Mary Catherine Gordon has no memory of not wanting to be a writer—even when she wanted to be a nun. She was born in 1949 in Far Rockaway, New York. It was a miraculous birth, thought impossible because her mother, Anna Gagliano Gordon, was a polio victim with limited function of her lower body and was furthermore having her first child at the age of 41. Mary Kate, as the future author was then called (against her will), was an only child raised in a tightly-knit Catholic home. Her mother, who was always known as Anne, was the family breadwinner, working as a legal secretary. Mary’s father, David Gordon, adored his family and radiated charm, but never radiated much cash. He worshipped intellect and religion, and cherished a dream of being a writer. The young Mary Kate adopted the same dream for herself; in the early years she wanted to be a contemplative nun. David had secrets, however. He had converted from Judaism as a young man and reinvented his identity. Mary would not discover just how much of his life story was invented until long after his death from heart failure in 1957. The loss of her father so early in her life was the most important event of Mary’s youth, and she would later channel her grief into many works of fiction, and finally into her memoir, The Shadow Man: A Daughter’s Search for her Father.
After David Gordon’s death, the newly widowed Anne sold their house and moved with her 7-year old daughter into the house where she had grown up. The two Gordon women took charge of the care of Mary Kate’s grandmother, who died soon after, and of the psychological health of her mother’s eight siblings. Mary Kate reached adolescence in a hostile environment. Her mother’s family disliked her for her love of books and for her Jewish heritage. Meanwhile Anne had developed alcoholism in the wake of her husband’s and mother’s deaths. Mary remained close to her mother, but took increasing comfort in her dog, Zippy, and spent many hours alone, writing.
At Mary Louis Academy, Mary successfully shed the hated “Kate” and discovered a support network that compensated for her bittersweet home life. Though intellectual challenges were rare, she excelled in school and made lifelong friends. At home and at school it was assumed that if she absolutely insisted on going to college it would be to a Catholic institution. When she revealed that she had applied to Barnard College, the women’s affiliate of Columbia University, the Mary Louis registrar at first refused to release her transcripts. Mary’s mother was also squarely against a secular education, and Mary eventually forced the issue by running away from home for three days and living in a friend’s basement. Despite the controversy, she graduated from high school with a number of awards and honors, including a Regent’s scholarship. Then she matriculated at Barnard.
For the first two years of college, Mary continued to live at home and commuted into Manhattan every day. She worked a series of secretarial jobs in order to pay her way through Barnard, and babysat for the children of her mentor, Professor Janice Thaddeus of the English Department. Under Prof. Thaddeus’ wing, Mary overcame the deficiencies of her pre-college education and came to accept that Leonard Cohen was not quite as good as Yeats. Professor Anne Prescott introduced her to the joys of older literature, and gave her the confidence her high school teachers had withheld. Gordon became involved in the feminist and anti-war movements of the late sixties, and has continued to contribute to progressive causes throughout her life. Within Barnard’s walls, though, life was absolute bliss in the years of Sergeant Pepper and The Supremes. Gordon never forgot her gratitude to the institution that had given her the intellectual and artistic experience she had always craved.
At the time, Gordon was primarily a poet; it was not until she began an M.F.A. at Syracuse University that her focus shifted to prose. She studied at Syracuse for a number of years, but left short of a PhD in order to marry Jim Brain, an English Professor from Poughkeepsie, NY who was nearly thirty years her senior. To support her writing, Mary taught writing at Duchess County Community College, and she and her husband lived in London for a year. The marriage, however, quickly foundered, and finally dissolved when she became involved with Arthur Cash. He too, was an English Professor, and nearly as old as Brain, but the two men were as different as night and day. Mary moved into his house in New Paltz, NY, near the State University where he taught, and after a long courtship (kept secret from Mary’s mother), they married in 1979. December 1, 2009 marked their 30th anniversary. Anne Gordon liked Cash so much that she decided to overlook the double sin of Mary’s divorce and her new husband’s Protestantism. Anne eventually retired and moved into a house a few blocks away in New Paltz.
Gordon’s first novel, Final Payments, was published in 1978 to tremendous critical acclaim. This was followed quickly by The Company of Women in 1981. Although she continued to write poetry, essays, reviews and nonfiction, her attention was divided by the birth of her children, Anna and David, and it was four years before her next book was published. 1985 brought Men and Angels, a novel about a working mother who develops a dangerous relationship to the woman who cares for her children. . She followed that up with a collection of short stories entitled Temporary Shelter in 1987, and The Other Side, a novel, in 1989.
In 1988, Professor Anne Prescott, who had been Gordon’s beloved teacher and was now chair of the English Department, offered her a job at Barnard. She leapt at the chance to return to the place that had nurtured her young talent. After two years as an adjunct she accepted the Millicent Macintosh Chair of English. The family moved to Manhattan, and Arthur commuted to New Paltz for many years in order to continue teaching. Prof. Gordon was an instant success as a teacher, receiving consistently outstanding praise from her students and flooded registration for her lecture classes.
The nineties saw the publication of The Rest of Life, a collection of three novellas (The second of these, entitled Immaculate Man, told a controversial story of a Catholic priest who has an affair with one of his congregants. It is dedicated to Dr. Maureen Strafford, an old friend from Mary Louis Academy who has been falsely rumored to have had an affair with a priest ever since). For many years Mary had been researching the story her father’s life which he had so dexterously hidden from those closest to him. The Shadow Man was the culmination of that work, and it proved a great strain. To cheer herself up, she wrote Spending: A Utopian Divertimento, a book whose subtitle has confused readers since publication. Suffice it to say that the idea for the book was born from Gordon’s irritation that so few works of fiction feature a woman enjoying sex without someone dying as a result. After a 7-year hiatus from fiction, she published Pearl, which is incidentally her daughter’s favorite of her books. In his review of the novel, the late critic John Leonard described Gordon thus: “Endlessly inquisitive, utterly fearless, she may also be the least ingratiating novelist at serious work in America today. Like a hound of heaven, she is too busy going down a rabbit hole or up in holy smoke to care whether we adore her or root for her characters.”
Gordon also produced many works of nonfiction, some of which were published as books. Good Boys and Dead Girls, a collection of essays, had been published in 1991, and Seeing Through Places: Reflections on Geography and Identity was published in 2000. When Penguin Books approached Gordon to contribute a popular biography to their Lives series, she chose to write on Joan of Arc. Although she had no formal background as a historian, the book was such a success that it won her the O.B. Hardison award for the Massachusetts Center for Renaissance Studies.
In 2006, The Stories of Mary Gordon, including new and old stories, was published. This received The Story Prize in 2007.
Mary’s mother, Anne, died in 2002 after a long illness that had robbed her of most of her memory. The experience of a long grieving became a memoir, Circling my Mother, which was published in 2007. This book was dedicated to Mary’s daughter Anna (who happens to be the author of this biography.) Two years later came Reading Jesus: A Writer’s Encounter with the Gospels, which was dedicated to Mary’s son. In 2008, one of Eliot Spitzer’s last acts as governor was to name Gordon the New York State writer.
Mary Gordon still lives in Manhattan, with her beloved puggle Charlotte and teaches at Barnard, where she is worshipped by her students. Mary became a grandmother in 2010 and again in 2012 and she would like you to know, that while it was nice of you to have read her biography, you are not as interesting as her grandsons. Mary works insanely hard, and has amassed a curriculum vitae that will make her friends, family and readers proud for generations. Her children adore her, and every five years or so they get around to updating her website.