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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 593

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This is the grave of Mary Heaton Vorse.

Mary Heaton was born in 1874 in New York. She grew up wealthy in Amherst, Massachusetts. Her mother had married a rich shipping magnate. He had died and she remarried Mary’s father, but had inherited all that money. They traveled through Europe when she was a girl, she learned German and French, and became interested in social issues and history. She left school early and moved to Paris, studying art. By 1896, she was in New York, studying art at the Art Students’ League. There was a problem though: she had no talent at it.

Mary Heaton met a social reformer and former settlement house worker named Bert Vorse and they married in 1898. They were good friends with Lincoln Steffens and decided to take up some of the muckraking social causes of the day. She was particularly motivated by the burgeoning feminism of the day, which she was exposed to as part of the New York avant garde in art school. She also had a great interest in the economic injustice of the Gilded Age. Bert Vorse had become a reporter and so they and their two children moved to Paris when he was assigned there by the Philadelphia Ledger. He encouraged her to start writing professionally while they were in France. Mostly at this point, she wrote romantic fiction. They moved to Venice in 1904. But Bert Vorse died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1910. She didn’t really need money but her life now up in the air, she came back to the U.S. and started dedicating her writing to left-wing journalism.

Vorse moved back to New York, where she was at the center of the political and artistic avant-garde scene there. She became a founding editor of Masses and was a co-founder of the Heterodoxy Club, which was a group of women at the forefront of modern feminism. In 1912, Vorse was covering the Lawrence Bread and Roses strike. Lawrence changed her life. She was always committed to social change, but witnessing the incredible struggle of these workers moved her from simply a rich woman dabbling in these politics to a real commitment and outrage over capitalism. She later wrote about this, “Some curious synthesis had taken place between my life and that of the workers, some peculiar change that would never again permit me to look with indifference on the fact that riches for the few were made by the misery of the many.” While in Lawrence she met a socialist named Joe O’Brien. They fell in love and married. But then he died in 1915. So she was on her own again and this time truly committed to a life of the struggle of the working class.

She traveled the nation, reporting on strikes and other social movements. She helped the Industrial Workers of the World organize an unemployment protest in New York in 1914 and worked with her good friend Elizabeth Gurley Flynn on the Mesabi Range iron miners strike in 1916. She was published in nearly every major magazine in America during these years. From the 1919 steel strike to the 1934 textile strike, Vorse was there. At that steel strike, she was a publicist for the union, not just a reporter. Because she knew labor strategy so well and truly understood unions, she became a very effective reporter about them, not just an indifferent muckraker who didn’t trust the poor or their organizations such as Ray Stannard Baker.

In 1919, Vorse was in Paris. There still started a tumultuous relationship with the communist cartoonist Robert Minor. He was a real jerk by all accounts. She got pregnant and then miscarried after a fall. In recovery, she became addicted to morphine. Minor then left her for a younger woman who also was not nearly as politically independent as Vorse. So the 20s were not good years for her. She moved back to New York and took care of her children, but the morphine addiction was getting out of control. She nearly died, pretty much stopped writing, and finally kicked the drugs in the mid-20s. She returned to active work in 1926, as the publicity director for the communist-led Passaic textile strike. But the stress got to her, she got back on the morphine and had a nervous breakdown in 1928. Also, John Dos Passos based his character Mary French in his epic USA trilogy on Vorse.

What I most know Vorse for is her 1930 novel Strike, a lightly fictionalized version of the 1929 Gastonia strike, so brutally crushed by the state of North Carolina. That strike was critical to Vorse, now nearing 60 and having a rough decade prior to that. When it started, she traveled down that textile town and spent about six weeks there. She got to know these workers personally, becoming friends with them, reporting on their lives and their poverty and their bravery. It’s not a great novel. There are way, way too many characters that are mostly very similar, so it can get pretty confusing. Vorse was a better journalist than novelist anyway. That said, it is an admirable work. It is no piece of communist agitprop. She never trusted the communists anyway, having been somewhat disillusioned on a 1922 trip to Moscow and she was always politically her own woman anyway. At the very least, it is an honest attempt to portray the workers in a way to get the attention of the general public. When it was published, it was to positive reviews, both from communists and non-communists.

Vorse kept working. She was in Harlan County, Kentucky for the 1931 coal strike. She reported on the 1932 unemployment marches and the Scottsboro Boys trial in 1933. By the time of World War II, she was writing articles on the lives of factory workers in the war. She moved to Provincetown, Massachusetts, but never really retired. Into the 1950s, she was writing on the infiltration of the mafia into unions, on the civil rights movement, on the struggles of migrant workers and textile workers. In 1952, at the age of 78, Vorse wrote a huge exposé for Harper’s about organized crime in the dockworkers unions that got her a ton of attention for the last time. In the 1960s, she helped lead the fight on Cape Cod against the plan to dump nuclear waste in the ocean off the coast. As a very old woman, she openly supported an Episcopalian minister in Provincetown who became one of the first religious figures in the nation to openly oppose the Vietnam War. He came in for lots of local criticism and Vorse shut that down. To honor her, in 1962, the United Auto Workers presented Vorse its first ever UAW Social Justice Award. Eleanor Roosevelt and Upton Sinclair attended the event, both very old themselves.

The FBI kept an active file on Vorse for nearly 40 years, finally closing it when she was 82 years old, in 1956. Vorse died in 1966 at the age of 92.

Mary Heaton Vorse is buried in Provincetown Cemetery, Provincetown, Massachusetts.

If you would like this series to visit some of the other amazing women of the early twentieth century, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. I have two trips planned in the next two months, both of which will definitely lead to quality posts, so help out! Frances Perkins is in Newcastle, Maine and Alice Paul is in Cinnaminson, New Jersey. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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