Vintage Lit: Mary Roberts Rinehart & Her Maine Connection

Lurid 1950s book cover The Yellow Room with a man holding a woman over his arm
Mary Roberts Rinehart's The Yellow Room

We’ve all heard the big Maine literature names from days of old: Sarah Orne Jewett, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, E.B. White, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Edna St. Vincent Millay. I love them all. However, there is more to Maine literary history than these venerable writers. I’ve been astounded to realize that many popular-in-their-day genre fiction writers also resided in Maine at some point in their life. 

Take one standout, Mary Roberts Rinehart, for example. 

Background

Mary Roberts Rinehart was born in Allegheny (now part of Pittsburgh) in 1876. In 1903, she began writing as a way to earn money when her husband’s finances took a downturn. A short story appeared in Munsey’s Magazine, and from there on out she wrote as a professional. Her first full-length novel, The Circular Staircase, came out in 1908, and like many writers of that time period, she also serialized novels in magazines. Those novels ended up being published as books. 

One serialization appeared in The Saturday Evening Post and became the Letitia Carberry Series beginning with The Amazing Adventures of Letitia Carberry in 1911.

A Colette Connection?

I recently re-watched an excellent biopic about French writer, Colette who wrote a series of books based on another engaging heroine, Claudine. The books were written between 1900 and 1903. I wonder if the Colette sensation influenced writers like Mary Roberts Rinehart. Unlike her French counterpart whose husband (an early James Patterson who hired ghostwriters to pen books under his name), sometimes locked her in a room for hours, forcing her to write the next hot Claudine tale, the American, Rinehart, published under her own name, made her own money, and controlled her own career.

The American Agatha Christie

Besides being a successful writer, Rinehart became a WWI war correspondent and over the course of her long career wrote some romances (many of her romances were adapted as movies starring well-known Golden Age of Hollywood actors) and plays. But Rinehart became famous for her mystery stories. She published her first mystery, The Circular Staircase, in 1908.  She is given credit for inventing the “had I but known” mystery trope and became known as the American Agatha Christie. High praise, indeed! 

One of her mystery novels, The Bat, may have been an early influence on the creation of Bob Kane’s Batman.

Mary Rinehart continued to publish a book every year or two, slowing down a bit by the 1930s. Her fiction isn’t “art.” It’s popular fiction. Because this type of writing isn’t in “the canon,” many of these popular authors and their books fade into history, unremembered, not celebrated. But this woman made a better than good living for herself and her family.

Publishing Trivia: Mary Rinehart’s sons, Frederick Rinehart and Stanley Rinehart, Jr., started a publishing company, Farrar & Rinehart, Inc. with John Farrar. Farrar left to found Farrar & Straus, and the original firm was renamed Rinehart & Company.  Mary Robert Rinehart’s later books were published by her sons’ company and became a mainstay for the press. 

Rinehart & Company merged with Henry Holt & Company and the John C. Winston Company to form Holt, Rinehart, & Winston in1960. In 1967, the company was acquired by CBS. The company had both a retail and an educational publishing arm. In 1985 the Georg von Holtzbrinck Publishing Group bought the Holt name and the retail publishing side of HRW. That same company acquired the Macmillan name in 2001, and is now the Macmillan Group with a Henry Holt imprint still intact. Also in 1985, Harcourt bought the education publishing side along with the Holt, Rinehart, and Winston name. Hougton Mifflin bought it from Harcourt in 2007. It was combined and is now publishing educational materials under the name Holt McDougal. TWISTY!

Bar Harbor, Maine

Rinehart rented a cottage in Bar Harbor in 1935 and 1936 and decided to buy her own estate in 1938. Enter Farview. The house was set on top of a hill with beautiful vistas spreading below. She had a fishpond built and decorated the house in pastel colors and lovely furniture and upholstery. Her 40th book, The Wall, is set in a not-very-disguised Bar Harbor. She serialized the book in The Saturday Evening Post for $65,000! 

According to the website of the Wonder View Inn (see link below), which is set on the Farview Site, Rinehart enjoyed her life in Bar Harbor, where her summers “were now filled with friends, dinner parties and social events.” 

Of course I can’t help but think about another celebrity who now summers in Bar Harbor, throws sumptuous dinner parties and entertains friends at her beautiful home. And for those lit history fans/buffs, here is a chance to stay in a beautiful town and inn where a famous writer once worked and played. On my bucket list, for sure.

Rinehart hired a butler in 1947, and her cook, Reyes, took exception. Well, perhaps he really lost his mind because he pulled a gun on Mary and fired… and fired and fired and fired. Luckily, the gun failed to go off, Reyes was arrested, and then he hung himself in jail.

That October, 1947, Maine burned. Many homes in Bar Harbor, including Farview, turned to ash. Mary lived the rest of her life in New York, wrote a few more books, and died of a heart attack in 1958.

I hope to find some of Mary Robert Rinehart’s books, especially those written in her Bar Harbor years. Her drive, her skill, her determination to make a career of writing in the early 20th Century, inspires me. I hope it does you as well. There are so many popular writers whose books have not stood the so-called “test of time” as literary masterpieces. I say, let’s rediscover them and celebrate them.

Those of us who write popular mystery fiction (and any type of pop genre fiction) are continuing a tradition that goes back a long way. We may not end up in “the canon,” but, like Mary Roberts Rinehart, we can entertain, enthrall, and thrill our readers. 

Whether or not we can buy a Bar Harbor estate is another question. 

Serialization Today: When magazines start buying and serializing stories for the modern-day equivalent of $65,000, maybe then some of us could see the kind of financial success that Mary Roberts Rhinehart enjoyed. Things have changed. Popular magazines rarely publish fiction anymore. Print serialization is almost completely obsolete.  

However, serialization has been resurrected in a different sphere–online. The writing platform, Wattpad, as well as Amazon’s Kindle Vella, allows writers to serialize works of fiction and nonfiction. Most of Wattpad’s writers give away their storites free of charge, but Wattpad’s Paid program allows a few chosen writers to make a small amount of money per read. Vella also pays writers based on downloads and reads.

I can’t say how much I was paid the year my original Liv Lively story Disguised was in the program, but there is this:  I continue to own a modest cottage in a rural Maine town, not a mansion on the coast. I won’t be buying any Farview’s any time soon.  

Wattpad gave me the chance to write the book that is now to be published as Final Draft: An Olivia Lively Mystery. It will come out in print, and I’ll be able to see a novel with my name on the cover out in the world.  Without that site, I never would have written the book. Of that I am certain, and for that I am grateful. Xoxo SRB 

READER CALL TO ACTION!

Up until now, I’ve never heard of vintage writers like Mary Roberts Rinehart. I’m setting out to change this here on my blog with a series of essays like this one. If you enjoy this post and believe these writers deserve greater recognition, please share the link with others (on your socials, emails, in person over coffee, whatever works for you) who might also find inspiration in their biographies and their books. 

Also, my newsletter has a new name. It’s now REMARKABLE! A Literary Community Newsletter and I aim to highlight books, authors, entrepreneurs, and artists that I find unusual, enlightening, beautiful, and inspiring…worthy of remark. If you haven’t subscribed to my newsletter/mailing list, I invite you to do so. You’ll get a once a month newsletter with even more personal highlights from my life as a writer and person in the world. 

Click link below to go to the signup page and get a free ebook novelette as a thank you for supporting my writing. xoxo SRB

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Sources for this blog post:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Roberts_Rinehart

https://www.britannica.com/biography/Mary-Roberts-Rinehart