Mary Chase wrote fourteen published plays, six of which ran on Broadway, including “Harvey,” about an amiable lush and his invisible rabbit pal, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, is one of the longest-running plays in Broadway history, and continues to be produced throughout the country and around the world. Yet newspapers in the 1940s and 50s routinely described Chase as a housewife. As an A.P. article put it, she “never pretends to be anything more than a wife and mother who writes plays in her spare time.”
Based on the evidence of Chase’s accomplishments — and how hard she worked for them — as chronicled in Mimi Pockross’s new biography of her, “Pulling Harvey Out of Her Hat: The Amazing Story of Mary Coyle Chase” (Rowman & Littlefield, 170 pages), it might be more accurate to write “she pretends to be nothing more than a wife and mother who writes plays in her spare time.”
But was Mary Chase the one who was pretending? Or did the world and the times impose this narrative?
These are questions that come up while reading this slim, sometimes exasperating biography, but not because the author explicitly poses them. Indeed, rather than questioning this outdated perspective, Pockross at times feels complicit in perpetuating it.
Mary Coyle was born in 1907 (or 1906; the date is disputed) the daughter of a large Irish immigrant family in Denver, Colorado. She decided on a career as a playwright when she was 11 years old – or so the story goes — after attending her first play (a Shakespeare tragedy; the specific one is disputed) in the Denver theater district. To that end, she studied Greek and Latin in college, and became a reporter for the Rocky Mountain News during the 1920s, where she wrote a humor column and a society column, but also covered murder trials and boxing matches. For the story of the opening of the Moffat Tunnel underneath the Continental Divide, she disguised herself as a man, because women were barred from covering the event, seen as too dangerous for them. The biography repeats several stories that sound apocryphal, one of which I found offensive – how an “Indian Chief” offered to buy her from her editor with some blankets.
Coyle met fellow News reporter Robert Chase, and married him, a marriage that produced three children and 11 grandchildren, and lasted 53 years, until her death in 1981.
She made her professional debut as a playwright in 1936, thanks to the Federal Theater Project, which was created as part of the Works Progress Administration to provide employment for theater artists during the Great Depression. The play, called “Me Third,” a comedy about a corrupt politician, was a hit in Denver. The ever-enterprising Chase sent the script to Antoinette Perry, the Broadway actress and director for whom the Tony Awards are named, who was born in Colorado and whose mother still resided in Denver. (Chase had contacted Perry’s mother requesting an introduction.)
“Me Third,” renamed “Now You’ve Done It,” was produced on Broadway, with Perry directing, and Brock Pemberton producing. It ran for only 43 performances. But seven years later, the same Perry-Pemberton team had great success with “Harvey,” which made Chase rich and famous.
“Harvey” was Chase’s effort to cheer up a war-wearied America. She came up with the idea after she awoke from a dream about a psychiatrist being chased by a giant white rabbit, but it recalled the stories from her childhood that her Irish family told of Pookas, mischievous creatures from Celtic folklore. We’re told that Chase made “sixteen major rewrites” of the play, that she insisted that Harvey the rabbit make a visible stage appearance, but after trying this out in Boston, the creative team decided it didn’t work; and that critics have speculated the play was a success because it “avoided war themes and gave an opportunity to laugh at sobriety”
Pockross also details Chase’s other writing — including two simultaneous Broadway successes in 1952, “Mrs. McThing” and “Bernardine,” both initially geared for children — and gives us a glimpse into her unusual writing process: She created a stage from a paper box placed on her kitchen table, and moved empty thread spools on it representing her characters. A useful chapter entitled “Professor Mary,” based on a course she taught in playwriting at the University of Denver in 1964, offers both practical instruction and her personal approach. It’s better in the beginning, she advised her students, to be inspired by an incident that struck them rather than a message they wanted to get across. “Drama is the art of crisis,” she told them. “You glue scenes together with suspense”
“Pulling Harvey Out Of Her Hat” often reads like an article commissioned by the Colorado historical society for a provincial Denver periodical, rather than a book that anyone (even a New Yorker) could be reading. In a paragraph about Chase and her husband taking a world cruise in 1956, for example, the author writes:“In the company of prominent leaders of both Colorado and other parts of the United States, they ate more than three thousand meals aboard the ship.” This tic by an author who (surprise!) is a Colorado resident would be more tolerable if there weren’t page after page of trivia about Denver that seems completely irrelevant to the story of Mary Chase.
The riffs on Denver history and geography are among the digressions that a reader more charitable than I might consider context; they include generic paragraphs about such topics as the Roaring Twenties and the birth of television that any reasonably educated reader would already know, and any reader curious about Mary Chase does not need to know.
This apparent padding feels like a poor substitute for a deeper consideration of Chase’s art, and its interplay with her life and times. After Chase’s success with “Harvey,” a play that takes a benevolent view of alcoholism, she developed a drinking problem. Pockross tells us this briefly, in a couple of sentences (as if she’s too polite to dwell on it.) But the author gives no indication she’s aware of the obvious irony, especially in Chase’s sponsorship of a production of “Harvey” to raise money for House of Hope, a Denver non-profit for female alcoholics. A more in-depth biography might explore Chase’s relationship to alcohol and how it played out in her work. This lack of awareness feels most crucial in passages that consider Chase’s status as a woman in a man’s world. I was taken aback by the following passage, which Pockross writes right after telling us that Mary Coyle was a brilliant student who graduated from high school at the age of 15:
“As gifted as Mary Coyle was in brainpower, she was also growing up and becoming a very attractive young woman. She had porcelain skin, wide grey eyes, dark curly hair flecked with hints of red, and beautiful legs. The combination of brains and beauty were definite assets when it came to pursuing her dreams.”
This description about a 15-year-old girl in a book published in 2020! How much of the grown-up Mary Chase’s protestations of being no more than a housewife — if indeed that is what she claimed, both publicly and privately — were a strategy to co-opt the sexism of the age? Other than a throwaway line about how the misogyny of Chase’s male colleagues at the Rocky Mountain News inspired the character of Dr. Sanderson in “Harvey,” Pockross doesn’t explore the issue; it doesn’t seem to have occurred to her to do so. But we do get that line about her legs being an asset to her dreams, followed by pages about Chase’s poor housekeeping skills, and what she was like as a parent, and what her children grew up to become. I can’t imagine a living playwright like Sarah Ruhl — who is also a wife and mother of three children — putting up with such an approach.
However, we also learn that among Chase’s celebrity friendships (which included Jimmy Stewart and Helen Hayes) was Dorothy Parker, who considered Chase to be “a great undiscovered wit” (high praise from such a discovered wit.) We learn that Chase marched in support of labor rights. We learn (as I mentioned) that she disguised herself as a man when necessary. These are but fleeting bits in this biography, but they help justify the subtitle: Mary Coyle Chase’s story does sound amazing, and merits a deeper look.