Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Mary Ridgely Brown Lee (1881-1922)
MSA SC 3520-2226
Official Hostess of Maryland, 1895-1896

Mary Ridgely Brown was born September 11, 1881, to future governor Frank Brown and his childhood sweetheart, Mary Ridgely.1 Known as "May", she spent her life moving in a privileged circle of families, both in Baltimore and New York City. Both parents were the heirs to sizable estates. At her father's death, May was the sole legatee for an estate valued at $227,761.90.2 She was included in Mrs. Astor's "400", a list of the 400 most popular members of New York society, compiled by one of its members.3 As a child, she inherited her father's love for horses, and became an accomplished rider, hunting and competing in shows. She was educated at Mme. Lefebre's school in Baltimore, attended finishing school at Miss Huger's in New York City, and traveled extensively in Europe. She studied art, and learned to speak French, Italian, and Russian with proficiency.4

May was only eleven years old when her father became the forty-fifth governor, but she found herself responsible for the duties of Official Hostess when her mother Mary fell ill and died in 1895.5 Mary left her daughter a demanding example to follow, for it was said that Mary presided "with rare grace and diplomacy" and ensured that the atmosphere of the executive mansion matched the spirit of the "gay 90's".6 Accounts of May's continuation of her mother's work recall that she "adequately met all demands upon her, no matter how exacting, winning universal praise as a most tactful, gracious, and magnetic chatelaine".7 She was assisted in her duties by her grandmother, Susan A. Bennett Brown. Mrs. Brown lived with her son from her husband's death in 1876 until her death in 1908, including the family's term in the executive mansion.8

Though the Browns were one of the premiere families in Baltimore society, their family functions were often conducted at home and in a quiet manner. When May debuted in 1903, the family intended to invite a few family friends and celebrate the event at their home at 900 N. Charles St., Baltimore City. However, the Maryland Club had alternate plans, and invited 200 people to the Brown home to help them celebrate. According to the story, the family had to quickly call a series of caterers to find food for all of the extra guests on such short notice.9 Three years later, May married Gordon Taylor Hughes, a graduate of Harvard Law School, an accomplished athlete, and an associate in the New York firm of Lawrence and Hughes.10 Their only child, Mary Brown Hughes, was born August 11, 1904 and died the next year.11 Gordon Hughes died two years later, April 10, 1907.12

After her husband's death, May continued to travel. It was reputed that she refused offers of marriage from an Austrian prince and a German baron before deciding in 1909 to marry Alfred Elliott Dieterich, a New York millionaire in gas and traction.13 In keeping with the Brown's apparent desire to keep family events quiet and celebrated intimately, the engagement was kept secret until after the wedding, and the ceremony was held in Baltimore at the Browns' home.14 When World War I began, May accompanied many other women of the era in supporting the military effort, joining the National League of Woman's Service.15 She also expanded her interests in athletic pursuits to include a new activity: aviation. She was involved with the Trinket and Trophy Fund for the assistance of aviators, and became the first woman to fly a Curtiss biplane at Mineola Field on Long Island.16 Toward the end of the war, relations with her husband began to decay. In 1917, May traveled to Reno, Nevada, and obtained a divorce on grounds of desertion.17

Toward the end of the war and in the following years, May lost the remainder of her family. Her brother Frank died January 16, 1918, and her father died February 3, 1920. Both were buried in Greenmount Cemetery in Baltimore City.18 The year 1920 also heralded a joyful event, though it was celebrated in clothes of mourning. On June 9, 1920, May married Merwyn Ketcham Lee, with whom she had been friends for fourteen years.19 They shared a love of sports, playing golf together almost every day. The wedding was held at 900 N. Charles, and the couple traveled to Hot Springs, Virginia, for their honeymoon.20 On March 4, 1922, May died at the age of 41, leaving the bulk of her estate to Merwyn Lee. Her will shows a philanthropic nature, leaving a total of seven thousand dollars to the Maryland Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Maryland School for the Blind, and the Sykesville Presbyterian Church. She was buried next to her father and brother in Greenmount Cemetery, specifying in her will that she wanted a marker similar to her brother Frank's.21

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