Polly Ormsby Longsworth, winner of the Medal for Eminent Service
Medal for Eminent Service

When biographer Polly Longsworth moved to Amherst in the 1960s, she was astonished to discover that town residents still debated—even over the vegetable bins in the supermarket—the rights and wrongs of a passionate affair that Emily Dickinson’s brother sustained with the young wife of an Amherst College faculty member. Her research led to the publication, in 1984, of Austin and Mabel: The Amherst Affair and Love Letters of Austin Dickinson and Mabel Loomis Todd, named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year.

In subsequent years, Longsworth continued to write about the Dickinson family, expertly weaving together the threads of community and individual history in The World of Emily Dickinson and The Dickinsons of Amherst (with Jerome Liebling, Christopher Benfey and Barton Levi St. Armand). Ultimately, she was asked to chair the Martha Dickinson Bianchi Trust, owner of Austin’s former home, The Evergreens.

Longsworth was instrumental in the creation, in 2003, of the Emily Dickinson Museum, which encompasses both The Evergreens and the adjacent Dickinson Homestead—long held as separate trusts—and was elected the founding chair of the new institution’s board of governors. “She instinctively understood that combining the two historic sites would strengthen them both and better serve the public,” says museum director Jane Wald. Under Longsworth’s leadership, the museum developed a master plan for preservation and restoration, successfully completed its first capital campaign, expanded its hours and created a unified visitor experience, significantly enhancing its educational mission and widening its circle of supporters in the process.

A 1955 graduate of Smith College, where she edited the campus news­paper, Longsworth later worked in publishing and began writing her first of several books for adolescents in 1958. Her biographical research and writing continued amid raising four children and assisting in the demanding public life of her husband, Charles Longsworth ’51, who served as president of Hampshire College and subsequently of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.