Seen That Face Before

I can’t think when I’ve seen a more appropriate title for a book – Mary Wickes: I Know I’ve Seen That Face Before. I requested an advance reading copy because I had seen that face bring a light touch to so many things I had watched on a movie or TV screen – and sometimes saved the film or program from large doses of either saccharine or boredom. I concur with author Steve Taravella’s comment in the preface about reading of her death, “I had never met this character actress and had no relationship with her, yet I immediately felt a sense of loss.”

Immersing himself in the archives of Washington University in St. Louis, her alma mater to whom Mary left her papers in their Special Collections for safe-keeping, and talking to those who had known her, he met her posthumously through the mementos she hoarded and the people she knew. In the book, he introduces her to the reader and paints a picture of a complicated person quite different from the one on the screen – or is she really?

The book is partly a walk through nostalgia for classic films and bygone days of television. Icons keep popping up in her life as real people with whom she got along – or didn’t. In her heyday, viewers knew her face if they had trouble with her name, which would have been even harder if she had kept her original – Wickenhauser. While one may have to think a minute to put her face and name together, immediate recognition comes for her long-time best friend Lucille Ball who used Mary many times on her shows.

The meat of the book is Mary’s life with its struggles to keep that face before an audience whether on the radio or stage, or in movies and sitcoms. An only child, her close relationship with her parents and her mother after her father’s death seems to either save her from or preclude too much closeness with others – including some family members she conveniently forgets. I found surprising the passion she had for volunteer work with her All Saints Episcopal Church and her relentless pursuit of acting jobs for six decades all the way to her death at the real age of eighty-five. [She had shaved several years off for her job pursuits.] While she appeared both before and after these, my own bookends for her include the perennial showing of White Christmas from 1954 to Sister Act of 1992 with many fun times between as she showed up on one sitcom or another – MASH, the Lucille Ball shows, or Dennis the Menace or as a frequent guest on The Match Game.

The book portrays honestly a real human being and keeps its readers engaged in her back-story even if they remember a lot of what is happening in her public persona. Kindle percentages demonstrate the careful research in this well-told biography with the list of Mary’s roles beginning at 82% and the footnotes at 86%. With a bit of pride, I also note that the publisher is University Press of Mississippi. I recommend a read if you liked Mary Wickes or if you just like an enjoyable biography.