Evelyn Stefansson Nef, author, lecturer, patron of the arts, philanthropist, Arctic explorer and psychotherapist, died Thursday, Dec. 10 at her home in Washington, D.C. She was 96. Mrs. Nef was the widow of John U. Nef, the University of Chicago economic historian who founded the University's famed Committee on Social Thought.
She was born Evelyn Schwartz on July 24, 1913 in New York City. She married puppeteer Bil Baird at age 19 and became a principal in his marionette performances until their divorce in 1936. She sang at Romany Marie's restaurant and was an active participant in the cultural life of Greenwich Village.
While working at the Gotham Book Mart, she was hired as a research assistant by the well-known Arctic explorer, Vilhjalmur Stefansson, whom she married in 1941. They lived mainly in Hanover, N.H., where she worked with him as a researcher and librarian of his extensive polar library until his death in 1962. She was active in the Polar Studies Program at Dartmouth College and taught its Arctic Seminar for two years. She wrote a best-selling book, Here Is Alaska, first published in 1943. During World War II, she and Stefansson worked as consultants on the Arctic for the Navy and War departments.
In 1963, she moved to Washington, D.C., where she served as administrator of the American Sociological Association, of which she subsequently became a member. In 1964 she married John Ulrich Nef, an economic historian from the University of Chicago, who founded and chaired the University's Committee on Social Thought, an interdisciplinary postgraduate program which included faculty members Saul Bellow, Allan Bloom, Edward Shils, Hannah Arendt and Harold Rosenberg.
Nef died in 1988. In recognition of his lifelong association with the Committee on Social Thought, as well as his widow's continuing interest and commitment to advancing its cause, it was renamed in 2008 as the John U. Nef Committee on Social Thought.
"Evelyn Stefansson Nef was as memorable and wise a person as I have ever met," said Robert B. Pippin, the committee's current chairman. "A striking, formidable woman of great taste, intelligence, humor and warmth, she was also deeply committed to the ideals of the University of Chicago and the John U. Nef Committee on Social Thought and was an extraordinarily generous patron of both."
Mrs. Nef was awarded honorary doctorates from the University of Alaska in 1998, the Corcoran School of Art in 2000 and Dartmouth College in 2002. In 2001, she received the Icelandic Order of the Falcon Medal of Honour.
Mrs. Nef was a member of the board of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the National Symphony Orchestra, the Washington Opera, the Paget Foundation, the MacDowell Colony, the Lourie Center for Infants and Young Children and the International Longevity Center. She was a longtime member of the Society of Women Geographers and was its national president from 1969-71. She was president of the Evelyn Stefansson Nef Foundation and was on the advisory council of the Gerontology Department of Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. She was a member of the Century Association in New York and the Sulgrave Club in Washington.
The Nefs' connection to the public art scene in Chicago began when they introduced their good friends, the late Eleanor and William Wood Prince, to artist Marc Chagall, a meeting that resulted in the commission of the "Four Seasons" mosaic wall at the First National Bank Plaza (now Chase Bank). Professor Nef, who had also taught at the College de France, was a collector of art from the modernist movement-Picasso, Miro, Derain, Dufy and Chagall. As a wedding present for the couple, Chagall created a wall mosaic for their Georgetown garden. It was the only Chagall mosaic in private hands.
At age 63, after completing training at the Institute for the Study of Psychotherapy in New York, Mrs. Nef began a very successful practice in psychotherapy in Washington, D.C., until her retirement 20 years later. She also wrote her autobiography, Finding My Way, the Autobiography of an Optimist. She was a well-known, beloved Washington hostess whose invitations were valued in the diplomatic community and by past and present administration officials.
Mrs. Nef is survived by four nieces and two nephews and several grand nieces and nephews.