From the grave to fame

CHICAGO SUN-TIMES, AUG. 5, 2001

By Jack Star

This month I Cannot Tell a Lie, Exactly, a collection of short stories by Mary Ladd Gavell, a writer who died 34 years ago and was never published in her lifetime, is being brought out by Random House. The following article by a veteran Chicago author and journalist tells how a Schaumburg book discussion group began the saga that led to a prestigious publishing house issuing the collection.

A year ago I received a phone call from a woman who was a member of the Class of 1937 at Austin High School with my late wife, Dorothy. Melita Parker of Park Ridge, a retired Chicago schoolteacher and assistant principal, appealed to my declining abilities as a onetime investigative reporter on Chicago newspapers, Look magazine and Chicago magazine.

She belonged to a book discussion group that met weekly at a suburban campus of Roosevelt University. At that time it was reading John Updike's Best American Short Stories of the Century, which contained the novelist's choice of the 55 best tales from among the 2,000 that had been selected since 1915 for the annual Best American Short Stories. Their writers included such giants as Ernest Hemingway, Wiliam Faulkner, Willa Cather, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Philip Roth. Each month the Schaumburg group leader assigned a different short story to each member. My wife's forlorn friend complained that she had drawn the most obscure writer of the lot, a woman who had never had a story published in her lifetime. Parker said she was supposed to discuss the story and provide biographical information on the author. But the book provided only three scant lines of biography. The author of "The Rotifer," a chillingly insightful story of love and deception, was a woman named Mary Ladd Gavell. Her publisher's bio said she was born in the tiny Texas town of Cuero (Spanish for "rawhide") and died in 1967, a year before the story first saw print in a magazine called Psychiatry, as a memorial to her by her colleagues at the magazine, where she had been managing editor.

Parker was right about the author being unknown. Researchers in the literary and women's studies sections of the Chicago Public Library couldn't find her name in a score of directories. Nor did it appear in newspaper files or in genealogies. Rising to the challenge, I did a computer search of the nation's telephone directories. I noted in the Best American Short Stories of the Century credits that copyright to "The Rotifer" was held by somebody named Stefan F. Gavell. My computer had no trouble finding him. He was now elderly and remarried, living in retirement in Palm City, Fla. He and Mary Ladd had married after meeting in Washington, where both worked for the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization.

Mary Gavell's life was remarkable as well as sad. She was born in 1919. Her father was a Methodist minister and public school superintendent; her mother was a high school teacher of German. After following in her mother's footsteps as a schoolteacher (one of the few professions available then to women), young Mary Ladd earned a master's degree in linguistics from the University of Texas at Austin (her dissertation was on the strange dialects of Texans), but found no opportunities for work in that field.

With the outbreak of World War II, Ladd moved to Washington for a job as a writer with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. From there she moved to the United Nations food agency where she met her husband, an agricultural economist trained at Oxford University. Using her writing skills, Mary Gavell became managing editor of Psychiatry, which had been founded by the late Harry Stack Sullivan, a distinguished psychiatrist who developed a theory of psychiatry based on interpersonal relations.

Tragically, Gavell, the mother of two young boys, developed breast cancer and died on Jan. 19, 1967. For years she had been writing short stories--a score of them--but had never succeeded in getting a single one published. As a tribute to their beloved managing editor, her former colleagues at the Washington-based magazine printed one of these stories, "The Rotifer," in its May, 1967, issue. Despite its unusual history, it was reprinted in Best American Short Stories of 1968, an astonishing honor for a deceased and unknown author. "I tried for years to get her stories published," said her former husband, "but everybody told me that there was no interest in a dead author." I told Stefan Gavell not to believe that for a moment. "Herman Melville," I told him, "really wasn't truly discovered until many years after his death."

Getting Gavell published indeed was difficult. Finding a literary agent for an unknown writer is not easy. I e-mailed a proposal to the University of Texas Press, an obvious choice for a Texas writer writing about Texas, but didn't receive a reply. Neither did I hear from a half dozen leading Texas literary editors, except for one who told me dourly that "I'll throw your suggestion into the idea slush pile." But I had learned in life and journalism to run around such nay-sayers.

I lunched with the remarkable Chicago publisher Ivan Dee, who agreed to read Gavell's unpublished stories but reluctantly decided his small specialist firm wasn't right for them. Undismayed, I sent an e-mail proposal to the Chicago Tribune's retired literary editor, John Blades of Evanston, himself a novelist. Blades sent my suggestion on to his New York literary agent, David McCormick. Within a few weeks Random House took on Mary Gavell's collection of 16 short stories.

Now book groups all around the country will be able to enjoy the sensitivities of a great American writer who is no longer an unknown.