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Mary Eleanor Fitzgerald


For Mary Eleanor Fitzgerald, the young Players' concerns about publicity and personal agendas made evident in the fall of 1918 must have been somewhat amusing, given the very eventful and dangerous life she had led prior to her work with the Players.  Fitzgerald had been a member of the inner circle of the famed and outspoken anarchists Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman during the height of their conflicts with many agencies of the United State government.  During her five years of work with Goldman and Berkman, her apartment and their offices were raided a number of times by federal agents, their lives were threatened for their political stances and for organizing large rallies against a number of government policies, and Berkman, who had become Fitzgerald’s lover, was currently in an Atlanta prison while Goldman was incarcerated in Missouri.  These impassioned battles about whether a theatre group was going to seek publicity or not must have struck Fitzgerald as somewhat childish, though there is no evidence that she ever vocalized these feelings.

Mary Eleanor Fitzgerald, known to those who worked with her as “Fitzi,” was born in Hancock, Wisconsin in 1877, the granddaughter of one of the first pioneers into that frontier territory.  The family had come to America when her father was only fourteen years old; he left Ireland to escape becoming a priest.  The oldest of four children, Mary became a country schoolteacher by the age of 16, and during this period joined the Seventh Day Adventist church, planning to attend an Adventist College with the intent to go to Africa as a missionary.  In an attempt to learn the medical knowledge she thought she might need to fulfill her mission, she worked for two years in the sanatorium offices of the infamous Dr. John Harvey Kellogg in Battle Creek, Michigan.  It is possible she attended the American Medical Missionary College that Kellogg organized and opened in 1895.  However, she lost her desire to work in the mission field after experiencing what she called the “piosity” amongst those with whom she worked, causing her to leave the church as well.  She worked in a variety of jobs after that, including being a bookkeeper for an advertising company and a booking agent for the Midland Lyceum Bureau of Kansas City, MO.  She was very successful with the Lyceum agency, earning up to $400 a week booking speakers throughout the Midwest, and doing press and advance work to promote the speakers in each town.  However, when she finally heard one of the speakers she booked, she immediately resigned from her position; his talk was about what she classified as war propaganda, which clashed with her firmly pacifist views.  Fitzgerald was a woman of principle and was guided by “the driving force of devotion to a cause” and “by the need of merging personality in some purpose transcending self.”(1)

During a period of work in Chicago, around 1908, Fitzgerald met Ben Reitman and they became lovers.  What this tall, red-headed and blue-green-eyed young woman didn’t know was that Reitman was also keeping intimate company with Emma Goldman, whom Fitzgerald had met when she booked Goldman in Kansas City for a week of drama lectures.  Eventually this fact became known to both of them and, in 1913, Reitman, his mother (with whom he was unusually close), and Fitzgerald moved into Goldman’s New York apartment at 74 W. 119th Street in an experiment of communal living initiated by Goldman.  Fitzgerald became in charge of the office with Reitman, where the radical labor magazine Mother Earth was edited, managing mailings and doing publicity work for Goldman’s causes.  She also began working with Alexander Berkman, who had partnered in cause with Goldman many years prior.  Fitzgerald participated in the infamous Union Square rallies against unemployment in 1914. 

Sometime in the fall of 1914, Fitzgerald moved into a new apartment with Berkman and his long-time lover Becky Edelsohn.  Berkman and Fitzgerald began to work more closely together and they toured the West Coast, delivering lectures on topics like Ludlow and the Anti-Militarist League.  They began the magazine The Blast and, in 1915, relocated to San Francisco to continue their work.  Berkman’s outspokenness and the radical pro-labor political views expressed in The Blast made them ideological enemies of the conservative politicians in San Francisco at the time.  On July 22, 1916, a bomb went off at one of San Francisco’s largest parades, a Preparedness Day Rally organized by the city’s Law and Order Committee of the Chamber of Commerce.  The bomb, concealed in a suitcase, killed ten bystanders and wounded forty in the worst terrorist act in San Francisco history to date.  Emma Goldman happened to be in town during the bombing and, because the radical labor elements in the city had vowed to take some action of opposition in the wake of the rally, those in that camp were immediately suspected.  A radical labor leader, Thomas J. Mooney, and his assistant, Warren Billings, were arrested four days after the episode. However, District Attorney Charles Fickert let it be known that he saw “Berkman’s hand in the bombing” and, on January 1, 1917, fed to the press that the office of The Blast was the place where the bomb plot was hatched. 

Fitzgerald and Berkman, who were now romantically involved (though their relationship was far from traditional), immediately organized the Billings-Mooney Defense Committee after the two were arrested, raising money and securing defense attorneys for the accused.  However, when their offices were raided soon after the bombing, they decided to move back to New York and publish The Blast from there.  Berkman and Goldman were arrested soon after their return for preaching against the government’s draft and encouraging young men to resist it, though only Berkman was incarcerated.  As early as January 1917, Fickert attempted to extradite Berkman from New York to San Francisco, but Fitzgerald worked with Goldman to secure the support of unions in order to block this from happening.  After Berkman was released, they all continued their work, organizing a No-Conscription League to stop forced military service.  After some large rallies, the last of which all youths in attendance who could not produce registration cards were arrested by police, they decided that written propaganda would be a more significant tack than being used by the authorities.  The day after that rally, June 15, 1917, Berkman and Goldman were arrested by US marshals and their New York offices were raided with hundreds of documents taken away. The two were charged with having formed “a conspiracy to induce persons not to register,” a law enacted during the Civil War and a provision of the Draft Act of May 18, 1917. 

This began an eighteen-month ordeal with Berkman and Goldman in and out of prisons, attending trials, submitting petitions, and the ultimate shutting down of Mother Earth.  Soon most of the political activities they’d all been involved in slowly began to shut down as well.  Goldman’s niece, Stella, was married to actor E.J. Ballantine, who had been involved with the Provincetown Players almost since their inception.  She and Fitzgerald tried to keep things going as best they could, even creating an alternative to Mother Earth, called Mother Earth News, after the first was shut down when the Post Office refused to process their mail delivery.  Eventually even the newer publication was shut down and Fitzgerald was not only without a cause, but without paying work.  Fitzgerald’s apartment was raided in the middle of the night on July 2, 1918 and letters from both Berkman and Goldman were taken.  With Berkman and Goldman in separate prisons, Fitzgerald continued to raise money and speak on their behalf, but she needed to do something to make ends meet financially.  She initially found a secretarial job in Union Square at $15 a week. 

Fitzgerald was familiar with the work of the Players, having been an audience member while they were still at 139 and attending performances with Goldman.  Early in the fall of 1918, George Cram Cook and Ida Rauh asked Fitzgerald to lunch and told her of the Players’ move to 133 Macdougal.  They asked her to join them in a business and secretarial position with the Players for $20 a week.  Fitzgerald agreed to work nights in the box office, which included running the subscription campaign and press work, but she could only let it be a half-time position.  An article about Fitzgerald’s career describes that, during this difficult period, “The keen edge of her political intensity . . . had begun to wear off.  She had come to realize that for the particular needs of her spirit, humanitarianism was not enough any more than religion had been.  What she needed to find was a coalescing of the two into an art form.”(2)  Agnes Boulton describes the night she first entered 133 Macdougal, which was the first time she saw Fitzgerald:

". . . a switchboard was being installed.  A tall, light-haired woman was supervising this operation, meantime doing a dozen other things—answering the telephone, talking to people, selling subscriptions—all of which did not interrupt her other job of putting the circulars into envelopes for the new bill.  I watched her.  It seemed to me she had become conservative, businesslike and quite distant.  That impression was probably due to the same absorption that I noticed in everyone else.  Eleanor Fitzgerald was a wonderful warmhearted person.  She stayed with the Provincetown Players, giving to them everything she had—her health, her time, her warm devotion, her life—up to the very end."(3)

Fitzgerald’s efficiency and ability to organize, as well as her warm personality, quickly made her essential to the daily work of the Players.  Cook was already complaining in late October that he couldn’t have enough of her time.(4)

© Jeff Kennedy, 2007.

(1) “A Three-fold Destiny” 1.

(2) “A Three-fold Destiny” 4.

(3) Boulton 220.

(4) George Cram Cook, letter to Susan Glaspell, 24 October 1918. Berg Collection, New York Public Library,