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Mina Kirstein Curtiss papers

Identifier: SSC-MS-00250

Scope and Contents

The Mina Kirstein Curtiss Papers consist of 11 linear feet and date from 1913 to 1986. Types of material include biographical information, including an oral history; personal and professional correspondence; photographs; journals and diaries; financial records; clippings; and typescripts of writings. The papers are arranged in six series: Biographical Material, Photographs, Correspondence, Teaching, Writings and Subject Files.

The bulk of the papers dates from 1933 to 1985 and focuses on Curtiss's writing career. It includes correspondence with publishers and researchers, research material, artwork, royalty statements, and typescripts. The typescripts are edited in Curtiss's hand and provide insight into her creative and analytical processes. Correspondence is also extensive and reflects the many friendships Curtiss developed while teaching, and in researching and writing her various books and attempting to see them through to publication. Many of the correspondents are people of note. The correspondence also well illustrates Curtiss's analytical approach to her topics of research.

Although the diaries and journals in this collection are limited in scope, they do reveal something of their author's passionate nature and discerning intellect, as well as some of her struggles and disappointments.

The photographs are also of interest, offering a glimpse into Curtiss's childhood and early family life, as well as life at Chapelbrook, the Curtiss home in Ashfield, Massachusetts.

The financial records document the acquisition of art and antiques, and the necessity for Curtiss to sell certain pieces later in her life, when she faced financial difficulties. They are also evidence of Curtiss's generosity in donating books, manuscript material and artwork to appropriate institutions when she was financially secure.

Dates of Materials

  • Creation: 1913 - 2005


Conditions Governing Access

This collection is open for research use without restriction beyond the standard terms and conditions of Smith College Special Collections.

Conditions Governing Use

The Sophia Smith Collection owns copyright to unpublished works in this collection created by Mina Curtiss with the following exception: Lynne Robbins has retained literary rights to "Slices of Life". For reproductions of materials that are governed by fair use as defined under U.S. Copyright Law, no permission to cite or publish is required. For instances which may regard materials in the collection not created by Mina Curtiss, researchers are responsible for determining who may hold materials' copyrights and obtaining approval from them. Researchers do not need anything further from Smith College Special Collections to move forward with their use.

The John Houseman correspondence is photocopies of letters that are part of the John Houseman Papers in the Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, University of California, Los Angeles. For copies and information about copyright, please contact UCLA.

Biographical / Historical

Mina Kirstein Curtiss was born in Boston, Massachusetts on October 13, 1896 to Louis Kirstein, an optician, and Rose Stein. She had two younger brothers, Lincoln Kirstein, founder and general director of the New York City Ballet, and George Kirstein, publisher of the Liberal Weekly. The family moved to Rochester, NY in 1901 and remained there until 1912, when they returned to Boston and Louis Kirstein became a partner in Filene's Department Store. Curtiss was schooled at home by a governess until 1912, when she was sent to Northampton, Massachusetts to attend Miss Capen's School. She graduated from Smith College in 1918 and went on to earn an MA in English from Columbia University in 1920.

Prior to attending Columbia, Curtiss worked as a research clerk for Military Intelligence in Washington, D.C., from 1918 to 1920. She lived at the headquarters of the National Woman Suffrage Association where she became friends with Anna Howard Shaw and Carrie Chapman Catt. Curtiss married Henry Tomlinson Curtiss in 1926 only to be devastated by his untimely death a year later, in 1927. In 1933 she published The Midst of Life, a book that took the form of a series of letters to her dead husband. From 1922 to 1934 and again from 1940 to 1942, Curtiss was a beloved and highly regarded professor of English at Smith College, returning in 1976, at the age of 81, as Visiting Professor of English Language and Literature to teach a course on writing biography. From 1935 to 1939, she worked with Orson Welles and John Houseman in researching and writing scripts for the Mercury Theatre of the Air. In 1942, she created a program for the Des Moines Register and Tribune radio station, based on soldiers' letters home. This evolved into a book, Letters Home, edited by Curtiss and published in 1944. In 1942 Curtiss also joined the Office of War Information and, with Houseman, developed a short wave radio program for the BBC entitled "Answering You," in which celebrities responded to questions submitted by BBC listeners.

Rather than return to teaching when World War II ended, Curtiss opted to pursue a career in writing, authoring books, journal articles, and book reviews for national and international audiences. She was also fluent in French, and translated and edited works by several noted Frenchmen, including Edgar Degas, Philip Halevy, Marcel Proust, and Alexis Leger (also known as Saint-John Perse). She once said in an interview, "I fall in love with whatever I'm working on," and this passion, combined with a rigorous intellect, made her a tireless, tenacious, and meticulous researcher. Having read Proust and translated his letters for publication in the United States (The Letters of Marcel Proust, 1949), Curtiss was inspired to go to Paris to seek out Proust's family and friends still living, and to unearth more of his correspondence. This research led to publication in 1978 of Other People's Letters: A Memoir and to an interest in the composer Georges Bizet, which Curtiss pursued with characteristic vigor.

Following publication of Other People's Letters: A Memoir in 1978, Curtiss continued to write. She submitted several manuscripts for publication ("Winter Letters," a sequel to Midst of Life; "The Past and I" and "Slices of Life," sequential autobiographies; and "Plato: Archbishop of Moscow," a biographical sketch that evolved from researching A Forgotten Empress: Anna Ivanovich and Her Era, 1730-1740), and to her disappointment all were rejected. Despite a severe heart condition that left her bedridden for the last several years of her life, with the help of her secretary Curtiss continued to edit and modify the manuscripts in hopes that they would eventually go to press.

In addition to teaching and pursuing a career in writing, Curtiss was generous to causes in which she believed, to the extent that her finances allowed. In 1964, she donated most of the land that comprised Chapelbrook, her farm in Ashfield, Massachusetts, to the Trustees of Reservations, before selling the house and remaining acreage privately. She also founded the Chapelbrook Foundation the purpose of which was to provide funding to writers over the age of forty, to enable them to complete works in progress that might otherwise have gone unfinished. Curtiss also donated manuscript material to libraries and repositories, and works of art to museums.

In 1984, Smith College alumnae Anne Morrow Lindbergh and her sister, Constance Morrow Morgan, organized a campaign among Curtiss's former students to raise funds for a tribute to her. The response was overwhelming and led to establishment of the Mina Curtiss Fund, thanks to which a vase of fresh flowers, replaced on a regular basis in perpetuity, graces the Browsing Room in the William Allan Neilson Library at Smith College. Curtiss herself was an avid gardener and, not long before she died, suggested that the tribute take this form.

Mina Kirstein Curtiss died in Connecticut on October 31, 1985.


15.626 linear feet (38 containers)

Language of Materials



English professor, translator, and author. The bulk of the Curtiss papers focus on her writing career including correspondence with publishers and researchers, research material, artwork, and edited typescripts. Other materials include an oral history, photographs, diaries, and extensive correspondence with many eminent figures from the literary world as well as Smith College associates, friends and family members. Correspondents include Dean Acheson, Jacques Barzun, Jill Ker Conway, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, William Allen Neilson, Orson Welles, and Rebecca West.


This collection is organized into five series:

  1. I. Biographical Material
  2. II. Photographs
  3. III. Correspondence
  4. IV. Teaching
  5. V. Writings
  6. VI. Subject Files
  7. Oversize Materials; Microfilm; Books


This collection has been added to over time in multiple "accessions." An accession is a group of materials received from the same source at approximately the same time.

Custodial History

The John Houseman correspondence is photocopies of letters that are part of the John Houseman Papers in the Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, University of California, Los Angeles.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

The Mina Kirstein Curtiss Papers were donated to the Sophia Smith Collection in 1986 by Kirstein's brothers, Lincoln and George Kirstein. Sallie Gottfried gave additional material in 1987, as did Lynne Robbins, co-executor of Mina Curtiss' estate, in 1988. In 1999, former student Delia Marshall donated a series of letters by Curtiss, spanning the years 1976 to 1985.

Additional materials were donated by Lynne W. Knox in 2010.

Existence and Location of Copies

The previous owner of the collection prepared a microfilm edition of biographical clippings and correspondence that replicates approximately two-thirds of the collection. It is available through interlibrary loan and is accessible through an index of events and proper names.

Related Material

There is related material at the following institutions:

National Records and Archives Administration (NARA) -- recordings of the radio program Answering You

New York Public Library, Berg Collection -- letters to Mina K. Curtiss from British writers

New York Public Library, Dance Collection -- Lincoln Kirstein Papers and related documents

Pierpont Morgan Library, New York -- French books and manuscripts donated by Mina K. Curtiss, including letters by Edouard Manet

Smith College Archives -- material generated by Mina K. Curtiss when she was a student and, later, a professor at Smith College -- correspondence between Mina K. Curtiss and William Allan Neilson, and other Smith College colleagues

Smith College Mortimer Rare Book Collection --Records of the Chapelbrook Foundation, a grant agency founded by Mina K. Curtiss 'which gave grants to writers over forty, to help them finish works in progress which they could not otherwise complete.'

University of California, Los Angeles -- letters to Mina K. Curtiss from John Houseman

University of Sussex at Brighton (UK) -- correspondence by Harold and Frida Laski

Yale University, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library -- letters to Mina K. Curtiss from American writers

Yale University, Manuscripts and Archives, Sterling Memorial Library -- correspondence, photographs and travel diaries relating to Henry Tomlinson Curtiss

Processing Information

Processed by Burd Schlessinger, 2000.

Processing Information

Between September 2022 and February 2023, Smith College Special Collections renumbered many boxes to eliminate duplicate numbers within collections in order to improve researcher experience. The following changes were made in this collection: Accession 2010-S-0028, Boxes 1-3 renumbered as Boxes 35-37



Mina Kirstein Curtiss papers
Finding Aid
Burd Schlessinger
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Encoding funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Revision Statements

  • 07/26/2017: This resource was modified by the ArchivesSpace Preprocessor developed by the Harvard Library (
  • 2005-09-23: mnsss10 converted from EAD 1.0 to 2002 by v1to02-5c.xsl (sy2003-10-15).
  • 2017-07-26T17:48:10-04:00: This record was migrated from InMagic DB Textworks to ArchivesSpace.
  • 2021-07-08: Added content description from accession inventory

Repository Details

Part of the Sophia Smith Collection of Women's History Repository

Neilson Library
7 Neilson Drive
Northampton MA 01063