Van Vorst, Marie Louise (1867–1936)

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Van Vorst, Marie Louise (1867–1936)

American author and reformer. Born on November 23, 1867, in New York City; died of pneumonia on December 16, 1936, in Florence, Italy; daughter of Hooper Cumming Van Vorst (a judge) and Josephine (Treat) Van Vorst; educated privately; married Count Gaetano Cagiati, on October 16, 1916; children: Frederick John (adopted).

Born in 1867, Marie Louise Van Vorst grew up in a prominent New York City family and was educated by private tutors. Although she had two brothers, she became closest to her brother John's wife, Bessie McGinnis Van Vorst . When Bessie was widowed around 1900, Marie joined her, and the two women went to France and began writing. Marie had already published poetry and prose in magazines, and Bessie had published letters in the New York Evening Post. Together, they wrote a light novel, Bagsby's Daughter, in 1901. Marie then wrote a more serious novel, perhaps as a result of her reading of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman 's 1901 book The Portion of Labor. Marie's next novel, Philip Longstreth, published in 1902, focused on a wealthy young man who is devoted to improving the lot of the poor, despite his family's opposition. Although this novel was technically flawed, the plot was well regarded by contemporaries.

The two women were by this time very interested in the plight of laborers, and decided that they needed practical experience of the working conditions of women factory employees. They returned to the United States and took aliases under which they secured jobs. Marie, as "Bell Ballard," worked in a shoe factory in Lynn, Massachusetts, and in cotton mills in the South; Bessie, as "Esther Kelly," worked in a pickle factory in Pittsburgh and a knitting mill near Buffalo. Drawing upon their experiences, they wrote The Woman Who Toils; Being the Experiences of Two Ladies as Factory Girls in 1903, an exposé of the poor living and working conditions faced by women and children. Prefaced with an introduction by President Theodore Roosevelt, the book represented a milestone in labor investigation and reporting, and attracted attention to the need for labor reform. The book was also notable for Marie Van Vorst's use of local dialect and dialogue, which added to its realism.

Of the two women, Marie became more widely known. After The Woman Who Toils, she wrote Amanda of the Mill (1905), a well-received novel set in a factory in the Blue Ridge Mountains. From 1906 to 1909, Harper's Monthly assigned Marie to write articles on "Rivers of the World," thus requiring her to travel to Europe and Africa. She also wrote poetry and fiction, including 15 more novels, which were not as well received as her earlier work.

During World War I, she became increasingly concerned about the situation in France, her adopted home, and volunteered to serve with the American Ambulance (field hospital) in Neuilly. Returning to the United States to lecture about her experiences and rally Americans to France's support, she also wrote War Letters of an American Woman (1916), a realistic account of life behind the front lines derived from letters written to friends and relatives.

In 1916, she married Count Gaetano Cagiati of Rome, in the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. The couple adopted a son, but Marie did not allow her new-found family life to restrict her movement. In 1918, she became head of a commission that coordinated war relief for Italy. Four years later, she took up painting, exhibiting her work at the Sterner Galleries in New York City. She continued to work for women's rights until her death in 1936 in Florence, where she was buried.


Edgerly, Lois Stiles, ed. and comp. Give Her This Day. Gardiner, ME: Tilbury House, 1990.

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

Kelly Winters , freelance writer