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Ruth Lilly

The worlds of poetry and arts advocacy were astounded when, in late 2002, it was announced that the small Chicago publication, Poetry , and the Washington-based lobbying group Americans for the Arts were the beneficiaries of gifts of more than 100 million dollars apiece. The benefactor was hardly a member of the jet-set; rather, a reclusive Indianapolis resident who hadn’t traveled abroad before her 80s.

Ruth Lilly is the only surviving great-grandchild of Colonel Eli Lilly, founder of the Indianapolis-based pharmaceutical giant. Born in 1915, Lilly spent her childhood chauffeured around by armed guards, and debilitated by depression. At 25, she married author and editor Guernsey van Riper, Jr. The couple had no children, and divorced after 40 years. Having spent much of that time in psychiatric treatment, Lilly’s condition was reportedly alleviated with the advent of the anti-depressant Prozac—a Lilly product.

In addition to the headline-grabbing gifts she made in 2002, Lilly had been giving steadily throughout the years, with an emphasis on arts organizations. Gifts made in the 1980s had endowed two fellowships and a poetry prize now worth $100,000. In the late 60s, Ruth Lilly and her brother J.K. Lilly III gave Oldfields, their family homestead, to the Art Association of Indianapolis, along with an endowment for its maintenance. The French chateau-style mansion and formal gardens are now open to the public as part of the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Evidence of Lilly’s philanthropy is ubiquitous across Indianapolis, where libraries, art centers, health centers, and performance halls bear her name. Since August 2006, Lilly’s nieces and nephews have overseen the charitable giving made by the Ruth Lilly Philanthropic Foundation.

On the occasion of Lilly’s 90 th birthday, the Poetry Foundation privately published A Little Book: The Poems and Selected Writings of Ruth Lilly . The verse it contained, formal and often extolling life’s simple pleasures, was written under the pseudonym “Joan March”, or, as one published in the New York Times in the 30’s, “R. Lyly.” In the 1970s, a “Mrs. Guernsey van Riper, Jr.” made a number of submissions to Poetry magazine, all of which were, gently, returned.

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