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Mary Lee “Mimi” Ryan Cecil


  • Name: Mary Lee “Mimi” Ryan Cecil
  • Born: December 11, 1931
  • Parents: Marion Merrit Lee, John J. Ryan, Jr.
  • Spouse: William A. V. Cecil, married 1957–2017
  • Children: William A. V. “Bill” Cecil, Jr., Diana “Dini” Cecil Pickering
  • Notable Projects: Biltmore Equestrian Center, founding board member of The Nature Conservancy and Friends of the Smokies
  • Death: November 17, 2017

About Mary Lee “Mimi” Ryan Cecil

“Her leadership and determination to initiate change through hard work set the example for all of us.”

—Bill Cecil, Jr.

A Distinguished Career

Mary Lee “Mimi” Ryan was the daughter of Marion Merrit Lee and textile manufacturer John J. Ryan, Jr., and granddaughter of the prominent New York banker, lawyer, and builder James T. Lee. She graduated with a B.A. in English from Vassar College in 1953. Notably, she was in the first class of female graduates from the University of Michigan Law School. She was elected to the Law Review in 1956 and became a partner in the Wall Street firm of Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft.

Establishing Roots

She married William A.V. Cecil in 1957, and in 1960, the Cecils moved to Asheville, NC, to raise their family and to oversee the management and preservation of Biltmore Estate, which was created by William Cecil’s grandfather George Vanderbilt. Under their leadership, Biltmore was transformed into a privately owned, profitable, working estate that was named a National Historic Landmark in 1963.

Making a Difference

While supporting her family’s endeavors at Biltmore—she established the Biltmore Equestrian Center and founded its 100-Mile Endurance Ride—Mimi Cecil became a legend in her own right within the community. Known for her relaxed and approachable manner, she was a familiar figure in the world of non-profit leadership, and devoted her life to making a difference in the areas of education, social inequities, the environment, and the arts. She was a founding board member of The Nature Conservancy and Friends of the Smokies, and supported many organizations including Warren Wilson College, the Community Foundation of North Carolina, the Young Men’s Institute, Buncombe County Board of Education, and Mission Health System.

A Legacy of Success

In his book Lady on the Hill, Mr. Cecil recognized Mimi Cecil for her integral part in Biltmore’s success story and in supporting those efforts for more than 45 years. “She has been a wonderful wife and mother and has offered her considerable gifts, skills, and abilities to our community, our mountains, and our country. I am profoundly in her debt,” he stated.

Images of Mary Lee “Mimi” Ryan Cecil

Mimi Cecil (second from left) during a meeting, 1970.

Mimi and William A.V. Cecil leaving for the reception following their wedding, 1957.

Photograph of 11-year-old Mary Lee "Mimi" Ryan, 1940.

Mimi Cecil jumping a fence on horseback, 1990.