Monday, October 5, 2009

Poe's Weird Women (Part Two) - Mary Starr

edgar allan poe poe's mary
Mary Fosdick Starr Jennings was the wife of a prominent New York clothing manufacturer, William T. Jennings. She is known to history because of an 1889 Harper's Magazine article entitled "Poe's Mary." (The piece--in all its gruesomeness--can be read here.) The article, written by Augustus Van Cleef (who is erroneously referred to as her nephew--their relation was more distant than that,) purports to be her first-person reminiscences of a year-long love affair she had with Edgar Allan Poe in 1830s Baltimore. (The exact date of this alleged affair is uncertain. The year of 1835 was given in the article, but the description of actual events, such as Poe's return from West Point, place the story in 1831-32.) This story is accepted by most Poe biographers, despite the fact that the article contains a multitude of provable inaccuracies, contradictions, and anecdotes so comically weird as to be completely unbelievable.

First, there is the strange air of secrecy surrounding Mary's identity. The story--published several years after Mary Jennings' death, when she was no longer available for questioning about it--pointedly avoided giving her last name, her husband's occupation, or any other way to identify her. In the early 1900s, J.H. Whitty published what he claimed were reminiscences about Poe written by the poet's friend Frederick W. Thomas. These reminiscences--which are of highly questionable authenticity (Whitty never showed Thomas' actual purported manuscript notes to anyone, which suggests they never existed out of Mr. Whitty's imagination)--mention a failed romance Poe had in Baltimore with a "Miss Devereaux." For many years, this was assumed to be the last name of "Poe's Mary."**

Then, in 1935, a granddaughter of Mary Jennings volunteered her identity to Poe scholar Thomas Mabbott, although, oddly, she refused to have the family name published. She admitted that the "Harper's" story was "overcolored," but evidently failed to provide further clarification. Jennings' name was not made public until many years later, when Mabbott's edition of Poe's works was published--after both Mabbott and the granddaughter were dead. This lady, Minnie Aletha Jennings, provided no proof of her grandmother's acquaintance with Poe, or even that she was truly the subject of the "Harper's" article, but her identification has been accepted ever since.

Marie Louise Shew Houghton, a nurse who knew the Poe family in 1847-48, mentioned to Poe biographer John Ingram a "Mary Starr," (at one point she vaguely thought the lady's first name might have been "Helen.") She said "Mary" (or "Helen") was an old Baltimore "friend" of Poe's, who introduced herself to Houghton around the time of Virginia Poe's death. Houghton depicted the woman as something of a Poe family hanger-on, that over the years Mary "always looked up all his [Poe's] whereabouts." It rests merely on assumption that this is the same woman as Mary Starr Jennings. Houghton, strangely, claimed not to be able to remember "Mary Starr's" married name. (How could she know this woman's maiden name, but not the married name by which she would have known her?) Ingram made determined efforts to track down "Mary Starr," but he was unable to find any other Poe acquaintance who had ever even heard of the woman. (To add to the general peculiarity of the story, Mrs. Houghton is the only person who has ever claimed that Poe even knew a "Mary Starr." Similarly, the only Poe acquaintance "Poe's Mary" mentions ever meeting is...Mrs. Houghton.)

The magazine story itself is frankly bizarre, a long-drawn-out assault on reality. It offers a markedly schizophrenic account of "Mary's" relations with Poe. It begins by telling the story of an impulsive, stormy, (and, by the standards of the era, remarkably improper) courtship, marked by frequent jealousies and quarrels, which ends with a drunken Poe attempting to seduce her, and then, when she refused to see him again, publishing an insulting poem about her in a local paper (a poem that has never been found,) and taking a whip to her uncle. (Her relatives retaliate by beating Poe and tearing his frock coat.) The couple part in anger, with "Mary" declaring she never wanted to see him again. The whole thing reads like the worst type of romantic fiction of the era, with Poe described as a passionate, rakish caricature straight out of Rufus Griswold's famously slanderous, long-discredited biography. As Poe biographer Arthur Quinn noted, "among all the women who knew him, she ["Mary"] alone has spoken of him in this way." William Bittner put it even more colorfully, dismissing "Baltimore Mary" as being in the category of "reminiscences drawn from imaginative old women by even more imaginative interviewers to suit a pre-conceived image of the man most of them remembered only vaguely," and that her descriptions of Poe were "patently absurd."

Suddenly, the "Harper's" story's wild, melodramatic tone does a 180-degree shift. According to the article, "Mary" encounters Poe and his wife by accident a few years later, visits them at their home, and thereafter is described as an intimate chum of the entire Poe household, complete with Virginia dramatically clasping the former lovers' hands together over her deathbed, begging "Mary" to be "a friend" to Poe ("he always loved you--didn't you, Eddie?") As the old saying goes, one would have to have a heart of stone not to laugh.

The magazine story is also full of demonstrable inaccuracies. It gives an account of Poe's relations with Sarah Elmira Shelton which is pure science fiction. It depicts "Mary" inviting Poe and Mrs. Clemm to her daughter's wedding (Mary Jennings' daughter did not marry until 1858--nine years after Poe died!) It depicts Poe showing her a letter from John Allan that could not have actually existed. It gives a physical description of Virginia Clemm Poe that is so inaccurate that one is forced to assume "Mary" never actually laid eyes on her. Even more suspiciously, the very few incidents given in the article that appear to be based on fact had all already appeared in print--as Van Cleef rather ingenuously proves, adding footnotes to the story that liberally cite previously published works about Poe. The idea was obviously to lend authenticity to the story, by repeating already accepted material, but it instead raises the suspicion that Van Cleef "salted" this clearly improbable tale with stories provided by other writers, in order to lend much-needed verisimilitude to his work.

In short, as Quinn noted, the entire tale should have been relegated to the trash basket a long time ago.

**A footnote: Mabbott tried to identify Whitty's "Miss Devereaux" with Mary Starr Jennings by claiming that she had an uncle named "James Devereaux," and that Mary used his surname when she went out socially. (?!) This peculiar argument--so typical of Mabbott's odd mind--is demolished by a simple check of Mary Starr Jennings' genealogy. She had no uncle--or any other relative--by the name of "Devereaux." "Miss Devereaux" is simply one of Whitty's many fictions.

(A sequel to this post can be found here.)


  1. While the story by Augustus Van Cleef has some errors, it is remarkable how much of it reconciles with facts. Yes, it has to be 1831-32 and the street was not Essex, but a very similar name. Mr. Lawson Newman did own two attached houses one-half block up the street from where Poe lived at the time. Mr Newman lived in one house and rented the house on the alley. While the house where Poe lived has since been torn down, Mr. Newman's two houses remain standing with the adjoining staircase and garrison windows intact.

    1. I believe I live in one of those two houses - do you care to talk? Lawson Newman owned my house (I believe originally in 1809). I would love to find out more and/or any information you could provide.