Rudy Abramson, Spanning the Century: The Life of W. Averell Harriman, 1891-1986. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., c 1992
American National Biography, s.v., “Rumsey, Charles Cary.”
Maurine H. Beasley, Holly C. Shulman, and Henry R. Beasley, eds. The EleanorRoosevelt Encyclopedia. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, c 2001.
New York Times, September 11, 1909.
New York Times, September 17, 1932.
Notable American Women 1607-1950, s.v., “Harriman, Mary Williamson Averell.
Reminiscences of Frances Perkins, Columbia University Oral History Project.
S.J. Woolf, The New York Times, August 6, 1933.
|The New York Anglicans: Twenty Who Shaped the Twentieth Century
|Mary Harriman Rumsey
(continued from page two)
|Bibliography for Mary Harriman Rumsey, The New York Anglicans
|The Anglican Examiner, Copyright by Donn Mitchell, 2008.
In June of 1933, FDR appointed her to chair the Consumer Advisory Board of the National Recovery
“It is up to us,” she told S.J. Woolf of the New York Times, “to see that the retail selling price of goods
will not increase proportionately more than the increase which wage earners will receive for their labors.
Prices must not rise beyond purchasing power.” Up until then, she said, labor and industry had both had
a voice, “but only in rare cases” had consumers been heard. “There have been disagreements between
labor and capital in which each has made known its ills, but seldom has the man or woman who actually
footed the bills, by purchasing the things that were manufactured or grown, had a voice in the selling
price.” She added:
Of course, both labor and capital must get a fair return. On the other hand, the
consumer must not pay more than is necessary to assure this. To inflict an excessive
burden upon the consumer would be to defeat the very object of the administration’s
entire project—the increase of purchasing.
She may not have realized it, but she was articulating, in contemporary language, the medieval theory of
the “just price.” For nearly ten years, her colleague Frances, steeped in Thomas Aquinas and the British
Anglo-Catholic Socialists, had been calling for just that—a modern recovery of the concept of the just
price. Had the NRA survived its constitutional challenges, the concept of a just price, rather than a
market price, might be a cornerstone of American economic life today.
As part of her work on the Consumer Advisory Board, she used her leverage to assure that cooperatives
would be protected from price discrimination. Mary told the Times reporter she believed the age of
competition had passed and that cooperation was the way of the future. She said in her youth she had
only a vague idea that cooperation was a good thing, but when she read The National Being by the Irish
mystic A.E. (George Russell) she found her “nebulous ideas put into practical form.” Russell, raised in
the Church of Ireland, shared Mary’s Anglican heritage, although he embraced Theosophy later in life.
She said Russell helped her see that better wages and working conditions alone were not enough to bring
about happiness. Additionally, “he insisted that cooperative ownership of the machinery of production,
processing and distribution were also necessary. He applied the principles which he had worked out in
agricultural communities to industrial workers and formulated a government which would be responsive
to all of the people, producers as well as consumers.”
Averell Harriman’s biographer described Mary Rumsey as a woman who was perpetually in motion.
“Whether on the train between New York and Washington or in her car being chauffered about the city,
she was accompanied by a secretary frantically taking dictation. A telephone was beside her at her
dining table," a fact Frances Perkins corroborated in her own reminiscences.
According to Abramson, it was not unusual for Mary to make business calls in the middle of the night.
"As soon as she awoke in the morning, she went through several newspapers and magazines before
leaving her bed, marking and clipping and collecting notes. When she was about the capital on business,
she often had a sandwich for lunch in her car.”
S.J. Woolf said Mary’s youthful appearance made it hard to believe she was the mother of three grown
children. “There is about her something of that youthful, winsome spirit with which [the actress] Maude
Adams endowed Barrie’s Peter Pan—the boy who never grew up. She is volatile and effervescent. She
can be serious one minute and in the next give a humorous twist to her remarks. She is fond of coining
strange words, like an apt aphorism. Her dark eyes twinkle as she speaks and her hair, which hangs lose
about her face, is as black as when she dressed it in pompadour fashion and wore the puffed sleeves of
the Gibson girl,” Woolf wrote in the New York Times.
Commenting on her abundant energy, Abramson noted it was not uncommon for Mary to work in her
Washington office until 10 p.m., then drive to her farm in Virginia that same night for a weekend of
anything but bucolic seclusion. It was on one of those vigorous Virginia weekends, celebrating her fifty-
third birthday with a ride to the hounds, when she was thrown from her horse and sustained injuries that
ultimately led to her death.
The prognosis for recovery, however, had been good, and Mary was not about to allow the required
hospitalization to interrupt her work. Staff were summoned to her bedside, where the work of the
Consumer Advisory Board progressed along with plans to arrange an American tour for A.E. (George
However, it soon became apparent that damage to her liver was more extensive than originally thought,
and then a severe reaction to a blood transfusion and the development of pneumonia proved too much
for even the irrepressible Mary Harriman Rumsey. On December 19, 1934, she died, with her three
children, brother Averell, and the ever-steadfast Frances Perkins at her bedside.
Following a funeral at St. Thomas, Washington, Perkins and Eleanor Roosevelt accompanied her casket
to Arden, New York, where she was buried in the St. John’s churchyard next to her parents.
Mary’s death was front-page news in the New York Times, and on the day of her funeral, the editorial
page mourned that her tragic accident had “ended a life of rare beauty and service.”
|Perkins seriously considered living in a
convent in Washington, but she concluded
the press would have a field day with it.
When Frances Perkins accepted FDR’s appointment as Secretary of Labor, almost thirty percent of the labor force was
out of work. The American Federation of Labor objected to her appointment on the grounds that she was a social
worker rather than a veteran of the labor movement. She also suffered from bad press relations. The latter was partly
because of skepticism about a woman in a “man’s job” and confusion about why she retained her maiden name when
she had been married to Paul Wilson for nineteen years and had a teenaged daughter. But it was also the result of her
own ill-concealed impatience with reporters who asked “irrelevant” personal questions and were always trying, she felt,
to put words in her mouth or to get her to elucidate prematurely policy decisions that had not yet been made.
She said she felt the labor department appointment would be the most difficult
job she had ever had. She seriously considered the idea of living in a convent in
Washington as a way of protecting her spiritual reserves, but she concluded the
press would have a field day with it. Already perceived as a virginal mother with
child (her husband was in a residential treatment facility for an illness described
by some as bipolar disorder aggravated by alcohol abuse), she did not want
ridicule to be added to the criticism her efforts for poor and working class people
would undoubtedly draw. And there were no other models before her. Until
then, politically sophisticated women became Washington hostesses, brokering
relationships and deals for politically active men.
Mary Rumsey stepped in with the answer. She rented a three-storey octagon-shaped house in Georgetown and persuaded Perkins that the two should
be “roomies.” Although Perkins insisted on sharing daily expenses, Mary paid the rent, provided the furniture, and hired a staff large and proficient
enough to allow the two women, jointly and separately, to replicate the glittering parties for which Mary had already become known and which Perkins
heartily enjoyed. Both liked to mix people of widely varied backgrounds. A typical party might include "Will Rogers, Eleanor Roosevelt, Margaret
Bourke White, and General Douglas MacArthur at the same table with an unknown Appalachian folk singer." according to Abramson..
|The other side of the problem—the need to protect her
spiritual reserves—was solved when Perkins made
arrangements to make monthly silent retreats incognito at
the Catonsville, Maryland, convent of All Saints’ Sisters
of the Poor, a practice she continued throughout her
twelve years in the cabinet.
Although both were Episcopalians, the two women
opted for separate parishes. Perkins became a
regular at St. James, Capitol Hill, while Mary
worshiped at St. Thomas, where FDR had served
on the vestry during his time as Assistant Secretary
of the Navy in the Wilson Administration.
|Mary had no intention of
being a “cabinet wife.”
Despite her enthusiasm and support for her housemate’s important work, Mary had no intention of
being a “cabinet wife.” She intended to make her own impact. During the administration’s first year
in office, she founded Today magazine, a Washington weekly which later acquired News Week to
become the publication we know today as Newsweek. None other than FDR himself was the
magazine’s first subscriber.
Above: St. James, Capitol Hill, now known
as the Parish of St. Monica & St. James,
where Frances Perkins worshiped.
Below: St. Thomas, where Mary Rumsey
and the Roosevelts worshiped.
|On the day of her
funeral, the editorial
page of the New York
Times mourned that
her tragic accident
had “ended a life of
rare beauty and