Ronnie Tree’s Second Wife
Marietta Peabody FitzGerald Tree
By Megan McKinney
Like Ronnie Tree, Marietta Peabody was of the American purple; Ronnie’s roots were Chicago—the Marshall Fields and Lambert Trees—and Marietta’s were New England Peabodys, roots that would hold up against almost any in America. Marietta’s grandfather was the legendary Endicott Peabody, founder of Groton School and inspiration for The Rector of Justin, universally considered the finest book by the 20th century American novelist Louis Auchincloss.
Groton’s Endicott Peabody had attended secondary school in England and wished to provide American schoolboys with the style of education he had experienced there. He unabashedly designed a curriculum targeting boys from upper-class families, emphasizing moral development over intellectual, steering them toward ethical leadership and philanthropy. Former student Franklin Delano Roosevelt considered him “the biggest influence in my life.”
Ditchley Park, Ronnie Tree’s stately home in Oxfordshire, England.
In 1947, Marietta divorced her husband of eight years, Desmond FitzGerald, at almost the same time Ronnie and Nancy Tree ended their marriage. Ditchley Park was now Ronnie’s, and he wasted no time in taking his bride, Marietta, and her young daughter, Frances “Frankie” FitzGerald, there to begin a new life that all thought would be permanent. It was not.
The Blue Drawing Room, Ditchley Park
Marietta’s boredom and discomfort with living in a country estate in which there was little for her to do, was coupled with the immense tax bills levied on high end property owners by the new Labour government. It wasn’t long before Ditchley was exchanged for a large double-fronted town house at 123 East 79th Street in New York.
A portion of the Tree house on Manhattan’s Upper East Side
The shock of the move was softened by the splendid accessories transported from Ditchley to the 79th Street mansion–distinguished 18th century French and English furniture, fine porcelain, Georgian silver and superb paintings—including those by Constable, Lawrence and Augustus John. Ronnie’s English servants, including his devoted butler and long-time driver, also made the crossing.
Marietta Tree at home in New York, 1954
Credit: Cecil Beaton
Marietta was immensely attractive to men and, although anything but promiscuous, she conducted long affairs with several who were world famous. Her unlikely relationship with lusty film director John Huston continued, off-and-on, for decades. He wanted to add Marietta to his long string of wives, but he would not have given her the life she desired. Adlai Stevenson could have—and, in a way, did.
Adlai Stevenson, Illinois governor and two-time American presidential candidate
Marietta was one of many attractive, financially substantial, highly visible women with whom the divorced Stevenson consorted year after year. They included Morton Salt heiress Susie Zurcher, Newsday publisher Alicia Patterson, Aspen Colorado co-founder Elizabeth Paepcke and wealthy advertising widow Mary Lasker. Stevenson married none of them. Had his life been longer, he might have wed Marietta, but probably not.
He did see that she was named United States Representative to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. Although Marietta Tree and Adlai Stevenson were extraordinarily close–she was with him at his 1965 death in London—she and Ronnie remained married throughout the romance.
The Peabody family was abundant in well-known figures of the period. Her brother, Endicott, was a Harvard football star and All-American lineman, known as Chub. He went on to serve as Governor of Massachusetts from 1963 to 1965.
Credit: David Shankbone
Frances FitzGerald, the daughter of Marietta’s first marriage, became a well-known American journalist and historian, whose best-selling book about Vietnam was a winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Bancroft Prize and National Book Award.
Marietta’s mother was Mrs. Malcolm Peabody, the 72-year-old Episcopal bishop’s wife, who in March 1964 was arrested at a St. Augustine lunch counter sit-in with a small biracial group of women. In the above news photo, Mrs. Peabody is center-right, with her husband, Bishop Malcolm Peabody, in the hat and clergy collar, next to her. The media loved the photogenic Mrs. Peabody and returned to her periodically on slow news days long after the famous sit-in.
Ronnie and Penelope Tree
All other relatives were outdone by Ronnie and Marietta’s supermodel daughter, Penelope, who made her media debut at Truman Capote’s spectacular 1966 Black and White Ball. Author Deborah Davis, who devoted an entire 293-page book to the ball, wrote the following description of her in Party of the Century.
The smash-hit of the evening, though, was the ingenue Penelope Tree. More naked than dressed in her flowing black tunic and form-fitting tights, Tree caught the eye of every person in the room. Even the CBS camera lingered on her narrow, exposed midriff, as if entranced. Jean Harvey Vanderbilt, the wife of Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, described Tree’s ensemble as “stark, like a Halloween ballet costume.” Her entrance signaled the presence of a new generation at the ball. Tree was discovered by the fashion world that night. Cecil Beaton and Richard Avedon were so enchanted by her unspoiled beauty that they conspired on the spot to turn her into a cover girl—which she soon became.
“The smash hit” of The Party of the Century
Penelope Tree was a supermodel before the term existed. She was indeed a cover girl.
She soon moved to London and into the arms of David Bailey, the “Swinging London” photographer of the 1960’s. Together they would personify the electric time and place.
Terry O’Neill shot this photo of Penelope Tree and David Bailey in 1967. It may not have been the life Ronnie and Marietta wished for their daughter; on the other hand, it really didn’t matter because it was not the sort of situation that would last.
Join Classic Chicago Publisher Megan McKinney’s Great Chicago Fortunes next for a segment about Ronnie Tree and Heron Bay, his stunning Palladian house in Barbados, as he continues to own and be otherwise associated with some the most stunning houses in the English-speaking world.
Edited by Amanda K. O’Brien
Author Photo: Robert F. Carl