Semans, Mary Duke Biddle Trent – Brunk Provenance Note 8-2013

Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans (1920 to 2012)

An American heiress and philanthropist, Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans was the great-granddaughter of tobacco industrialist and Duke University benefactor Washington Duke. She was born Mary Duke Biddle on February 21, 1920 to Mary Lillian Duke and Anthony J. Drexel Biddle Jr. Her father was the former U.S. Ambassador to Poland and Spain.

Semans was raised in Manhattan, where she attended the Hewitt School in New York. At the age of 14, she moved to Durham, North Carolina to live with her grandmother, Sarah P. Duke. The next year she enrolled at Duke University’s Woman’s College, graduating in 1939.

While at Duke, she met Josiah Charles Trent, a Duke medical student and future surgeon and chief of Duke Hospital’s division of thoracic surgery. Semans and Trent married in 1938 and had four children. Ten years later, Trent died of lymphoma at the age of 34. In 1953, she married James Semans, a Duke surgeon. The couple had three children.

Mrs. Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans’s accomplishments were wide-ranging and varied, and included achievements ranging from having been the first woman to serve as mayor pro-tem for the City of Durham in the 1960s, to her lifetime of service in trustee and board positions at numerous foundations as well as Duke University and the Duke Endowment. Foremost however was her focus on her family, especially her beloved grandparents Mr. Benjamin N. Duke and Mrs. Sarah Pearson Duke, her mother Mrs. Mary Duke Biddle, and her own seven children and fourteen grandchildren.

As was so succinctly noted by Duke University President Doctor Richard Brodhead at Mrs. Semans’s memorial service in 2012, “She was more than the sum of her accomplishments, … she transformed the great wealth she was born with into a lasting force of compassion.”

All who knew her were inspired by her love of music and for the fine arts. She was instrumental in launching and sustaining the North Carolina School of the Arts as well as in the creation of one of the earliest fine art galleries for the blind at the N.C. Museum of Art.

The auction of the estate’s antiques, fine art and decorative arts -culled from five generations of the Duke family, and from the five well-known homes they lived in over the course of more than 100 years, from the circa 1852 Duke Homestead in then-rural Durham to the renown 1901-built 1009 Fifth Avenue, New York, townhouse, the former Durham mansion remembered as Four Acres on West Chapel Hill Street, and the remaining stately residences known as Pinecrest and Les Terrasses in Forest Hills, Durham.

Andrew Brunk, President of Brunk Auctions said, “Mrs. Semans was one of North Carolina’s most ardent patrons of the arts and education, and we are truly honored to host this historic event on behalf of her family, and to present to discerning collectors some of the fine objects that enriched her life, and the lives of her distinguished family, by their beauty and artistry.”

Information courtesy of Brunk Auctions, Inc., August, 2013.

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