Walk on the Wild Side with Lucile Quarry Mann

Updated: Oct 17, 2020

Who doesn’t love a woman with a snake?

Do you admire women who seize the chance to do what few people have done? To count down the days to National Kick Butt Day, October 14, I am honoring ten adventurous members of the Society of Woman Geographers. They were courageous during an era when it took courage simply to don the trousers necessary to explore the Earth’s mountains, jungles, oceans, and skies. Lucile Quarry Mann showed courage when she overcame her aversion to snakes and was inducted into the Secret Snake Society in Liberia. Today, I am honoring Lucy with a guest post by Pamela M. Henson, the Smithsonian’s historian and a member of the Society of Woman Geographers. This post was originally published on the Smithsonian’s blog.

A Life on the Wild Side: Lucile Quarry Mann

by Pamela M. Henson

In 1977, I began a series of oral history interviews with Lucile Quarry Mann (1897-1986), a writer and editor who started off as a proper young woman from the Midwest but was soon living life on the wild side as the wife of William M. Mann (1886-1960), director of the Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park. She began her career as an editor for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, where she met Bill Mann, termite specialist and adventurer. He might have seemed an odd choice for a zoo director, but since childhood he had been fascinated by the circus, even running away as a boy to try to join Ringling Bros. In 1925, he came to the zoo and the next year set out on a collecting expedition to East Africa. Before he sailed from New York Harbor, he proposed to Lucy, who was then living in New York City as an editor for Ladies’ Home Companion. Listen to Lucy Mann talk about her first meeting with Bill Mann in 1922.

In 1940 the Manns were on the Smithsonian-Firestone Expedition to Liberia. William Mann

wrote, “At Bendaja, we made friends with Boima Quae (center), a famous old Gola chief,

the Mohammedan priest of the village (far left), and Fermetah, the chief’s favorite wife (far

right).” William is second from left; Lucile Quarry Mann is second from right. A science writer, Lucile Mann would produce the popular accounts of their expeditions.

The Manns formed a great team to head up the zoo; duties included raising baby animals at home, hosting visitors from around the world, traveling to remote regions of the globe to bring back exotic species, and entertaining the public with their adventures. Bill loved to talk, but he hated to write. Lucy reveled in the written word, so she became their spokesperson, publishing articles and books about their travels and experiences, including Wild Animals In and Out of the Zoo and From Jungle to Zoo; Adventures of a Naturalist’s Wife.

“I got a letter from an outfit called Leisure League. I said, ‘Leisure League, I haven’t got any leisure.’ But I opened it and they wanted me to do a book on tropical fish. When Bill came home, I said, ‘Look at this, isn’t this the silliest thing you ever saw, they want me to do a book on tropical fish. I don’t know enough to write a book.’ Bill said, ‘The best way to learn about something is to write a book about it.’”

Their expeditions for the zoo spanned Argentina, British Guiana, Liberia, and the East Indies. Watch Lucy tend to animals in Liberia (and a cute video of a chimpanzee playing with a basket on its head). Lucy cared for the animals as the collection grew, nurturing the small ones, and on one occasion hiding a bag of live snakes under her skirt while on a train. As members of an elite set of world research explorers, the Manns always carried their Society of Woman Geographers and Explorers Club flags with them when they traveled.

Lucile Quarry Mann, wife of National Zoological Park director

William M. Mann, feeding a tiger cub named Babette from a

bottle, May 26, 1949. The Manns raised the cub at home.

Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

When Lucy asked National Geographic about the paltry pay for writers, she was told: “We know that, but there’s so many girls who live here that will work for practically nothing just to say that they’ve had experience.”

Back in Washington, Lucy wrote popular articles and books about the zoo, showed films on the National Geographic Society lecture circuit, and ghostwrote Bill’s scientific articles because he found the task so onerous. When not writing, she raised baby lion and tiger cubs at home but found it very hard to return the animals to the zoo as they grew up. She also kept track of Bill’s live snake collection in their apartment and hosted an endless stream of zoo directors, curators, and collectors. Lucy helped prepare many of the zoo’s publications for years, and, after Bill’s retirement in 1955, she was appointed zoo editor until 1971. Each year when the circus came to town, Bill and Lucy would spend part of each day watching the spectacle. And on one evening they would host a dinner at the zoo for Washington’s power elite, followed by a trip to the circus. She especially enjoyed getting to ride the elephants.

We went through that famous 1918 flu epidemic. I managed to escape it, so I was always the one who had to call the doctor, and go out and get prescriptions filled for my roommate, and that sort of thing.

Listen to Lucy talk about the Spanish Flu.

Lucy was a famed Washington hostess, welcoming such friends as New Yorker writer Alexander Wolcott (the inspiration for The Man Who Came to Dinner). Wolcott and some friends had bought an island in Lake Bomoseen in Vermont, where Lucy recalled one especially memorable long weekend with Wolcott, Irene Castle, Harpo Marx, and Neysa McMein, an artist and member of the famed social club the Algonquin Round Table. A giant croquet set with enormous wickets, balls, and mallets was spread all over the island, and the group would play ferocious games, whacking balls up hill and down dale. She remembered Harpo Marx as quite articulate and intellectual, in contrast to his on-screen character. Noel Coward was a friend, as well as the opera impresario Alfredo Salmaggi, the clown Emmet Kelly, and socialite Alice Roosevelt Longworth.

Lucile Quarry Mann, c. 1940s. Lucile served as president of SWG from

1951 to 1954 and was a member from 1932 until her death in 1986.

Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

When the proper and patriotic young graduate of a Michigan girls’ school arrived in Washington, D.C., in the midst of World War I to work for military intelligence, she could never have imagined the adventures in store for her at home and across the globe. Fortunately, her writing skills and reminiscences have left us a record of her remarkable life.

Other Posts in this Series

  1. Amelia Earhart, aviator

  2. Mickie Akeley, old school explorer

  3. Mary Vaux Walcott, botanist

  4. Lucile Quarry Mann, naturalist

  5. Frances Oldham Kelsey, pharmacologist

  6. Rebeca Carion Cachot, anthropologist

  7. Louise Arner Boyd, Arctic Explorer

  8. Caroline Mytinger, Artist Explorer

  9. Gloria Hollister, Marine Biologist

  10. Blair Niles, Explorer and Author

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