A group of far-sighted women decided over sixty years ago to launch an organization to encourage young talent in the arts — The National Society of Arts and Letters. It was unique. It sponsored competitions and offered scholarships in the categories of art, music and literature.
On October 21, 1944, they met at the home of the future first National President, Mollie Davis Nicholson, to found a group that specified it was non-partisan, non-political and non-profit-making. The Chevy Chase Chapter was organized that year. It became the Washington, D.C. Chapter on March 31, l945, with Dorothy Nicholson Bates Stabell as its first President and Founder.
A second chapter, the Chicago Chapter, was started by Francesca Falk Miller Nielsen, also in October l944. In l945, both chapters awarded scholarships: one in piano, three in voice (Washington) and one in pipe organ (Chicago).
The First National Conference:
On June 30, l945, the first conference of the National Society of Arts and Letters was held in Chicago. Already, eight chapters had been formed: Washington, D.C., Chicago, Florida, Colorado, North Dakota, California, Texas and Kentucky. The bylaws provided membership to women qualified in the arts who were U.S. citizens. Artist member Emma W. Slack designed the insignia. The conference concerned itself with rewriting the bylaws, establishing uniform guidelines for scholarships and defining the purpose of the Society. Young artists were to be encouraged by receipt of donor gifts, chapter prizes, scholarships and exhibitions of their work or talent arranged by a chapter.
By l946 four more chapters had started: Arkansas, Indiana, Ohio and New Jersey. A convention was held in Washington, D.C., April l5-l6, at the Mayflower Hotel. The theme was "Talent is essential for Peace". The program stated: "It has been said that a nation is as great as its cultural standards. The National Society of Arts and Letters is an organization whose broader purpose is to promote lasting world peace by lifting standards of every nation through mutual appreciation and endeavor in intellectual and cultural fields. Our immediate purpose is to aid young talent to receive recognition in the fields of art, music and literature."
It was a wonderful convention. First Lady Bess Truman initiated the festivities with a reception at the White House. On April l6, l946 the Washington Post covered the event, stating: "The Nation's Capital has long been accustomed to brilliant and talented women, but even Washingtonians must perk up with interest at the varied accomplishments of the women composing a new organization — The National Society of Arts and Letters." At this l946 convention a group of distinguished persons in the Arts was named to an NSAL Advisory Council. Practical matters were also addressed. It was decided to have a national initiation fee and national dues. There were even hopes of building a national clubhouse. Chapters were encouraged to hold annual benefits and gather scholarship funds.
As growth continued, Francesca Falk Miller Nielsen, the second National President, introduced and edited the newsletter. It was planned to issue it three times a year. A Certificate of Incorporation was issued July 29, l949 and tax-exempt status was recorded November 7, l949. By l949 both dance and drama categories had been added to the competitions. By l95l, 25 chapters had been started.
The 50th Anniversary:
In October of l994 members gathered together for a gala celebration of the Societies' 50th anniversary. A pilgrimage was made to the home of founder Molly Davis Nicholson in Chevy Chase for a champagne reception. Embassies honored the group with elegant teas and a formal dinner in the Grand Ballroom of the Mayflower Hotel climaxed the occasion. The Honorable Livingston L. Biddle addressed the assemblage on the need for vigilance in promoting the arts. A spectacular presentation by Rob Johansen, l994 Career Award Winner in Drama, delighted the members who found the ever creative and dynamic performer hanging from the balcony, springing amongst the elegant tables and bounding onto the stage, the very embodiment of Shakespeare's Puck.
The 60th Anniversary
The Central Illinois Chapter, host chapter for the convention and the 60th Anniversary celebration, gave the members delightful days and evenings of performances by former contestants. The 60th Anniversary celebration began with Ollie Watts Davis (Voice) and Casey Robards (Piano) performing at the President’s Reception at the home of the president of the University of Illinois. Featured at the Presidents’ Luncheon were Gerald Nicosia (Literature), Michael Fitzpatrick (Cello), Von Venhuizen (Ceramics), and Kevin Chance (Piano).
Friday evening, members, guests and former contestants gathered at the Champaign Country Club for the gala celebration. Former contestants from 1959-2002 returned to perform and give accolades to NSAL: Andrea Baiocchi (Piano); Kelly Ann Sloan (Ballet); Drew Battles (Drama); Michael Lindner (Drama); Carmen Mason (Voice) accompanied by Kevin Chance (Piano); Leo Berk (Ceramics); Felix Wang (Cello); Dale Benson (Drama).
Before the performances of the former contestants at the 60th Anniversary celebration, a video featuring Dorothy Nicholson Stabell, daughter of one of the founders, was presented. Dorothy gave the history of the founding of NSAL. The video was sponsored and made possible by the Washington D.C. Chapter.
A look to the Future . . .
Over the years much has been accomplished for which we can take pride. Stars were discovered such as Shirley MacLaine, actress/dancer, and Jessye Norman, opera singer; many fine careers have been launched through recognition and the Society's loving encouragement and continued support. The tradition of proud and enthusiastic members continues. Men have been invited into membership and have provided distinguished leadership. In l998, non-citizens were permitted full membership privileges, thereby extending a more inviting, inclusive image to our organization. Today we strive to uphold and build upon the legacy of our visionary founders.