Mary Heaton Vorse was born October 11, 1874 in New York City. She was raised in prosperity in Amherst, Massachusetts in a 24-room house, tended by nurses and housemaids. The money in her family came from her mother's side, her mother having married a wealthy shipping magnate and liquor merchant more than 20 years her senior when she was a young woman of 18. Her mother had been widowed at age 37 and had soon married again, Mary's father, Hiram Heaton.
Young Mary Heaton was intelligent and athletic and deeply influenced by the ideas of feminism that had begun to emerge as the 19th Century wound to a close. Upper-class women such as Mary were in the forefront of the movement for newly discovered female rights of economic independence, education, voting rights, and birth control.
In 1896, continuing earlier work in the field, Mary Heaton began to study at the Art Students' League, located on West 57th Street in New York City. The League was established 20 years earlier by strong-minded young men in rebellion from the conservative nature of the instruction at the National Academy of Design. By the time that Mary entered, the school was booming, with over 1100 pupils studying in sex-segregated day and evening classes, studying sketch art, sculpture, and painting. While Mary found participation in the artistic avant-garde exhilarating, she unfortunately was sadly lacking in talent. She wrote in her diary: "When I come into my room and see my work lying around, my sense of my own futility overwhelms me. After so much work, that is all I can do."
Mary Heaton Vorse was herself twice widowed, by her first husband, a 32 year old newspaperman who aspired to literature named Albert Vorse, whom she married in 1898 and who died in 1910; and her second, Joseph O'Brien, who died just three years after their marriage in 1912. With these men she had two sons: Heaton Vorse and Joel O'Brien.
Under the influence of her first husband, Mary Heaton Vorse determined to herself become a professional writer. Mary began to create and sell romantic fiction to women's magazines. Her stories often featured the motif of a rugged and energetic heroine who managed to win the affection of a coveted male over a more constrained and conventionally feminine rival.
In 1904 Mary and Bert Vorse moved to Venice, where Mary was first introduced into the world of the working class and their labor struggles.
In her mid-40s, Mary entered into a common-law relationship with anarchist-turned-communist cartoonist Robert Minor beginning in 1920. She suffered a miscarriage of a child by Minor in 1922, with Minor leaving her for illustrator Lydia Gibson shortly thereafter. Vorse was despondent over her broken relationship and loss of her child and as a result of the medical treatment she received following her miscarriage, she became addicted to morphine and later alcohol. She did not shake her drug problems until early 1926, when she was finally able to return to writing again.
Activism and journalism
Mary Heaton Vorse was outspoken and active in peace and social justice causes, such as women's suffrage, civil rights, pacifism (specifically including opposition to World War I), socialism, child labor, infant mortality, labor disputes, and affordable housing. She was instrumental in forming the Women's Peace Party in January 1915 in Washington, D.C.
Newspapers and magazines she wrote for included the New York Post, New York World, McCall's, Harper's Weekly, Atlantic Monthly, The Masses, New Masses, New Republic, and McClure's Magazine, as well as various news services.
She participated in and reported on the Lawrence textile strike, the steel strike of 1919, the textile workers strike of 1934, and coal strikes in Harlan County, Kentucky.
Death and legacy
Four years before her death in 1966, the 88-year old Mary Heaton Vorse entered the silver jubilee banquet of the United Auto Workers union, accompanied by union leader Walter Reuther. There she received the first UAW Social Justice Award, with former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt and novelist Upton Sinclair looking on to share her honor. Vorse was feted for her work as one of the most important labor journalists of the 1920s and 1930s.
Mary Heaton Vorse died of a heart attack on June 14, 1966 at her home in Provincetown, Massachusetts, on the extreme tip of Cape Cod, where she was buried. She was 92 years old at the time of her death.
Mary Heaton Vorse is sometimes remembered anecdotally as the inspiration for the fictional character "Mary French" in John Dos Passos' trilogy USA.
Mary Heaton Vorse was a popular novelist for several decades and published poetry as well. Vorse wrote a total of 18 books including: The Breaking-In of a Yachtsman's Wife (1908), The Very Little Person (1911), The Autobiography of an Elderly Woman (1911), The Heart's Country (1913), The Prestons (1918), I've Come to Stay (1919), Growing Up (1920), Men and Steel (1921), Fraycar's Fist (1923), A Footnote to Folly (1935), Labor's New Millions (1938) and Time and the Town (1942).