|MFK Fisher by Man Ray, 1943|
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 , however, that often Mary Frances let herself be carried by a story quite far from the truth.
|MFK Fisher by John Engstad, 1942|
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.