Mrs. Bok was a celebrated patron of music and the arts in Philadelphia, but perhaps her most enduring contribution was the establishment of the Curtis Institute of Music in 1924. Serving as president of the board for more than 40 years, Mrs. Bok was a constant presence at Curtis, beloved by students and faculty alike.
This exhibit highlights the achievements and legacy of Curtis’s founder, illustrated by materials from the Curtis Institute of Music Archives.
Mary Louise Curtis Bok (1876–1970) was the only child of Cyrus H.K. Curtis (1850–1933), founder of the Curtis Publishing Company, and Louisa Knapp (1852–1910), editor of the Ladies Home Journal (published by the Curtis Publishing Company).
Mary was raised with a love of music. She played the piano and—like her father—the organ. Her parents helped to support several music organizations, including the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Settlement Music School. When Mary married Edward Bok in 1896 (her mother’s successor as editor of the Journal), she and her new husband continued this tradition.
While Mrs. Bok’s sons Curtis (b. 1897) and Cary (b. 1905) were still young, she found an outlet for her interest in music in the Settlement Music School in South Philadelphia. Settlement was founded in 1908 by Blanche Wolf Kohn and Jeanette Selig Frank to provide music education to local disadvantaged children. Mary Bok became Settlement’s president in 1914, and, in 1917, she donated funds for a new, larger building on Queen Street in memory of her mother, who had died in 1910.
While at Settlement, Bok realized that some students, while having sufficient talent, lacked the funds to train properly for a professional career. Her response to this was help organize a conservatory department at Settlement in 1922, which, just two years later, would form the nucleus of the Curtis Institute of Music.
Leopold Stokowski (1882–1977), conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra from 1912 to 1941, and Josef Hofmann (1876–1957), the Polish piano virtuoso, were longtime friends of Mary and Edward Bok. The four of them spent many evenings discussing the possibility of an American conservatory that would provide training to the Settlement School’s most talented pupils. The charismatic conductor and world-famous pianist were instrumental in realizing Mary Louise Curtis Bok’s dream.
The Boks purchased three neighboring mansions at Locust and 18th Streets, right off Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania issued the school’s charter on April 18, 1924. During the first year the building at 1720 Locust (now the Rock Resource Center) housed a preparatory school for young students, and subsequently the Department of Stringed Instruments and Theory. Through the influence of Hofmann and particularly Stokowski, Mary Bok was able to secure eminent faculty, including Marcella Sembrich (voice), Carl Flesch (violin), and Carlos Salzedo (harp). Hofmann himself was in charge of the piano department, and Stokowski directed the Curtis orchestra.
As founder and president of the board, Mary Louise Curtis Bok had her own office and secretary. She arrived each day in a maroon car driven by a chauffeur in matching uniform. She maintained personal relationships with students, faculty, and staff and worked closely with Joseph Hofmann, who had been appointed Curtis’s third director in 1927.
After the deaths of her husband in 1930 and her father in 1933, Mary Bok poured herself more fully into leading Curtis. The 1930s saw many new developments at the school despite the challenges caused by the Great Depression—including its first commencement ceremony in 1934, weekly radio broadcasts, a recording studio, and a new cafeteria (see our exhibit Life at Curtis before the War). When Hofmann resigned in September, 1938, Mary Bok became acting director until a new director was found.
Curtis’s fourth director, Randall Thompson, stayed for less than two years. His successor was Efrem Zimbalist, head of Curtis’s violin department and a widower. He and Mary Bok married in 1943. Under Zimbalist’s directorship the school regained financial strength and flourished. President Mary Zimbalist stayed actively involved in the school, and continued to have her own office.
Efrem Zimbalist retired as director in 1968 after 27 years. By then his wife was in frail health, and, on January 4, 1970, Mary Louis Curtis Bok Zimbalist died at the age of 93.
The Curtis of today still embodies the ideals of its founder, its mission and core values unchanged. Students learn by doing from faculty of active performers offering personalized attention to the needs of each. The school remains intimate in scope and international in character while the continuing policy of full-tuition scholarships ensures that admissions remain based solely on artistic promise. Traditions established in the school’s earliest days—such as Wednesday tea and the annual holiday party—endure, still beloved by the whole Curtis community.
In a tradition also established by its founder, Curtis remains a forward-looking institution, as it strives to prepare its extraordinary young musicians for performing careers at the highest professional level.
Nearly nine decades after its founding, Curtis honors Mary Louise Curtis Bok Zimbalist by adhering closely to her generous and innovative vision.DISCLAIMER: The images and documents in this exhibit are made available for purposes of education and research. The Curtis Archives has made every attempt to determine the copyright status of materials displayed, but due to the nature of archival materials we are not always able to identify this information. We are eager to hear from any rights owners, so that we may obtain accurate information. Upon request, we will remove material from public view while we address a rights issue.
Mary Louise Curtis Bok,
portrait by Norman Rockwell