Q&A on Mary MacLane

[ With Jon Poletti. ]

The publisher titled [her 19-year-old book] “The Story of Mary MacLane” – her, and the ms., title was: “I Await The Devil’s Coming.” References to that title concept pop up polyphonically through the text – they were never edited out – story was that the reader (Lucy Monroe) stayed up all night to read, it was accepted by telegram the next day, and was typeset overnight – and the Devil/waiting references through the text provide a unifying element obscured by the pedestrian-if-palatable replacement title.

Like Dickinson, MM had signs of reclusiveness – and strange effect on observers. From 1902: “Miss MacLane is of medium height, slender of build, with light brown hair and a peculiar and indescribibly cold grayish eye.” Observers offered an uncanny number of takes on her – found her everything from ugly to strikingly attractive, from cold to charming, from girlish to old-maidish. My guess is that everyone who knew her knew a different MM. Not only did she lay claim to all manner of sides and facets inside herself – she consciously played with her image and the angles at which it could or could not be viewed. At 21 years old, spontaneously in an interview with a New York paper: “I am playing a deep game. I have a number of strong cards up my sleeve.”

Mary’s silent film is still, at this point, thought lost. Essanay {Chaplin’s home base around then) had a fire around 1930. As we know, too, silent films were not taken care of, and the big studios held a bonfire in the late 1940s when storage costs and nitrate film danger were pinching them. I recently found the shade of a reason for thinking that there may be prints outside the U.S. – the thing was on display as far away as Tasmania! – but nothing solid, at all. Kevin Brownlow’s told me he thinks it’s likely lost, but that was in the early 1990s, before the discovery it showed outside the U.S. – which I only made this year.

Her defense mechanism [against male sexuality] was passivity, disinterest, disdain, and a never-shut-off judging-verbalizing-structuralizing mind. From her 1917 book: “One autumn evening in Boston I went to dine with a man in his apartment in Beacon Street. He is a mining engineer whom I have known since we were both children. He had bidden me to dinner in his off-hand engineering way, but when I arrived at his diggings he was not there. He did not come. Instead there was a dinner waiting, a Japanese boy to serve it, and a strange man who had happened in. The strange man had iron-gray hair, a brow like Apollo, a jowl like Bill Sikes and much conversation. He said that he was newly from China, South Africa and Egypt and that in his life he had been married seven times with book and bell. Together we ate the dinner, talking pleasantly in the light of colored Chinese lamp-shades. There were little birds to eat and Chinese wine to drink – sam shu distilled virilely from rice: always a little of it is too much. After the dinner we were standing by a teakwood sideboard and the strange man was holding me tightly in his arms against a large smooth evening panel of shirt-front, and he was kissing my mouth with a great deal of ardor. I did not like it. I thought of all the women he had married and wondered if they had liked it. And I mused in my placid brain, ‘As I was going to St. Ives I met a man with seven wives.’ It was the only thought in my mind as I waited boredly for him to have done. (It’s no good struggling.)”

Mary played – and I do mean played – very lightly and ambiguously about her sexuality. She spoke boldly about her lesbian leanings in the 19-year-old book – and got them published in 1902 America – we’re not talking gauzy hints, either. 1902 book: “I feel [toward Fannie Corbin] a strange attraction of sex. There is in me a masculine element that, when I am thinking of her, arises and overshadows all the others. – “Why am I not a man,” I say to the sand and barrenness with a certain strained, tense passion, “that I might give this wonderful, dear, delicious woman an absolutely perfect love!” – And this is my predominating feeling for her. – So then it is not the woman – love, but the man – love, set in the mysterious sensibilities of my woman – nature. It brings me pain and pleasure mingled in that old, old fashion. – Do you think a man is the only creature with whom one may fall in love?” And in her final book, “I, Mary MacLane” of 1917, in a whole chapter about Lesbianism: “I have “I have kissed – and been kissed by – Lesbian lips.” She spoke of wanting to marry a woman – again in 1902, several times, and got it into print – and yet she can’t be categorized as true-blue lesbian, either. She flirted with and crushed on men, she seems to have had a positive attraction to prostitution [considering it more honest than Victorian marriage, which at age 21 she said would be better if it could but be tried experimentally for a while, then dissolved if no good] … my own sense is that her sexuality was primarily masturbatory. She wouldn’t let *anyone* in, physically. Women got her heart – she had two or three unrequited loves among women, among them Harriet Monroe (probably her longest love – nearly lifelong) – and men seemed to activate her will … but I see no drive in her to *couple*. I think she had too much going on with the multitudinous individuals in her. In the 1917 book she speaks of her 26-year-old self: “She had not the usual defensive armor of the normal woman, for she was not a normal woman but certain trends of varying individuals gathered into one sensitive woman-envelope. She was careless toward men in their crude sex-rapacity in ways no ‘regular’ woman would dare or care to be.”

> How they wail for their Demon Lover!

And fear him. And, in Mary’s case, ascend into the “high country of the mind” (cf. Pirsig) to deal with them – to analyze them. One of the movie dailies, Wid’s, said (1918): “The big difficulty that stands in the way of making this a popular feature, is the point of view from which it is treated. It is absolutely cold. Mary regards the men with whom she comes into contact as just so many biological specimens to be stuck on pins and examined under the microscope. She draws them as they doubtless were in real life, making them convincing in every respect, but she has no outstanding sympathy with any of them. The total impression, therefore, becomes that of a worldly woman who has no illusions left, revealing a soul that is by no means remarkable for its human sympathy. This leaves its chief emotional appeal in the direction of a satirical humor that is rather light for popular taste. – This may seem like splitting hairs; but it is the one explanation of why one cannot warm to this picture in spite of its magnificent handling from the producer’s end. If you are running a house that appeals to a high – class crowd, you ought to please your patrons much with this, altho it isn’t a picture that will draw S.R.O. thru reputation. A good thing about it is, however, that it has a peach of a title for arousing curiosity and anticipation. – Mary’s book created a sensation with the reading public when it was issued some time ago, and doubtless the reading public will remember it with pleasure. She dissected men there with a pen quite as merciless as that she has used to write the present scenario, and every sob – sister writing for the newspaper syndicates took occasion to give her views publicly. Unfortunately, that publicity is over now, but there still is some magic in Mary’s name. The public that read Mary’s book, however, is not as well represented as might be in the clienteles of ‘pop’ houses.”

For the record, some newspaper review coverage – though probably overinfluenced in those days by the move-house owners – I’ve found reviewers quoting directly from the owners’ ads! – was quite warm. Curiously, the papers in British isles – Australia and Tasmania – seemed welcoming and quite easy about the thing, just as the London papers had been to the 1902 book. Go figure! Perhaps having the comfort of Empire makes for a certain ease, even letting the moral reflex relax.

[ Lightly edited. ]

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