Leslie P. Symington, Broadway and television actor who later became a curator and an art researcher, dies at 100

Leslie P. Symington appeared on “Kraft Television Theatre,” “The Ford Television Theatre” and “The Web” in the early 1950s.

Leslie P. Symington, a Broadway and television actor who had a second career as a curator and an art researcher, died of a swallowing disorder Sept. 20 at Gilchrist Center in Towson.

The Chestnut Avenue resident in West Towson who also maintained a home on East 90th Street in New York, was 100.


“She was an extraordinary lady, that’s for sure,” said Mark B. Letzer , former president and CEO of the Maryland Center for History and Culture. “I knew her socially and she lived such a long life and so many different lives. She was a real force.”

“I really admired her, particularly when I started writing books because of her generous research skills and I realized what a remarkable woman she truly was,” said Martha Frick Symington “Marty” Sanger, a niece and Baltimore author who has written about the Symington and Hambleton families.


“She was smart as crackers and very, very beautiful,” Ms. Sanger said. “She was an elegant woman with a most wonderful facial structure.”

Leslie Paul, daughter of Arthur Paul, an assistant to the Secretary of Commerce, and Betty Walsh Paul Hubbard, an artist, was born and raised in Chestnut Hill, an affluent suburb of Philadelphia.

A 1940 graduate of the Dalton School, she attended the old Black Mountain College in Asheville, North Carolina, and earned a bachelor’s degree in literature from what is today the Harvard Radcliffe Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1945.

Mrs. Symington began acting during her college years in summer stock and regional theater companies, eventually moving to Broadway where she performed in Tennessee Williams’ “Summer and Smoke” and then toured with the Broadway company of John P. Marquand’s “The Late George Apley.”

It was during the summer of 1949 when Mrs. Symington was company secretary for the first American theater group invited to perform “Hamlet” at the International Hamlet Festival that was held at Kronborg Castle north of Elsinore, Denmark, which is the actual setting for the play.

Organized through the American National Theater and Academy in cooperation with the U.S. State Department, the company performed the play in several cities in the U.S. zone of Allied-occupied Germany, an early example of American cultural diplomacy.

On that tour, she met her future husband, Donald Leith Symington, a scion of one of Maryland’s distinguished families, and an assistant stage manager for “Hamlet.”

The couple fell in love and married in 1955.


Mrs. Symington did theatrical public relations and was director of drama at the Dalton School in New York from 1953 to 1954. In the early 1950s, she appeared on TV shows such as “Kraft Television Theatre,” “The Ford Television Theatre” and “The Web.”

The couple raised three daughters in New York City, until moving to Brewster, New York, in 1974.

Mr. Symington, who played Diane Keaton’s father in Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall,” died in 2013.

Her professional memberships included the Actors’ Equity Association and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists.

After studying painting at Bowdoin College in Maine in 1974, Mrs. Symington began a second career in the field of art history.

From 1974 to 1978, she was curator and then director of the Southeast Museum in Brewster, New York, where she remained a trustee until 1996. She was also a trustee of the old Lower Hudson Conference of Historical Agencies and Museums and a commissioner of Putnam County’s Bicentennial Commission.


In 1990, she began to work on genealogy and provenance research as they related to early American portraiture, predominantly for New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Her contributions were heralded as “beyond compare,” in the acknowledgments of “American Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Vol. 1,″ a catalog of works by 19th century artists.

“I might add that in the long ago before our robust online research opportunities, a committed volunteer like Leslie Symington had to put in extraordinary amounts of time at libraries diligently researching through card catalogs; reading endless books, articles and manuscripts; and amassing piles of handwritten notes and Xeroxes about the hundreds of artists in the Met’s collection,” wrote Doreen Bolger, former director of the Baltimore Museum of Art and a friend in an email.

“She could pull things together — artists and [19th century] furniture makers like Duncan Phyfe — and her files were just incredible,” Mr. Letzer said. “My relationship with Leslie was cerebral and I held her in high regard. She really was a multidimensional person.”

Mrs. Symington was in her 80s when she taught herself how to use the internet and was still pursuing freelance research well into her 90s, family members said.

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While living in Manhattan, she was active with the American National Theater and Academy, a member of The Parents League of New York and the Citizens Union, a political action organization.


From 1965 to 1966, she was a member of Baltimore Center Stage, and after she and her husband settled in West Towson in 1999, she became a member of the Friends of the American Wing of the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Maryland Center for History and Culture.

Mrs. Symington maintained a vigorous lifestyle and did not bow to the passing years.

“Her quick wit and agile mind kept everyone on their toes, and her stories from almost a century of engagement with the world of the arts kept young and old returning to her door,” according to a biographical profile submitted by her family.

“She engaged her mind and was very independent until the end of her life,” said a daughter, Betty Welsh Symington, of Upperco. “She was an incredible cook and prepared good home-cooked meals.”

Plans for a celebration-of-life-gathering are incomplete.

In addition to her daughter, Mrs. Symington is survived by two other daughters, Margaret Fife Symington, of Macon, Georgia, and Leslie Leith Symington, of Stavanger, Norway, and five grandchildren.