MOUNT DESERT — Elizabeth (Beth) Allen Straus, whose philanthropy ran the gamut from modern art and America’s historic gardens, to the education, mental health and wellbeing of her New York and Mount Desert Island communities, died at age 94, on Dec.6, 2010 at her home in Somesville.
She was born in San Francisco in 1916, just 10 years after the great earthquake that virtually destroyed the city. She was the daughter of real estate entrepreneur Harry B. Allen and his wife Winifred (Bridge) Allen – one of the first women to graduate from the School of Landscape Architecture at U.C. Berkley.
Beth and her siblings grew up in a house where the arts, education and business acumen cohabited in comfort and style. At a time when it was unusual for a woman to continue her education beyond finishing school, Beth was not only permitted to attend college – she was expected to. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Stanford in 1938 with a degree in English literature and poetry.
Endowed with brains and breeding, young Beth also had the good fortune to be blessed with great beauty. It was likely this third asset that caught the eye of a tall, handsome young sailor from New York City named Donald Straus, who was passing by Hawaii on a leg of the Transpacific Yacht Race, while Miss Allen happened to be taking a summer course there. Mr. Straus sailed off and Beth went back to college, but they continued a bicoastal courtship by mail. Eventually Mr. Straus, the grandson of Isador Straus, who co- founded Macy’s Department store before perishing with his wife Ida on the HMS Titanic, ended the long-distance relationship by hopping in his plane and flying across the continent to propose. She said “yes” and they were married in 1940.
The Straus’s 67-year marriage was far more complicated and interesting than any happily-ever-after story. Their son David Straus says his parents, while not always in lockstep agreement, were unswervingly loyal and devoted to one another.
He said his parents had been raised in the belief that along with great privilege comes great responsibility. Their union was both the start of Mrs. Straus’s long life as a prominent member of New York’s high society and a lifetime of good works.
Mrs. Straus might well have led the life of a society doyenne, giving and attending high profile galas and writing checks to worthy charities. But she preferred a more hands-on approach to the causes she supported, especially when it came to art and gardens.
A knowledgeable and thoughtful collector of modern art, she became a trustee at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1959 and was an early advocate of international collecting and exhibiting. She also was instrumental in the planning and designing of the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden at the museum.
Mrs. Straus’s gardening career kicked off when she volunteered to mount specimens at the New York Botanical Garden herbarium, in the Bronx. She joined the board in 1966 and immediately started recruiting people with deep pockets and a deeply rooted passion for gardens to help her transform the botanical garden from a simple walk-through park to a crown jewel of landscape design. During her tenure the annual visitation there increased by a half million people.
In the mid-1980s, Mrs. Strauss discovered two of landscape architect Beatrix Farrand’s original 1916 sketches for the Botanical Garden’s Rose Garden, that had never been realized. In 1988, through the generosity of David Rockefeller, it was completed and renamed as a gift to his wife, Peggy, who was one of Mrs. Straus’s dearest friends. Today the garden exhibits 600 varieties of roses and 3,600 individual plants.
It’s possible that Peggy and David Rockefeller, who enjoyed cruising with the Don and Beth, first brought the couple to Mount Desert Island. Around 1970, when the Strauses learned about a charming old saltwater farm and former tavern overlooking Somes Sound that had come on the market in Somesville, they bought it sight unseen.
Buying “Somes Meadow” was a decision the couple never regretted.
MDI offered everything the Strauses loved in life: excellent sailing and hiking, natural beauty, great gardening opportunities and the opportunity to make a significant difference for good in the extended island community. According to their son, David, summer was the time when his parents, undistracted by the demands of their high profile lives in New York, really became parents and grandparents. “In New York we had pretty much been raised in an upstairs/downstairs manner, with lots of nannies and household staff watching out for the children. But first on Naushon Island off Cape Cod and then in Maine we enjoyed real family outings and activities.”
This did not mean that Mrs. Strauss gave up her philanthropic interests for the summer months – she just transferred them Down East.
In Maine, she served as vice president of the Island Foundation and chairman of the Asticou Azalea Garden Committee, where, once again she recruited people with resources and or a lot of interest and expertise in preserving these historic gardens and their Japanese-inspired serenity. Mrs. Straus was also a charter member of the Thuya Gardens, was on the advisory board of the Maine Coast Heritage Trust, and a trustee of the Farnsworth Art Museum. She was the recipient of the Garden Club of America’s 2003 Amy Angell Collier Montague Medal awarded for outstanding civic achievement.
At Somes Meadow, Mrs. Straus also created showcase flower and vegetable gardens, which she opened to the public for local garden club fund-raising events.
Gradually Beth and Don stayed on at Somes Meadow longer and longer into the fall, cultivating new, year-round friendships with a variety of people whom they found of interest for one reason or another. In the late 1990s, the Strauses gave up their apartment in New York City and moved to Maine year round.
In the last five years of his life, Mr. Straus suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. But he continued to enjoy outdoor activities such as walking, cross-country skiing, skating and sailing. While the Straus family could afford staff to take Don on such outings, Mrs. Straus was well aware that most families were not as fortunate. With this in mind she endowed the Straus Center in Southwest Harbor – a welcoming, well-staffed place where people with Alzheimer’s and other geriatric conditions can spend the day engaged in supervised activities, giving their caretakers a break.
Shortly after her husband died in 2007, Mrs. Straus suffered a stroke from which she never fully recovered. While her mind remained sharp and she maintained her many interests, her physical limitations were frustrating for someone accustomed to being active. Last summer, Mrs. Straus remarked that she had just one final party she was looking forward to – the marriage of her granddaughter Rebecca Straus to Ramsay Ravenel, planned for September at Somes Meadow.
“While my mother, the consummate party planner, couldn’t actively plan this party, she was keenly aware and interested in everything that was going on,” says her son David. “And since she could not be present at the actual wedding ceremony, which was held on the shore, when it was over, my eldest son-in-law, Luke Farrer, who plays the bagpipes, piped all 170 guests up the meadow and past my mother’s picture window where she lay in bed like a queen and waved and nodded to them all. It was a beautiful sight, celebrating both a new beginning and the final chapter of an old way of life.”
In addition to her son David Allen Straus, Mrs. Straus is survived by her son Robert Beckwith Straus, and daughter Sara Straus Byruck; six grandchildren, Sara Landis Farrer, Rebecca Elizabeth Straus Ravenel, Drew Beckwith Straus, Lisa Foti-Straus, Mischa Straus Byruck, and Chloe Allen Byruck; and their families.
A celebration of Mrs. Straus’ life and good works on MDI is being planned for the summer of 2011. Those who wish are invited to make a donation in her memory to the Mount Desert Land and Garden Preserve, P.O. Box 208, Seal Harbor ME 04675.