Wrote under: Marya Mannes, Sec.
Daughter of David and Clara Damrosch Mannes; married JoMielziner, 1926 (divorced); Richard Blow, 1936 (divorced); Christopher Clarkson, 1948 (divorced); children: one son
Marya Mannes spent her childhood in New York City, where she was privately educated. Along with her parents, a violinist and a pianist, the founders of the Mannes College of Music, and her brother Leopold, co-inventor of the Kodachrome process, Mannes spent many vacations in Europe; upon her graduation in 1923, she spent a year in England independently studying sculpture and writing. After returning to the U.S., Mannes worked as a playwright, editor for Vogue and Mademoiselle, and cultural commentator for the Reporter, McCall's, the New York Times, Harper's, and The New Republic. During World War II, she worked for the OSS and was based briefly in Portugal and Spain. Mannes was married and divorced three times. She had one son during her second marriage.
In her first published novel, Message from a Stranger (1948), Mannes explored the notion that the dead resume their conscious identities when the living remember and think about them. The story is narrated by poetess Olivia Baird, the leading character, who dies on the second page of the novel and yet continues to "live" in the minds of her lover, husband, and children, so that she eventually achieves self-understanding.
Mannes's first book of essays, More in Anger (1958), collected her social criticism previously published in the Reporter. Mannes observes that she is "angry with the progressive blurring of American values, the sapping of American strength, the withering of American courage." Specifically, she attacks the mass media, the advertising establishment, and the "Never-Never Land of the 1950s."
Mannes' next published work was, according to her, a "long deep look at the city I loved and hated," The New York I Know (1959). But Will It Sell? (1964) was another collection of social criticism, exploring the invasion of "the government of money" in every sector of our lives. It contains four essays that outline Mannes' opinions on the proper egalitarian relationship between men and women. She also attacks contemporary violence, pop art, and commercial television.
Mannes' second novel, They (1968), depicts the final days of a group of elderly people ostracized by the new youth-dominated culture. Less a futuristic novel than an opportunity for social criticism, They condemns modern music, art, and literature while celebrating the "lost world—the long-discredited 'values' of humanism." These values, according to the main characters, are "Discipline, Grace, and Responsibility"—all qualities that Mannes felt were missing from modern society.
Mannes's autobiography, Out of My Time (1971), charts the major events in her life as well as her thoughts on woman's role and quest for identity in a male-dominated society. The major theme is the belief in "spiritual hermaphroditism"—the notion that human beings contain both masculine and feminine qualities that must be accepted and balanced in their personalities.
Mannes's last work, Last Rights (1974), expresses her support for euthanasia and her plea for laws to ensure a dignified death for all.
In 1959, Mannes published a collection of politically satirical poems, Subverse: Rhymes for Our Times, originally published in the Reporter under the pseudonym of "Sec." The poems attack the materialism of American society, environmental pollution, television inanities, the medical establishment, politicians, and militaristic imperialism.
Mannes' writings received mixed reviews, and she assessed herself as somewhat of a misfit: "Professionally I appear to fall uneasily between the writers who succeed because they appeal to the mass audience and those who succeed because they appeal to a superior intellectual elite. The big magazines find me too special and controversial to handle, and the critical literary fraternity find me too explicit to be important." This perceptive self-assessment helps explain Mannes' minor stature among 20th-century essayists and novelists.
CA. CB. WA.
—DIANE LONG HOEVELER