Mary McCarthy, age 11, returns to Seattle to live with her maternal grandparents in 1923.

  • By Paula Becker
  • Posted 12/18/2007
  • Essay 8425

In 1923, 11-year-old Mary McCarthy (1912-1989), who will become an eminent American author, returns to Seattle, her birthplace, with Harold Preston (1858-1938), her maternal grandfather.  Since the sudden deaths of both of their parents in the 1918 influenza pandemic, Mary and her three younger brothers have been living in Minneapolis with their paternal great-aunt and great-uncle under physically and emotionally abusive conditions.  In Seattle Mary is enrolled in the Forest Ridge/Sacred Heart Convent, a school for girls run by the Sisters of the Sacred Heart.  She later attends Garfield High School in Seattle for one year, and graduates in 1929 from Annie Wright Seminary in Tacoma.

Preston Grandparents

Of her new home at 712 35th Avenue in Seattle with her maternal grandparents, Harold and Augusta Preston, McCarthy later wrote:

"I was impressed by our house and its appurtenances, much as I had been as a young child: the bay window seat in the parlor, the cabinet with opaline Tiffany glass and little demitasse cups, all different, the grass wallpaper, the pongee-silk curtains, the sleeping porches upstairs, the hawthorn tree in front of the house, the old carriage block with the name 'Preston' carved on it, the date '1893' over the front door ... to me the house was like a big toy, full of possibilities for experiment and discovery" (Memories...p. 222). 

McCarthy's late mother's bedroom was redecorated for her in green and violet.  She had full access to the family library.

By the time she came to live with them, McCarthy's grandparents were not active participants in Seattle's social scene.  Harold Preston had served as state senator from 1897 to 1901, had chaired the commission that formulated Seattle's second charter in 1896, and had an active law practice up until the time of his death.  Augusta Preston, while close to her sons and sisters, did not entertain beyond the family circle, although McCarthy describes in detail her grandmother's daily ritual of preparing for her afternoon of shopping in Seattle's downtown department stores.

McCarthy explored the mysteries of her grandmother's character in her memoirs, considering whether her relative reclusion might be connected to a failed face lift (an inept surgeon had injected wax under her skin and the result was disturbing), lingering grief over her daughter Tess McCarthy's death, a complication of the marriage between a Jew and Protestant, or something else, concluding "Of one thing I was certain: my grandmother was more different from the rest of us than I could ever have conceived" (Memories ... p. 243).        

A Catholic Girlhood

Mary started first grade at Forest Ridge in the fall of 1918, but contracted chicken pox after only a month.  By the time she was well, the family -- (Mary, her parents Tess (1888-1918) and Roy McCarthy (1880-1918), and brothers Kevin (b. 1914), Preston (b. 1915) and Sheridan (1917-1966) -- was preparing to move to Minneapolis, where Roy McCarthy had grown up and where his parents still lived.  While en route by train Tess and Roy McCarthy became ill and both died shortly after arriving in Minneapolis, victims of the global Spanish influenza pandemic.

Roy McCarthy had been Catholic and Tess Preston, whose mother was Jewish and father Protestant, had converted to Catholicism at her marriage.  Mary had been baptized at Saint James Cathedral in Seattle.  During her years at Forest Ridge she attended mass each week at Immaculate Conception Church at the insistence of her paternal grandfather, Harold Preston, who was intent on supporting his late daughter's chosen faith for the daughter she did not live to rear. 

Losing Her Religion

Life as a boarder at Forest Ridge included mass every morning and benediction every evening. The girls curtsied and spoke French, wearing blue serge dresses with white collars and cuffs.  Black net veils were worn in church, with white veils substituted on feast days.  The teachers were cloistered nuns and the syllabus they taught from had been adopted in 1805.  McCarthy later wrote, "The select Sacred Heart atmosphere took my breath away.  The very austerities of our life had a mysterious aristocratic punctillio ... I felt as though I stood on the outskirts and observed the ritual of a cult, a cult of fashion and elegance in the sphere of religion" (Memories ... p. 104). 

During her Minneapolis years, McCarthy's Catholicism had been almost overwhelmingly devout.  At Forest Ridge she began applying logic to the Catholic doctrine as she understood it and was not able to balance the resulting equation.  Feeling socially excluded by the other girls at the school, McCarthy conceived a plan to make a name for herself by announcing that she had lost her faith.  Although she planned to dramatically  announce a return of that faith within a few days, in the process of defending her position to the priests she realized that much of her religious skepticism was actually genuine.  She later described the impact of this monumental shift in her self-definition in Memories of a Catholic Girlhood:

"My own chief sensation was one of detached surprise at how far I'd come from my old mainstays, as once, when learning to swim, I had been doing the dead-man's float and looked back, raising my doused head, to see my water wings drifting, far behind me, on the lake's surface" (p. 123).

Garfield High and Annie Wright

In the fall of 1925, McCarthy entered Seattle's Garfield High School as a freshman.  Although she later wrote "I was born as a mind during 1925" (How I Grew, p. 1), McCarthy's formerly high grades plummeted.  She took part in the school plays, made friends, and rooted for Garfield's football team.  After one year McCarthy's grandparents enrolled her in the Annie Wright Seminary, an Episcopal boarding school in Tacoma founded by Reverend John Adam Paddock in 1884.


During McCarthy's time there, Annie Wright students were required to wear a uniform consisting of a dark blue pleated skirt, a long-sleeved white blouse, lisle or woolen stockings, and brown or black oxford shoes.  The Raising Bell rang at 6:45 each morning and Lights Out was at 9:30 every night.  Board and tuition was $1,200 per year.

At Annie Wright McCarthy found two important mentors: Ethel MacKay (called Miss Gowrie in Memories of a Catholic Girlhood), a Scottish woman with a master's degree from the University of Edinburgh, who taught Latin, and Dorothy Atkinson, a Vassar graduate who was McCarthy's English teacher and inspired her to apply to Vassar rather than to the University of Washington.

Mary McCarthy was valedictorian of her graduating class at Annie Wright.  She left Seattle for Vassar in the fall of 1929.


The Annie Wright Seminary, The Annie Wright Seminary, Forty-Second Year (course catalog, Northwest Room, Seattle Public Library); Carol Gelderman, Mary McCarthy: A Life (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988); Frances Kiernan, Seeing Mary Plain (New York: W.W. Norton, 2000);  Mary McCarthy, Memories of a Catholic Girlhood (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1957); Mary McCarthy, How I Grew (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1987).

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