Gertrude Robinson Smith:

A passionate music patron, who wouldn't take no for an answer

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Gertrude Robinson Smith was a woman who knew how to get things done.

In the 1920s, she and a friend took it upon themselves (literally, took it upon themselves, like hoisting beams) to build her own home on her family's Stockbridge property. Later in life, Gertrude — in a less direct way, but no less arduous — would build Tanglewood.

Gertrude Robinson Smith was born in 1881 to a wealthy New York family. Her father was a corporate lawyer and her mother had been largely raised in Paris. Gertrude split her childhood between New York and Paris. When World War I broke out, the family purchased a property in the Glendale section of Stockbridge.

The summer resident would later help found the Berkshire Symphonic Festival, Inc., in 1934. The festival would go on to involve The Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1936 and later take up residency at the Tanglewood estate.

The festival was originally conductor and composer Henry Hadley's dream. But when he wanted to see if it could become reality, he went to visit Robinson Smith.

"She was raised in the old tradition that the strongest virtue of the well to do was civic mindedness," says The New York Times in Robinson Smith's obituary, which ran Oct. 23, 1963, one day after her death. She was 82.

Robinson Smith had a long history of getting things done. She was the president of the Vacation Savings Stamp Fund, an organization which dedicated itself to providing vacations for working girls in Manhattan. During World War I she and her friend author Edith Wharton organized medical supplies for France, raising $70,000 for surgical motor units. She didn't just do good from afar. She traveled to France in a blacked-out ship and flew over the front lines, according to Lenox History, the Lenox Historical Society's website. She was later made a chevalier of the French Legion of Honor for her efforts.

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So when Hadley approached her with an idea for an outdoor music festival in the Berkshires, Robinson Smith, a woman of experience and determination with connections, knew what to do.

She, along with 63 other men and women living within 40 miles of Stockbridge formed the Berkshire Symphonic Festival, Inc. They elected her as its president, a post she held until the group dissolved in 1955.

"I am sure you will agree with me that there are few things artistically more enchanting than listening to a beautiful symphony orchestra on a summer evening outdoors under the stars," she said, according to The New York Times.

Two months after the festival was formed, its first set of three concerts was held on a farm just west of Mahkeenac Lake — 5,000 people attended over the three nights. But Tanglewood wouldn't be Tanglewood as we know it today, without Robinson Smith's excellent negotiating skills.

According to The New York Times, talks with Serge Koussevitzky to bring the Boston Symphony Orchestra to the newly formed festival were beginning to stall, that is until Robinson Smith met with him. What was supposed to be a 15-minute appointment between the symphony's conductor and the woman charged with getting the job done turned into a two-hour meeting that resulted in a marriage between music and nature that lives on to this day.

A search for a permanent home for the festival began soon after and ended when Gorham Brooks and Mary Aspinwall Tappan offered up their Tanglewood estate in Lenox. But it wasn't until after a downpour one August evening, that Robinson Smith was able to give her most lasting plea for the case of Tanglewood. During the first concert on the propriety, held under a large tent, a storm rolled through with a downpour that ended up seeping through the tent to the dismay of audience members and players. Robinson Smith famously made her way to the stage and announced that the storm had demonstrated their need for a more permanent shed — something Koussevitzky had requested early on to protect his orchestra from the elements and enhance the acoustics. She boldly stated "we must raise $100,000 to build it," according to The New York Times.

She raised $80,000 in time to build the shed — now known as The Koussevitzky Shed — in time for the 1938 season.

— Lindsey Hollenbaugh, The Berkshire Eagle


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