Mary Berenson

edited by Barbara Strachey and Jayne Samuels. Norton, $18.95.Hannah Smith, of Philadelphia, a pioneer feminist and a religious radical, wrote of her daughter Mary, aged approximately four, “Hers is a royal nature which man can never tame.” It was an understatement. What Mary Smith Costelloe Berenson really had was, barring the bloodshed, a buccaneering nature. She surged through life taking and doing what she chose, in successful defiance of prudence, propriety, and law. When she grew bored with London and the British Costelloe (her first husband was a decent, hard-working Irish Catholic politician who had thought, poor man, that he was marrying an adoring young American beauty) she simply ran off to Italy with Bernard Berenson. She claimed to be studying Renaissance painting under B.B.’s tutelage, and indeed did study it, with such success that she became her lover’s working partner. She published critical essays and helped Berenson in the writing of his books. She located fine antique paintings, purchased them with canny bargaining, and gleefully smuggled them out of Italy. Her affections were as extravagant as her energy and intelligence, and although she and Berenson eventually married, Mary’s penchant for handsome young men rendered marital fidelity problematic. As Berenson’s companion, an art expert in her own right, the sister of Logan Pearsall Smith, and the sister-in-law of Bertrand Russell, she was in a position to meet a horde of literary and artistic dragons. They did not awe her in the least. She had, after all, broken her family to Walt Whitman in the 1880s.
Through all her adventures she maintained an enormous correspondence. Her candid, clever, observant, witty, malicious, gossipy letters, along with her testy and implausibly repentant diaries, have been edited into what Ms. Strachey and Ms. Samuels correctly describe as “a self-portrait.” That portrait is fascinating, for Mary Berenson was undoubtedly a great charmer as well as a woman of extraordinary abilities. The charm survives. She may well be the finest letter writer since Byron.