How the Metropolitan Opera courted a rich Scottish birdwatcher
The Met in Central Park
The following story was in the New York Times today, on the first page of the Arts section. But one can read the Times on its website the evening before. That's why my first e-mail with a link to the story arrived last night at 7:24 from Tom Fiore. The next one was at 7:25, from Bruce Yolton. And then they began arriving from other early readers of the NY Times website. This morning many other letters came in, all alerting me to this story about a Scottish lady who left lots of money to the Metropolitan Opera. And all my e-mails told me, in one way or another, to CHECK OUT PARAGRAPH 4.
Lover of Birds and Opera Leaves Millions to Both
Mona Webster, a lighthouse keeper’s daughter who lived in Edinburgh and died in August at 96, had a love of birds, and warblers in particular — of the human kind. She demonstrated that affection by leaving most of her fortune to the Metropolitan Opera and a nature charity in Britain.
English and Scottish newspapers said Ms. Webster had bequeathed the Met $7.5 million. The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust received a similar amount. While the Met confirmed on Tuesday that Ms. Webster had long promised a big gift on her death, it said it was still waiting to find out the exact amount.
Peter Gelb, the company’s general manager, said Ms. Webster had fallen in love with the Met through its Saturday radio broadcasts. She was last at the house for a performance on opening night in 2000. “She said it was the most wonderful night of her life,” he said.
The Met’s fund-raising office had kept in touch with Ms. Webster since then. It sent her books about the birds of Central Park; a volume called “Red-Tails in Love: A Wildlife Drama in Central Park”; and tomes about Met history, which appealed to her love of data, according to Gail Chesler, the Met’s director of planned and special gifts.
“She just thought they were the cat’s meow,” Ms. Chesler said. Ms. Chesler said the Met had also sent LP recordings of its operas because Ms. Webster did not own a CD or DVD player.
Ms. Webster was born on Jan. 13, 1913, on the Isle of Man, where her father kept the Douglas Head lighthouse, her obituaries said. She moved to Orkney in Scotland as a girl and discovered a love for birds. She joined the tax office as a clerk and lived in London during the blitz. She moved to Edinburgh and in 1942 married an investment manager, Ted Webster. He died in 1981. The couple had no children.
After Mr. Webster’s death, Ms. Webster traveled the world on bird-watching expeditions, recording more than 5,500 species. Her other love was opera, especially the Met Saturday afternoon broadcasts, which she heard hours later because of the time difference. “Saturday nights were sacred,” Ms. Chesler said, adding that Ms. Webster recalled a radio broadcast from as far back as 1939.
Ms. Webster died on Aug. 27, and details of her will were made public on Monday, the British reports said. Her fortune amounted to $16.3 million, much of it produced by shrewd investments in the stock market, according to HeraldScotland.com.
Surprisingly, Ms. Webster left only $167,000 to the Royal Opera Trust, which benefits the house in Covent Garden in London, much closer to home. Met officials said Ms. Webster had complained about the Royal Opera.
“She would tell me things that she didn’t like that Covent Garden was doing, and she just loved the Met,” Ms. Chesler said. “It was all over the place — casting, productions, management.”
Elizabeth Bell, a Royal Opera spokeswoman, said in an e-mail message that Ms. Webster last attended a performance there about seven years ago “and is remembered as a very interesting, proud lady and someone who was deeply interested in the music.” She said the Royal Opera was “most grateful for her very generous donation.”
Ms. Webster had attended the Met frequently before 2000, but usually came as part of an opera tour group and thus did not come onto the Met’s radar until 2000, when she made a large gift and was invited to opening night, Ms. Chesler said.
Ms. Chesler said she had been in regular correspondence with Ms. Webster and stopped by to visit while on vacation this summer just four days before she died.
“We talked about everything,” she said, describing Ms. Webster as mentally sharp to the end. “During that last visit she was also telling us about her investments. She had been telling me all along that the Met would be taken care of after she passed. She said that in every conversation. We knew it was going to be substantial. We assumed it would be a seven-figure gift, but we had no idea of the actual amount, and the truth is, we still don’t.”
The only less-than-cheery thought, Ms. Chesler said, was that the Met would have to pay taxes on the gift in Britain. “That’s 40 percent,” she said.