Mary Lee Settle Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Mary Lee Settle was a distinguished American writer who has had to be periodically rediscovered; both her life and her career exhibit a series of ups and downs. Her father and mother, Joseph Edward and Rachel Tompkins Settle, were from the small circle of enterprising West Virginia families who helped establish industry and coal mining. When Settle was about two years old the family moved deeper into the Appalachian hinterlands, to Pineville, Kentucky, near where her father owned a coal mine on Straight Creek in Harlan County. When Settle was about seven years old, the coal business failed and the family moved to Orlando, Florida. There her father, a civil engineer, worked in the land boom, designing, among other things, the layout of Venice, Florida. When the Florida boom fizzled in 1928, the family returned to live with Settle’s maternal grandmother in Cedar Grove, West Virginia. Eventually they settled in Charleston, where the family struggled through the Depression. Despite hard times, there was money for Settle’s elocution lessons and, later, college.{$S[A]Palmer, Mrs. Charles;Settle, Mary Lee}

After two years at Sweet Briar College from 1936 to 1938 Settle rebelled and left school. On the basis of her acting credentials—a summer at Virginia’s Barter Theater and an audition for the film role of Scarlett O’Hara—she went to New York. There, after working as a model, she married an Englishman, Rodney Weathersbee, in 1939. They moved to Canada, where Weathersbee enlisted in the Canadian army and their son Christopher was born. Settle herself joined the World War II struggle in 1941: Leaving her son with her parents in West Virginia, she traveled to Great Britain and enlisted in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) branch of the Royal Air Force (RAF). Her service with the WAAF, recounted in All the Brave Promises, was a watershed period in her life during which she was forced to confront the British class system. She was on control tower duty for thirteen months until she began to be overcome by “signals shock” from constantly listening for radioed pilots’ voices through enemy jamming. Settle then transferred to the Office of War Information in London; there she became friends with a group of excellent writers and editors, which motivated her to begin writing herself.

After World War II Settle faced a major decision. She had obtained a good editing job with Harper’s Bazaar magazine in New York, but after a brief time there she decided to devote herself to her own writing. In...

(The entire section is 1037 words.)


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Mary Lee Settle was born in Charleston, West Virginia, on July 29, 1918. She attended Sweet Briar College from 1936 to 1938. An aspiring actor, during the winter of 1938-1939 she worked as a model for several major modeling houses. In the summer of 1939 she married Rodney Weathersbee, the father of her only son, Christopher. When the war broke out, her husband joined the Canadian army and the couple separated, divorcing in 1946. Settle’s marriage later that year to Douglas Newton ended in divorce in 1956. Settle served in the RAF Women’s Auxiliary Air Force during World War II. She then became a freelance writer and journalist, working briefly as an editor for Harper’s Bazaar and later as English correspondent for Flair.

After writing several plays, still unpublished, Settle turned to fiction, publishing her first novel in 1954. She was awarded Guggenheim Fellowships in 1957-1958 and in 1959-1960. In 1965 her play Juana La Loca was given an Off-Broadway production. In 1980, Settle was instrumental in founding the now-prestigious PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, raising funds to ensure its continuance; she would remain a member of the PEN/Faulkner board throughout the rest of her life.

In 1987 Settle converted to Roman Catholicism. Though at various times she had lived in Italy, Greece, England, and Turkey as well as in the United States, she finally made a permanent home at Ivy, Virginia, near Charlottesville, the home of the University of Virginia, where she taught from time to time. In 1978, Settle had married writer and historian William Littleton Tazewell; he died in 1998. On September 27, 2005, Settle died of lung cancer at her home in Ivy.