Underrated and ahead of her time, writer and mystery novelist Mary Roberts Rinehart of the former Allegheny City has earned her enduring legacy.
By Ashlee Green
Photo: Mary Roberts Rinehart, née Mary Ella Roberts, known as the “American Agatha Christie,” is one of the former Allegheny City’s biggest, long-gone stars. She died 62 years ago this month. National Photo Company Collection
Mary Roberts Rinehart died 62 years ago this month, but parts of her still live in a box.
You may have never heard of her—I hadn’t until “Writing Is Work,” a slim book of hers that I picked up at an independent bookstore in Washington D.C. She really was something special. If you don’t believe me, check out the Mary Roberts Rinehart Nature Park in Glen Osbourne or talk to Arlan Hess of City Books, who includes Rinehart’s former Beech Avenue estate as part of her 90-minute Airbnb experience called “Art & Literature in Old Allegheny,” now on hiatus due to the ongoing pandemic.
Better yet, visit the University of Pittsburgh Library System’s (ULS) Archives & Special Collections, where a box of everyday objects she once kept on her writing desk are stored inside of a service center in the city’s East End. The objects tell an intimate story that perhaps even Rinehart, hyper focused and prolific as she was, couldn’t write herself, though she tried in 1931’s “My Story.” It’s the tale of the “American Agatha Christie,” one of the former Allegheny City’s biggest, long-gone stars.
Roots in the former Allegheny City
Born in the Northside—known then as Allegheny City—on August 12, 1876, Rinehart, née Mary Ella Roberts, grew up in the area and graduated from Allegheny High School in 1893.
When she was 17, she attended the Pittsburgh Training School for Nurses, now called the UPMC Shadyside School of Nursing, and graduated in 1896. She met her husband, Dr. Stanley Rinehart, while in nursing school, but was traumatized by both the career, where she often cared for men maimed at their factory jobs, and her father’s suicide the year before she graduated. According to Pittsburgh Post-Gazette archives, this time in her life “imbued her with compassion for human suffering and a strong distaste for social injustice.”
In “My Story,” Rinehart described her nursing work in the hospital as “all the tragedy of the world gathered under one roof.” She wrote it was “at times so terrible, that even now it hurts me to remember it.” In 1903, according to Pennsylvania Heritage magazine, she and Stanley lost their life savings—about $12,000 at the time—in a stock market crash, and Rinehart started writing as a matter of necessity. She used her life experience as both a former nurse and the wife of a surgeon to enhance her prose, and made around $200,000 by 1913.
Rinehart’s essay “Writing Is Work,” which later became the book of the same title, was first published in The Saturday Evening Post in 1939. In it, Rinehart states that writers… “speak with loathing of their job, but few of the professionals really stop… We are often miserable at our desks or typewriters, but not happy away from them.”
Family life at the front and center
That Rinehart considered the act of writing as her mere livelihood then was nothing new. She often wrote of family as her priority and writing as her work; she was repulsed by the word “career.”
The Rineharts had three sons and in 1907, they moved to a house at the corner of Beech and Allegheny Avenues in what is now Allegheny West. She wrote and sold a great number of her early short stories and poems there, as well as her first-ever book, “The Circular Staircase.” This book, which one reviewer said “took Mary Roberts Rinehart’s career from zero to 60,” sold, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, more than a million copies.
“I never worked when the boys were in the house, or their father,” Rinehart wrote in “My Story.” “In those early days I was still writing at home, but the slam of the front door—all four of them were door-bangers—the shout of ‘Mother,’ was the signal to stop… The family came first; it always has, it always will.” A “double burden,” she called it: What a working woman must tote, then and often now, still.
Hess, in her City Books Airbnb experience, gives her guests a tour of the places Northside-famous artists were either born or where they spent part of their early lives.
“[Rinehart is] my favorite person on the tour because I learned the most about her,” Hess said in an interview with The Northside Chronicle in 2019. “I didn’t know anything about her when I started…. So much of her life has influenced popular culture as we know it today, but its origins have been lost. People should know that.”
There’s Batman, for one: According to an article in Scientific American, it was the film version of Rinehart’s play “The Bat” which Bob Kane, creator of Batman, used as inspiration for his main character.
“In one scene, there’s even the prelude to the Bat Signal, when a spotlight throws the image of a bat onto a wall,” the article states.
Trailblazing in her life and career
Rinehart is what Hess called a “trailblazer” not just in terms of pop culture, but in feminism too. She was humble and might deny it, but it’s hard to contest, especially when rifling through the ULS storage box—the final box in a collection of 34—the others mostly filled with her manuscripts, correspondence, and newspaper clippings.
It’s labeled “realia” and inside it, there’s a pair of hefty, long-blade scissors and a delicate glass jar filled with straight pins, which were once used for Rinehart’s own “cut-up” method of rearranging manuscripts. Later popularized by William S. Burroughs and David Bowie, the cut-up method is a sort of collage; pages of words are literally cut up and the order of them repositioned to play with structure. There’s a crucifix too, now broken, but once presumably intact and hanging on Rinehart’s wall. This hints at her faith, which she described as “compounded partly of fear, partly of superstition.” There’s a model of a circular staircase, which, of course, is a reference to the book that first made her known to the world. But most shocking of all is the shard of an artillery shell encased only in gauze, extracted from the brain of a soldier: It’s a reminder of when, in 1915, she sailed without an escort to London and eventually made her way to the Belgian battlefront of World War I as the “first woman correspondent to go so close to wholesale death,” according to Ladies’ Home Journal.
Rinehart was a woman who trekked through Glacier National Park in Montana and wrote two books about it, a travelogue called “Through Glacier Park in 1915,” first published in 1916, and “Tenting To-Night,” published two years later. It was there in the park that she met Native Americans from the Blackfeet Reservation and advocated for their rights in Washington D.C. In 1936, she had a radical mastectomy, and went public with it.
“This malady has been hedged about too long with the absurd belief that it is ‘unmentionable,’” she was quoted as saying. “Let’s break down the hedges. Let’s learn to discuss cancer as matter-of-factly as a broken leg.”
A lasting legacy
In the midst of all of her adventuring and dogoodism, it might be easy to forget Rinehart’s humor—often self deprecating—which she injects into everything she writes, even photo captions.
Underneath an image included in “My Story” of Rinehart trout fishing, knee-deep in Montana’s Flathead River, she wrote: “Several layers of clothing do not improve the figure!”
The life and legacy of Mary Roberts Rinehart is important to keep alive. Hers was one of resilience, tenacity, empathy, wit, and innovation—and to think, it all began in Pittsburgh’s Northside.
Editor’s note 9/14/2021: This article was updated for punctuation.