North Side: Mary Roberts Rinehart
While her general novels were her best-selling books, she was most highly regarded by critics for her carefully plotted murder mysteries. It was one of her books that produced the phrase, "The butler did it," and in her prime, she was more famous than her chief rival, England's Agatha Christie. (52)
Our Famous Woman Writer.
One of Pittsburgh's most famous women is Mary Roberts Rinehart, the writer.
She was born Aug. 12, 1876, in a little house in Arch St., now North Side, but then the City of Allegheny. She lives today at 630 Park Ave., New York City, in an 18-room apartment.
She's still writing--about 4000 words a day on a "good day." She has written more than 50 books, eight plays, hundreds of short stories, poems, travelogues and special articles. Three of her plays were running on Broadway at one time.
When she was in Allegheny High School she got $1 each for three short stories from a Pittsburgh newspaper. In her own words, "I did no further so-called literary work until 12 years later when I was 27."
Her first book, "The Circular Staircase," was published in 1908 when Theodore Roosevelt was President, the hobble skirt was something of a national scandal and ministers spoke of the lawn hammock as a challenge to morals.
In this book, Mrs. Rinehart proved, for the first time, that mystery, crime and humor can be combined.
It has generally been believed in Pittsburgh for many years that the Singer mansion in Wilkinsburg was the site of the Circular Staircase. Mrs. Rinehart tells me it was not--that, at the time, she had never known of a house with such a staircase.
Last year she wrote "A Light in the Window," the story of two World War generations, with the flush and hard times in between. Her writings have encompassed two generations; outlived two Roosevelt presidents.
She never has believed that life is easy, but that if a guy is down he can always get up and keep on fighting. That's been the rich history of her own life.
Her parents were Thomas B. and Cornelia Roberts. She early learned about financial insecurity. Her father was handsome, dreamy, impractical--a frustrated inventor, always in pursuit of fortune, never finding it. His most practical invention was a rotary shuttle for sewing machines. He hated the sewing machine business.
Mrs. Rinehart's mother took in two boarders--made Mary help with the housework, after school, and take piano lessons--both of which she hated with equal vigor. Her grandmother, partially blind, was a seamstress. It was a constant struggle for the family to "keep up appearances," Mrs. Rinehart writes in her autobiography, "My Story."
Mary Roberts Rinehart's writing career blossomed in debt, found its creative equality in her retentive memory and a discipline to put it down.
Her early memories were of the house next door, where a mute son talked with his hands to his patient white-haired mother; wagons clattering along cobblestone streets; the Mayor's office, where she could read good books; the high walls of the state penitentiary, when it was only a few blocks from her house; watching the debris and bodies of the Johnstown Flood roll by; the time her father, in a high silk hat, calmly and serenely rowed his flood-beleagured family past the second floor windows of Pittsburgh office buildings. The one-armed park policeman, who marched in GAR [Grand Army of the Republic] parades and once arrested his own son; tradesmen scattering for cover when drovers reported the escape of a wild bull; the jolly neighborhood butcher, always wearing a stained straw hat.
She was born left-handed, in the days when this was looked upon as irrational and unladylike. To make her use her right hand, the left was tied behind her back. She now writes right-handed, with a bold sweep of a special pen and never uses the typewriter.
About the pen. She once complained she had never found one which could write as fast as she could think. Kenneth Parker of the Parker Co. sent her this snub-nosed one.
No servant may touch it. When she leaves her desk, the pen goes with her--to a special box by her bedside. If she leaves New York, the pen goes too. (53)