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Mr. McClure and Willa

July 2024
17min read

They could hardly have been more temperamentally incompatible, but the Midwestern writer Willa Cather and the crusading editor S. S. McClure enjoyed a splendid working relationship for six years and a lifetime of mutual respect

Willa Cather did not publish her first novel until she was almost forty. Then the cool, rich prose of such novels as My Antonia, Death Comes for the Archbishop, One of Ours (which won a Pulitzer Prize), A Lost Lady, and Lucy Gayheart established her reputation as one of America’s foremost literary figures.

As a young woman she worked as a newspaper critic and columnist, and as a teacher. She was born in 1873 in Virginia and raised in Nebraska, where she also went to college. She was teaching in Pittsburgh and writing short stories on the side when she came to the attention of S. S. McClure, the flamboyant editor and publisher of McClure’s Magazine, who offered her a job as associate editor on his magazine.

In 1906, when Willa Cather came to New York to join the staff of McClure’s, the city was moving rapidly into the twentieth century. Traces of an older, slower, more intimate city survived in the narrow, twisting streets and small red-brick houses of Greenwich Village and in the tree-shaded, Georgian tranquillity of Washington Square. Once this had been a potter’s field and the scene of public hangings with a noose swinging from a huge elm tree; now Stanford White’s great Romanesque arch in honor of Washington dominated the Square. Standing astride the north end, the marble monument served as an imposing gateway to Fifth Avenue and the spreading city beyond. The houses on the north side were dignified and substantial, as befitted New York’s first families—Rhinelanders, De Forests, Delanos, and Hoyts—who had built them and still occupied them. This was the world of Henry James, who found in Washington Square “a kind of established repose.”

On the south side the atmosphere was completely different. Here artists, writers, and musicians had their studios in modest red-brick buildings. It was in one of these cheerful buildings at 60 Washington Square South that Willa Gather took a room. She knew the house well from visits to a Nebraska friend, Edith Lewis, who lived there, and its friendly domestic atmosphere appealed to her. The informal neighborhood of little shops and restaurants, with its mixture of the orderly and the raffish, had retained an individuality and a civility that gave it a European flavor.

Ten years earlier Willa had told a school friend that she had every intention of going to New York one day but that she would never go as a Bohemian. If she recalled these words, it must have amused her to find herself now in an environment that was the classic setting for la vie bohème . The neighbors who greeted her on the stairs or in the narrow hallways, who shared the bath at the end of the corridor and waited patiently in line in bathrobes and slippered feet, were mostly young and struggling. Painters, poets, singers, they practiced their crafts and lived hardworking, precarious lives. Willa enjoyed the stir they created around them, their optimism and exuberance. She approved their ready sympathy for one another and, above all, she admired the dedication and discipline of these young people. One day she would write a story about struggling artists in New York and faithfully describe the red-brick building on the Square. But at thirty-two she was not really one of them. It was not art for art’s sake that brought Willa to New York. She had not come to the big city to starve like Mimi in a garret. She had come as a journalist with a job for which she had been sought out and with expectations already on their way to fulfillment.

She had met S. S. McClure three years earlier when he summoned her to New York to have a look at her and agreed to buy her short stories. In 1905 his publishing company had collected seven of them in a volume called The Troll Garden . He had been watching her career and biding his time. When he was ready, he descended on Pittsburgh to offer her a post on his magazine. She had accepted, but in fact it was as unlikely a job for Willa Gather as could be imagined.

McClure’s had built its reputation as a powerful, muckraking journal, the scourge of mighty corporations, the flayer of corrupt politicians, a voice raging against the ills of an industrial society. A strange setting, indeed, for a young woman who, if not a Bohemian, was emphatically not a reformer either. A critic who disliked Zola and Tolstoy in their reforming moods, she had no use for reformers when she met them in the flesh. They offended her by always seeming to press for the destruction of something. She thought they spent so much time in the company of horrible ideas that it made them mad, like Electra. Yet here she was, working for McClure’s , still the most successful reforming magazine in America despite a series of difficulties that had almost destroyed the magazine and, with it, S. S. McClure’s career.

At the heart of the trouble was the man himself. Sam McClure was an editorial genius, but his private affairs were messy and mismanaged. The brilliant editor who could conceive an exposé of Standard Oil and get Ida Tarbell to write it, who could give Lincoln Steffens carte blanche to bring in a story of municipal corruption, who could uncover the demons in the body politic, was incapable of controlling the demons in himself. He had an agile mind, crammed with bold and imaginative ideas, but he was hopeless when it came to money and appallingly inept in his romantic attachments. His restless nature demanded that he constantly be on the move, and he had grown accustomed to spending months at a time out of the office, usually in Europe, sometimes traveling in the United States. An able staff, headed by John Phillips, with Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, and Ray Stannard Baker, managed the magazine without him.

In the beginning the arrangement had seemed to work well. It was something of a respite for the staff to have the manic presence removed, and for McClure it was an opportunity to look around for new talent—he had first met Ida Tarbell when she was working in Paris—and to develop new markets. He not only had the magazine to occupy him but a publishing house and a highly successful syndicate as well. For ten years McClure had been able to keep his own needs and those of the magazine in some sort of balance, but it became increasingly evident that even heroic measures on the part of the staff and his own frequent acts of contrition were insufficient to prevent an explosion.

Willa Cather left her own impression of McClure in the person of O’Malley, who appears in the 1918 short story “Ardessa” as the editor of a “red-hot magazine of protest” called The Outcry . Like McClure, O’Malley had bought the magazine to make a stir, and he had built up an organization of which “he was somewhat afraid and with which he was vastly bored. There were five famous men on his staff and he had made every one of them.” In perhaps the most acute description of her own boss, Willa wrote: “Constraint was the last thing O’Malley liked. The most engaging and unusual thing about the man was that he couldn’t be fooled by the success of his own methods, and no amount of ‘recognition’ could make a stuffed shirt of him. … O’Malley went in for everything, and got tired of everything; that was why he made a good editor.”

But by 1904 McClure’s staff had grown tired of him. They hadn’t minded the absences from the office, the working trips abroad, but when word came back of his more notorious escapades, of the young women who accompanied him on his grand sweeps through Europe, of the vast sums of money he was spending, the office was disgusted. Ida Tarbell, in a private letter to John Phillips, called McClure a “canny, scheming, unstable soul—now at the height of aspiration and ambition and now in the mire.” His wife had taken to coming to the office and was given a room and a desk where she could keep an eye on things, but her seeming indifference served only to infuriate Ida Tarbell. “Mrs. McClure is stone blind and deaf and dumb,” wrote Tarbell. “She makes me wild.”

Only a woman who had never been married could seriously have believed that Hattie McClure was unaware of her husband’s philandering. No one knew him better than she did, his formidable weaknesses as well as his formidable gifts, but in her own way Hattie was as canny as he and even more tenacious. For seven years, while Sam McClure worked his way through Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, Hattie had held out against her parents’ opposition to the penniless young Irishman who courted her. So strongly did her father disapprove that he sent his daughter away to school, refused to divulge her address, and forbade the young couple to correspond. He made it very clear that the front door of the Hurd home would always be closed to Hattie’s suitor. Still they persisted, until one day Hattie informed her parents that she intended to marry Sam with or without their blessing. At his wife’s urging, Professor Hurd grudgingly permitted the wedding to take place at home, but he took the occasion to reiterate his opinion of the groom in a letter to the bride: “I consider him conceited, impertinent and meddlesome,” he wrote, at the same time reassuring his daughter that, “I shall not cease to love you.”

McClure’s subsequent success somewhat mollified his in-laws, but the professor’s sentiments never really changed. For Hattie the marriage had been achieved with too much heartache for her to turn on her husband now when his staff was closing ranks against him. Besides, Hattie Hurd McClure was a proud woman who knew how to keep her feelings to herself, and she would not allow herself to be disconcerted by office gossip. She had hoped that by working in the office she would be able to look out for McClure’s interests, but the atmosphere was deteriorating daily. Meetings were held in corridors and behind closed doors to compare notes about the publisher’s latest offense. Writers and editors who had addressed themselves to the sins of society in the pages of McClure’s Magazine were now charging the publisher himself with the most heinous defects of character.

His face, according to one of the memos circulating about the office, was “streaked with cruelty.” Ida Tarbell’s language became so hysterical it seems probable that her reproaches to her boss must have hidden more than a touch of wounded personal vanity. “He’s a Mormon,” she wrote in one of her letters, “an uncivilized, unmoral, untutored natural man with enough canniness to keep himself out of jails and asylums.”

Matters had finally gone too far to be salvaged. Phillips presented an ultimatum, demanding that McClure surrender control of the magazine. When he refused—he simply couldn’t let it go, he said—Phillips, Tarbell, Steffens, and Baker resigned in a body. McClure might keep his magazine; he would not keep his staff.

This was the situation in the office when Willa came to work in the summer of 1906. The great upheaval had already taken place. Of the old group only a few loyal confederates remained—Viola Roseboro, Witter Bynner, and Burton Hendrick on the editorial side and Albert Brady, who stayed on as business manager. Bynner, who had come to McClure’s right out of Harvard in 1902, was serving a brief stint as managing editor when the “ex-schoolteacher from Pittsburgh,” as he called her, joined the staff. From the beginning a coolness existed between Bynner and Willa Cather that may have had its origin the year before when Willa spent a week in the office at McClure’s invitation. Bynner had been asked by the publisher to cut what he remembered forty years later as “hundreds of words” from “The Sculptor’s Funeral,” a Cather story that was to appear in the issue of January 1905. Bynner recommended that the cuts be spread throughout the piece to prevent having to eliminate entire paragraphs, and McClure agreed. The author had not been informed, however.

“I can still hear her explosion in his office and see her enraged expression toward me,” wrote Bynner, “when Mr. McClure pretended that the cutting had been entirely my own idea.” Willa was to learn that injured innocence was a not uncharacteristic pose of her new boss. And as a rule, she accepted criticism when it came from quarters she respected. In fact, she once said that all good writers consented to cuts because they knew there were “plenty more words where those came from. ” Nevertheless, it was not an auspicious start, and the relationship never fully recovered.

F OR VIOLA ROSEBORO , on the other hand, Willa had deep respect. A striking, dark-eyed woman, some sixteen years older than Willa, Viola Roseboro had come to New York from Tennessee, where she had worked on a local newspaper, to take a job on the Daily Graphic before joining McClure’s Syndicate as a manuscript reader. When McClure started his magazine in 1893, she began to read manuscripts for both enterprises, becoming in time the powerful literary editor who saw every short story and every poem submitted to the magazine.

In New York she lived the life of a “female bachelor,” smoking when cigarettes still scandalized, admired by men and women alike, and sending shock waves back to the community of Rock Creek, Ohio, where she had grown up and where her parents continued to live. Like Willa, she was intolerant of small-town manners and held herself aloof from the neighbors. She resented, as mere curiosity, their polite inquiries about her mother’s health, for instance, and interpreted their interest in her own career as an invasion of her privacy.

During the tempest at McClure’s Viola Roseboro had stayed unmoved to a remarkable degree. Loyalty to S. S. McClure alone would probably have kept her from joining the rebellion, but her own peculiar working arrangements also helped to insulate her from the passions that shook the office. Very simply, she spent almost no time at all in the office. Manuscripts were delivered in a suitcase to her home, and she read them either there or in the park, working on a bench, penning her handwritten notes to authors and her comments for McClure.

McClure was an unmoral, untutored natural man, Ida Tarbell wrote, just canny enough to stay out of jail.

In her role as reader for the magazine, Viola Roseboro was probably the first to see Willa Cather’s early stories, and no doubt she was the person who had rejected some of those that were subsequently published elsewhere. She said later that she had recognized Willa Cather’s genius from the start, but that it had taken time for the author’s talents to develop and that she had wasted herself in some of her first attempts. Viola Roseboro may even have encouraged McClure to bring Willa to New York; at least her friends always thought this was the case.

Within a few months of Willa’s arrival, McClure had assembled a whole new staff, many of them writers rather than editors. Will Irwin came over from the New York Sun , where his stories on the San Francisco earthquake had impressed McClure, to relieve Witter Bynner as managing editor. Bynner went back to reading manuscripts for Viola Roseboro and was also made poetry editor. Characteristically McClure assigned another writer, George Kennan—not Irwin, who was a native of San Francisco—to do a muckraking series on the politics of the Bay City. McClure held the firm conviction that a good writer could write on any topic as long as he was given sufficient time to learn about it. He was the first editor to put his writers on a kind of retainer so that they were paid—and paid well—while they were traveling and doing research for a story. A political historian might know the facts about corruption in municipal government but he would probably write a dull story. A fiction writer, on the other hand, knows how to stir readers with his prose, and it was essential that readers of McClure’s Magazine be shaken up.

The short-story writer and novelist George Kibbe Turner was put to work on “certain immediate problems of American civilization and government,” according to an advertisement of the magazine’s plans for 1907. Ellery Sedgwick and Cameron Mackenzie, McClure’s son-in-law, completed the editorial lineup, and the advertisement made it clear that despite the loss of the old guard, McClure’s would continue to run the same kind of provocative material the public had come to expect.

Thanks to Viola Roseboro and McClure’s own missionary efforts abroad, the magazine had established a reputation for publishing fiction of unusually high quality. Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Ebb Tide and St. Ives had appeared in McClure’s . So had Anthony Hope’s Rupert of Hentzau and Rudyard Kipling’s Captains Courageous . The prospectus for 1907 promised short stories by Joseph Conrad, O. Henry, and Viola Roseboro herself. It also announced the publication of “The Namesake” by Willa Cather. “Our list of stories by this writer,” read the copy, “has made a mark in proportion to its strength rather than its length.” Actually only two Gather stories had appeared in McClure’s before Willa went to work there, “The Sculptor’s Funeral” and “Paul’s Case.” As soon as Willa was on the staff, however, her stories began appearing regularly, causing not a little resentment among her colleagues, who claimed she ignored the fiction editor and put her own stories in the magazine without showing them to anyone except McClure, and not always to him.

Undoubtedly McClure’s commitment to fine fiction was one of the magazine’s chief attractions for Willa Cather. Her first assignment, however, had nothing to do with fiction, except insofar as the story she would be working on turned out to be as fascinating, as bizarre, as filled with human interest as any novel. When Phillips, Tarbell, and the others left McClure’s and started their own magazine, the American , they made sure to take with them most of their uncompleted projects. Among those they preferred to leave behind was a strange, dog-eared manuscript that had been around the office for over three years and which they were probably relieved to see the last of. It was a comprehensive life of Mary Baker Eddy and a history of the Christian Science Church she founded; McClure was to consider it one of the most important stories he had ever published. Written by a free-lance writer, Georgine Milmine, the vast, disorganized manuscript had already been worked on by several members of the staff, but it was still badly in need of editing, checking, and rewriting. This was the formidable task McClure turned over to his new associate.

In regard to Willa Gather, McClure’s judgment was astute. She was, he knew, a complicated woman whose feelings ran deep and whose emotions he might guess at from her youthful poems and stories. He had glimpsed the intensity that she controlled so firmly and he admired the loyalty to family and friends that she had exhibited during their early conversations. Now he liked what he saw of her in the office. She was cool and level-headed and she took what was assigned to her and worked hard. Viola Roseboro and others must have made her familiar with the events that led to the “revolution” at McClure’s , and she may have concluded that the publisher had temperament enough for all of them. As for herself, it was not in her nature to indulge in behavior she would have considered unprofessional.

Even before she began the serious task of reworking Milmine’s material, the magazine was preparing its readers for revelations to come. The story, promised an editorial announcement, would take Mrs. Eddy from her birth in a New Hampshire farmhouse through her “strange, hysterical childhood and equally strange youth,” follow her through her marriage and her “wanderings,” and explore the “peculiar phenomena of mind and emotions which mark her character. ” “Wilful, ungoverned and dominant in her youth,” the ad went on, in her old age she became “all dominating,” holding over the Christian Science Church “a control more absolute than any other leader in the western world.”

Milmine’s manuscript was full of potentially libelous material, provocative but undocumented. Verification would require tracking down people who had known Mrs. Eddy in the little towns around Boston, interviewing them, and getting signed affidavits attesting to the truth of their statements. It was a laborious undertaking, and since the job might conceivably take several months, it was decided that Willa should move to Boston temporarily.

She was ill on the bitterly cold January day in 1907 when she left New York, but the magazine’s deadline would not allow a delay, so she checked in at the Parker House in the middle of the month as planned. The first installment of the Mary Baker Eddy story had already run in the January issue and was found to contain errors; it seemed especially important that the remaining articles be accurate. Within a few days of her arrival in Boston, Willa was writing to Mrs. McClure that she had come upon several persons who had not been seen before and who proved helpful. She would proceed slowly until she felt stronger but she was encouraged.

Willa remained in Boston throughout most of 1907, although she managed short trips to New York whenever the work, or Mr. McClure, required her presence there. But the project was even more demanding than she had anticipated. Not only was she checking facts and conducting interviews, but before she finished, she had taken Georgine Milmine’s hundreds of pages and thousands of words of text and completely rewritten them, shaping the material into a brilliant series of articles that ran in fifteen installments over a period of a year and a half. It was decided to retain Milmine’s name as author, but the “Life of Mary Baker Eddy” that appeared in McClure’s has long since been acknowledged to be the work of Willa Cather.

Her style is unmistakable—the brisk narrative, the clarity and the compression: “All the members of her household lived as if they were exactly as old and as much enfeebled as Mrs. Eddy,” reads the article describing the lady’s retirement to Pleasant View in Concord, New Hampshire. “They rose early, retired early; never went out of the house except upon her commissions; never dined out, received visits or went to Boston for a holiday.” Of a piece of childish verse that Mrs. Eddy had allowed to be published in a volume of autobiographical sketches, this judgment rings with familiar Gather scorn: “Many another girl certainly has written verses just as bad, but the fact that at the age of 70, Mrs. Eddy had actually published this doggerel, indicates that her taste had not greatly changed.”

B Y NOT HAVING her name on the series, however, Willa was spared the outrage of the Christian Science Church that descended on the magazine as month after month the tantalizing story unfolded. The publisher must have known very well what he was doing when he kept the Milmine by-line. Newsstand copies of McClure’s were rapidly bought up by the Church, while library copies began to vanish from the shelves or were found to have the Mary Baker Eddy articles neatly excised. An unmutilated copy of McClure’s during these months became a collector’s item.

Sam McClure himself was delighted with the series, and when Willa returned to New York in the fall of 1908, he rewarded her by making her his managing editor. He thought she had a genius for administration and he was only too pleased to leave the daily running of the magazine to her. That she was loyal to him he had no doubt. As managing editor, in addition to developing articles, buying material, and performing executive chores, Willa also acted as a buffer between the editor in chief and writers who felt themselves underpaid or who complained that the magazine’s decisions were not made promptly enough. Her business letters were patient, cordial, and encouraging, but it was often a trial to explain McClure’s bizarre behavior. Manuscripts had a way of disappearing or languishing for months on the publisher’s desk, and Willa often suggested to writers and their agents that they send stories to her personally. She would see to it that McClure read them as soon as possible, and if she could not get a quick decision from him or could not get permission to make a decision herself, she guaranteed to return the stories to the writers promptly. She admitted that theirs was a mysterious office, but she promised it was getting less so all the time.

Mysterious or not, the office had lost none of its liveliness, and although McClure may have been temporarily deflated by the treachery, as he saw it, of his brilliant staff, he had not been defeated. “His electric energy keyed the whole office to a high tension which never relaxed so long as he was in the place; and he seemed to be everywhere at once,” wrote Edith Lewis, Willa’s friend who also worked at the magazine. It was like “working in a high wind, sometimes of cyclonic magnitude,” and the storm center, was, of course, the publisher himself. Yet both Edith and Willa spoke also of his gentleness, his courtesy that extended to everyone from staff writers to office boys, and his particular kindness to the young. Years later Willa told her former “chief” that she thought the secret of his success with young people was that he often thought them a little more able than they really were, which encouraged the best of them to work all the harder to come up to his expectations. She was probably thinking of herself as she had been in those days. She was always eager to please him, she remembered, and he was eager to be pleased. It was one of the happiest associations of her life, and even during the years when they saw little of each other, Willa counted McClure among her closest friends.


In 1913, when he no longer ran the magazine and Willa, too, had gone on to other ventures, McClure asked her to help him write his autobiography. Actually Willa wrote and McClure talked. Pacing the floor in Willa’s apartment, he told her all about his boyhood and his early struggles. The story of his life was published in McClure’s in installments over a period of eight months, and Frederick A. Stokes Co. brought it out in book form in 1914. The only reference to Willa in the entire book is a cryptic note at the beginning: “I am indebted to the cooperation of Miss Willa Sibert Gather for the very existence of this book.” It was McClure’s way of acknowledging that My Autobiography by S. S. McClure was in fact the work of Willa Gather. As for Willa, although she never made any public claim to be the author, her friends were well aware of her role. She often said in explanation of her frequent use of a male character to act as narrator in her books that working with McClure had given her practice in getting inside the skin of a man. And she told one friend that in the “autobiography” she thought she had written “better and truer McClure than McClure himself.”

After Willa’s death in 1947, Edith Lewis paid a visit to McClure in the hospital, where he lay critically ill. When she spoke of a posthumous collection of Willa’s stories that had just appeared, his face lit up. “She was wonderful, a wonderful girl,” he kept repeating. And when she told him that a biography of Willa was being planned, he roused himself to say, “I will help you with it.” He died the following week, at the age of ninety-two.

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