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Elizabeth Moynihan, Architectural Historian and Researcher of India’s Celebrated Mughal Gardens, Dies at 94

Elizabeth Moynihan, Architectural Historian and Researcher of India’s Celebrated Mughal Gardens, Dies at 94

  • The wife of late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, she was introduced to Babur, the founder of the Mughal Empire, when she spent two years in India when her husband was the U.S. ambassador, in the mid-70s.

Elizabeth B. Moynihan, an architectural historian, author, and wife of late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y), died at her home in Manhattan, New York. She was 94. She is survived by her daughter Maura Moynihan, and two grandchildren.

Although she made a name managing the Senate campaigns of her husband, she achieved wide renown for her decades of research in India, where Daniel Patrick Moynihan served as U.S. ambassador from 1973 to 1975. He was arugably one of the popular ambassadors to India, even though he was appointed by President Nixon who had a frosty relationship with India. Moynihan died in 2003 at age 76.

Elizabeth Moynihan’s love affair with India began during her stay there. She was “yearning to experience the India that lay beyond the ambassador’s residence, she immersed herself in the country’s history and emerged from her studies a renowned scholar of Mughal Gardens,” The Washington Post wrote in her obituary. 

She authored a survey of surviving Mughal gardens titled “Paradise as a Garden in Persia and Mughal India,” which she published in 1979. She has researched extensively on Babur, the founder of the Mughal Empire in the Indian subcontinent. She is also credited with locating and documenting four previously unknown sixteenth-century gardens that he built. 

In 1996, she directed a joint project for the Archaeological Survey of India and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, according to her profile by the Smithsonian National Museum of Asian Art. Additionally, she edited the report published in 2000 as “The Moonlight Garden: New Discoveries at the Taj Mahal.” Her papers include her research of the Lotus Garden in Dholpur, the Jai Mahal Garden in Jaipur, Mehtab Bagh (Moonlight Garden) in Agra, and many other Mughal gardens, her profile says.

Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY) with Liz, his wife. Photo by Michael Geissinger, courtesy of the Library of Congress. Top photo, courtesy of Leon Levy Foundation.

In an essay posted on the National Museum of Asian Art website, she wrote about her fascination with Babur, and how the reading of the “Baburnama” changed her life. It was “a very tough read,” she wrote. “The names were unfamiliar, difficult, and inconsistent.” But she was “immediately taken by his candor and frank assessment of the colorful, powerful personalities that dominated his complex, violent world, and struck by the contrast of that world to his observations and curiosity about the natural world.” 

She was introduced to Babur and to the study of that landscape tradition by Constance Villiers-Stuart’s “Gardens of the Great Mughals.” She also learned that E.M. Forster had also carried the “Baburnama with him when he traveled in India, “where he lived for a time as a tutor to a Muslim prince in a small state,” she wrote in the essay. “Forster complained about the names, the geography, and the gaps in the narrative, but he was charmed by Babur.”

But most of all, “she was entranced by the emperor’s description of a lotus garden he had built near the city of Dholpur,” The Post wrote, adding that it was assumed to be “lost in time.” Elizabeth Moynihan was hopeful that it might yet be found, The Post said, adding that the finding “stunned” Indian archaeologists. The New York Times hailed it as “an important archaeological discovery. At the time, when approached by the publication for an interview, she declined. “I don’t give interviews in the States, you know,” she told The Times on March 23, 1978, because this side of her life was something she did on her own, that even her husband didn’t know about. “He’ll be as pleasantly surprised as everyone else to learn that I could do it.”

However, during her husband’s Senate career, she paused her research every six years to devote herself to his campaigns. Mandy Grunwald, a political consultant and a friend of the Moynihan family told The Post that Elizabeth Moynihan “considered her job essentially to take on the campaign herself” so her husband could “do the work of the Senate.” The Post quoted an interview with The Times where she “admitted to feeling great for helping the Senator.” But since “the people of New York never elected the two of us, after an election, I disappear, and spend a lot of time with Babur.”

In the following years, she identified and documented several other gardens built by Babur. She was the author of the book “Paradise as a Garden: In Persia and Mughal India” (1979) and edited the volume “The Moonlight Garden: New Discoveries at the Taj Mahal” (2000). She led the American team that worked with Indian scholars on the project, which was credited with dramatically expanding modern understanding of the Taj Mahal. The archives are now housed at the Smithsonian and include hundreds of photographs, drawings, and plans of gardens associated with Babur in India and across Asia in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and Iran.

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She was born in Norwood, Massachusetts on Sept. 19, 1929, and grew up in nearby Stoughton. She came from an Irish family of limited means, and her father was largely missing from her life. Her mother went to secretarial school and later edited a local newspaper. After high school, she enrolled at Boston University “but dropped out, partly because she ran out of money and partly because she was eager to move to New York, The Post said. 

“She was drawn to politics,” The Post noted, adding that she “joined the successful 1954 gubernatorial campaign of W. Averell Harriman, a Democrat.” She and Moynihan, who also worked on the campaign, followed Harriman to Albany “and shared an office as members of his gubernatorial staff.,” The Post said. They married in 1955.

She accompanied her husband to Washington when he joined the Labor Department in the administration of President John F. Kennedy. The couple later moved to Massachusetts, where he taught urban studies and government at Harvard. A lecture on architectural history at the university helped spark her interest in the history and construction of gardens.

She was a longtime board member and donor to the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, which together make up the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art. She was a founding trustee of the Leon Levy Foundation in New York, which awards grants in areas including the study and preservation of the ancient world.

She often reflected on her work in India. “The most important lesson I learned was that being seized by an idea is one of life’s blessings,” she wrote in the essay. “It does not matter whether other persons are interested; the reward is learning about the subject that grabs you.” She also believed that “without the personal sense of fulfillment I experienced from learning so much through these two books, I would not have been equal to the demands of my husband’s very public life. Pat knew and appreciated this.”

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