Johnson, Review on Mary L. Booth

Reviews

Suzanne Johnson on Tricia Foley, Mary L. Booth: The Story of an Extraordinary 19th-Century Woman (2018). 239 p. Illustrations.  $44.99. Available from amazon.com. ISBN 9781986346245

In every town on Long Island, there’s at least one old house, set close to the road, maybe with overgrown vegetation, and looking a bit neglected.  Some of these old houses are tied to significant people or events in their community’s past, revealing their history to anyone who cares to dig it up.   Thirty years ago, one such house in Yaphank caught the attention of designer/author Tricia Foley. She bought a weekend house there and noticed a small sign on the old house next door, which stated “Birthplace of Mary Louise Booth, Famous Author and Magazine Editor.” Being in the same line of business, Ms. Foley was intrigued. We are fortunate she dug into the history and uncovered its connection to a truly amazing woman, Mary Louise Booth.  Over the past twenty-five years, Ms. Foley has labored to get the story of this once well-known woman out to today’s audience.  Through exhibits, lectures, and now this book, her extensive research has led to the first illustrated biography of this important figure in our history.

Born in Millville in 1831, before the mill town changed its name to Yaphank, Mary Booth was the oldest of four children of William Chatfield Booth and Nancy Monsell.  When her father was appointed the headmaster of the Millville School, they had moved from Southold and built the house on Main Street in 1829.  In the summers her father worked in the nearby woolen mill.   Mary Louise was a child prodigy who apparently had read the Bible at five years old. She attended the female seminary in Southold, the Miller Place Academy, and the Bellport Academy studying Latin, mathematics, and the classics. She became fluent in seven languages and wrote or translated 47 books.

 

In 1845, when Mary Louise was 14, the family moved to Williamsburgh, Brooklyn when the elder Booth obtained a principal position there at PS1. There she studied with Professor Abadie at the Collegiate Institute for Young Ladies. She lived with her family until about 18 when she moved to Manhattan where she would spend the rest of her life as a writer, editor, and translator.

At 24 years old in 1855 she met Susan B. Anthony and became involved in the women’s suffrage movement, serving as secretary of the first Seneca Falls convention.  Although asked to take a greater role in the National Woman Suffrage Association, she preferred to support the cause through her writing.

At only 26 years she was asked to write the first History of the City of New York as a text for schoolchildren. The first edition appeared in 1859, with subsequent expanded editions in 1867 and 1880. At the same time, her reputation as a translator grew. An interesting anecdote relates that she translated letters for Frédéric Bartholdi and introduced Bartholdi to the right people in New York as he sought support for creating the Statue of Liberty.  When the monument was dedicated in 1886, Booth was not in attendance because women were not invited to the ceremony.

Her work advancing the anti-slavery movement involved translating two important works from the French:  Results of Slavery and Results of Emancipation, both published in 1863 by Augustin Cochin. Earlier translations included The Uprising of a Great People in 1861, and America Before Europe in 1862, by Count Agénor de Gasparin so that Abraham Lincoln could read them.  She received a letter from the president personally thanking her for her role in supporting the Union cause.

In 1867 she became the first editor of Harper’s Bazaar magazine (following its predecessor the German publication Der Bazaar), a position she held for twenty years.  The weekly publication, A Repository of Fashion, Pleasure, and Instruction, allowed Booth to create a modern woman’s magazine.  Her success grew such that she owned two townhouses on 59th Street and Park Avenue where she held popular salons, bringing together all the noted scholars and artists of the day.  She was famous: a friend described her as “a prominent, highly-cultured, high-minded woman.”

When she died on March 5, 1889 of bronchitis, she was only 58 years old. Her longtime companion, Mrs. Anne Wright, died a year later and they are buried together with Booth’s parents in Cypress Hills cemetery in Brooklyn.

Her obituary was published in many newspapers including The New York Times. Having never married, her nephew inherited her book collection and letters, with instructions for him to use them to publish her biography.  Unfortunately when he filed for bankruptcy two years later, her books and letters were sold which are now dispersed all over the country. There is no central repository of her papers.  Enter Ms. Foley who has tracked down the bits and pieces of her life to compile exhibits, lectures and finally her book.  Her efforts led to Booth’s inclusion in an exhibit about the American Pre-Raphaelites movement at the National Gallery of Art in 2019.  Currently Booth’s role as the founding editor of Harper’s Bazaar is highlighted in a new exhibition and publication on the 150-year history of the magazine at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris.

Her birthplace, the Mary L. Booth House Museum, was restored by Suffolk County and the Yaphank Historical Society in 2011.  The home is now on the National Register of Historic Places and is a Brookhaven Town landmark. An historic marker was placed there in 2017 by the William J. Pomeroy Foundation.  Ms. Foley’s tireless efforts to see that Booth’s significant accomplishments are recognized locally, nationally, and internationally are to be admired. But the movie of Mary Booth’s life has yet to be filmed.  Ken Burns and Meryl Streep:  are you listening?

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