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George and Toni Willison papers


George and Toni Willison papers
Willison, George and Toni
Collection number:
0.75 linear feet
Bulk dates:
Inclusive dates:
Collection Area:
Literature and Rare Books
Special Collections, University of Maryland Libraries, Hornbake Library, College Park, MD 20742. Tel: 301-405-9212, Fax: 301-314-2709, Email:

George (1896-1972) and Toni (1903-1998) Willison were long-time residents of Malta, New York. They purchased South Hill, the only home ever owned by Katherine Anne Porter, from Porter in 1946. The collection contains letters and cards from Porter to the Willisons concerning South Hill and other aspects of Porter's life. The collection also includes other Porter/Willison-related correspondence, notes, clippings, printed matter, and photographs.

Important Information for Users of the Collection


This collection is open for research.

Preferred citation:

George and Toni Willison papers, Special Collections, University of Maryland Libraries.

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Publication rights:

Photocopies of original materials may be provided for a fee and at the discretion of the curator. Please see our Duplication of Materials policy for more information. Queries regarding publication rights and copyright status of materials within this collection should be directed to the appropriate curator.


This collection is PROCESSED.

Historical Note

George and Toni Willison were long-time residents of Malta, a small village near Saratoga Springs in upstate New York, where they enjoyed country living and were respected members of the community. They came to Malta in 1946 at the invitation of Katherine Anne Porter to determine if they would like living in South Hill, the house Porter purchased and renovated in 1941. Their subsequent agreement to buy the house from her began a long friendship and correspondence. George Willison lived at South Hill until his death in 1972. Toni Willison remained there until 1997.

George Findlay Willison was born in Denver, Colorado, on July 24, 1896, the son of Robert and Anna Brunton Willison. He received an A.B. from the University of Colorado in 1918. After brief Army service in World War I, he won a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford University where he studied English history, economics, and political science from 1920 to 1923. In 1924, he studied French literature at the Sorbonne. After his return to the United States, he worked on newspapers in Denver and New York City between 1925 and 1927.

Willison's subsequent career was wide-ranging. In 1928, he taught at St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland, and at the Hessian Hill School at Croton-on-Hudson, New York, between 1929 and 1935. A staunch Democrat, Willison worked in various capacities in state and federal government. During Franklin Roosevelt's presidency, he found employment on the Federal Writers Project of the Works Progress Administration, principally on the American Guide Series, where he first contributed to the guides for Massachusetts and Colorado. Willison eventually relocated to Washington, D.C., where he served as editor-in-chief for the entire American Guide Series. He also was an editorial consultant for the U. S. Civil Aeronautics Administration from 1942 to 1943 and assistant publicity director for the Democratic National Committee in 1944 and 1945. He served as a speech writer for U. S. Senator Estes Kefauver (Democrat, New York) in 1952 and for New York governor Averill Harriman from 1953 to 1955. From 1959 to 1962 he held positions as a member of the New York Commission on Intergroup Relations and with the New York Department of Commerce and Public Events. Willison involved himself in local affairs, serving as a member of the town of Malta's Democratic Committee and running for town councilman in the overwhelmingly Republican region. In addition, George Willison gained prominence as a writer. His best-known work is Saints and Strangers, published in 1945, about the Pilgrim fathers and their families, friends, and foes. Other works include Here They Dug the Gold (1931); Why Wars Are Declared (1936); Behold Virginia! (1951); The Pilgrim Reader (1953); Patrick Henry and His World (1969); and Let's Make a Play (1940), the last based on his experience with school drama productions and widely used in school theater workshops. He was a frequent contributor to American Heritage. George Willison died on July 30, 1972.

Florence Willison, known to her friends and family as Toni, was born in 1903 and grew up in New York City. As a young woman she worked as a button painter and dental assistant. During the 1920s Mrs. Willison lived in Greenwich Village. An early marriage to Jack Tworkov ended in divorce. George and Toni Willison began their life together in 1928, residing in Annapolis, Maryland; Croton-on-Hudson, New York; Provincetown, Massachusetts; and Washington, D.C.; before settling in Malta. The Willisons had one son, Malcolm. Like her husband, Mrs. Willison was politically active. She supported the Loyalists during the Spanish Civil War and British, Chinese, and Soviet allied war relief during World War II. She was a volunteer for the League of Women Voters and the American Civil Liberties Union and, for many years, served as an election official in Malta. Toni Willison died on May 13, 1998.

While corresponding with George Willison on the subject of Cotton Mather, Katherine Anne Porter learned that the Willisons were looking for a home, preferably in the country. Porter purchased the historic home, South Hill, in 1941. Porter found South Hill's remote location too isolating during World War II, so she resided there for only thirteen months. The Willisons purchased South Hill directly from Porter, arranging the payments over a number of years. The delivery of payments on the house occasioned frequent correspondence between them, and a warm friendship developed between the three that endured until the deaths of George Willison and Porter.

Scope and Contents of the Collection

The papers of George and Toni Willison contain correspondence; notes; clippings; an assortment of printed matter, including copies of pieces by and about Katherine Anne Porter and her work; and photographs. The material spans the period 1932 to 1996, with the bulk falling between 1945 and 1993. Subjects discussed include South Hill, Katherine Anne Porter, writing and publishing, daily life, and travel.

Custodial History and Acquisition Information

The University of Maryland Libraries purchased the Willisons-Katherine Anne Porter correspondence in 1997. The remainder of the collection was a gift of the Florence Willison Trust, conveyed to the University of Maryland Libraries at the time the Porter letters were purchased.

Processing Information

Processed by:

Processed by Kathryn M. Willis, September 1998.

Processing note:

As the materials were sorted and filed into five series, all paper clips, staples, and post-it notes were removed. Letters were separated from envelopes, the envelopes discarded, and the letters placed in acid-free folders. Duplicate materials were discarded, and newspaper clippings were copied onto acid-free bond paper. Folders were labeled and placed into acid-free boxes. Oversized materials were placed in acid-free foldering and stored in oversize storage. Photographs were numbered and placed in Mylar sleeves in an acid-free box.

Encoded by:

EAD markup created using EAD database in Microsoft Access. Markup completed by Michael Yates.

Arrangement of Collection

The collection is divided into five series.

Detailed Description of the Collection

Series 1: Correspondence, 1935-1996 (2 linear feet)

This series contains letters written to George and/or Toni Willison. The primary correspondent is Katherine Anne Porter. There are sixty-nine letters and cards from her, most written between 1946 and 1954, when the Willisons were making payments for South Hill. Miss Porter's letters detail the Willisons' purchase of South Hill, as well as her financial state during those years. They also include discussions of her activities, politics, gardening, illnesses, reading, and the acquaintances she shared with the Willisons.

The correspondence of William R. and Fern Wilkins to Toni Willison consists of thirty-seven letters and cards dated 1988 to 1996. William R. Wilkins served as Katherine Anne Porter's assistant in 1977. The correspondence from Wilkins and his wife, Fern, discusses the love and admiration all three shared for Miss Porter; some of this correspondence recounts the details of Porter's deteriorating health near the end of her life. Mrs. Willison's correspondence from Professor James Wayne Miller concerns Miss Porter, on whom Miller published, and his agreement with Mrs. Willison to write a book on South Hill. Other correspondents include Isabel Bayley, Miss Porter's first literary trustee; Paul Porter, Jr., one of Miss Porter's nephews; Nora Sayre; and Robert A. Beach and Blanche T. Ebeling-Koning, staff members of the University of Maryland. Also included are two form letters written by Robert R. Young of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway Company to Katherine Anne Porter, relating to rail travel.

The series is arranged alphabetically by correspondent.

DescriptionSeriesBox / ReelFolder / Frame
Isabel Bayley, 1990 series 1box 1folder 1
James Wayne Miller, 1983-1985 and undated series 1box 1folder 2
Katherine Anne Porter, 1935-1947 series 1box 1folder 3
Katherine Anne Porter, 1948-1951 series 1box 1folder 4
Katherine Anne Porter, 1952-1978 and undated series 1box 1folder 5
Paul Porter, Jr., 1980-1992 series 1box 1folder 6
Nora Sayre, 1990 series 1box 1folder 7
University of Maryland, 1973-1989 and undated series 1box 1folder 8
William R. and Fern Wilkins, 1977-1996 series 1box 1folder 9
Robert R. Young -- [ See Also oversize storage], 1946 series 1box 1folder 10

Series 2: Notes, 1967-1992 (7 items)

This series, dated from 1967 to 1992, contains Malcolm and Toni Willison's notes on Katherine Anne Porter and drafts of Toni Willison's letters to others about Porter. It also includes a typescript transcribed from notes made during or after Malcolm and Toni Willison's June 1975 visit to Miss Porter in College Park, Maryland. These materials are arranged chronologically.

DescriptionSeriesBox / ReelFolder / Frame
Notes, 1967-1992 series 2box 1folder 11

Series 3: Clippings, 1932-1990 (1 linear foot)

The third series consists primarily of newspaper and magazine clippings of articles by and about Katherine Anne Porter, including copies of several of her essays and book reviews and of interviews with her. Among these is a copy of Porter's 1945 review of George Willison's Saints and Strangers. The series also contains copies of newspaper articles about South Hill and the Willisons. The clippings are arranged chronologically.

DescriptionSeriesBox / ReelFolder / Frame
Clippings, 1932-1969 series 3box 1folder 12
Clippings, 1970-1990 series 3box 1folder 13

Series 4: Printed Matter, 1941-1993 (5 items)

This series includes a copy of the September 1, 1941, issue of Vogue in which Miss Porter's "Now At Last a House of My Own" appeared and a copy of the June 1977 issue of Atlantic Monthly in which "The Never-Ending Wrong" was first published. It also contains various materials from Founder's Day at Skidmore College in April 1976, when Miss Porter received an honorary degree. In addition the series includes the program for the centennial celebration of Porter's one-hundredth birthday at the University of Maryland in May 1991 and an invitation to the dinner to mark the founding of the Katherine Anne Porter Society in May 1993. The materials are arranged chronologically.

DescriptionSeriesBox / ReelFolder / Frame
Printed Matter, 1941-1993 series 4box 1folder 14

Series 5: Photographs, 1968-1995 (18 items)

This series contains photographs of South Hill, the home owned by both Katherine Anne Porter and George and Toni Willison. Miss Porter and Mrs. Willison appear in two of them. The photographs are arranged chronologically.

DescriptionSeriesBox / ReelFolder / Frame
South Hill -- "Early Spring/Judith", June 1976 series 5box 2folder 1
South Hill -- Katherine Anne Porter and Toni Willison at South Hill. "Southeast corner/KAP honorary degree from Skidmore college.", June 1976 series 5box 2folder 2
South Hill -- Toni Willison and Katherine Anne Porter at South Hill. "KAP in Sara[toga Springs] for the Francis Stelov lecture and honorary degree from skidmore. Stellar/Gotham Book Mart Owner.", June 1976 series 5box 2folder 3
South Hill -- South Hill Interior. "KAP's gold-framed mirror-- from a coal baron's drawing room, she once said, by Fran Johnson.", October 1984 series 5box 2folder 4
South Hill -- South Hill Interior. "The old original fireplace with mold incised in the breast under the paint. Hat-rack on the mantel-piece found in the cellar. Opening for Dutch ovens, furnace flues behind the back bricks. Garrison wood stove installed in 1982. Brass fire irons left by KAP. Son needlepoint on door to dining room made by Toni in the 1960s. Photo by Fran Johnson.", October 1984 series 5box 2folder 5
South Hill -- South Hill Interior. "Corner book shelves. Judith's picture of parked cars. Sofa from our apartment house [2100 19 St.] friend Mrs. Florence Robinson. Braided rug I made in the 60s and a corner of the gold mirror. Table with gold lamp left by KAP. Chair partly hidden bought from White Sulphur Springs when it was torn down [in the 50s?]", October 1984 series 5box 2folder 6
South Hill -- South Hill Interior. "Ann Hatfield's red gloxinia blooming on the living room table. Window facing east to front yard.", August 1988 series 5box 2folder 7
South Hill -- "East façade and Sun Porch from the wall gardens.", August 1988 series 5box 2folder 8
South Hill -- "East façade and Sun Porch from the wall gardens.", 23 August 1988 series 5box 2folder 9
South Hill -- "By Peter [Kayaloon?]-- Leslie Katz's helper.", 3 November 1994 series 5box 2folder 10
South Hill -- "The West Side of the House", 1995 series 5box 2folder 11
South Hill -- "The Road and South Hill", 1995 series 5box 2folder 12
South Hill -- "South Hill from the road", 1995 series 5box 2folder 13
South Hill -- "The Kitchen Window", 1995 series 5box 2folder 14
South Hill -- "South East Angle", 1995 series 5box 2folder 15
South Hill -- "South East Angle", 1995 series 5box 2folder 16
South Hill -- "West Side", 1995 series 5box 2folder 17
South Hill -- "Cubby not yet built and old front door in east wall still there", undated series 5box 2folder 18

Related Material

The Papers of Katherine Anne Porter contain the Willisons letters to Porter as well as other correspondence, photographs, and materials related to her purchase and ownership of South Hill. The University of Maryland Libraries also hold the papers of Paul Porter, Jr., Isabel Bayley, and Mr. and Mrs. William R. Wilkins.

For other related archival and manuscript collections, please see the following subject guides.

Selected Search Terms

This collection is indexed under the following headings in the University of Maryland Libraries' Catalog. Researchers desiring related materials about these topics, names, or places may search the Catalog using these headings.


Names (Added Entries)