A Life on the Wild Side: Lucile Quarry Mann

For the month of March, the Smithsonian Institution Archives will be posting about interesting women that are featured in our collections in honor of Women’s History Month. Lucile Quarry Mann portrait, c. 1940s, by Unidentified photographer, Black and white print, Smithson In 1977, I began a series of oral history interviews with Lucile Quarry Mann (1897-1986), a writer and editor who started off as a proper young woman from the Midwest, but was soon living life on the wild side as the wife of William M. Mann (1886-1960), the director of the Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park. She began her career as an editor for the U.S. Department of Agriculture where she met Bill Mann, termite specialist and adventurer. He might have seemed an odd choice for a zoo director, but since childhood he had been fascinated by the circus, even running away as a boy to try to join the Ringling Brothers Circus. In 1925, he came to the Zoo and the next year, set out on a collecting expedition to East Africa. Before he sailed from New York harbor, he proposed to Lucy, who was then living in New York City as an editor for Ladies’ Home Companion. Listen to Lucy Mann talk about her first meeting with Bill Mann in 1922.

Oral History Interview of Lucile Quarry Mann, mp3 file, Smithsonian Institution Archives, RU 9513, Interview 1, June 9, 1977.

William M. and Lucile Quarry Mann on expedition in British Guiana, 1931, by Unidentified photographe The Manns formed a great team to head up the Zoo; duties included raising baby animals at home, hosting visitors from around the world, traveling to remote regions of the globe to bring back exotic species, and entertaining the public with their adventures. Bill loved to talk, but he hated to write. Lucy reveled in the written word, so she became their spokesperson, publishing articles and books about their travels and experiences, including Wild Animals In and Out of the Zoo and From Jungle to Zoo; Adventures of a Naturalist's Wife. Their expeditions for the Zoo spanned Argentina, British Guiana, Liberia, and the East Indies. Lucy cared for the animals as the collection grew, nurturing the small ones, and on one occasion, hiding a bag of live snakes under her skirt while on a train. As members of an elite set of world research explorers, they always carried their Society of Woman Geographers and Explorers Club flags with them when they travelled.


Lucile Mann feeding Babette, a tiger cub, at her home in Washington, D.C., 1949, by Unidentified pho Back in Washington, Lucy wrote popular articles and books about the Zoo, showed films on the National Geographic Society lecture circuit, and ghost-wrote Bill’s scientific articles since he found the task so onerous. When not writing, she raised baby lion and tiger cubs at home, but found it very hard to return the animals to the Zoo as they grew up. She also kept track of Bill’s live snake collection in their apartment, and hosted an endless stream of zoo directors, curators, and collectors. Lucy helped prepare many of the Zoo’s publications for years, and, after Bill’s retirement in 1955, she was appointed Zoo editor until 1971. Each year when the circus came to town, Bill and Lucy would spend part of everyday, watching the spectacle. And on one evening they would host a dinner at the Zoo for Washington’s power elite, followed by a trip to the circus. She especially enjoyed getting to ride the elephants. New Reptile House at the National Zoological Park, 1940, by Unidentified photographer, Black and whi Lucy was a famed Washington hostess, welcoming such friends as the New Yorker writer Alexander Wolcott (the inspiration for The Man Who Came to Dinner). Wolcott and some friends had bought an island in Lake Bomoseen in Vermont, where Lucy recalled one especially memorable long weekend with Wolcott, Irene Castle, Harpo Marx, and Neysa McMein, an artist and member of the famed social club, the Algonquin Round Table. A giant croquet set, with enormous wickets, balls and mallets was spread all over the island, and the group would play ferocious games, whacking balls up hill and down dale. She remembered Harpo Marx as quite articulate and intellectual, in contrast to his on-screen character. Noel Coward was a friend, as well as the opera empresario Alfredo Salmaggi, the clown Emmet Kelly, and socialite Alice Roosevelt Longworth. When the proper and patriotic young graduate from a girls’ school in Michigan arrived in Washington, D.C., in the midst of World War I to work for military intelligence, she could never have imagined the adventures in store for her at home and across the globe. Fortunately, her writing skills and reminiscences have left us a record of her remarkable life.    

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