Adirondack Life magazine profiles Mary MacKenzie

Adirondack Life
The precise mind and secret poems of a passionate Adirondack historian
Profile by AMY GODINE

SHE WAS A HOMETOWN GIRL who never went to college, a druggist’s daughter with bright-headed dreams. “Best Writer,” her fellow seniors at Lake Placid Central School voted her in 1930. What she hoped to write were poems, good ones, hard-wrought and economizing like Millay and Dickinson and Frost. Tuneful, too, the kind you want to read out loud, a candle stuck in a Chianti bottle, an audience of one. She was a big reader, Mary Landon. You don’t pick up lines about “fishing smacks at Cornwall” and the “fens from Hammersea” in high school English. Another life flickered through a gilded scrim of Great Books, promising a world of vagabonds and moors and hedgerows.

But when Mary Landon got out of high school, at a grade-vaulting sixteen, what she faced was the distinctly moorless pit of the Depression, Father Coughlin battering the airwaves, breadlines from Brooklyn to Berlin. As for college, sure, if you could pay for it. But the Crash dealt roughly with Melzer Landon’s finances and Mary and her sisters needed cash. If you could get a job, and especially if you could hop a ride on that gravy train rolling into Placid with the 1932 Winter Olympics, you jumped. Mary Landon got work as a secretary to the local group coordinating the games, and remained a secretary in town on and off for more than forty-five years.

There must have been a lot of down time, though. Between the letters, transcripts and notes, the poems kept coming, scribbled on the back of telegrams, in notebooks, 151 in all, and every one a secret. She never breathed a word.

Then, in 1937, she was done. No more spondees, no more scansion. Figure skater Sonja Henie had long since returned to her fjord, and all around Mary Landon former classmates were getting settled, having babies. Romance flourished for a spell. Then, heartbreak. If the time was ripe to bust out of Dodge (“dine in pavilioned restaurants and braid my hair for the opera,” as one poem dreamed), this was it. In 1940 Mary got an office job in Manhattan, found the downtown stalls and warrens of Book Row. Plenty of used poetry there, but what she looked for—and what she bought—were books about the Adirondacks. They were the start of her collection. She missed home.

“I’m gonna say she missed the mountains, like all of us,” ventured Chris Beattie, Mary’s nephew and owner, with his wife, Nancy, of the Bookstore Plus, in Lake Placid. Back in Lake Placid after a year in Gotham, Miss Landon bought a cottage, nursed a garden, picked up work as a deputy village clerk and met and married another municipal employee, Seymour MacKenzie, who liked to fish, hunt and ski as much as she. No children, and no new poems either. But she kept the old ones. Never talked about them, but she knew where they were. Right in her desk, nicely bundled, all typed up, calmly waiting for discovery after her death, in April 2003.

And they were meant to be discovered. Of this Chris and Nancy Beattie are certain. “She was very clear with me about what she wanted destroyed,” recalled Nancy, who helped the eighty-nine-year-old woman get her affairs in order. “Something she kept in such an obvious place she wanted found. She just didn’t want it talked about when she was alive.”

Deeply moved by the revelation of Mary’s talent, the Beatties showed the poems to her friend Lee Manchester, a tireless reporter for the Lake Placid News, who, equally astonished, found a publisher for the manuscript in Blueline magazine, a journal put out by the State University of New York at Potsdam: If the poems were good, the story of their sixty-six-year hibernation was even better: Last summer the New York Times ran an appreciative feature on them and the dark-eyed, secret-keeping author. (You can get “Mary MacKenzie’s Collected Poetry 1931 to 1937” only at the Beatties’ bookstore.) She drew the Kate Greenaway-like picture on the cover, too.

Every time I riffle through Mary’s poems I find a new one to beguile me, another line that stops me cold. But like so many others, I didn’t know her as a poet; I knew her as a public historian, one of the best and most prolific in the state. Her territory was Lake Placid and the town of North Elba. And in the end, this would be the world that satisfied her wanderlust, kept her busy scribbling dispatches from a distant front—only here, the travel was through time, the destinations fixed in history: the Civil War, bootleggers’ outposts, the rain-swept funeral procession of the militant abolitionist John Brown.

As proudly public in her capacity as historian as she was private about her poems, Mary MacKenzie produced enough material—lectures, articles, pamphlets, letters—to pack several books. Edited, as were her poems, by the devoted Manchester, MacKenzie’s “The Plains of Abraham” will come out later this year from Nicholas K. Burns Publishing. I’ve been dipping into the manuscript for a while, savoring the stories, steeping myself in her unsentimental, determinedly local vision of the nineteenth-century Adirondack frontier. I can promise if you ever heard that brusque, patrician, tobacco-sanded voice, ever benefitted from Mary’s deep command of regional history, ever got your knuckles rapped when you tried sneaking into the cookie jar of speculation instead of sticking with the bread and butter of provable plain fact, you’ll feel and hear it all again, in force.

It was the voice alone I knew. I never did meet her, though we spoke scores of times on the phone and sent each other loads of notes. The first time she helped me was for a piece on early Adirondack settlements I wrote for Adirondack Life some fourteen years ago. The last time was when I needed feedback on captions for an exhibition about the reformer Gerrit Smith’s effort to colonize a portion of the Adirondacks with downstate New York African-Americans in the late 1840s. Even when we disagreed (and our disagreements could be bruising), she was interested, forthcoming, always helpful.

She was also, as Chris Beattie puts it delicately, “one tough bird.” Her strong opinions about early regional historians who didn’t check their purple prose against the record (no fewer than three people speaking at a memorial event for Mary observed her abiding quarrel with the 1920s-era Adirondack historian Alfred Donaldson) were matched only by her contempt for oral history and her robust mistrust of big-ticket scholars who generalized so freely about her beloved North Elba without bothering to test their theories against the census or the map. If North Elba’s story was her Emerald City, she was the guard with the great droopy moustache—you could win her over, but not without a fight.

She and I once got into it about an obscure nineteenth-century North Elban musician. I said one thing, she said another, never mind the details. Not until I could back my case with an obscure city directory, a census record and a long-lost news item would she concede an inch. And I might as well have won the Boston Marathon. I was that pleased.

Earlier this winter, going through some papers in the Special Collections library at SUNY Plattsburgh, I happened on a note written to Ed Cotter, for many years the site manager of the John Brown farmhouse, a state historic site in North Elba. The note took up the rumors of Brown’s dealings with the Underground Railroad in his Adirondack home. “This myth is not true—there is not a shred of evidence to prove that John Brown or anybody else ever brought escaped slaves here.” The note was unsigned, but the furious scribble, unflinching certainty and finger-jabbing emphases gave it all away. It was Mary on the warpath. It made me miss her and it made me smile.

THE GREAT TRICK OF WRITING about history is to balance the depth of your research with the necessary reach. Local history in particular runs the risk of getting the homegrown researcher in so deep that the wider perspective is lost. Boosterism, provincialism, the genealogist’s myopia—these are the hobgoblins that trouble local history. Some of this afflicts “The Plains of Abraham”; it probably won’t appeal to the history buff from Duluth. But I don’t imagine Mrs. MacKenzie much cared about Duluth. She cared about North Elba. And nobody pays New York public historians to stray outside their town or village boundaries. (Nobody pays them much of anything beyond expenses.) Even when those boundaries are unfailingly subverted by the drift and scatter of people, weather, politics, cultural trends, industry and epidemics, the local historian, keeper of the flame—“Hark! Who goes there?”—stays put. If Mary ever felt the borders of North Elba as a constraint, my guess is it was a constraint she welcomed and enjoyed, much as she marshalled the exacting rules of formal verse to show her youthful poems to best advantage.

One time, remarking on Gerrit Smith’s career, she told me, sotto voce, “Well, you know, he had a great heart, but he didn’t have much sense.” It wasn’t her take on him that got me so much as her tone, how intimately history could live for her, how she spoke of the long-lost abolitionist as if he were an exasperating cousin in the next room. It takes a poet’s stamina to go that kind of distance with your subject, a poet’s courage to let it claim your heart and mind both. She had it, and she kept it. Lucky lady. Lucky us.

Reprinted from the August 2006 issue of Adirondack Life magazine.