M. F. K. Fisher, a Life in Letters
M. F. K. Fisher was a beloved writer of books, articles, and essays on food, eating, and travel, in which she shared with her audience her personal perspectives and experiences, beginning with her life in Dijon, France, as the young wife of academic Al Fisher. This book, published posthumously, consists of a selection of letters kept by correspondents, particularly her youngest sister, Norah, and Lawrence Clark Powell, Mary Frances’s friend since the 1920’s.
The letters are presented chronologically and divided into five sections: Dijon, France: 1929-1932; Le Paquis, Switzerland, and Bareacres, California: 1935-1949; Kennedy Ranch, Whittier, California: 1950-1953; St. Helena, California, and Aix-en-Provence, France: 1954-1970; and Last House, Glen Helen, California, 1970- 1992. At the beginning of each section, there is a brief overview of the events in Mary Frances’s life during that period. Some letters have brief footnotes, primarily identifying unfamiliar correspondents.
The book’s first section is small—ten letters to her parents and siblings, and her first letter to Lawrence Clark Powell. These are the letters of a wide-eyed, exuberant innocent abroad, describing the people, customs, and culture of Dijon, France, with the sharp eye for detail and witty but elegant style that infused her later writings.
The second section reveals a time of great turbulence and tragedy in Mary Frances’s life. She and Al Fisher had returned from France to California, where they met Dillwyn and Gigi Parrish. The Parrishes soon divorced, and in 1937, Dillwyn and the Fishers moved together to Switzerland. The Fishers quickly separated, and Al Fisher returned to the United States and accepted a job as a college professor; Mary Frances and Dillwyn eventually married. Dillwyn was Mary Frances’s great love and her artistic and intellectual partner; however, he developed an embolism and suffered constant, agonizing pain after having a leg amputated. He and Mary Frances returned to California and settled on a ranch near Hemet, which they named Bareacres. There, Dillwyn painted and Mary Frances wrote. In 1941, however, pain and depression drove Dillwyn to suicide; the next year, Mary Frances’ only brother, David, also committed suicide. In 1945, Mary Frances married Donald Friede, a publisher, three weeks after they met. As that marriage collapsed, Mary Frances and her two daughters returned to Whittier, where she had been reared, to care for her father, Rex, after the death of her mother.
The book’s middle section consists of only eighteen letters. Some of these were unsent, and many vented her frustrations and anger at the time. Both her father and the family ranch were dying, and Mary Frances’s creative energies were diverted to caring for Rex and her two daughters; feeding and accommodating visiting family and friends; managing the ranch and the family business, the Whittier News; and dealing with the end of her third marriage. Her writing career was reduced to magazine articles, one novella, and helping her father write his daily column. The time with her father, however, deepened her understanding of old age and crystalized her feelings on death and dying, subjects that came up often in her later letters.
The fourth section chronicles a time of renewed productivity and adventure in Mary Frances’s life. She first moved to St. Helena, in California’s Napa Valley, after her father’s death. She and her daughters had two lengthy stays in Europe, celebrated in various writings, especially Map of Another Town, first published in 1964 and reprinted along with A Considerable Town (1978) as Two Towns in Provence (1983). Donald Friede and his last wife, Eleanor, were instrumental in the publication of The Art of Eating (1954), a one- volume publication of Mary Frances’ first five books. Mary Frances also met and became close friends with the well-known chef Julia Child and her husband, Paul, as a result of her writing The Cooking of Provincial France (1968) for Time- Life’s cooking series. Also in this period, Mary Frances responded to the Civil Rights movement by going to Mississippi to teach at Piney Woods, a school for disadvantaged African American students.
The final section of A Life in Letters covers the last two decades of Fisher’s life, which she spent in a two-room house built for her by a friend on his ranch in California’s Sonoma Valley. Although declining health diminished her literary output—she had long suffered from arthritis and later developed Parkinson’s disease—she still maintained a constant correspondence with relatives and old friends, as well as an increasing series of letters to fans. The book’s final letter is a few lines written to her oldest friend, Lawrence Powell, a year before her...
(The entire section is 1984 words.)