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Something about Mary

Mary Williamson was not a girl you'd expect to change the world. She could swim, that's one thing. Not at any sort of Olympic or national championship level, but she'd win loving cups at local events and finish ahead of most of the pack in the crowded Thames races. And she'd come into her athleticism through hard work, at her father's urging, after a sickly childhood; that was the one part of her story that might have been worth telling. Otherwise she was strikingly ordinary. A middle class girl, finished high school with acceptable marks, then went to work in various shops and the local carpet mill while she decided who to marry. Her most likely suitor was the local church organist. Her dream was simple: lots of babies and a comfortable home. Attractive in a way that wouldn't haunt anyone's memory, occasionally sharp-tongued without being any great wit, a Yorkshire lass among many, many Yorkshire lasses.

I think it's her ordinariness that interests me so much, that makes me want to view this book through her. Or I should say, the way her ordinariness made possible her one extraordinary contribution. Maybe it's too much to say she "changed the world," but she did conceive True Story magazine, one of the most influential publishing events of the early 20th Century. Whole magazine genres came out of that, most of what we think of as "tabloid culture," the seeds of reality media, an altered relationship between the consumers and producers of mass media, a new way for ordinary people to interpret the importance of their own stories. Maybe it all would have happened anyway, in some form or other, but it took the shape it has because history's great forces worked through Mary Williamson of Halifax.

Her husband, Bernarr Macfadden, who actually pushed the idea of True Story to completion, may be the least ordinary person I've ever tried to write about. He's like a living satire of himself. Mary may be the most ordinary. My narrative will be most fun and surprising when I can hold them both in view at once. When I can capture those dynamic spaces where they came together—on stage, in bed, on the beach when she told him her idea for a new magazine—I think the book will jump to life.

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