By Robert Root, CAL Historian
In one of the pictures that comes up immediately if you Google images of Mary Coyle Chase, she stands next to a much taller white rabbit. Viewers are meant to think that this is the author and Harvey, the title character of her most famous play. This is clearly a publicity stunt-at worst an outright hoax; the rabbit is obviously an actor in a rabbit costume. Everyone knows that Harvey is invisible, that audiences of the play (and of the film version and the television version) never see him. Many characters in the play, though certainly not all, actually doubt that he exists.
Other photographs of Mary Chase show a stylish and attractive woman of her era, but photographs can’t reveal the breadth and depth of a writer’s talent-only her words-and in the case of a playwright, her characters as they come to life on the stage-can do that. Harvey is the best known piece of evidence for Mary Chase’s talent, but hardly the only example.
Mary Coyle was born February 25, 1907, in Denver. Her parents, Frank Bernard Coyle and Mary McDonough, were both of Irish descent; Frank worked as a salesman for the Hungarian Flour Milling and Elevator Company, and the family lived at 532 West Fourth Avenue. Mary graduated from West High School in 1922 and according to her biographers often attended plays in Denver’s Curtis Street theatre district. In 1924, after a couple of college years at the University of Denver and the University of Colorado at Boulder, she began working for the Rocky Mountain News. She was initially a society columnist, writing “Society Notes,” but, according to Thomas J. Noel in an article in The Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives, she branched out into reporting, making her mark by being the reporter who first entered the Moffatt Tunnel from the east side after the last blast of dynamite had opened it and greeted a reporter who had entered from the west side.
She married Robert Lamont Chase, a reporter at the News, who later became managing editor, in 1928, and together they had three sons. In 1931 she left the newspaper to write as a freelance correspondent and take up playwriting. Her first play, Me Third, was produced by the Federal Theater Project in Denver in 1936, then revised and retitled as Now You’ve Done It; in 1937 it opened on Broadway. The director, another Denver native, was Antoinette Perry, the individual for whom the Tony Awards are named. Other plays followed: Sorority House (1939), made into a film with a screenplay by Colorado-born Dalton Trumbo and starring Anne Shirley and James Ellison;Too Much Business (1940); and A Slip of a Girl (1941).
The idea for Harvey derived partly from stories of Irish folklore, where spirits took animal forms; the original title was The Pooka. Chase was also inspired to write a comedy that alleviate to some degree the spirits of Americans suffering losses in World War II. The play premiered as The White Rabbit in Denver in 1944 and later that same year was staged on Broadway, as Harvey, under the direction of Antoinette Perry. Frank Fay, until that time chiefly known as a vaudevillian, took the role of Elwood P. Dowd, the alcoholic whom Harvey befriends, and Josephine Hull, who had recent success as one of the kindly spinster-poisoners in Arsenic and Old Lace (a role she repeated in the film with Cary Grant and Priscilla Lane), played Elwood’s sister, Veta Simmons. The play ran for 1,775 performances. In 1950 Chase co-authored the screenplay for the film version, starring James Stewart (who had once substituted for Frank Fay on Broadway) and Josephine Hull. Stewart played the role several more times over the years, both on the stage and on television in 1972, with Helen Hayes as Veta, In 1958 a televised production starred Art Carney as Elwood and Marion Lorne as Veta; in a 1999 production Harry Anderson and Swoosie Kurtz played those roles.
Harvey won the 1944 Pulitzer Prize for Drama; in Colorado the Colorado Authors’ League presented Chase with the William McLeod Raine Award for Outstanding Accomplishment by a Colorado author.
Chase wrote at least ten later plays between 1945 and 1981; perhaps predictably none were ever quite so successful as Harvey. Mrs. McThing, a 1952 comedy with Helen Hayes and Brandon deWilde, was popular; Bernadine, also from 1952, was made into a Hollywood film in which Pat Boone made his screen debut, with Janet Gaynor, the first woman to win a Best Actress Oscar (in 1929), playing her final film role as his mother.
Chase was also a children’s author. Her books include Loretta Mason Potts (1958), which she made into a play titled Mickey in 1969, and The Wicked Pigeon Ladies in the Garden (1968), reissued in 2005 as The Wicked, Wicked Ladies in the Haunted House. She wrote radio scripts, including a weekly program for the Teamsters Union from 1942 to 1944 and a series about the counties of Colorado, and published short pieces in popular magazines like Ladies Home Journal.
In addition to all this Mary Chase was an activist who helped found the Denver Chapter of the American Newspaper Guild and served as the publicity director for the National Youth Administration in Denver.
She lived in Denver all her life and, at 74, died of a heart attack at her home, 505 Circle Drive, in October 1981. She was buried in Crown Hill Cemetery. Most biographers can’t help but comment on the fact that just beyond her gravestone another gravestone prominently reads “HARVEY.”
Biographical information on Mary Coyle Chase can be found in The Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives Volume 1: 1981-1985 and Contemporary Authors Online. An interesting and amusing website is http://www.marycoylechase.com/, where other photos and YouTube videos are available. An extensive collection of her papers are in the Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University and her husband’s papers. Harvey has a webpage,http://www.harveypooka.com/.