Mary Alice (Mell) Beistle was born in Cleveland, Ohio, on January 3, 1922. She studied art at Skidmore College and worked as a book illustrator after moving to New York in the spring of 1944. Later that year, she was introduced to Rothko by the photographer Aaron Siskind (1903–1991). They married in New Jersey on March 31, 1945. Mary Alice Rothko died on August 26, 1970, six months and one day after Mark Rothko. The cause of death listed on her death certificate was hypertension due to cardiovascular disease.
Rothko and his wife each wrote wills on June 12, 1959, three days before setting sail for Europe. They bequeathed their estates respectively to each other, or, in the event of their simultaneous deaths, to their daughter Kate Rothko (b. 1950). Detailed plans for the dispersal of Rothko’s paintings were not addressed in either will, but rather in an accompanying letter dated June 11, 1959, addressed to Herbert and Edith Ferber and Bernard Reis, the executors of the wills. The letter outlined the couple’s desire that, in the event of their and Kate’s deaths, Rothko’s paintings (there were approximately 800 in his estate at that time) be sold with first preference given to the museum or individual wishing to purchase the largest number of works to be held in a single place. The letter specified that second preference be given to European museums or US museums outside New York City willing to acquire six or more works, followed by museums or individuals willing to purchase three or more paintings. These conditions were to remain in effect for five years.
Rothko wrote two additional wills in 1967 and 1968. In his last known will of September 13, 1968, he named the Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc.—a charity—as the primary beneficiary of his estate. Rothko appointed the following as executors of his will and estate: Bernard J. Reis (1895–1978), a certified public accountant who had for years acted as the artist’s financial advisor; Theodoros Stamos (1922–1997), a painter; and Morton Levine (1922–1982), a professor of anthropology. Rothko bequeathed to his wife Mary Alice the brownstone at 118 East 95th Street, New York, NY, including all contents therein, plus $250,000. Rothko’s children, Kate (b. 1950) and Christopher (b. 1963), were named as beneficiaries in Rothko’s will only in the event of the simultaneous deaths of their parents, in which case the house, its contents, and the money were to be divided equally between them. Rothko died on February 25, 1970. On July 13, 1970, Mary Alice Rothko filed suit on behalf of the children to claim fifty percent of the estate for them. She died shortly thereafter, on August 26.
In May 1972, the executors of the Rothko estate responded to Mary Alice Rothko’s July 1970 lawsuit by initiating a countersuit against the Rothko children that challenged the legality of Mary Alice’s standing to sue on behalf of the children. In July 1973, they filed another countersuit that questioned the meaning of the phrase “all of the contents” in Rothko’s will, referring to the East 95th Street brownstone bequeathed to Mary Alice. The Rothko estate contended that Rothko intended to leave his wife only the twelve paintings, including works by other artists, that were housed in the family quarters on the first three floors of the brownstone. The paintings stored in Rothko’s studio on the fourth floor of the brownstone, the suit contended, should be considered a part of the estate that was bequeathed to the Rothko Foundation and not to Mary Alice Rothko.
On February 13, 1974, Surrogate Samuel di Falco ruled that the language of the will indicated that Rothko had indeed intended to include all forty-one paintings (on canvas and paper) in the house in his bequest to his wife (and to his children in light of his wife’s death), regardless of their location in the living quarters or the studio. The inventory entered in the ruling did not include eight additional drawings and watercolors in the possession of Mary Alice Rothko at the time of her death.