Husband Henry Tomlinson Curtiss
Smith College, Northampton, MA 01063
Columbia University, 116th St & Broadway, New York, NY 10027
Chapelbrook, 2 Ashfield Rd, Williamsburg, MA 01096
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. 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.
At Smith, new entrants were required to pass further exams to be allowed to continue into the next calendar year. Henrietta Bingham struggled and was persuaded to try again for re-entry in 1921. She formed a friendship with her English composition instructor, Mina Kirstein and they became so close as to declare their love for each other. When her readmission was confirmed Henrietta, with her father and younger brother, went on their annual visit to Britain at the same time as Kirstein was there visiting Harold Laski and his wife. With Kirstein, the Binghams mingled with modernist society in Britain. When Henrietta restarted her freshman year at Smith she again got into difficulty, not only academically but also by not keeping to the college's regulations. In 1922, now a full-fledged flapper with cropped hair and a poor reputation, she was asked to leave the college.
So that her father would not know that she could not continue her education, Bingham pretended to him that the college was allowing her time away to study in Europe and, quite separately, Kirstein sought and was granted study leave in Europe too. The Bingham family travelled separately from Kirstein to England but, when it was time for the rest of the Binghams to return home Henrietta persuaded her father to let her stay on with Kirstein as chaperone. The two women, besotted with each other, set off on a grand tour of continental Europe.
Kirstein did not see a future for them as fully sexual lovers and from Carcasonne she wrote a twelve-page letter to Ernest Jones, the leading Freudian psychoanalyst in Britain at a time when psychoanalysis was generally regarded as dangerously aberrant. In it she asked for help for an attractive 21-year-old American woman with irrational fears and a "homosexual tendency" possibly due to her childhood experiences. She wrote that Bingham had then developed an attraction to Kirstein herself saying "I am not a homosexual, though I love her very much". She said that neither of them was ashamed of their relationship but they wanted to move on to another stage in their lives. Bingham reluctantly agreed to psychoanalysis in London and refused to return to America even when her father asked for her urgently. When the Judge traveled to England at the end of 1922 he visited Jones and was satisfied that Henrietta's anxiety was being treated properly.
Kirstein and Bingham enjoyed the bohemian nightlife in London and through David Garnett they made contact with the Bloomsbury Group. To allow them to stay in Britain Garnett suggested the couple might rent Tidmarsh Mill, the home of Lytton Strachey, Dora Carrington and her then husband Ralph Partridge, while the owners were away for the summer. When they arrived to view the property Carrington found Kirstein lovely, with a perfect slim figure, and Bingham was "my style, pink with a round face, dressed in mannish clothes, with a good natural style". Carrington was disappointed when they left, but they had seemed to pay little attention to her. Anyway, Strachey refused their offer to rent the mill – he could not face having them living in the house. Back in London they met Virginia Woolf, John Maynard Keynes and Duncan Grant. Although not an intellectual Bingham was in her element – her exoticism and sensuality enraptured the Bloomsberries – and was in the vanguard of bringing the Harlem Renaissance to Britain by playing the saxophone and singing spirituals and songs of the American South in her dusky voice. Carrington wrote she "almost made love to her in public" and then found from Garnett that Bingham had been continually asking after her and wanting to see her again.
In his continuing therapy sessions Jones, with Kirstein's agreement, had been encouraging Bingham to take a male partner. She had already caught the eye of Stephen Tomlin who was charismatic, widely-read, and an accomplished writer and sculptor. They became lovers but she also turned to other partners from time to time. Both she and Tomlin had partners of both sexes.
Back in Kentucky Bingham was unsettled, partly because she was disapproved of there. Her contemporaries knew she was "crazy about girls" though her father had not yet realized. He gave her the job of book editor in the local Courier–Journal newspaper he owned. With her brother Barry, she took the initiative of opening a book store, which only stocked literary books – those that Garnet sent in crates from his book store in London. Tomlin flooded her with letters asking her to return to Britain and, via Garnet, she asked if he would marry her. Tomlin wrote back equivocally because he wanted her as a lover but not as a wife. Bingham had thought marriage would sort out all the misunderstandings she was having with the other people close to her. However, she still visited Kirstein and they again expressed their love for each other.
Early in 1924 there was a serious crisis in the Bingham household. The result was that Bingham and her father became much more distant and he broke off all contact with Kirstein. The likeliest explanation was that someone had told her father about her lesbian relationship with Kirstein.
In June 1924 Bingham returned in England and she again become strongly involved with the Bloomsbury social life. When Tomlin took her to Tidmarsh Mill she deliberately started to initiate an affair with Carrington. Kirstein was due to arrive in Britain and on the day before (and the day after her father left) Henrietta spent the whole afternoon with Carrington which, Carrington said, "no one knew of but us" referring to "ecstasy ... and no feelings of shame afterwards". Henrietta was her first and only female lover although Carrington found many women attractive to the point of having feelings of love or lust for them. Carrington wrote to her close friend Gerald Brenan, that she "killed my desires for les jeunes garçons pretty completely". While Bingham and Tomlin remained a couple, on one occasion she spent the night with Carrington at the ménage à trois's new house Ham Spray. In due course Carrington wrote to Brenan "of certain sensations and wish to God [she] was here so I could repeat them".
Henrietta's family arrived to take a holiday in Scotland and while on the grouse moors her father told her they would be returning early to London for him to get married for the third time, to Aleen Hilliard (née Muldoon) – Henrietta vomited for five hours on hearing the news. Back in London, Dr. Jones told his wife "General frightful crises with Binghamesque scenes". She irrationally thought her father's marriage was to punish her. With Carrington, Tomlin and Kirstein all in despair over being repeatedly attracted and rejected by Bingham, Kirstein and Bingham returned to America and Kirstein fell in love with Harry Curtiss, who she described as "a very male Henrietta", and married him in 1926, after his divorce. She remained a lifelong friend of Henrietta, however. For Christmas Henrietta departed to the French Riviera with two girlfriends where she was photographed out walking in men's clothes, arm in arm with her two friends.
Kirstein 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 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.