Lasting Legacies: Mary Wickes Collection

A portion of the Washington University Archives Mary Wickes Papers, some of which is on display in Olin Library

In anticipation of the official opening of the newly transformed Olin Library on May 1, 2018, we would like to preview some of the new spaces and exhibitions. Lasting Legacies, the inaugural exhibition of the Thomas Gallery on Level 1 of John M. Olin Library, pays tribute to seven influential Washington University alumni whose work has enriched their respective professions and communities.

Lasting Legacies celebrates Washington University alumni’s unique passions, diverse accomplishments, and intellectual curiosity, and will be on view through Fall 2018.

The Mary Wickes Papers

When people think about library archives, they often think of old books, but as you may have noticed, the collections in our new displays in Olin Library contain a variety of materials, from coins to costumes. One of the fabulous costumes currently on display near the north entrance of the library belongs to the well-known character actress and Washington University alum, Mary Wickes.

Wickes felt a strong connection to Washington University in St. Louis and its libraries, once stating,

“I’m always happy to be back on the campus.  I could live on or near a campus happily the rest of my life.  I love libraries; I love stacks; I get very excited over microfilm of the New York Times.  I love the look and the smell and the feel of classrooms.” (Inaugural Adele Chomeau Starbird Memorial Lecture, Wash U, 1988).

Mary Wickes with Whoopi Goldberg in costume for the film Sister Act. Washington University Archives, Mary Wickes Papers.

Upon her death in 1995, Wickes donated much of her estate to the University, including a large donation to set up the Isabella and Frank Wickenhauser Memorial Library Fund for Television, Film, and Theater Arts in honor of her parents. The Mary Wickes Papers contain Wickes’ film and television contracts, photographs, personal correspondence, audio-visual material, early Wash U memorabilia, costumes, and other personal effects.

The Beginning of an Acting Career

Mary Wickes at Washington University. Washington University Archives, Mary Wickes Papers.

When Mary Isabella Wickenhauser came to Washington University in the late 1920s, she had no intention of becoming an actress, but when one of her professors invited her to be in a play he was putting on in January Hall, she readily agreed. Recognizing talent in her performance, this professor recommended that she audition at the St. Louis Little Theatre, where New York director F. Cowles Strickland saw her perform and invited her to act at the Berkshire Playhouse in Stockbridge.

Wickenhouser adopted the stage name Wickes and traveled to New York to take on a role as understudy for Margaret Hamilton. After a few days, a spell of homesickness sent her back to St. Louis, but Roy Mackenzie, director of the English Department at Wash U, encouraged her to go back, warning her that if she did not make the most of this opportunity, she might regret it for the rest of her life. Taking his advice, she returned to New York and began what would become a life-long career as a character actress.

Performing on Stage and on Screen

A newsclipping about Mary Wickes in a performance in a stage production of Oklahoma! in 1979. Washington University Archives, Mary Wickes Papers.

Younger audiences are most likely to recognize Wickes from her appearance in the 1992 musical comedy Sister Act, but this performance was one of her last in a long career. Beginning in the 1930s, Wickes performed in 18 New York plays, over 50 major films, and 200 theater productions, 15 of them at the Muny.  Her 1979 appearance as Aunt Eller in a Broadway revival of Oklahoma! received particularly rave reviews. Below is a letter from William Hammerstein praising her performance. In 1987, Wickes was inducted into the Muny Hall of Fame for her many fabulous stage performances in St. Louis.

A letter from William Hammerstein to Mary Wickes. No date. Washington University Archives, Mary Wickes Papers.

A Career In Television

Wickes also appeared in over 125 television shows, most of which were romances or comedies. She frequently played nurses and caregivers on television, and she continued this nursing roll offstage, logging over a thousand hours of volunteer work Hospital of the Good Samaritan in LA and serving on the Auxiliary Board of the UCLA Hospital. Wickes also knew Lucille Ball and appeared on several of her programs. Below is a picture of Wickes and Ball with others in costume.

Mary Wickes, Lucille Ball, and others in costume. Washington University Archives, Mary Wickes Papers.

Wickes at Wash U

Wickes served as the University’s first artist in resident in theater 1968, appearing with a student company in a performance of Tennessee WilliamsA Glass Menagerie, and received an honorary doctorate from the University in 1969. In an address she gave in Graham Chapel in 1988, Wickes proclaimed her love for the University, stating

“I owe Washington University so much.  I really feel so close.  I’ve been back so many times to do other things – MC the opening of Edison.  It’s just been — this is such a part of my life.”

For more information on the Wickes Collection, please see the online exhibit “In Character: the Life and Legacy of Mary Wickes” and of course come by Olin to see more of Wicke’s collection on display by the north entrance!

Mary Wickes and female students at Washington University preparing for a performance of The Glass Menagerie. Washington University Archives, Mary Wickes Papers.

About the author

Rose is a PhD candidate in English and American Literature at Washington University in St. Louis. When she is not working on her dissertation on post-1945 asylum novels or blogging about the amazing materials in Special Collections, she fills much of her time reading, writing, gardening, and wrestling.