Mary Elizabeth Moody Northen, philanthropist, was born on February 10, 1892, the eldest child of Libbie Rice (Shearn) and William L. Moody, Jr. A frail, shy girl, she was privately tutored in Galveston. After the Galveston hurricane of 1900, which she weathered in the home of her grandfather, W. L. Moody, Sr., on Tremont Street, her father bought the partially damaged red brick house at 2618 Broadway. This mansion, completed in 1895, became her residence after the death of her father and husband. She had three siblings: W. L. III; Shearn, who died in 1936; and Libbie, who married Clark W. Thompson, United States congressman. Mary Moody made her debut in 1911 at an elaborate ball held in the second-floor ballroom at the Broadway home. She married Edwin Clyde (Mike) Northen, who was nineteen years her senior, in Galveston on December 1, 1915, and the couple moved into a house two blocks away. Northen, a native of northeastern Texas, had come to the island in 1904 to attend the medical school. Poor eyesight forced him to quit after three years, and he worked as a pharmacist at the United States Public Health hospital and was night clerk at the Tremont Hotel. In 1913 he opened his own insurance company and was active in various civic and social clubs. The Northens had no children and enjoyed travel, ranch life, and community service. Edwin Northen died at home of a heart attack on May 30, 1954. Seven weeks later, on July 21, Mary's father died at age eighty-nine and left the management of his affairs to her.
Her father had groomed Mary, not his sons, to take care of the financial empire, and after her mother's death and in spite of having her own home, she dined with him almost every evening to discuss business. Beginning in 1942, Mrs. Northen served on the various boards of directors of the Moody interests. In 1954, at age sixty-two, she became president of the American National Insurance Company; the Moody National Bank; the News Publishing Company, publishers of the Galveston News and the Galveston Tribune; the American Printing Company; W. L. Moody and Company, Unincorporated Bankers of Galveston; and Commonwealth Life and Accident Insurance Company of St. Louis. She also chaired a number of boards, including the National Hotel Company and the thirty-seven hotels belonging to Affiliated National Hotels; W. L. Moody Cotton Company; Silver Lake Ranches, with properties in Texas, Oklahoma, and West Virginia; and the Southern Trading Company. Quiet like her father, she relied on efficient managers to direct the many companies.
Mary Northen was also named executor of her father's will, which cut off the other heirs with token sums and left Mary the brick mansion and a fortune of $400 million. A five-year court battle ensued, resulting in a $10.25 million settlement; Northen, however, remained in control of the businesses. She also chaired the Moody Foundation, founded by her parents in 1942. Subsequent court battles reduced the fortune but did not touch the foundation, which in 1965 ranked third in endowment size nationwide. Mary Northen continued to chair the foundation, and still sat on the board of the Moody National Bank when she was eighty-five. Her personal interests included subsidizing many of the historical activities in Galveston, projects that often qualified for funds from the foundation. Besides helping in a number of worthy restorations, her money and influence provided some unusual Galveston institutions. She commissioned Lone Star, an outdoor historical drama, and gave money to build a suitable theater in Galveston State Park. She purchased the abandoned Santa Fe Railroad depot and office building and turned it into a railroad museum. She helped Texas A&M University form the Maritime Academy on Pelican Island and gave funds to the Galveston Historical Foundation to secure the 1877 iron sailing bark Elissa; a new figurehead for the vessel has Northen's face made from a picture in 1911.
Northen lived in her family's home in Galveston until her death on August 25, 1986. She was buried in the family vault at Hitchcock. The bulk of her $30 million estate was willed to Mary Moody Northen, Incorporated, Foundation, established in 1964, and to an endowment to renovate and maintain the Moody home as a historic museum.