THE BLOG

Surprising $10 Million Donation Gives Library Users A Wonderful Life

01/01/2013 09:09 am ET | Updated Mar 03, 2013

By AMY GEDULDIG and ANGELA MONTEFINISE

She was like a character out of a heartwarming, holiday movie - literally.

New York City's own Mary Bailey was a quiet, modest woman, as stoic as the seminal character of the same name in the Christmas classic, "It's A Wonderful Life." She lived a seemingly average life, graduating at the Bank Street College, teaching pre-school for a few years, visiting her beloved 58th Street library regularly, and purposely remaining under-the-radar, where she preferred to be.

The tall, lean, unassuming widow who enjoyed a simple life in New York City. One would never guess that she was actually a multi-millionaire.

The Northampton, Massachusetts native who arrived in Manhattan in the 1940s inherited her wealth from her family. Her mother's side was involved in the enormously successful Roaring Spring Book Company, known for its marble-covered school composition books. She certainly never boasted about the money; in fact, she rarely discussed it at all.

She owned a walk-up on Sutton Place, which she decorated - not with luxurious trappings that might have suited those with more expensive tastes - but with reproductions of her favorite New England-style furniture. She took the subway or walked instead of hiring cars. She preferred track suits to Chanel. She didn't often go out to eat or take in fancy shows - when she did, her friends had to persuade her.

She never remarried after her husband of only one year Frederick Bailey was killed in World War II, and she never had children. She kept her circle of friends small. So when she passed away in 2011 at age 88, it was, much like her life, quiet. In fact, according to her friends, she specifically didn't want an obituary -- typical for her personality.

"She was a terribly private person," said her friend Elizabeth Ann Stoll, who added that Bailey could be self-deprecating and introverted. "She was a good person."

A good person whose last act was anything but quiet, and will never be forgotten at The New York Public Library.

The understated Bailey decided to leave the Library some money, no surprise to those who knew her and knew how much she loved the institution, her local branch and what the library offered New Yorkers.

What was surprising to many was the amount - an incredible $10 million, which will go towards collections, programs, and other services that help the people of New York City. Half of the donation is specifically earmarked for the branches that Bailey loved.

John Bacon, director of planned giving at The New York Public Library, worked with Bailey to coordinate her donation, but was completely taken aback when he learned of its size. "Mary was quiet," he said. "She didn't call attention to herself and never hinted at her fortune. In the years that I knew her, I would never have guessed the enormous gift she would give us."

The Library actually received the money this year, which means in 2013, the people of New York City will greatly benefit from one quiet woman's unexpected generosity. Bailey gave without any desire for credit, without any desire for fanfare. But as the city prepares to celebrate a new year, the Library -- which relies on private support -- is spotlighting the selfless donation, and thanking Bailey for making this new year a happy one, and helping to give NYPL users a wonderful life.