Friday, May 19, 2017

Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher

MFK Fisher by Man Ray, 1943
Mary Frances Kennedy, born in 1908, grew up in Whittier, California, where her father owned and edited the Whittier News. Her family lived comfortably in a large house on a ranch and Mary Frances and her sister also spent summers near the ocean in Laguna Beach. Though she loved her close family, she was restless and escaped as soon as possible into a marriage that would take her to Dijon, France, where her husband, Al Fisher, studied for a doctorate. It was the beginning of a love affair, not with her husband, but with southern France, and the ways the French cooked and ate.

Realizing she was not cut out for an academic career, Mary France began cooking in a small, difficult kitchen in Dijon. She cooked for friends, simple meals which would “shake them from their routines, not only of meat-potatoes-gravy, but of thought, of behavior.” When she and Al moved back to the United States, they rented a place in Laguna Beach, next to Dillwyn Parrish and his wife. No work was immediately available for Al in 1932 and they had money troubles which were generally alleviated by Mary Frances’ family.

Among other jobs, Mary Frances began writing amusing intellectual pieces about odd bits she found in historic texts, encouraged by Dillwyn Parrish, who, she said “was a man destined to draw out anything creative in other people.” In complicated circumstances, she traveled with Parrish and her husband Al Fisher back to Switzerland, where Parrish owned a small farm he hoped to turn into an art colony. In short order, Al left Parrish and Mary Frances alone. They had an idyllic time together, but it was soon stopped by the war in Europe. At the same time, Parrish had a blood clotting problem which led to the amputation of his leg. They were married in California, but unremitting pain and lack of hope forced Parrish to commit suicide in 1941. Mary Frances was 33.

In the midst of this turmoil, Mary Frances’ first book, Serve It Forth, was published in 1937 under the name MFK Fisher. After that, she never quit writing. It became a comfort to her. She tried script writing in Hollywood, but never liked writing in committee. Among a widening circle of friends in publishing, she met Donald Friede and married him quite suddenly. Donald was spending money faster than they had it, however. Mary Frances had two daughters, Anna and Kennedy. When her father grew older, she took her daughters back home to take care of him and work for the Whittier News, divorcing Donald.

Upon her father’s death, the News was sold. Mary Frances moved with her daughters to St. Helena in the wine country in California. The next years were spent writing and taking her daughters back and forth to Europe to further their education, although it might be said that Mary Frances’ own restlessness provoked much of this travel. She also became a fixture in the Napa Valley, where the wine business was becoming serious, and gastronomes such as James Beard had settled. Mary Frances, as the oldest of her remaining siblings, entertained constantly and always tried to get her family together over the holidays.

In her later books, Mary Frances often wrote about places, Whittier, Aix-en-Provence, Marseilles. She writes about her experiences of food and drink, of the unique characters she meets and how they live, and always about family. She wrote a couple of novels, but she did not feel she was good at imagining things. She did what she called “reporting,” though this was not always comfortable for those she wrote about. Sometimes surprised at how her words hurt, she hid behind naiveté, defending herself and her work. Joan Reardon points out in her definitive biography, Poet of the Appetites: The Lives and Loves of MFK Fisher [2004], however, that often Mary Frances let herself be carried by a story quite far from the truth.

MFK Fisher by John Engstad, 1942
She wanted to write well. She gained many new readers when she was asked for write for the Time-Life series The Cooking of Provincial France, but she hated to have her work edited and suggestions made. “I don’t work that way,” she said, dismissing the work as a “throwaway.” “I suppose if some obscure reviewer had linked my name, referring to one of my books pre-doomed to complete nonentity, with someone like Colette or V. Woolf, I’d feel happy as a fat cricket.” In all, she wrote over twenty books, many of which kept being re-packaged in different formats. Most were in print when she died in her Last House in Sonoma in 1992.

Filtering culture through her unique bohemian insouciance, Mary Frances’ sensibility fit right into that of my generation: hedonist, indulgent, individual, always in quest of the new and interesting. Like her friend Julia Child, she moved on from European food. Describing what they had in common, Mary Frances wrote to Child, “We both understand the acceptance of now.” MFK Fisher was a philosopher with a female voice, who chose the sensuality of food and the domestic arts as her subject. There is no more enduring legacy than vivid writing which stays close to the realistic bone.