Mary Hammond McGee Sullivan

Long-time Hajji Baba member, Mary Hammond McGee Sullivan, recently passed away at 93 after a long and interesting life. Her granddaughter Mary Earl Farrell wrote the following story about her grandmother’s life.

My grandmother was Mary Hammond McGee Sullivan. She was an inspiration to everyone who knew her, including me. I am honored to share her life story with her friends and members of the Hajji Baba Club. Although no one could do justice to her life in a space this limited, I hope to capture at least a glimpse of the inspiration she projected. This story was written with her approval, of course. Anyone who was even a casual acquaintance of my grandmother knows she wouldn’t have had it any other way.

As the first child of Joseph David and Eliza Hammond McGee in Greenville, S.C. born on August 17, 1910, GM, as I call her, and her parents moved to the New Orleans, LA area when she was three years old. Her father had accepted a position as a contractor in the building of a seawall at Lake Pontchartrain. The family lived a few miles away at the end of a long pier. GM kept a pet alligator and rode her bicycle up and down the pier against her mother’s wishes. She also began developing her love of the arts. Growing up in a musical family, her interests were heightened when the family left the lake for the cultural mecca of New Orleans. By age nine, GM played the Toreador’s March from Carmen and would offer to sing La Marseilles at Sunday school for five cents.

A precocious student, GM finished high school at the age 15 and set her sights toward college. Not a usual goal for women, but since her own mother had earned two baccalaureate degrees in humanities and music, the gender barrier of the time was not an obstacle for GM. Attending Newcomb College in New Orleans allowed her to stay close to her family, which included a five-year-old brother. GM majored in psychology and her extracurricular activities were basketball, tennis, swimming, baseball and field hockey, in which she earned a letter.

Following graduation in 1930, GM spent two and a half months touring Europe with a friend instead of making her debut in Greenville as her aunt had wished. Upon her return to New Orleans, and after a brief stint at Tulane Medical School, GM started a job as a secretary for the new LSU Medical School in New Orleans, a career which lasted eight years. Jobs were hard to come by during the Depression, but GM managed to obtain employment at the school for several friends and family members. Following a broken engagement, GM went to work as a secretary for the Tulane Graduate School, where she met my grandfather, Matthew Sullivan.

Unfortunately, their first date was his last night in New Orleans, before leaving for New Jersey to join the Army. Through letter writing and occasional visits, they continued their long-distance relationship for two years until he proposed marriage on the Staten Island Ferry during a visit to New York City. They had seen each other a total of two and a half weeks prior to their marriage in June, 1944. They were married 41 years before my grandfather’s death in 1985.

Marriage took GM away from New Orleans to Wilmington, Delaware. When her second child entered the first grade, GM started what would be a forty-year career at Winterthur Museum. One of her neighbors invited GM to become a volunteer guide. She enjoyed the camaraderie with other guides and became an official employee the following year, 1956.

At that time, guides were encouraged to have a specialty and GM was drawn to the Pennsylvania German and Shaker collections. She taught other guides, gave specific tours regarding these topics, and wrote two articles for Antiques Magazine about Mahantango furniture, a distinct category of Pennsylvania-German. Those articles were the basis of a feature in the annual publication of the Pennsylvania-German Society in 1980. In the mid-70’s, Winterthur administrators approached GM about developing a new specialty-oriental rugs. The museum had an extensive collection, but no one had sufficient knowledge to create a specialized program on the topic. Winterthur wanted GM to learn everything about the rugs in their collection – how they were made, origin, age, types of dyes used, and significance of patterns on the rugs.

Instantly intrigued, GM dropped all other interests and plunged head-first into the world of oriental rugs. As part of her initial studies, she took a trip to Turkey, Egypt, Iran, Rome and Madrid. She met many important rug scholars, including Dr. May Beattie, to whom she was introduced in the Istanbul airport. Dr. Beattie was leading an excursion for rug enthusiasts throughout southern Iraq.

GM had many opportunities to learn about rugs first-hand from Dr. Beattie. They spent a week studying the collections at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, not only seeing what was on public display, but also what was in storage. Dr. Beattie and GM focused on paintings in the museums they visited to assist with origins of rugs. GM had photographs of almost every painting in the Louvre with an oriental rug and hundreds of photos from other museums. She even had a rare photo she shouldn’t have taken; Dr. Beattie watched for the guard, while GM snapped a picture of a famous painting housed in Madrid.

GM traveled extensively to pursue her passion for oriental rugs for over thirty years, meeting such notables as Henry Kissinger and Barbra Streisand along the way. Some of the 117 countries, are no longer accessible to U.S. citizens, such as Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan. Everywhere she went, including the North and South Poles in 1982, she took lots of slides, ending up with over 10,000.

GM used her extensive slide collection during fifteen years of training lectures for guides at Winterthur and during talks to clubs and other groups in at least sixteen states from Massachusetts to Texas. In Connecticut, she was a guest lecturer at Yale University. She also taught a credit course on rugs at the University of Delaware.

GM continued to pursue her passion for music to the end. Every season she traveled on a University of Delaware bus to attend performances at the Metropolitan Opera and she regularly attended symphonic concerts at the Grand Theatre in Wilmington. She truly enjoyed life and didn’t let anything hold her back