On a warm summer day in 1944, Mollie Davis Nicholson and Francesca Nielsen sat in rocking chairs on Mollie’s front porch in Chevy Chase near Washington, D.C. and talked about the state of the arts. They discussed the fact that the arts received very little support in this country in contrast to the government subsidies given to artists in European countries. They decided to do something about it, and that afternoon the National Society of Arts and Letters was conceived. It was to be a non-partisan, non-political, and non-profit organization, and their plan was to provide financial assistance to promising young artists through scholarships in the artistic disciplines of art, music, and literature.
Mollie agreed to grow the first chapter, to be called the Chevy Chase Chapter, and Francesca said she would found a chapter in her home town, Chicago, as well as travel the country founding chapter in other cities. Shortly after its founding, Dorothy Nicholson Bates Stabell, Mollie’s daughter, assumed the presidency of the Chevy Chase Chapter. The Chapter changed its name to the Washington Chapter in March of 1945, when a founding member, Eleanor Searle Whitney (later McCollum), moved from Chevy Chase to Georgetown in Washington, D.C. She suggested that the name should be changed to the Washington Chapter to reflect its regional nature.
Francesca Falk Miller Nielsen started the Chicago Chapter in October 1944. In 1945, the two chapters awarded the first scholarships: one in piano, three in voice (Washington) and one in pipe organ (Chicago).
On June 30, 1945, the first conference of the National Society of Arts and Letters was held in Chicago. Already eight chapters were formed: Washington, D.C., Chicago, Florida, Colorado, North Dakota, California, Texas and Kentucky. The conference concerned itself with rewriting the bylaws, establishing uniform guidelines for scholarships, and defining the purpose of the Society. Young artists were to be encouraged by receipt of donor gifts, chapter prizes, scholarships, and exhibitions of their work. The bylaws provided membership to women qualified in the arts who were U.S. citizens. Artist member Emma W. Slack designed the logo.
By 1946 there were four more chapters: Arkansas, Indiana, Ohio, and New Jersey. A convention was held in Washington, D.C. from April 15-16 at the Mayflower Hotel. The convention theme was “Talent is Essential for Peace.” The program stated, “It has been said that a nation is as great as its cultural standards. The National Society of Arts and Letters is an organization whose broader purpose is to promote lasting world peace by lifting standards of every nation through mutual appreciation and endeavor in intellectual and cultural fields. Our immediate purpose is to aid young talent to receive recognition in the fields of art, music and literature.”
It was a wonderful convention. First Lady Bess Truman initiated the festivities with a reception at the White House. On April 16, 1946 the Washington Post covered the event, stating, “The Nation’s Capital has long been accustomed to brilliant and talented women, but even Washingtonians must perk up with interest at the varied accomplishments of the women composing a new organization — The National Society of Arts and Letters.”
At this 1946 convention, a group of distinguished persons in the arts was named to an NSAL Advisory Council. Practical matters were also addressed. It was decided to have a national initiation fee and national dues. There were even hopes of building a national clubhouse. Chapters were encouraged to hold annual benefits and gather scholarship funds.
As growth continued, Francesca Falk Miller Nielsen, the second National President, introduced and edited the newsletter. It was planned to issue it three times a year. A Certificate of Incorporation was issued July 29, 1949, and tax-exempt status was recorded November 7, 1949. That year the dance and drama categories were added to the list of artistic disciplines. By 1951, NSAL had 25 chapters.
In October 1994, members gathered for a gala celebration of the Society’s 50th anniversary. Attendees made a pilgrimage to the home of founder Molly Davis Nicholson in Chevy Chase for a champagne reception. Embassies honored the group with elegant teas. A formal dinner in the Grand Ballroom of the Mayflower Hotel climaxed the occasion. The Honorable Livingston L. Biddle addressed the assemblage on the need for vigilance in promoting the arts. A spectacular presentation by Rob Johansen, 1994 Career Award Winner in Drama, delighted the members who found the ever creative and dynamic performer hanging from the balcony, springing amongst the elegant tables, and bounding onto the stage as the embodiment of Shakespeare’s Puck.
The Central Illinois Chapter, host chapter for the convention and the 60th Anniversary celebration, gave the members delightful days and evenings of performances by former contestants. The celebratory week began with Ollie Watts Davis (Voice) and Casey Robards (Piano) performing at the President’s Reception at the home of the president of the University of Illinois. Featured at the Presidents’ Luncheon were Gerald Nicosia (Literature), Michael Fitzpatrick (Cello), Von Venhuizen (Ceramics), and Kevin Chance (Piano).
Friday evening, members, guests and former contestants gathered at the Champaign Country Club for the gala celebration. Former contestants from 1959-2002 returned to perform and give accolades to NSAL: Andrea Baiocchi (Piano); Kelly Ann Sloan (Ballet); Drew Battles (Drama); Michael Lindner (Drama); Carmen Mason (Voice) accompanied by Kevin Chance (Piano); Leo Berk (Ceramics); Felix Wang (Cello); and Dale Benson (Drama).
That evening also featured the premiere showing of the 60th anniversary video featuring Dorothy Nicholson Stabell, daughter of one of the founders. In the video, Dorothy told the history of the founding of NSAL. The video was sponsored and made possible by the Washington, D.C. Chapter.
Over the years much has been accomplished for which we can take pride. NSAL discovered stars such as Shirley MacLaine, actress/dancer/writer; Jessye Norman, opera singer; Megan Hilty, Broadway and television star; Awadagin Pratt, pianist; and Amanda McKerrow, prima ballerina. Many fine careers have been launched through support from NSAL’s funding. The tradition of proud and enthusiastic members continues. Men have been invited into membership and have provided distinguished leadership. In 1998, non-citizens were permitted full membership privileges, thereby providing a more international aspect to our organization. Today we strive to uphold and build upon the legacy of our visionary founders.