Vorse, Mary Heaton (1874–1966)

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Vorse, Mary Heaton (1874–1966)

American labor journalist . Born in New York City on October 9, 1874; died in Provincetown, Massachusetts, on June 14, 1966; only child of Hiram Heaton and Ellen (Blackman) Heaton; privately educated, including art school in Paris (1893) and New York City (1896–98); married Albert White Vorse, in 1898 (died 1910); married Joe O'Brien, in 1912; children: (first marriage) Heaton Vorse (b. 1901) and Ellen Vorse (b. 1907); (second marriage) Joel O'Brien (1914).


hundreds of articles and short stories, two plays, and sixteen books, including Men and Steel (1920), Strike! (1930), and Time and Town (1942).

When Mary Heaton Vorse was in her 80s, she wrote: "You must understand that when I was young, Life said to me, 'Here are two ways—a world running to mighty cities, full of

the spectacle of bloody adventure, and here is home and children. Which will you take, the adventurous life or a quiet life?' 'I will take both.' I said." Her decision to live a full life as a journalist, traveling the world, and have a family for which, by virtue of being twice widowed, she was the sole provider, was not always easy. Her relationships with her children, especially her daughter Ellen Vorse , were frequently strained. Money was often in short supply, and Vorse was not above turning out short stories she called "lollipops" to make some easy cash. Nonetheless, in old age, her children rallied round her, and her career as a labor journalist had no rival. In an age when women rarely tried to combine family responsibilities with a career, Mary Heaton Vorse did indeed do both.

She was born in New York City in 1874, the only child of Hiram and Ellen Blackman Heaton . Her mother had been a wealthy widow with five teenagers when she met and married Hiram Heaton. Mary Heaton Vorse's childhood was a comfortable one, with homes in New York City and Amherst, Massachusetts, and yearly trips to Europe. Somewhat of a rebel and very much wanting to be a "New Woman," Vorse convinced her parents to send her to Paris for a year of art school. Even though her mother accompanied her, Vorse saw this as her first break from familial restraints. In 1896, she took more art classes in New York and, with her parents in Amherst most of the time, secretly married Albert White Vorse. A second ceremony with their families in attendance took place six months later. Albert, a sailor, explorer and writer, earned almost enough to provide his family a comfortable lifestyle, including trips to Europe and a summer home in Provincetown, Massachusetts.

Mary Heaton Vorse had given up painting for writing by 1903, turning out short stories for extra income while her husband worked on a book. Their marriage, initially so passionate, grew strained due to Alfred's unfaithfulness, and by the time he died in 1910, the two had drifted apart. Vorse's mother died the same day, and the two deaths and the financial pressure of caring for her children pushed Mary Heaton Vorse not to a breakdown but to a new career—that of labor journalist.

Her coverage of the 1912 Lawrence, Massachusetts, "Bread and Roses" textile strike established Vorse as more than a labor journalist; she was a sympathetic, even at times participatory reporter. During the Lawrence strike, Vorse met Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) leader Elizabeth Gurley Flynn who was to become a lifelong friend. It was also in Lawrence that Vorse met her second husband, the radical journalist Joe O'Brien. Although their marriage was to be brief, the two spent magical summers in Vorse's Provincetown house, surrounded by their radical and literary friends, such as Hutchins Hapgood and Neith Boyce , Max Eastman, John Reed, and Susan Glaspell . To amuse themselves one summer night, the group put on a play on Vorse's dock and the Provincetown Players were born. Winters were spent in New York, where Vorse worked as an editor for the radical journal the Masses. In 1912, she and several other like-minded women, including Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Crystal Eastman and Henrietta Rodman , formed the Heterodoxy Club. In 1914, Vorse and O'Brien's son Joel was born; a year later, Joe O'Brien was dead, a victim of stomach cancer. Once again, Vorse was left a widow, now with three children to support.

For the next 40 years, she would travel from one strike to the next, reporting the horrible conditions of labor which drove workers to strike, and the police brutality they frequently faced on the picket line. From the Mesabi Range copper miners' strike in 1916 to the massive steel strike of 1919, from the textile workers' strike in Gastonia, North Carolina, in 1926 to the Flint, Michigan, auto workers' sitdown strike of 1937, Vorse passionately recorded in articles, books, and even novels the efforts of workers to achieve dignity in the face of oppression. At the same time, her personal life continued to be difficult. There never seemed to be enough time to be a good mother and a good writer. A two-year affair with the political cartoonist and Communist Robert Minor ended in 1922 with Vorse suffering a miscarriage and Minor leaving her for another, younger woman. After her miscarriage, the 47-year-old Vorse was prescribed morphine to which she became addicted for a few years. Once again, however, she found within herself the strength to go on—for the sake of her children and for the sake of her career.

Mary Heaton Vorse remained active until the end. In the 1950s, still a friend of labor but not necessarily of the big unions which represented workers, she wrote an article exposing corruption within the longshoremen's union. Always short of cash, Vorse gratefully accepted money from supporters, only to give most of it away, beginning in the 1950s, to various Southern civil-rights groups, and later in the 1960s, to Cesar Chavez, leader of the Chicano farmworkers' movement. Now almost 90, Vorse carried out her activism closer to her beloved Provincetown home. In the early 1960s, she was part of the effort to establish a national park on Cape Cod, and she fought the dumping of nuclear waste. When the local Episcopalian minister spoke out against the Vietnam War and displeased much of his congregation, Vorse in turn spoke out on his behalf.

In 1962, the United Auto Workers (UAW) presented Vorse with their first Social Justice Award. UAW president Walter Reuther and his brother Victor had heard that their friend, the great labor journalist, was in need of money, and the award was designed as a cover for the "honorarium" which went with it. However, four years later, when Mary Heaton Vorse died at the age of 92, Walter Reuther released a statement to the press which summarized why Vorse was worthy of a social justice award. "She was one of the great labor writers of all time," he said. "She wrote with deep compassion of the human need for working class people…. Mary Heaton Vorse was part of the UAW." In reality, Vorse was part of a much larger community, that of workers everywhere. She earned her place through her writing, which resonated with a passion for simple justice.


Garrison, Dee. Mary Heaton Vorse: The Life of an American Insurgent. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1989.


Mary Heaton Vorse Papers, Archives of Labor History and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University, Detroit, Michigan.

Kathleen Banks Nutter , Manuscripts Processor at the Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts