Wickes was part of some of the most significant moments in film, television, theatre, and radio history. On that frightening night in that Orson Welles recorded his earth-shattering "War of the Worlds" radio broadcast, Wickes was waiting on another soundstage for him for a rehearsal of Danton's Death , oblivious to the havoc taking place outside. When silent film star Gloria Swanson decided to host a live talk show on this new thing called television, Wickes was one of her first guests.
When Lucille Ball made her first TV appearance anywhere, Wickes appeared with her--and became Lucy's closest friend for more than thirty years. Wickes was the original Mary Poppins, long before an umbrella carried Julie Andrews across the rooftops of London. And when Disney began creating Dalmatians , it asked Wickes to pose for animators trying to capture the evil of Cruella de Vil.
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The pinched-face actress who cracked wise by day became a confidante to some of the day's biggest stars by night, including Bette Davis and Doris Day. Wickenhauser of Godfrey, Illinois. Louis, I thank the many people in St. The Streets of St. Louis author William B. For their permission, I thank Edith A. McGrath granddaughter of Howard F. Wyatt Walker Jr.
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In securing photographs, I again benefitted from the trust placed in me. For their permission to use photos in this book, I thank Michelle F. Amon daughter of Gloria Swanson , Edmund R. Rosenkrantz, Gloria Swanson Inc. Every effort has been made to identify the proper copyright holders of all photographs and previously unpublished letters used in this book, but a few could not be located. Louis; the Municipal Theatre Association of St. I thank Caitlin Ryan for pulling me into the Washington Biography Group, a vibrant source of encouragement over the years.
I especially thank Tim Reagan for his keen editing eye.
I started this project in Washington, D. Finally, I thank Leila Salisbury at the University Press of Mississippi for recognizing that a character actress who never stopped working has a place in the pantheon of Hollywood legends, and Lisa Paddock for her many helpful edits. I almost knocked over two pews leaning over to give her a big hug, says Clooney. At first, Clooney wondered if Mary had been momentarily silenced by sentiment, so choked up at seeing her former co-star—on Christmas, no less—that she could summon nothing to say.
In fact, Mary was silent simply because she could not identify Clooney as the person greeting her. Certainly, Mary never had trouble talking; she had been a boundless stage and screen presence for half a century. But macular degeneration had robbed her of so much of her sight that she could not clearly discern images in the center of her vision, especially up close. By the time she appeared in Sister Act , the film that brought her a new generation of fans with her portrayal of the sarcastic Sister Mary Lazarus, Mary was legally blind.
How the hell she managed those last two or three movies, finding her way around a set with cables on the floor, I will never know. By this point in her life, Mary was one of the most recognizable character actresses in the United States. Though the general public might not have been able to recall her name immediately, generations of moviegoers, television viewers, and theatre lovers delighted in her distinctive presence. She helped create countless significant moments in film, television, theatre, and radio history. When silent film star Gloria Swanson decided to host a live talk show on this new thing called television, Mary was one of her first guests.
On film, Mary performed with Frank Sinatra in his first lead film role. And the night that Orson Welles recorded his earth-shattering War of the Worlds radio broadcast, Mary was waiting on a soundstage for him, oblivious to the havoc that was taking place outside. After such a career, many actresses might have retired. But Mary was not like many other actresses, and she was not satisfied. Health obstacles—encroaching blindness, breast cancer, a pacemaker, debilitating arthritis, and more—never prevented her from working, which was her driving passion. It was a passion evident from her earliest years, years shaped by doting parents in turn-of-the-century St.
Louis who allowed her to pursue a career that was unavailable to most women at the time—and unthinkable for women who looked like Mary. Louis in Later, she married Andrew J. Hetherington, a marble and stone dealer of German and Irish heritage who was one of nine children in a prosperous family.
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Young Frank grew up with his mother and stepfather and began working a succession of jobs in his late teens. He was a clerk at Glaser Brothers, a furnishings and notion store, until it was destroyed by fire in He then worked at the Simmons Hardware Company, a popular business whose Keen Kutter tools are collectible items today.
Always drawn to numbers, in he became a bookkeeper at American Central Trust Company. As a young man, Frank was tall, thin, and slightly bent over, with dark hair, dark eyes, and thick glasses worn low on his nose, like a pincenez. He smoked a pipe, as did many men at the time. He was quiet and generally took a back seat to whatever was taking place around him. Those who knew him are challenged to come up with descriptions that impress.
They remember a man who was simple and uncomplicated: amiable, ordinary, pleasant, nice, and an enigma. He just really withdrew from conversations, says family friend Sally Alexander Higginbotham. His reserve was physical as well. One reason for this seeming reticence is that Frank was profoundly hard of hearing. For most of his life, he wore a hearing aid, the conspicuous sort with wires connected to a small instrument in his shirt pocket. It did not seem to help much. His hearing impediment created an isolation that no doubt influenced his personality.
Frank "always seemed so much older because of his deafness. He was interested in everything going on and you could count on him for being there, but as for making an impression, especially with strangers? Isabella, as she was called from an early age, was the daughter of James T.
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Clair County, Illinois. Isabella was born in East St. Louis, Illinois, at 14 South Fourth Street, in She had one sibling, a sister who was sixteen months older named Hester Margaret, called Hes. Together, they enjoyed a safe, rather conventional upbringing. It was a life shaped by church—Episcopalian and Methodist—and civic affairs. McLean was mayor of East St. Louis, and her father was clerk of the probate court. Isabella had a somewhat mousey appearance, and several who remember her as an adult compare her to Edna May Oliver, a severe-looking actress known for her humorless expression.
But Isabella was not unattractive. Isabella was blond, but for many years she dyed her hair red. Her gregarious manner helped her compensate for what she lacked in appearance. I remember Aunt Isabelle as being very vivacious. She was flirty and entertaining and quite a talker—and all that was kind of lost on Frank, says Higginbotham. Isabella had simple tastes and homespun values. She was an inveterate clipper of the sort of treacly inspirational truisms one might find in the pages of Readers Digest or Guideposts. She routinely expressed herself in superlatives.
It was never enough merely to wish someone a Happy New Year; instead, she would wish them the best and happiest New Year you have ever known. Expecting certain behavior from those around her did not make her judgmental. When her sister left home at a young age to build a life as a vaudevillian—and turned away from the Episcopal Church to Christian Science, to boot—Isabella stood by Hes.
Isi and Hes were devoted to each other, although they took their lives in very different directions. Isabella and Frank began dating, and their future in the new century looked promising. In , at age twenty-five, Frank joined Mercantile Trust, and, like many American men of his generation, he would remain at the same workplace his entire professional life. Frank continued living with his mother, as was common practice.
Isabella and Frank were engaged in April and married in April at the Shannon family home in Carlinville, Illinois. Mary Hetherington lived in the downstairs unit, and Frank and Isabella lived upstairs. This was an industrious area of working-class and middle-class families, mostly Irish and German. When Isabella became pregnant the following year, she and Frank rented a larger, single-family home just off North Kingshighway Boulevard.
That home, at Garfield Avenue, was a two-story, red brick house with a basement, a fireplace, a front porch, and a small front yard. In the back yard, the family raised chickens. The home was built just a year before the Wickenhausers moved in.
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It was in this home—which still stands today, though the address has changed to Lotus Avenue—that Mary was born on June 13, She weighed a full nine pounds. So it is that we know Mary delivered her first laugh at eight days old while on the lap of her nurse, Edna Wheatley. Isabella could not have known that Mary would spend much of her life producing laughter while playing a nurse.
We know that Mary left the house for the first time at seventeen days old, when Frank took her for an evening walk. We know the day Mary first stood by herself and the day she first wore shoes. We know the date that every tooth came in and the exact location of each. We have a detailed account of her early colic attacks.
Understanding Mary requires understanding the world in which she grew up. Hers was a youth enveloped in stigma, where German-sounding street names were replaced with inoffensive ones Bismark became Fourth Street , and where whites and blacks were segregated by law. Mary did not encounter African Americans in school or restaurants as a child because black residents were not permitted in the institutions that were part of her life. It was not until that the swimming pool at Fairground Park admitted African Americans, an act that provoked a violent riot. Nonetheless, when Mary and her friend Louis Westheimer wanted to save money on touring shows that came through St.
Louis, they went to the American Theatre long since torn down to widen Market Street and bought tickets for what was shamefully called nigger heaven. At home, player pianos and Victrolas provided entertainment. At grand downtown movie palaces, Mary experienced the transition from silent films to talking pictures.
Mary Wickes: I Know I've Seen That Face Before
She spent her adolescence and young adulthood under Prohibition —33 , a restriction that hit St. Louis hard, given its robust brewery industry. The city was home to so many breweries and shoe factories that it was popularly described as First in shoes, first in booze, last in the American League —the last a reference to the perennially underperforming St.
Louis Browns. Mary grew up in a time and in a town and in a family that were driven by strong German values. She was raised to believe in a sense of propriety, in the notion that manners matter and that appearances are important. She would cling to these values her whole life, causing her to seem to belong to another era, even to many of her contemporaries. You were polite at all times. You never put yourself forward. You never tell people how good you are; you wait for someone else to tell you. You never nominate yourself for office.
You never vote for yourself. Even my generation was raised that way, says Judy Sutter Hinrichs, a family friend who is a generation younger. Being born in , she was basically a product of the nineteenth century. So an awful lot of that value system stuck with her all the way through. And part of that is the personal reserve.
You felt that that was right. Relationships between men and women were so entirely different. There was no living together—you got married. Mothers stayed home and were there when you got home from school. There were no two wage-earners in the family. Mary, who was called Snooky, even benefitted from having three grandparents during her childhood; Grandma Shannon and Grandma Hetherington lived until , and Grandpa Shannon until They were the typical, sweet little American family, says Louis Westheimer.
Frank and Isabella were fond of outings and introduced Mary to as much of the region as they could. They visited a farm where they crawled on haystacks and sunned in hammocks, had picnics at a lake where they played in the water and climbed on rocks, admired animals at the zoo, floated down a river in inner-tubes, got thrills at the Forest Park Highlands amusement park, and posed seriously beside canons at the historic Jefferson Barracks Military Post on the Mississippi River.
And that was lovely, oh my. That hurrying down the levy to make the boat before it left was lovely," Mary recalled some eighty years later while recording memories for a possible autobiography. Cries of wa-ter-melon and straw-berries were common, but what really appealed to Mary was the ice cream treat, Fro-zen Dain-ties, Fro-zen Dain-ties! At the same age, she played dolls with playmate Josephine Hanlon, and when she was about eight, she organized " My Doll Wedding," where more than a dozen other neighborhood girls each brought a doll to celebrate the wedding of over-sized dolls named Clara and Johnny.
In early photos, Mary is always the tallest child.
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Now as then, St. Louis offers one of the most remarkable performance spaces of any U. Open only in the summer months, the Municipal Theatre Association of St. The Muny, as it is called, "was as much a part of my childhood as Sunday school and soda fountains, Mary said. The Muny and other theatres in St. Louis cemented her lifelong affection for acting. From the time I was able to stay awake without a nap, I was taken to matinees in the theatre and later to evening performances," she said. The cold months, too, were special, with caroling on Christmas Eve.
I can feel my red angora cap and muffler scratching my neck. And my mittens on a tape that went down one sleeve across my back and down the other sleeve. I remember the thrilling words of those old carols. And I can remember the good hot cocoa Mother made when we got home," Mary said. Frank and Isabella modeled civic behavior for Mary; in their case, this meant engaging in fraternal lodge activities. Despite their differences in political views, Isabella was friendly with Edna Gellhorn, a liberal community activist and pioneering suffragist.
Co-workers affectionately called him simply Wick. Everybody liked Wick, says Eugene Fincke, who worked with Frank. He always had a positive attitude about things. Frank wore an elastic garter around his shirtsleeves while working, as was the custom. His desk was positioned in an open space on a suspended balcony overlooking over the lobby. From this central perch, he could see many parts of the bank at once—and others could get his attention, which helped minimize the effects of his poor hearing.
I can remember my voice being so loud as I tried to talk to him.