Willard Fiske & Jennie McGraw Fiske

Two of White’s dearest friends play central roles in Cornell’s early history, and in the story of this library—Willard Fiske (1831-1904), the first University Librarian, and Jennie McGraw (1840-1881), the daughter and heiress of lumber merchant John McGraw. While White was serving as the U. S. minister to Berlin (before the term “ambassador” was used), Jennie McGraw was touring Europe, seeking medical treatments for tuberculosis. As it happened (and not entirely by chance), Fiske, too, had left his position at Cornell, and traveled to Europe in hopes of renewing and bettering his acquaintance with her. He succeeded, and they were married in the Whites’ home in Berlin.

Willard Fiske, ca. 1900
Willard Fiske, ca. 1900
Jennie McGraw Fiske portrait
Jennie McGraw Fiske portrait

Although her estate was worth $2.2 million, Jennie McGraw Fiske set aside about $300,000 for Fiske’s use after her death, which was somewhat imminent, given her poor health. The bulk of the estate was to go to Cornell, much of it to fund a library building. Fourteen months later, and just days after returning to the U.S., Jennie McGraw Fiske died on September 30, 1881. Despite having signed away his rights to her property prior to their nuptials, Williard Fiske contested the will when he learned that the size of her gift exceeded the university’s endowment limits set in its charter and that New York State prevented primary heirs from losing more than half their inheritance. The “Great Will Case,” as it became known, dragged on for nine years and went all the to the Supreme Court. Ultimately, the Court found in favor of Mr. Fiske, who used his inheritance to purchase a 15th-century villa in Fiesole, near Florence, and build spectacular collections of manuscripts, important early imprints, and other work on Petrarch, the Icelandic Sagas, the Rheto-Romance language, Egypt, and chess.

After the lawsuit was settled, his relationships with others at Cornell suffered dramatically, but Fiske continued to maintain good relations with A. D. White. Fiske also continued to send important early works on Dante to the Cornell University Library. Henry Williams Sage, a prominent trustee, eventually donated the funds to build the University Library (now Uris). He also included plaque over the entrance to the building that made clear his sentiments about Fiske’s role in diverting funds: “The good she tried to do shall stand as if ’twere done; God finishes the work by noble souls begun. In loving memory of Jennie McGraw Fiske, whose purpose to Found a great library for Cornell University has been defeated. This house is built and endowed by her friend, Henry W. Sage, 1891.”

Sage Plaque to Jennie McGraw

When he died in 1904, Fiske left his astounding literary collections to Cornell, where they are housed in the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections. A hundred years later, they were valued at over $30 million, but their value to researchers is incalculable.

Petrarch. Trionfi, sonnetti e canzoni
Vellum manuscript, ca. 1465-70, of Petrarch’s poems—triumphs, sonnets and lyrics—one of the nearly 1600 items in the Petrarch collection, left to Cornell by Fiske in 1904.

Resources about or by Willard Fiske and his collections:

Resources about Jennie McGraw Fiske:

  • "Jennie McGraw" The Passionate Collector: Willard Fiske and his Collections (online exhibition)