Helen Marso was an unassuming woman, a person who was generous to friends and family in need. In 1950, she was nearing 70 years old and had been employed by the Jefferson family for decades. She had never been fond of fancy clothing, nor was she overly interested in material possessions. She never married or had any children. When Mary Jefferson passed away in June of 1950, though, Helen Marso suddenly found herself in possession of a fortune.
While the Jeffersons had willed the bulk of their estate to their niece, Alice Wetmore Brann, their longtime assistant was not left empty handed. The $180,000 bequeathed to Marso was a massive sum at the time, the equivalent to nearly $2 million in today’s money. One of Marso’s first acts was to purchase the estate, Miraflores, where she’d lived with the Jeffersons for years. She had no intention of keeping the 23-acre property, however, and instead offered it to the Music Academy of the West. Her only stipulations were that John and Mary Jefferson be recognized in some way and that the property forever remain a conservatory for training musicians.
The Music Academy board at the time was deep in the planning for the fifth annual Summer School and Festival. The long-term viability of the organization was still very much uncertain, though, in large part because it had no permanent facilities of any kind. The Cate School in Carpinteria had proved a wonderful location for the first few festivals, but as the Academy grew and expanded it needed a more suitable arrangement. Marso’s proposed gift arrived just in the nick of time. The issue of the Miraflores donation was first raised at the Academy’s board meeting on January 23, 1951, but despite the incredibly fortunate situation, the acceptance of the gift was not a foregone conclusion. Helen Marso’s magnanimous act certainly solved the problem of a permanent home for the young institution, but it also created others. How would the Music Academy handle the upkeep? The taxes and money associated with maintaining the property? And Alice Wetmore Brann was planning to sell the Jeffersons’ remaining belongings, so how would the Academy afford to furnish the house?