Sunday, June 15, 2003

Researching Mary Zimmerman

This past spring we began a series of queries with the Wisconsin Regional Writers' Association (WRWA) about Mary H. Zimmerman. Why, you’re undoubtedly asking? She’s someone John Bellairs met once while visiting Milwaukee for a friend’s wedding back in the early 1960s. John’s friend and the illustrator of his first three books, Marilyn Fitschen, was also on hand with her husband, Dale, and picks up the story from there:

Running out of sleeping space, a friend of the bride’s family offered to put up some of the wedding party in her house. The house belonged to Mary Zimmerman, a delightful short gray-haired woman, the proverbial little old lady in tennis shoes. She was, at that time, Poet Laureate of Wisconsin! Yes, really! She lived alone in a small house and garden a few blocks from Lake Michigan on the north side of Milwaukee...[inside the house] there were purple perfume bottles, purple nosegays, purple soap dishes with purple soap, and purple bathrobes. There were purple window curtains in the purple bathroom. The other bedrooms were all in purple. Finally coming down to breakfast Sunday morning, we realized that everything in the house was purple.

Mary Zimmerman had an obvious affect on John as he largely based his character Florence Zimmermann in the Lewis Barnavelt series of book on Mary, beginning with The House with a Clock in its Walls (1973).  Besides both being kind, elderly widows with a certain flair for individuality, both are steadfast in their dedication to the color purple.

It turns out Mary was a respected poet and playwright as evidenced from what we received from the Wisconsin Poet Association, following up on Marilyn’s poet laureate comment:
She has published two volumes of poetry, A Gallery of Women’s Portraits and Written on the Lamb’s Skin. Among her published plays are "The D.P.", "The Chocolate Milk Cow" and "Tradem Squaw" - all of which have been widely produced. She is a WRWA (Wisconsin Regional Writers) Jade Ringer. She is a graduate of the University of Chicago [and] a life member of the Wisconsin Historical Society.  She is a widow with a married daughter and two grandchildren.
This is what got us to where we are now, seeking information on Mary Zimmerman. LeAnn Ralph with the WRWA wrote us back in May to let us know the summer 2003 issue of the Wisconsin Regional Writer, the quarterly newsletter of the WRWA, would feature an announcement about our research. Responses have been trickling in and we’re pleased to share a few words from those messages:
I and my children have read The House With a Clock in its Walls, and can recommend it. Quite a fun book!
Someone provided us with a snippet of text from In New Poetry Out of Wisconsin (1969):
Mary H. Zimmerman has been published in A Wisconsin Harvest, The Forge, The Writer, The Flower Grower, Pen and Plow, The Secretary, and elsewhere. Two of her plays - The D.P. and The Chocolate Milk Cow – were produced by the Wisconsin Idea Theatre. She is the author of two collections of poems. She lives in Milwaukee.
Finally we were pointed in the direction of Robert Gard’s 1955 book, Grassroots Theater, where there are a few allusions to Zimmerman, including her hailing from Whitewater and writing her play, "Mister Micawber" in 1948 about frontier Whitewater, "a domestic comedy, and very playable." Another piece discusses the play "The Chocolate Milk Cow," described as a "dairyland fantasy" in which a wonderful Walworth County cow produces chocolate milk but neither cow nor owner can stand the eventual fame. A final reference notes Zimmerman “...is a vital spirit, and her pen is as facile and talented as her conversation....”

Our thanks to those WRWA members who have responded thus far and we look forward to learning more about this most-interesting woman...prolific purple pen and all.

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