Rinehart, Mary Roberts (1876–1958)

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Rinehart, Mary Roberts (1876–1958)

American novelist and war correspondent. Born Mary Roberts on August 12, 1876, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; died on September 22, 1958, in Brooklyn, New York; daughter of Thomas Beveridge Roberts (a sewing machine salesman) and Cornelia (Grilleland) Roberts; graduated from Pittsburgh Training School for Nurses, 1896; married Stanley M. Rinehart (a surgeon), in April 1896 (died 1932); children: Stanley, Jr.; Alan; Frederick.

Was the first American correspondent to report from the front lines during World War I (1915); was the first reporter to interview England's Queen Mary of Teck (1915).

Selected writings:

The Circular Staircase (1908); The Man in Lower Ten (1909); When a Man Marries (1909); The Window at the White Cat (1910); The Amazing Adventures of Letitia Carberry (1911); The Case of Jennie Brice (1913); The After House (1914); Kings, Queens and Pawns (1915); Tish (1916); Bab: A Sub-Deb (1917); The Amazing Interlude (1918); Dangerous Days (1919); A Poor Wise Man (1920); Sight Unseen and the Confession (1921); The Red Lamp (1925); Tish Plays the Game (1926); Lost Ecstasy (1927); This Strange Adventure (1929); The Door (1930); My Story (autobiography, 1931); Miss Pinkerton (1932); The Album (1933); The Doctor (1936); Tish Marches On (1937); The Wall (1938); The Great Mistake (1940); Haunted Lady (1942); The Yellow Room (1945); Episode of the Wandering Knife (1950); The Swimming Pool (1952); The Frightened Wife and Other Murder Stories (1953).

Born Mary Roberts on August 12, 1876, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Mary Roberts Rinehart was the older of two daughters of Cornelia Grilleland Roberts and Thomas Beveridge Roberts. Although her childhood was not overtly unhappy, Mary grew up with the specter of poverty and a vengeful God, the latter caused by her parents' religious conviction which focused on the Old Testament. This childhood sense of danger at her doorstep would later color the mystery novels for which she became famous. Genuine tragedy struck the household when Thomas committed suicide in 1895.

Rinehart graduated from the Pittsburgh Training School for Nurses the following year, and married Stanley M. Rinehart, a young surgeon, in April 1896. The Rineharts immediately started a family, and she was the mother of three boys by the time she was 25. In 1903, the family experienced a crisis that would ultimately change Rinehart's life. A stock-market crash left them $12,000 in debt, and Rinehart took the reins to change their fortunes. She submitted a short story to Munsey's Magazine and received

$34 in payment. Encouraged by this success, she sold 45 more short stories in the course of one year, earning $1,800.

Rinehart's first full-length novel, The Circular Staircase, was published in 1908. A fusion of the detective story with the humorous novel, this book was the prototype of nearly all the mysteries she would later write. While it was not an instant success, it received a warm critical reception, and kept selling; eventually, The Circular Staircase became an all-time bestseller, with sales topping 800,000 by the mid-1950s. Her second novel, The Man in Lower Ten, was published the following year to rapid success. It became the first detective novel by an American writer to make the bestseller list, and for years thereafter, so the story goes, railroad passengers avoided sleeping in the "lower 10" berth. Rinehart's disparate fans included Herbert Hoover, Theodore Roosevelt, and Gertrude Stein .

Rinehart cast a long shadow over the development of 20th-century detective fiction, both in character types and in matters of plot. Her stories are generally told by lively, intelligent, unmarried women in their middle years whose intuitive hunches mesh well with the more systematic work of an official detective. One of her most enduringly popular creations, Letitia Carberry—a middle-aged amateur detective otherwise known as Tish—is a prime example of a Rinehart heroine. Often considered a more daring version of Agatha Christie 's Miss Marple, she first made her literary appearance as part of a series of short stories published in the Saturday Evening Post (later collected in the 1911 volume The Amazing Adventures of Letitia Carberry). So delighted were the Post's editors with Rinehart's work that they personally solicited more Tish stories from her. Another distinguishing characteristic of Rinehart's mysteries is her deviation from the typical "one-murder" story, in which the entire novel is constructed around the solving of a single crime. Instead, the murderers in her books kill a number of victims, some of whom are known to the narrator, throughout the course of the story, and often try to kill the narrator herself.

Critics of Rinehart's mysteries point to her devotion to the "Had I But Known" device (of which she was the prime exemplar), typified in a phrase such as "Four lives might have been spared if I had only remembered." Rinehart also received criticism for relying extensively on improbable coincidences, for prolonging the narrative by withholding information, and for the inclusion of romantic subplots that had little to do with the action, but she was praised for her tightly constructed mysteries, brisk pacing, and comic relief. In addition, one of her novels actually solved a crime: The After House (1914), which she based on the true story of several murders that had been committed on a yacht at sea, caused that case to be reopened, an innocent man to be released after nearly 20 years in prison, and the real murderer (the one she had fingered in her novel) to be arrested and convicted.

While she is remembered primarily for her mysteries, Rinehart also wrote numerous romance novels, and these constituted eight of her eleven bestsellers. Most of these stuck closely to society's mores; her women narrators, usually married, fell in love with another man but in the end resigned themselves to their marriages. Male narrators, more often than not, were rescuing the objects of their affections from bad engagements. Rinehart also wrote several plays with Avery Hopwood, including Seven Days (1909) and The Bat (1920), a dramatization of The Circular Staircase. A story about the eerie experiences of a woman mystery writer and her maid in a rented mansion, The Bat proved highly successful; it was filmed in 1915, 1927, and 1930, made for television starring ZaSu Pitts in 1953, and again adapted as a movie in 1959, starring Agnes Moorehead and Vincent Price.

In addition to her fiction writing, Rinehart achieved no small amount of fame during World War I as the first American correspondent to report from the front lines. Although most newspaper editors at this time refused to sign women as war correspondents, Rinehart's success allowed her to demand, and receive, a considerable amount of leeway from her editors at the Saturday Evening Post. They recognized that they needed her stories to fuel sales, and she made it clear that she did not intend to let what then seemed the single biggest event of the century go by unattended. The Post therefore established her as an official foreign correspondent, with credentials, an expense account, and letters of introduction.

Rinehart found her nursing experience beneficial in her reports on the war. When the British authorities refused to allow correspondents access to the front, Rinehart approached the Belgian Red Cross and convinced them that, with her nursing background, she could aptly describe to her American readers the Belgian soldiers' plight. She was three weeks at the front before any other correspondents were allowed to make the journey. Her work at the front lines gave her insight and opportunities that other reporters missed. Though Rinehart was the first to write of the use of poison gas by the Germans, the Post, obedient to America's neutral status, refused to print the story; another reporter's news of poison gas was soon published in a New York newspaper. On her return to London, she was granted an exclusive interview with England's Queen Mary of Teck , who expressed special concern for the nursing of the many wounded soldiers, and another with Winston Churchill, who tried to limit his conversations with reporters. Rinehart then went home to America, but she was determined to return to Europe as a nurse should the United States become involved. Ironically, when America finally entered the war, the War Department refused Rinehart permission to travel. She found a way around this problem by reporting on conditions at local training camps. Secretary of War Newton D. Baker was so impressed with her accounts that in 1918 he sent her to France to advise the War Department as to what the troops at the front required. Rinehart was one of the few women allowed to cover the disarmament conference. To her dismay, she was excluded from all male circles and found no outlet where she could compare notes. This experience resulted in her participation in several suffragist movements in Chicago and Pittsburgh. She drew upon many of her experiences during this time to write several books, most notably Kings, Queens and Pawns (1915), Bab: A Sub-Deb (1917), The Amazing Interlude (1918), and Dangerous Days (1919). Her heroines in these books always fulfilled what she saw as the task of women during war: service.

Tragedy dogged Rinehart throughout her life. Her husband died in 1932; in 1947, her cook attempted to kill her; and in 1948, her home in Bar Harbor, Maine, was destroyed by fire. Her mother's death after being scalded by boiling water, and Rinehart's own troubles with ill health and accidents, cemented her understanding of the uncertainty of life. She underwent surgery for breast cancer and shared that experience with her readers in "I Had Cancer," an article published in Ladies' Home Journal in July 1947. As with her other life experiences, Rinehart used these misfortunes as fodder for her writing and had published her autobiography, My Story, in 1931.

Throughout her writing life, Rinehart produced over 60 books—many for the publishing house Farrar & Rinehart, which was established by her sons. By some accounts she was on the bestseller list more often and for a longer time than any other American author. Among the awards she received were an honorary doctorate from George Washington University in 1923, and the Mystery Writers of America Special Award in 1953. Rinehart died in her sleep in New York on September 22, 1958. At the time, her books had sold over 10 million copies.


Contemporary Authors. Vols. 108, 166. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1983, 1999.

Edwards, Julia. Women of the World: The Great Foreign Correspondents. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1988.

Kunitz, Stanley J., and Howard Haycraft, eds. Twentieth Century Authors. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1942.

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

Publishers Weekly. March 21, 1994, p. 59.

Read, Phyllis J., and Bernard L. Witlieb. The Book of Women's Firsts. NY: Random House, 1992.

Sicherman, Barbara, and Carol Hurd Green, eds. Notable American Women: The Modern Period. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1980.

Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism. Vol. 52. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1994.

suggested reading:

MacLeod, Charlotte. Had She But Known: A Biography of Mary Roberts Rinehart. NY: Mysterious Press, 1994.

Judith C. Reveal , freelance writer, Greensboro, Maryland