Mary Alice (Mell) Beistle was born in Cleveland, Ohio, on January 3, 1922. From a young age, she was interested in art, literature, and the theater. As a sixteen-year-old high school junior, she collaborated with her mother, children’s book author Aldarilla Beistle, providing illustrations for Mr. Heinie, about a clever dachshund. The two would collaborate as author and illustrator on five books published between 1938 and 1944. After graduating from Skidmore College in the spring of 1944, Mell moved to New York City. Later that year the photographer Aaron Siskind (1903–1991) introduced her to Mark Rothko, who had divorced his wife, Edith Sachar (1912–1981), the year before. Rothko’s 1944 canvas Slow Swirl at the Edge of the Sea (Museum of Modern Art) is believed to have been painted shortly after Rothko and Mell met, and the two biomorphic figures in the painting are often read as proxies for the pair. They married in Linden, New Jersey, on March 31, 1945. Their two children, Kate and Christopher Rothko, were born in 1950 and 1963 respectively.
Rothko and Mell 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. 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 the family’s demise, 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; second preference given to European museums or US museums outside of New York City willing to acquire six or more works; and third preference given to museums or individuals willing to purchase three or more paintings. These conditions were to remain in effect for five years.
In his last known will of September 13, 1968, Rothko named The Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc.—a charity—as the primary beneficiary of his estate. He 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 Mell the brownstone at 118 East 95th Street, New York, NY, including all contents therein, plus $250,000. Kate and Christopher Rothko 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. On July 13, 1970, just over four months after Rothko’s death on February 25, 1970, Mary Alice Rothko successfully filed suit on behalf of Kate and Christopher to claim fifty percent of their father’s estate for them. Mary Alice died shortly thereafter, on August 26, 1970, at age forty-eight. The cause of death listed on her death certificate was hypertension due to cardiovascular disease.