with Marietta and his faithful English butler. Thrilled to be back in the States, Marietta immediately joined the Lexington Democratic Club. Two years later, she ran for county chairwoman for her district and won. She was elected to the Democratic State Commitee in 1954.

However, nothing took more of Marietta's time and energy than the 1952 presidential campaign of Adlai Stevenson. She and many others worked tirelessly for him, but Stevenson was an intellectual, urbane man who had trouble relating to the average voter. That his opponent was war hero Dwight D. Eisenhower didn't help. Stevenson lost the 1952 election, and lost again four years later. Rather than become bitter about these defeats, Marietta threw herself into new projects. She moved steadily through the Democratic ranks, and in 1961, President John F. Kennedy appointed her to the Human Rights Commission of the United Nations.

The director John Huston, an old boyfriend, begged her to come back to him, and even gave her a cameo role in his film "The Misfits." Marietta was wary of Huston's drinking and womanizing, and by this time she was deeply in love with Adlai Stevenson, though still married to Ronald Tree. She and Huston would, however, remain friends until his death in 1987.

If Ronald Tree knew of his wife's intimate relationship with Stevenson, he remained the perfect English gentleman, often inviting Stevenson to visit the Tree family at their estate on Barbados. Ronald was in Barbados on July 14, 1965, when Marietta and Adlai, both in London on business, took time out from their schedules to take a walk near Stevenson's hotel. Stevenson complained of feeling ill, and soon he collapsed onto the sidewalk. He died a short time later of heart failure at St. George's Hospital. That night in her diary, Marietta wrote, "Adlai is dead. We were together."

Marietta's eldest daughter, Frances FitzGerald, became a respected historian. Penelope, her younger daughter with Ronald Tree, became a fashion model who ran with the jet set of the Sixties and early Seventies. Her parents were displeased but supportive when she was arrested in 1972 on drug charges.

Ronald Tree died of a stroke on July 14, 1976, in London. His wife was in New York at the time. In the years after his death, Marietta learned to support herself financially and remained involved in the political community. She dated several men but never remarried. Many in the publishing community urged her to write her memoirs, but nothing came of it. In 1990, she was diagnosed with cancer, and her health declined quickly. She died on August 15, 1991, at the age of sevety-four.

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