Fisher, M(ary) F(rances) K(ennedy)

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FISHER, M(ary) F(rances) K(ennedy)

Born 3 July 1908, Albion, Michigan; died 22 June 1992, Glen Ellen, California

Also wrote under: Mary Frances Parrish, Victoria Berne

Daughter of Rex B. and Edith Holbrook Kennedy; married Alfred Fisher, 1929 (divorced); Dillwyn Parrish, 1939 (died); Donald Friede, 1945 (divorced); children: Anne, Kennedy

M. F. K. (Mary Frances Kennedy) Fisher was two years old when she moved with her family from Albion, Michigan, to Whittier, California, the state she would come to think of as her native home. In Among Friends (1971), she chronicles her growing up in Whittier, a predominantly Quaker community. Her Quaker neighbors—the Friends referred to ironically in her title—never accepted the Kennedys, who were Episcopalian, and she learned early on what it meant to be an outsider. She also learned what it meant to survive the condition with resiliency and humor—what she called "my inner jaunty detachment"—a bent of personality that would serve her well through an eventful and often difficult life.

The reason for the move to Whittier was the purchase of the Whittier News by Fisher's father, a fifth-generation newspaper-man. Her mother also came from five generations of journalists and was a cultured woman in her own right, having studied and traveled widely in Europe before her marriage. From her parents Fisher absorbed a love of literature and ideas. She also developed an avid interest in culinary books and food preparation, which she learned from the family cook. By the age of ten, she was thinking up dishes and preparing meals for the household.

After graduating from high school in 1927, she attended several colleges, including Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois, Occidental College in Los Angeles, and the University of California at Los Angeles. In 1929 she married Alfred Fisher, a doctoral candidate in literature at UCLA, and they went to live in Dijon, France, where he was working on his dissertation. The move proved to be a particularly fortunate one, since Dijon, regarded as the gastronomic center of France, inspired her to pursue her interest in food more seriously and begin putting her thoughts down on paper in the form of journals, letters, and stories.

In 1932 she returned with her husband to California and they had as their neighbor the painter Dillwyn Parrish, who encouraged her writing on culinary themes. Her first book, Serve It Forth, came out in 1937 and included her pieces on cooking and dining experiences, along with her historical essays based on old cookbooks she had researched at the Los Angeles Public Library. Serve It Forth introduced the public to Fisher's amalgam of food writing, personal anecdotes, and storytelling, a lively and distinctive style she would continue to hone during the course of a long career.

The friendship with Parrish had deepened by 1937 into the great love of Fisher's life. She moved with him to Vevey, Switzerland, and they were married after she obtained her divorce from her first husband in 1938. Her days in Switzerland with Parrish were filled with tending their house and vineyard, entertaining friends, and collaborating on a romantic novel, Touch and Go (1939), which was published under the joint pseudonym of Victoria Berne. The happiness of this period was cruelly disrupted when Parrish was stricken with Buerger's disease in 1939. They returned to America and purchased a ranch in Hemet, California, where Fisher cared for him. In 1941, pain-ridden and terminally ill, he committed suicide.

The grief that followed was made all the greater by the suicide of her brother David a year later. As a way of contending with tragedy and as a means of supporting herself, Fisher turned to her writing and produced a succession of culinary works: Consider the Oyster (1941), How to Cook a Wolf (1942), The Gastronomical Me (1943), and An Alphabet for Gourmets (1949). These four books were collected with her first book and published in 1954 as The Art of Eating, a classic in its field and a perennial favorite with readers.

In 1945 Fisher married the literary agent Donald Friede. She had two daughters, Anne, born in 1943, and Kennedy, born in 1946. At Friede's urging, she wrote the novel Not Now But Now (1947), even though she did not consider extended fiction to be one of her strengths, a view that is shared by most critics. During the same period, she also produced an acclaimed translation of The Physiology of Taste (1949) by Brillat-Savarin and wrote articles and stories for such magazines as Gourmet, House Beautiful, and McCall's. The pressure of work, deadlines, and child care, along with the death of her mother, contributed to the deterioration of her health and her marriage. In 1949 she separated from Friede and went with her daughters to the Kennedy ranch in Whittier, where they lived with her father. After his death in 1953 they moved to the Napa Valley, a locale that would serve as Fisher's home base for the rest of her life.

In 1958 she decided to pay a lengthy visit to Europe as a way of broadening her children's education and helping them become proficient in French and Italian. During the four years they lived in Aix-en-Provence and Lugano, she wrote a book of folk remedies, A Cordiall Water (1961), and composed sketches and stories that would serve as a basis for later work, including many pieces published in the New Yorker.

In 1971 she moved to her final home, a Napa Valley house designed to her specifications and located on the grounds of the Bouverie ranch in Glen Ellen. For the two decades until her death in 1992, it provided her with a congenial place to write, cook, and entertain fellow authors and culinary enthusiasts. Despite the encroachment of Parkinson's disease during her last years, Fisher pursued her engagement with the world nearly to the end. She was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1991 and is generally acknowledged to be one of the nation's finest writers and also one of the most unusual, taking the humble theme of food and casting it as a metaphor for the great mysteries of human hunger and desire.

Other Works:

Here Let Us Feast (1946). The Story of Wine in California (1962). Maps of Another Town: A Memoir of Provence (1964). The Cooking of Provincial France (1968). With Bold Knife and Fork (1969). A Considerable Town (1978). As They Were (1982). Sister Age (1983). Spirits of the Valley (1985). The Standing and the Waiting (1985). Dubious Honors (1988). Answer in the Affirmative and The Oldest Living Man (1989). Boss Dog (1990). Long Ago in France: The Years in Dijon (1991). Stay Me, Oh Comfort Me (1993). Last House (1995). M. F. K. Fisher: A Life in Letters (1997).


Ferrary, J., Between Friends: M. F. K. Fisher and Me (1991). Lazar, D., Conversations with M. F. K. Fisher (1992). Mooney, L., ed., The Annual Obituary 1992. (1993).

Reference works:

CANR (1994). CLC (1993, 1995). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).

Other references:

American Scholar (Spring 1998). Biblio (Feb. 1999).


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Fisher, M(ary) F(rances) K(ennedy)

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