Aging in High Heels: Mary Tonetti Dorra

By Beverlye Fead   |   March 12, 2020
Mary Tonetti Dorra (photo by Baron Spafford)

Mary Tonetti Dorra has lived the most fascinating, international life you could ever imagine. We are lucky she and her husband, the late Dr. Henri Dorra, professor of art history at UCLA and UCSB and author of many books, decided to live here in Santa Barbara over 50 years ago even though they also spent half their time in Paris throughout their entire married life.

Mary grew up in Fort Worth, Texas, and graduated from Vassar College with a Philosophy degree in 1956. Believe me, she was just getting started! First, she lived and taught in Costa Rica and Uruguay. From there she moved to Italy for three years where she studied at the University of Florence, and then worked as a research-reporter in the Rome bureau of Time-Life.

Upon returning to this country, she worked in New York for Harper’s Bazaar and Revlon before moving to California where she attended graduate school at UCLA, obtaining a master’s degree in Italian. She then taught Italian at UCLA and UCSB. She and Henri Dorra, her future husband, met at a fundraiser at a UCLA art museum where Henri was the art director. They were married in 1965, three years before they had their children, Helen and Amy.

During the raising of their children, they settled in Hope Ranch, but kept going half of the year to their beloved Paris. Mary loved devoting herself to her husband, children, and garden in Santa Barbara during this time. She also devoted a handful of time to community service. She was on the first board of The American Institute of Wine and Food with Julia Child, Bob Mondavi, Richard Graff, and Richard Sanford.

More recently she was on the board of the Granada for 13 years and currently is Vice Chairman of the Opera Santa Barbara board. As their children grew up, she returned to writing, and of course it was about gardens and food. She and her close friend, Julia Child, had wonderful times cooking and enjoying meals together. She also snuck in a wonderful memoir about her grandmother’s life as a sculptor in the 1890s called Demeter’s Choice, a Portrait of My Grandmother as a Young Artist.

Since 1980, Mary has lectured extensively throughout the United States. She has written travel articles for Gourmet Magazine and the New York Times as well as garden articles for HG, House Beautiful, Elle Décor, The Los Angeles Times Magazine, and for Travel and Leisure. The article, “Colonial Kitchen Gardens: A National Legacy” appearing in the April 1993 issue of Gourmet Magazine was the genesis for her first book, Beautiful American Vegetable Gardens. Her article on the rose gardens of Paris, originally published in The New York Times, was reprinted by permission in the American Rose Society magazine. Her second book, Beautiful American Rose Gardens, also published by Clarkson Potter went into its third printing.

Today Mary has two grandchildren, Henry and Sylvie, whom she adores and tries to see as much as possible.She has been invited by numerous museums and historical societies throughout the country to give readings and book signings and will be speaking about her current book, Two Lives on Four Continents: a Double Memoir,which will be published later this year. It is a portrait of the era in Europe and America from the 1930s to the 1960s and at the same time the story of how two people from entirely different worlds find each other.

Totally active and vibrant, at 86 Mary still loves entertaining, going to the opera and to classical music concerts, and oh yes, Pilates!


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