M.F.K. Fisher: A Life in Letters

Interview with Fisher's sister, Norah Barr

M.F.K. Fisher -  began writing about food and eating before it was chic.
  • M.F.K. Fisher - began writing about food and eating before it was chic.

Author: Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher, known to readers as M.F.K. Fisher, was born in Albion, Michigan, in 1908. Her father, a newspaperman, in 1911 moved his family to Whittier, California, where he purchased the town newspaper. Fisher, her brother, and two sisters grew up in Whittier. Fisher attended Illinois College, Whittier College, Occidental College, and UCLA. She married doctoral student Alfred Fisher in 1929. The couple sailed for France, where Mr. Fisher studied and the newlywed Mrs. Fisher began Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher the observations about food on which her formal writing eventually, at least partially, would focus. The Fishers’ marriage ended in 1938.

Mrs. Fisher married painter Dillwyn Parrish, whom she later would describe as the love of her life. Parrish became ill, suffered terrible agonies, and committed suicide in 1941. Her brother David committed suicide in 1942. Fisher next married publisher Donald Friede. They were divorced in 1951. Fisher had two daughters. Although Fisher married three times, she spent most of her adult life living and traveling alone. She died in 1992 in her home in Glen Ellen, California.

Fisher in 1934 sold her first magazine story. She used her initials — M.F.K. — because she didn’t want her father to know she had written the story. Her first essay collection, Serve It Forth, was published in 1937. From that time on, Fisher supported herself, and later her children, by writing; her income was never lavish.

When Fisher began writing about food and eating, these subjects had not yet acquired chic. They were women’s subjects and were most often sequestered in cookbooks, restaurant guides, and women’s magazines. In 1943 Fisher noted in her book The Gastronomical Me: “People ask me: Why do you write about food, and eating and drinking? Why don’t you write about the struggle for power and security, and about love, the way others do. They ask it accusingly, as if I were somehow gross, unfaithful to the honor of my craft.

“The easiest answer is to say that, like most humans, I am hungry. But there is more than that. It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it.”

With each book, Fisher’s fame grew. She was a particular favorite of other writers. In 1963 W.H. Auden described her as “America’s greatest writer.” Raymond Sokolov, 20 years later, wrote, “In a properly run culture, Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher would be recognized as one of the great writers this country has produced in this century.”

When Fisher died, Julia Child noted, about her old friend: “She made an enormous contribution in making food literate. Before she came along, it wasn’t as philosophical. She was very good for our whole profession.”

M.F.K. Fisher: A Life in Letters, Correspondence 1929-1991; Selected and compiled by Norah K. Barr, Marsha Moran, Patrick Moran; Counterpoint,

1998; 560 pages, 16 pages with photos; $35

Fisher’s letters, collected here for the first time, make wonderful dreamy reading. For readers unfamiliar with the M.F.K. Fisher life trajectory, the editors have provided literate and helpful footnotes and annotations. These letters will be a delight for the reader who wishes, for the first time, to acquaint himself with Fisher, and for fans and old friends, these letters will bring back a beloved voice.

I talked one morning with Norah Barr, Fisher’s sister. She said that when she and the Morans decided to put together a collection of Fisher’s letters that they asked around to see who, among Fisher’s correspondents, might have saved her letters. They were helped mightily by Lawrence Clark Powell, who, for over 60 years, kept letters he and Fisher wrote to one another. “And, of course, they were invaluable,” said Mrs. Barr, “because he saved absolutely every letter she ever wrote beginning with the first letter she ever wrote to him, which was in 1930. Also, she began making duplicates of her letters in the middle 1960s.”

I asked Mrs. Barr about the letters themselves, what they looked like, whether they were primarily handwritten or typed.

‘’She had a running thing with Larry Powell about whether letters should be handwritten or not. There are many handwritten ones. All the ones from Europe or most of the ones from Europe were handwritten. She did have a typewriter, even in the early 1930s.”

There were many letters that do not appear in the book. Mrs. Barr sighed. “Mary Frances must have written between 15,000 and 20,000 letters. This was her reaching out to people. Her fascination, her acceptance of all kinds of people, her interest in them, her enjoyment of them was through letters. And she usually sat down first thing in the morning and wrote five or six letters.”

Mrs. Barr made the first choices among the letters. “I went back to Radcliffe [where the Fisher letters are stored] for a couple of months and then I returned later, another time. I did that original culling and then I asked the help of Marsha and Pat Moran who knew her well. Marsha worked with her intimately for 13 years. I asked the Morans to help me; we would mark them and then go over them and choose them. I tried to eliminate the ones that I thought would hurt people. That’s all. It’s necessary. You know, she hurt people through the years because without realizing, without meaning to, she was ruffling feathers.”

I asked if Mrs. Fisher’s family was surprised when she became such a personage?

“Oh, yes, and she was too. She realized that not until the late 1970s and early 1980s, with the publication of so many of her books, that they for some reason just took fire. But before that she was struggling, as all writers do, or as almost all writers do.”

I asked Mrs. Barr how it had felt, after all these years, to read the letters her sister, from the time they were both young, had written to her. Some of the letters, I said, were condemnatory and even angry.

Mrs. Barr paused before she spoke. “It was easier in a way to be open with one another that way than talking about it. And as you probably read in the letters — we reached an equilibrium later, but I always was very much the younger sister. Nine years younger.”

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