Mary Marvin Breckinridge Patterson ’27 was born on October 2, 1905, to John Cabell Breckinridge, the grandson and namesake of Kentucky Senator John C. Breckinridge—Vice President in the Buchanan administration—and Isabella Goodrich Breckinridge, the daughter of American industrialist B. F. Goodrich. “My father,” she said later, “wished I would have been more conventional.... But my mother had a good deal of spirit.” Called “Mary Marvin” as a child, she went by “Mary” in school and “Bric” in college, before eventually choosing to be called “Marvin” in her adult life, so as not to be confused with her cousin Mary Breckinridge, the founder of the Frontier Nursing Service.
The Breckinridge family moved around a great deal when Marvin was young, and she attended twelve schools before graduating from Milton Academy in Milton, MA, and enrolling at Vassar in 1923. Reflecting on her years at Vassar in a 1939 alumnae questionnaire, she wrote, “I went to Vassar because my family wanted me to and had brought me up in that expectation all my life.”
She continued, “For the first time I heard other opinions than those expressed by my parents. I also got the ability to study for myself any subject in which I was interested, and learned how to go about such a study.” Marvin majored in French, minored in history and served as president of North (now Jewett House) in her junior year.
In 1925, Marvin and three friends went to Copenhagen, Denmark, as observers to the International Confederation of Students. They subsequently joined with students at Princeton to organize the 1925 Princeton Conference, an effort to encourage United States participation in the World Court system. The conference led to the foundation in that year of the National Student Federation of America (NSFA), of which Marvin was president in 1927-1928, after her graduation from Vassar. At the annual NSFA meeting in 1929, Marvin met a student from Western Washington State College named Edward R. Murrow, who addressed the group, urging greater student interest in international and political affairs. Murrow was elected president of the federation, and a collaborative friendship between the two young people had begun.
Marvin’s interests in her college and immediate undergraduate years ranged from taking history and photography courses, herding cattle and qualifying in 1929 for a pilot’s license to joining New York City social life as a debutante in 1924 and being presented at the Spring Court in London in 1926. Also during this period Marvin became the first female courier for her cousin Mary’s Frontier Nursing Service. “I wanted,” she recalled, “to help in her work, to live as frontier Americans had lived a century earlier, to share in the adventure and at the same time to be of some service to the public.... It was an exciting time for me, full of rich learning experiences, and a far cry from my New York life. I learned a great deal about humanity and compassion from Mary Breckinridge.”
At her cousin’s suggestion, Marvin studied professional cinematography so she might make a publicity film about the Frontier Medical Service.
from The Forgotten Frontier
The Forgotten Frontier, Breckinridge’s acclaimed silent film about the nursing service in the Appalachian mountains of Kentucky, appeared in 1930. The next year, Breckinridge produced and directed She Goes to Vassar, which was intended “to keep the alumnae in touch with the college, and to show parents…what their daughters will do at the school,” noted The Washington Post after the film’s first screening, at the Potomac School on December 19, 1931.
In 1932, after working as a secretary for the Democratic National Committee for two years, Marvin traveled across Africa with a friend, Olivia Stokes Hatch—a six-month, 1,400 mile expedition. Their journey, presented in Olivia’s African Diary: Cape Town to Cairo, 1932 (1980), was illustrated with Marvin’s photographs. Discovering upon her return from Africa she could sell the photographs taken during her trip, Marvin began a career in photojournalism. Throughout the 1930s, her photographic assignments took her to Palestine, Turkey and France, and her work appeared in newspapers and in various magazines, including Life, Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue.
Travelling to Europe in July 1939 on two photojournalism assignments, Breckinridge was in Switzerland when the Nazis invaded Poland on September 1, provoking four declarations of war in two days and starting World War II. She went to London where she photographed the evacuation of English children from the capital, one of only four American photographers in England for the first months of the war. “I had planned,” Marvin wrote to her mother, “to take the first boat home if war should start, but it now seems foolish to run away from the most interesting thing that I could be doing on earth right now.”
On November 18, 1939, Edward R. Murrow invited Marvin to join him in a CBS radio broadcast about the changes the war had brought to English villages and to Oxford University. This was followed by another broadcast again female firefighters in London, and soon afterwards—instructed by Murrow to speak in a low voice when broadcasting—Marvin became one of “Murrow’s boys” and the first female news correspondent for the CBS World News Roundup.
Marvin at the microphone
Marvin broadcasted from Ireland, Norway, Amsterdam, France, and Germany, where, broadcasting from Berlin, she famously slipped a barbed assessment of Germany under the Nazis past the severe German censors. Describing the Nazi newspaper Voelkische Beobachter, she observed, “The motto of this important official paper is Freedom and Bread. There is still bread.”
During her assignment in Berlin, Marvin met Jefferson Patterson, first secretary of the United States embassy in Berlin, whom she married on June 20, 1940. Her marriage obliged her to give up photojournalism and broadcasting, as the State Department would not waive its regulation censoring anything a diplomat’s spouse offered for publication. Throughout postings in Peru, Belgium, Egypt, the Balkans and Uruguay, Marvin dedicated herself to raising the couple’s two adopted children, Patricia and Mark, and to her new career as a foreign service officer’s wife. Over the years, Marvin Breckinridge also helped create handbooks for foreign travelers—The Peruvian Way, Living in Egypt: From the American Angle and At Home in Uruguay. “When a woman accepts marriage with a Foreign Service officer,” she observed, “she accepts his domicile, his career and his interests. Certainly, there must be room for some wives—the highly talented working artists or the individualists—to be excused from their roles as Foreign Service wives, but the majority would find their lives much more interesting and more fulfilling if they did their share in promoting their country’s objectives.”
Jefferson Patterson retired from the Foreign Service in 1958, and Marvin devoted herself to philanthropy, working for many community organizations and boards, including the Board of Directors of the National Symphony Orchestra, the Women’s Committee on the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the Women’s Committee of the Smithsonian Institution Associates and the International Council of the Folger Shakespeare Library. In 1973, the Pattersons donated 23 acres of family land in Maine to Bowdoin College, which became the site of the college’s Breckinridge Public Affairs Center.
After her husband’s death in 1977, Marvin continued in her philanthropy, and, calling it “greatest gift that it is in my power to give,” donating to the State of Maryland in 1983 the 550-acre “Point Farm” in Calvert County, which became the Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum. The farm was rich in historic and prehistoric sites as well as Native American artifacts, and for her contribution Marvin was named “Citizen of the Year.” In 1985, Marvin founded the Marpat Foundation to coordinate her charitable gifts.
Mary Marvin Breckinridge Patterson died on December 11, 2002, at the age of ninety-seven. In 2010, in recognition of her wartime photojournalism and broadcasts, the Library of Congress included her and seven other woman journalists and photographers—including such figures as Clare Booth Luce, Janet Flanner, Dorothea Lange and May Craig—in its exhibit, Women Come to the Front: Journalists, Photographers and Broadcasters During World War II.
Behlen, Ann Denton, Mary Marvin Breckinridge Patterson: From Career Broadcaster to Career Diplomatic Wife, Cambridge, Mass. Harvard University, 1982.
Schwartz, Eugene G. and United States National Student Association, American Students Organize: founding the National Student Association after World War II: An Anthology and Sourcebook, American Students Organize, 2006.
“Miss Breckinridge Engaged to Marry: War Romance,” New York Times, June 12, 1940.
Konner, Joan, “What Made Him a Hero: EDWARD R. MURROW An American Original. By Joseph E. Persico,” ” New York Times, January 15, 1989.
Saxon, Wolfgang, “Mary Patterson, Philanthropist and Wartime Broadcaster, 97” New York Times, December 23, 2002.
"John C. Breckinridge," Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online Academic Edition, Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2011. Web. 25 Nov. 2011. <https://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/78636/John-C-Breckinridge>.
“About the Pattersons.” Jefferson Patterson Park & Museum—State Museum of Archeology, 6 Feb. 2012, Maryland Department of Planning. <https://www.jefpat.org/pattersons.html>.
Alumnae Biographical Files, Mary Marvin Breckinridge Patterson, Vassar College Special Collections.
A Documentary Chronicle of Vassar College, <https://chronology.vassar.edu/>.