The definitive website on the life and work of the pioneering feminist writer, film-maker, and media personality Mary MacLane (1881-1929)
New York World - 17 August 1902
Mary MacLane, of Butte, Montana, wrote the story of herself and committed it to the "wise, wide world." She told everything she knew about herself, and everything she thought and felt - but not everything she is.
For last week, as I sat with her for three hours at the home of Miss Corbin, her "Anemone Lady," in Cambridge, and as we two lunched together next day, I believe I saw her as she is, and I believe I know the real Mary MacLane. And so this is the story of Mary MacLane, which her book does not tell.
Inasmuch as I did not go to Cambridge to pass judgment on Mary MacLane, or to find out whether she poses or whether she is a genius, or whether she is good, or she loves her mother, or steals - or indeed whether any of her book is really herself - I shall not say what I thought about any of these things.
I will simply tell what she did and said in the time we were together, prefaced by two statements which ought to be taken into consideration at every step.
First: she is exceedingly pretty - far prettier than her pictures.
Second: nobody can repeat what she says verbatim and at the same time be perfectly fair to her. For her manner and her voice and her pretty ripply laugh are extra-illustrations not to be reproduced.
When I heard her steps on the stair at the home of the "Anemone Lady," they came tapping out a little refrain, the burden of her portrayal of herself: "I am not good," they said, singing from her book; "I am not virtuous; I am not generous. I am awaiting the coming of the Devil and I know that he usually comes. I am a genius."
"And, oh dear," I thought, "you are not pretty. For only otherwise unattractive people give out that they are not good."
She came in and took my hand in her own warm and firm and rather large hand. She sat down in a big leather chair and waited for me to begin. The little refrain her tan boots had tapped out died in my head as I looked at her.
* * * * *
Mary MacLane, alert for the coming of the Devil, looks like a Madonna, and a pot of sweet lavender and a fall of old lace. Mary MacLane is not little. She is tall - 5 feet and 6 inches, really - and she has a pretty figure and a well-set head.
Her hair, which is her chief glory, is all ripples and brown shadows, and in tendrils about her face.
Her eyes are blue and direct and old and sad. Her chin is round and petulant and faintly dimpled like a child's.
Her mouth is nearly perfect.
Her nose is straight and delicate, and all her features are small.
She looks both child and woman. She has a ready, merry little laugh, like a child's, and a frequent, only partly-suppressed yawn, like a child's, and a quick nod of understanding that is some way childlike, too.
Her eyes alone are old, and "her eyelids are a little weary." Yet, curiously enough, her sudden far-away look, the droop of her mouth sometimes, and even her direct gaze, are more childish tiredness than ennui.
* * * * *
When she makes the most outre statements you feel a quick impulse to have her learn her lesson better; but the next minute she may be teaching you.
She was wearing a little pale-blue muslin frock, flowery and trailing, with something dainty and tucked and white for a yoke, and little clusters of baby-blue ribbons. She looked like a Dresden shepherdess, or like Phyllis at a spinning-wheel, and far, far less wise than either ingenue or debutante.
Yet for that matter she herself had written: "None of my acquaintances would suspect I am a thief. I look so respectable, so refined, so 'nice,' so inoffensive, so sweet, even!"
And yet she had also written: "The world is like a little marsh filled with mint and white hawthorn."
At all events, I decided she should have the benefit of the mint and white hawthorn side of her. And I straightaway tried to forget everything her book had said and to start afresh on the story of Mary MacLane.
* * * * *
"Do you wish you hadn't published your book?" I asked. For she so little resembled her book that her answer seemed inevitable, and my question pardonable.
"No," she said, "because when I wrote it I was only nineteen. Now I am twenty-one."
"Is it the true story of yourself as you were then?" I said, "and don't you mind the 'wise, wide world' knowing all about it?"
"It is the true story of myself," she answered. "Why should I have written untruly? The only joy I had was writing what was. That book was. It no longer amuses me to be all the things I was when I wrote that. But it is my story as I was then.
"I am a genius. Then it amused me to keep saying so, but now it does not. I expected to be happy sometime. Now I know I shall never be."
I looked at the dimple in her chin.
"Why not?" I said.
"The only time I could ever be happy," said Mary MacLane, "would be not when I was really happy, but just the instant before that happiness. And that I am sure I shall never have.
"When I wrote my book I wanted to love someone. I wanted to be in love. Now I know that I shall never be in love - and I no longer wish to be.
"I don't like men. I met a man in Chicago with whom I should like to have been in love," she added, "but I couldn't fall in love with him. I was born to be alone, and I always shall be; but now I want to be.
"When I wrote my book," she went on, "I hated Butte. I hated the sand and the barrenness. I hated the people and the life.
"Now I know I should love to go back there and live there. I know that I love Butte. I didn't at nineteen. I do at twenty-one."
* * * * *
It began to look as if these two years had made a woman out of the child who laid bare her soul to the "wide, wise world." Here was no self-assertive being breathing invectives at home and the universe. Here was a girl with shadow hair and a blue flowered gown who said she longed for her home.
"And the Devil," I asked her; "you are not waiting for him?"
"Oh, yes, I am," she said, simply.
So there we were back two full years.
"Such a mountain has been made of that," she said, "hasn't there? I don't want the Devil particularly, but I do want experience. So does every one. Every one keeps quite still about it and goes softly along to meet the Devil, quite silently. I said I was going to meet him, and the rest didn't know I spoke for them too. But I knew. Don't let's talk of that."
"There are two things in your book," I said, "that I wish you hadn't written. One was that your mother is nothing to you."
"Of course," she answered, without surprise, "I don't expect you to approve of that. I don't approve of it myself. Only it was true, so I said it. Oh!" she exclaimed, "don't think that I approve of what I say in my book. I don't - of much of it. I don't approve of myself.
"I know I am unworthy, through and through, and I don't approve of that, but it is all true.
"I was writing about myself as I knew myself. And so I put in everything. What was the other thing you didn't like?"
"I wish," I said, "that you had not said that you are a thief."
"Oh!" said Mary MacLane, laughing, "but I'm not now. It doesn't amuse me any longer. It used to then. But I really haven't stolen anything now in some months."
"Now see," I said, "never mind for a minute about the morality of stealing. Suppose that we set that aside. Do you think it is good breeding to steal?"
"Why," she said, "if it amuses you, and the people you steal from are not inconvenienced, I don't see why it is any worse than half the diversions of society, and just as honest too. I did steal eight spoons on the dining-car, but they were to give away. Besides, every one steals dining-car things.
"I do think," she added, "that the point you make about good breeding is an important one. All the Ten Commandments that really need be kept and that are not now outworn, are those that offend good taste only. There is really no right and wrong. I recognize no right and wrong."
"Why did you say a moment ago that you were unworthy, then?" I asked. "Don't you want to speak quite frankly for a minute and let us talk about whichever is not the pose?"
It is curious when you begin to be frank how hopelessly rude you have to be. A perfectly truthful world would be intensely bad-mannered.
"But I pose all the time," said Mary MacLane. "I never give my real self. I have a hundred sides, and I turn first one way and then the other. I am playing a deep game. I have a number of strong cards up my sleeve. I have never been myself, excepting to two friends."
I laughed and took her hand.
"Your real self was in every sentence just then," I said, "don't you see?"
"But," she exclaimed, "why shouldn't everybody pose? Most people are stupid unless they do. I wouldn't be, but it is so amusing to pose. Besides, unless you aren't clever enough to select poses, why ever be yourself to any one? You have a right to yourself for yourself and a few friends. Why should I give myself to you? You are nothing to me."
"That motorman," I said, "looks better in his uniform than in silver armor or doublet and hose. But you and I take it for granted. We don't say it to the motorman, especially when the motorman is our guest."
The blue figure flashed across the room and put out its hand.
"I know," she said, with a pretty gesture. "I beg your pardon."
"See the ink," she observed presently, looking at her finger, "but don't look at my hands. They are large. I don't like my hands, but I do like my feet. Don't you?" she added.
* * * * *
She pointed forward a prettily shaped buckled shoe.
"When people say I have pretty hair," she went on, "I always correct them by saying at once, 'I have beautiful hair.' It is so funny. I did that several times in Chicago. Oh," she said, "the people at the teas in Chicago - you should have seen me caper for them.
"I dislike myself far less for capering than those for wanting to see me. 'How do you do, Miss MacLane? I am so interested in you,' they all said. Many of them didn't know how to be interested in me. Oh, but there were a few," she said, "whom I did love."
Her face was very tender for a minute, until she recalled something.
"One woman," she said, "said to me, 'Oh, you haven't found yourself yet. That's all. You will.' How I hated her. Don't they suppose I know I'm not the way I will be? Why can't they see I am the way I am, and I say so; that's all."
"Don't you think you will be different in two years?" I asked her.
"Yes," she said, "I know I shall. I shall write three more books - four in all. I shall do these before I am twenty-five. After that I shall be nothing. We MacLanes all go down after twenty-five.
"My other books will be very different from this. I don't know whether they will be novels or not. But people are going to say, 'Oh, that is her real self now.' They will say that of each book.
"But fifty years after I am dead they will say, 'Her first book was her masterpiece.' Not only that, but it is a masterpiece."
"And what will become of you after you are twenty-five?" I asked her.
"I don't care. But I shall not be forgotten."
* * * * *
She leaned back in the deep leather chair and let the lace ruffles fall over her hands.
"I am," she said simply, "one of the great ones of earth."
"Tell me," I said, "whom of the other great ones of earth you are most fond of. What do you read?"
"I don't read," she said.
"They say you are a feminine Walt Whitman," I suggested, "who began younger."
"I have never read a line of Walt Whitman," she declared.
"They say," I went on, "that you are, now and then, like Elbert Hubbard."
"I never read him," she said. "I have seen a copy or two of The Philistine, that is."
"They say," I concluded, "that you are like Marie Bashkirtseff. Do you think that?"
"I am greater than she," she said. "I [had] only read two or three entries in her journal, but I [knew] that."
Then she told me what she had read.
"I don't care at all about Browning," she began. "I hold Mrs. Browning far more of a poet than he. No, I haven't read all he wrote, of course. I don't know Christina Rossetti, but I know a few of Dante Rossetti's. And Longfellow I don't care for.
"No," she said, "I don't have to do that. I have all those beautiful things in myself."
There was a pause.
"Read me something from my book," she said, finally. "Read me the chapter I like best - the one about the Gray Dawn. That has all my soul in it. I will tell you if I don't like the way you read it."
I read it, and when I misplaced a word she told me just what was wrong.
"Now read the entry about Greece," she said, "and then the one about asking for bread and receiving a stone. The last is the most intense in the book. In the first a Chicago woman emphasized the word 'music' as she read. I could have murdered her."
"When I wrote my book," she said after I finished, "I wrote from nine or ten at night until four in the morning. Then I would be too exhausted to undress and I would throw myself on the bed and sleep. But at six the next morning I was up again and out in the sand to see the Gray Dawn. All of myself is in that book - myself, as I was then."
"'Why should I give myself?'" I quoted from her words. "Why did you give yourself?"
"I wished to, then," she answered. "No," she answered me in a moment, quite simply. "I do not see any beauty in self-restraint. Give something. If not yourself, then a pose. I gave myself."
Then she read to me - the chapter about her sense of humor and the Italian woman-peddler.
"' - an angle-worm pattern in a calico dressing-jacket,'" she read. "Wasn't that clever of me to select just that?" she looked up to say.
"' - and tacks and dream-books and mouth-organs,'" she read. "Mouth-organs, do you fancy?" she broke off again. "Wasn't that a fine streak of mine to say mouth-organs?
"' - on her brown brass-ringed hands, on her black satine wrapper' - wasn't that wonderful detail to say black satine wrapper?" she interrupted herself. "Yes, that is where I am great - in my use of detail."
It was growing dark in the drawing-room of the Anemone Lady. Outside the window a group of curious girls stood, pointing out the house.
Mary MacLane read on, her voice vibrating with real feeling and notable for its complete lack of emphasis. There is a curious levelness in her voice. She reads and talks as one pronounces French words.
Often she turned her face to the window and read on as faultlessly as Cyrano read his letter. She knows every word of her story of herself.
In the half light her blue gown and lace ruffles and her hair looked so newly inconsistent that I could not resist reassuring myself, at the door, that it was she.
"What would you rather do with your life than anything in the world - honestly?" I asked her.
"I would rather be a fairly happy wife and mother," she said simply. "There is nothing better in the world. But I never shall be. I am not worthy to be. You see, all the tastes and instincts with which I was born are not high. I am not good at heart."
So I said good-night to her, standing in the vine-set doorway of the old Cambridge house, looking like a pot of lavender and a fall of old lace.
The next day we lunched together.
I talked with her about Radcliffe, about Boston, about Butte, about frankness, about Chicago people, about a book or two, about those at the other tables. Of all these it was naturally the personal aspect and its relation to her which interested her.
"Indeed," runs one paragraph in Mary MacLane's book, "my conversation is at all times devoted, directly or indirectly, to myself."
Over luncheon she never for a moment ceased to do her part.
"One must always say things that aim to interest," she said, "because in the world one must after all pay for one's keep."
These two things happened -
From the little dish of cracked ice Miss MacLane took half a dozen olives and dropped them deliberately in the blouse of her shirt-waist.
"I love them so!" she explained. "They are wonderful to eat - in very small bites."
And when the waiter was bowing over his tip she addressed him -
"Waiter," said Miss MacLane, "will you match me for the tip?"
"Madam?" said the waiter.
"Will you match me for the tip?" she asked.
"But yes, Madam," he complied. The first quarter he lost; the second time he won them both.
"Do you think I am crazy, waiter?" asked Miss MacLane, as she rose.
"No, madam," said the waiter, "I have seen many others many times."
"And yet," I said to Mary MacLane, "you wrote well indeed about the three gold rocks that came up out of the sea."
She crossed Tremont Street to the Common, and her lithe, athletic figure and erect head were those of any healthy-minded girl, only a bit more attractive than most. As she walked she ate an olive delicately.
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