Reed, Myrtle (1874–1911)

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Reed, Myrtle (1874–1911)

American novelist . Name variations: Myrtle Reed McCullough; (pseudonyms) Katherine LaFarge Norton, Olive Green. Born Myrtle Reed on September 27, 1874, in Norwood Park, Illinois; died of a sedative overdose on August 17, 1911, in Chicago, Illinois; daughter of Hiram Von Reed and Elizabeth (Armstrong) Reed; graduated from high school, 1893; married James Sydney McCullough (a businessman), on October 22, 1906.

Published first story in juvenile periodical at age ten; published first novel, Love Letters of a Musician (1899); continued to write highly popular works (1899–1911); committed suicide at age 36 (1911).

Selected writings:

Love Letters of a Musician (1899); The Spinster Book (1901); Lavender and Old Lace (1902); What to Have for Breakfast (cookbook, 1905); Weaver of Dreams (published posthumously, 1911).

Born on September 27, 1874, into a distinguished family in a Chicago suburb, Myrtle Reed was encouraged from an early age to become an author. Her father Hiram Von Reed was a preacher who established Chicago's first literary periodical, the Lakeside Monthly, edited another magazine, and gave religious lectures. Her mother Elizabeth Armstrong Reed , a fervent Christian and self-taught scholar whose books on comparative religion and Asian literature earned her membership in English academic societies, also served as president of the Illinois Woman's Press Association for four terms.

At age ten, Myrtle Reed saw her first story appear in a children's periodical, the Acorn, and in high school she edited and contributed verse and short stories to the school paper, the Voice. During that time, she began corresponding with a young man in Toronto, Canada, James Sydney McCullough, who was also editor of his school's paper. A less serious scholar than her mother, she considered herself a student of philosophy, and was an emotional teenager. A breakdown in high school kept her from attending college, and she wrote idealistic romantic fiction and poetry in energetic spurts of creativity.

Reed graduated from high school in 1893 and began contributing poetry, sketches, and short stories to a handful of periodicals. Essentially unknown at the time, these pieces would later be published in such magazines as Harper's Bazaar. After suffering a brutal rejection by a major Chicago publisher, her first novel, Love Letters of a Musician, was published in 1899 by George H. Putnam and was so popular that it was in its 15th printing by 1904. In 1901, she published a selection of essays on romantic love and courtship, The Spinster Book, and in 1902 published Lavender and Old Lace—an immensely successful novel which has been called "[an elaborate] daydream translated into print." Reed churned out five more novels that were embraced by readers for their "sweet and tender sentiment" and often came in lavender covers embellished with ornate art-nouveau patterns.

James Sydney McCullough had moved to Chicago during this period to be near Reed, and her work began showing the influence of his presence. The standard of vulnerable femininity she had rendered in The Spinster Book was replaced by a more homey ideal woman. In 1905, under the pen name Olive Green, she published the cookbook What to Have For Breakfast, then nine more such books, as well as many articles on domestic subjects under the name Katherine LaFarge Norton. After a nearly 15-year courtship, Reed and McCullough were married in October 1906, as McCullough settled into a real-estate business.

Reed's tendency to cling to her romantic fantasies of the model husband, wife, and home soon took their toll, however. She set out to remold McCullough into her dream husband in often exasperating ways, and in response he took to drinking and staying away on business trips. As her reality failed to match her utopian ideals time and again, Reed's disillusionment and depression began to echo in the tone of her books. She began using the sedative Veronal, and shortly after finishing her brooding novel A Weaver of Dreams, she ended her life with an overdose on August 17, 1911. The Chicago Tribune appropriately entitled an article on her death "Dies in Bondage to Her Own Fancy."


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1980.

Jacquie Maurice , freelance writer, Calgary, Alberta, Canada