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Marietta Is the Tree Who Casts a Long Shadow in New York Society and World Business

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In one month alone, she met clients on an Australian yacht, flew to Barbados to sell her house, visited friends in Palm Beach, spent a weekend in London and played hostess in New York to a few of the 100,000 acquaintances she says she is on a first-name basis with. “If the opportunity comes along to see the world and have a variety of experiences,” counsels elegant Marietta Tree, “grab it!”

It is a philosophy that the trailblazing Tree, 61, has always followed—as a civil rights crusader, a Democratic politician, the first U.S. woman ambassador to the U.N.’s Trusteeship Council, and now as a partner in the international city planning firm of Llewelyn-Davies (which she co-founded) and as a director of such corporate giants as CBS and Pan Am.

Tree has stepped up her schedule since the death in July 1976 of her second husband, former British MP Ronald Tree. “When Ronnie died,” she says, “it seemed as if everything had fallen apart. I was lucky I had a job—something to get me through the day.”

Never exactly idle, Marietta was born into Massachusetts’ blue-blooded Pea-body family, an only daughter with four brothers. Her grandfather was founder and headmaster of Groton, and her father, Malcolm, was an Episcopal bishop. Between 1963 and 1965, Marietta’s brother Endicott Peabody served as Democratic governor of Massachusetts. “All my family had a highly developed social conscience,” she recalls. “My mother was arrested in 1964 during a civil rights protest in Florida. She was 72.”

Marietta thought of herself as Republican while at St. Timothy’s boarding school in Maryland. She majored in political science at the University of Pennsylvania and cast her first vote for Wendell Willkie in 1940. Her political conversion followed: “I was working at LIFE as a researcher, and I had to know the vote of every senator on major issues. Then I became a Democrat.”

After a brief wartime marriage to lawyer (and later deputy CIA director) Desmond FitzGerald, Marietta was 29 when she met the wealthy Tree, who was 20 years her senior. They were married in 1947. “It’s much better to marry an older man,” she argues. “They combine the best of father and husband. They can afford to give you tremendous support in your career.”

Tree was eventually running a glittering New York salon for Democrats, and President Kennedy appointed her to the U.N. post while Adlai Stevenson was ambassador. She was with Stevenson at the moment of his death in London in 1965. “It was about 5 p.m. in the summer,” she remembers, “and we left the American embassy to take a walk in Grosvenor Square.” After Stevenson collapsed, “I rushed into a hotel and grabbed a blanket and a glass of water. Adlai was unconscious by then. A man came by and announced, ‘I’m a doctor,’ and he showed me how to breathe air into Adlai while he massaged his heart. We got him breathing again, but by the time he reached the hospital he was dead.” She pauses: “Nobody close to me had ever died before.”

The subsequent assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy dulled her political enthusiasm. “Bob was the last politician I could feel passionate about,” she says, “the last one I could fall in love with politically.”

Now Tree concentrates on business and family. She is frequently visited by her 38-year-old daughter Frankie FitzGerald, author of a Pulitzer Prize-winning book about the Vietnam war, Fire in the Lake. Her other famous offspring, former model Penelope Tree, 29, is a rock songwriter living in London. The fact that neither daughter is married does not bother Tree. “I’ve become more feminist,” she says. “It is so important for women to be productive and self-sufficient.”

Marietta still feels the void left by her husband’s death. “It’s blackness and much the worse in the morning,” she says. “It’s a great help seeing people who knew him and talking about what he was like.” But, she hastens to add, “This isn’t something I do all the time. There’s too much to be done.”