1920s: Mary Roberts Rinehart, Pittsburgh novelist and mystery writer
With the publication of “The Circular Staircase” in 1908, Mary Roberts Rinehart established a national reputation as an author of mysteries when her book sold more than a million copies.
A charming, dark-haired storyteller, the Pittsburgh native was prolific, producing a total of 60 books and seven plays. During World War I, she was a war correspondent based in Belgium for The Saturday Evening Post. When the armistice was signed in 1919, she was in Paris.
Success made her a celebrity and her wealth paid for an elegant home in Sewickley, a 24-room seaside retreat in Bar Harbor, Maine, and a posh New York apartment on Park Avenue. Kenneth Parker of The Parker Pen Company created a snub-nosed fountain pen for the author after she complained that she could not find a writing instrument to capture her thoughts on paper as quickly as they spilled from her mind. (She wrote in longhand.)
In a Victorian era when most women aspired to be wives and mothers, Mrs. Rinehart began studying nursing at age 17. Many of her patients were factory workers who were mangled by machinery. What she saw imbued her with compassion for human suffering and a strong distaste for social injustice.
At Pittsburgh’s Homeopathic Hospital, she met Dr. Stanley Rinehart. While the hospital prohibited friendships, let alone romances, between doctors and staff, the couple became secretly engaged in 1894 and married in 1896. It was a fresh start for Mrs. Rinehart, whose father, a frustrated inventor, had committed suicide in 1895.
The young couple gambled in the stock market, lost all their savings in a 1903 crash and wound up $12,000 in debt. While Dr. Rinehart continued to make house calls, Mrs. Rinehart began writing verse, short stories and articles.
By 1907, the Rineharts had three young sons — Stan Jr., Alan and Ted — and had moved to a larger home in the 900 block of Beech Street on the North Side.
A year later, publication of “The Circular Staircase” launched Mrs. Rineharts’ career as a novelist and mystery writer.
In 1920, “The Bat,” a play she wrote with Avery Hopwood, was a smash hit on Broadway. Touring productions featuring a costumed criminal were staged throughout the country. In 1946, Life Magazine reported that more than 10 million people saw the play and that it grossed more than $9 million.
Mrs. Rinehart loved to climb mountains, fish and ride horses. She also smoked a pack of cigarettes a day. Her day typically started with breakfast in bed. She then wrote from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and took tea at 5 p.m.
Dr. Rinehart died in 1932. In his absence, his widow traveled often and worked obsessively.
In 1947, Mrs. Rinehart’s life became a melodrama when Plas Reyes, a chef she had employed for 25 years, tried to kill her at her summer home in Maine. The gun he used misfired. Mrs. Rinehart fled and was rescued by her chauffeur, who threw Reyes to the floor. The chef later hung himself in jail.
In 1954, the author published “A Light in the Window.” That same year, the Mystery Writers of America gave her a special award. By then, she was too ill to attend the dinner staged in her honor. At age 82, she died in New York City in 1958.
— Marylynne Pitz