Dictionary of Virginia Biography

Sarah "Sallie" O. May Dooley (d. 5 September 1925), philanthropist, was born in Lunenburg County, most likely on 23 July 1846, and was the daughter of Henry May, a physician from Petersburg, and Julia Ann Jones May. She spent much of her childhood on her maternal grandparents' Lunenburg County plantation, Locust Grove. Census records suggest that she may have been tutored by a young woman from Massachusetts living in the May family home. After the Civil War she made extended visits to her elder sisters who lived in Staunton, where on 11 September 1869 she married James Henry Dooley, a Richmond attorney who became a successful financier and investor in railroads and industries. They had no children.

In 1886 the Dooleys purchased approximately one hundred acres of land overlooking the James River west of Richmond, which they developed as an ornamental estate. They named their home Maymont, which became an elaborate showplace that rivaled those being built by other wealthy capitalists throughout the country. The Richardsonian Romanesque mansion, designed by Edgerton S. Rogers and completed in 1893, was adorned with rich interior detailing and opulent furnishings, many of which the Dooleys acquired during their extensive travels. An avid student of horticulture, Dooley directed the planting and maintenance of the large, formal Maymont landscape, which included Italian and Japanese gardens, in addition to picturesque outbuildings and other features. The Richmond architectural firm Noland and Baskervill planned many of the additions as well as the Dooleys' summer house, Swannanoa, completed in 1913 on Afton Mountain near Waynesboro.

At Maymont, the Dooleys hosted many lavish dinners and parties attended by the social and political elite. In addition to her social role, she was a founding regent of the Old Dominion Chapter, the first Virginia chapter of the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution, and also a charter member of the Society of the Colonial Dames of America in the State of Virginia (later the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America in the Commonwealth of Virginia). Dooley supported the work of the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (later Preservation Virginia) and the Virginia Historical Society. Even though her husband's sisters and niece were prominent suffragists, she served on the executive committee of the Virginia Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage. Dooley wrote a book, Dem Good Ole Times (1906; reprinted in 1916), that expressed her love of the rural world of her childhood before the Civil War. Written in stereotyped black dialect, the book is representative of the Lost Cause apologist literature that became popular late in the nineteenth century. The book presents a series of romanticized plantation stories told from the point of view of a former slave who also interjects critical commentary on social and political issues of the day.

Dooley's husband died on 16 November 1922, leaving her about half of his estate, estimated at between $5.5 and $6 million. Sarah "Sallie" O. May Dooley died of arteriosclerosis at Swannanoa, in Nelson County, on 5 September 1925 and was interred in the mausoleum at Maymont.

In addition to generous bequests to family and servants, she left $500,000 to the Crippled Children's Hospital (later Children's Hospital of Richmond at Virginia Commonwealth University), $500,000 to the Richmond Public Library, and $250,000 to the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, and she directed that most of her jewelry be sold to benefit foreign missions. Dooley bequeathed the Maymont estate to the city of Richmond to be a public park and museum, which opened to the public in 1926. Operated by the nonprofit Maymont Foundation after 1975, it is preserved as an unusually complete example of the ornamental estates of the Gilded Age. The Maymont Mansion presents a comprehensive depiction of the Dooleys and their domestic employees in the context of the period. Maymont was added to the Virginia Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic Places in 1971.

Sources Consulted:
Genealogical data in Ben H. Coke, John May, Jr., of Virginia: His Descendants and Their Land (1975), 14, 35–36 (undocumented birth date of 27 June 1846); Death Certificate, Nelson Co. (birth date of 23 July 1845), Bureau of Vital Statistics, Commonwealth of Virginia Department of Health, Record Group 36, Library of Virginia; Maymont mausoleum inscription (birth date of 23 July 1846); family records, including marriage license (birth date of 27 July 1846), and numerous research reports and oral history interviews of Dooley descendants and former Maymont employees and their families, Maymont House Museum Archives, Maymont Foundation, Richmond; Marriage Register, Staunton, Bureau of Vital Statistics, Commonwealth of Virginia Department of Health, Record Group 36, Library of Virginia; Richmond Daily Whig, 15 Sept. 1869; Elizabeth L. O'Leary, From Morning to Night: Domestic Service in Maymont House and the Gilded Age South (2003), with portrait on 58; Dale Cyrus Wheary, Maymont: An American Estate (2015), with portraits on page 14 and 19; bequests reported in Richmond News Leader, 7, 8, 17 (with text of will) Sept. 1925, and Richmond Times-Dispatch, 25 Sept. 1925; obituaries in Richmond News Leader and Richmond Times-Dispatch, both 7 Sept. 1925; editorial tribute in Richmond Times-Dispatch, 8 Sept. 1925.

Written for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography by Dale Cyrus Wheary.

How to cite this page:
Dale Cyrus Wheary,"Sarah 'Sallie' O. May Dooley (d. 1925)," Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Library of Virginia (1998– ), published 2016 (http://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/dvb/bio.asp?b=Dooley_Sarah_Sallie_O_May, accessed [today's date]).

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