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Photographed on December 29, 1935
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The daughter of a Chinese ambassador to England and the United States, Mai-Mai Sze achieved a significant level of accomplishment in literature and the fine and performing arts. Born in China, Sze spent her childhood in Great Britain and Washington, D.C. where she was educated at the National Cathedral School. She went on to study at Wellesley College, from which she graduated in 1931.

After finishing college, Sze’s first career was as a landscape painter. Though her work was exhibited in New York, and in galleries in Paris and London, Sze’s most notable work was her drawing of playwright Eugene O’Neill, which was reproduced on book jackets, theater programs, and in magazines. In 1946, Sze wrote a book about Chinese painting, The Tao of Painting, volume two of which was her translation of the Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting, a 15th-century Chinese text. Sze’s translation is still in use by painters and art students today.

Success in one field did not prevent Sze from pursuing other interests. In the mid 1930s, she appeared in a popular Broadway show, Lady Precious Stream, by S.I. Hsiung. In this “lovely and humorous”1 story of a romance set in ancient China, Sze played the narrator, “Honorable Reader.”

Around this time, Sze became an advocate for relief in her native China, often lecturing about the country and the needs of its people. She founded the Chinese War Relief Committee in New York and helped to raise support for the medical and other needs of the Chinese people. In the 1940s, Sze wrote China, a book about her ancestral home.

Perhaps Sze’s greatest success was as a writer. The author of several books of fiction and non-fiction, she was a well-known columnist for the New York Post and a contributor to national magazines. Sze wrote an autobiography, Echo of a Cry: A Story Which Began in China (1945), and a novel, Silent Children (1948). Of Silent Children, the story of a group of young refugees trying to survive in a bleak, post-war landscape, John Bicknell wrote, “The theme is as poignant as any in our time, with its counterpart in every country touched by the war. [Sze’s] picture of the children’s community is vivid and compassionate without being sentimental.”2 Sze made additional contributions to the literary community as a frequent book reviewer for the New York Times.

In March of 1940, just a month after Van Vechten photographed Mai-Mai Sze in New York, she wrote a letter thanking him for sending her prints of the photos. “Thank you so much for sending the pictures—I especially like the profile,” she wrote. “You are the only person who has ever made me feel I had one. [Plus] something of a nose!”3

1 Brooks Atkinson “Lady Precious Stream by Dr. S. I. Hsiung, or the Poor Gardener Who Made Good” New York Times 28 Jan. 1936
2 John Bicknell “China’s Children (Review of Silent Children by Mai Mai Sze)” New York Times 18 Apr. 1948
3 Sze to Van Vechten 24 Mar. 1940 Van Vechten Papers Beinecke Library Yale University

 

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