Rachel Field today is remembered through her children’s book, Hitty, Her First Hundred Years, but she also wrote several bestsellers for adults, seven poetry collections and a screenplay for a Bette Davis film that earned three Oscar nominations.
She might have lingered in the public eye longer, but she died suddenly at 47, on the verge of fulfilling her most cherished dream.
Eighty years after her death, another writer discovered Rachel Field on Sutton Island off the Maine coast. Robin Clifford Wood and her husband in 1994 bought Field’s long-abandoned cottage. Her things were still there: her wooden sleigh bed, her wicker chairs, her Scottie-dog tchotchkes, a map she bought in Paris in 1920, her books, an embroidered dish towel.
Rachel Field captivated Wood, who spent more than a decade researching her life. She discovered Rachel’s deep disappointments. “There were shadows of loss, heartbreak, secrecy, a sister gone mad, an “improper” marriage, infertility, a child who seemed to disappear,” wrote Wood.
“But Rachel’s story, I was certain, held more than anything a prodigious share of redemption and hopefulness,” she wrote in the prologue to her book, The Field House. “I was certain not only because of Rachel’s work but because I inhabited her space.”
Her sensibility leaned toward the quaint, the charming, the twee. A Scotty dog named Spriggles. A blue Whippet roadster. A cottage in Maine, full of antique dolls, patchwork quilts and music boxes.
Just what you’d expect from a children’s book writer.
But beneath that Rachel Field was a complex, interesting and very hard-working woman, a Bohemian socialist who fell in love with a gay man. Her best-selling novels and Hollywood success resulted from years of diligence and determination.
People who knew her through her writing were surprised to meet her. Despite her elfin persona in print she was heavyset with masculine features — and self-conscious about her appearance. She wanted romantic love, marriage and children, and for a very long time it looked like she wouldn’t get it.
The Field Family
Born in New York City on Sept. 19, 1894, she was the youngest of five children. However, only she and her sister, Elizabeth, lived past the age of five. Her father, physician Matthew Dickinson Field, died before she reached her first birthday. Her mother, Lucy Atwater Field, then packed up her two daughters and moved to Stockbridge, Mass., the home of her distinguished ancestors.
Rachel spent her early years in a white colonial house on Main Street that appeared in Norman Rockwell’s painting, Stockbridge Main Street at Christmas. The house was home to the Norman Rockwell Museum for 24 years.
The Fields didn’t have a lot of money. “Her family had enough means to get by and the social status to be accepted into most echelons of the stratified society of her time,” wrote Wood.
Great-grandfather David Dudley Field was a prominent Congregational minister. David, Jr., won election to the U.S. Congress. Another son, Stephen, served on the U.S. Supreme Court for decades. A third son, Cyrus Field, laid the first telegraph cable across the Atlantic ocean.
But a Field in-law interested Rachel the most. Great-aunt Henriette Desportes, a nanny to a French duke’s children, got entangled in a scandal after the murder of the duke’s wife. Henriette fled Paris and married Rachel’s great-uncle Henry. As a child, Rachel used to crack butternuts on her grave.
Young Rachel loved reading, drawing and the theater. She had a gift for memorization and could play Shylock in Merchant of Venice at the age of nine. She published her first story at 16 in St. Nicholas Magazine.
At 15, her mother sent her to Maine to study art with some cousins. “I shall never forget how I was stirred by my first view of the Maine coast,” Field wrote. “I felt an uplift as at no other place, in the firs pointing skyward, the glisten all around me, the old ships from distant ports at the wharves.” She returned year after year.
Her writing skill gave her entree to Radcliffe College, where she joined a program for special students. While at Radcliffe she wrote a play, Three Pills in a Bottle, which community groups all over the country performed at least once a week for decades.
After college she got a job in publishing in New York City doing editorial work for Famous Players-Moving Pictures. She wrote plays and poems in her spare time and submitted them to publishers. Rachel also collected dolls, quilts, music boxes – and friends.
She had some success, enough to buy an old cottage on Sutton Island in 1922. Field’s best-known lines pay homage to her summer home.
If once you have slept on an island
You’ll never be quite the same.
Lonely and Difficult Years
Rachel Field called the 1920s her lonely and difficult years. She plodded away at her work, producing a dozen plays, eight children’s books, two books of verse and freelance articles and illustrations. But she also coped with health problems. And she supported her mother, her aunt and her sister, paying the bills for Elizabeth’s institutionalization after her nervous collapse.
One day in New York City she popped into an antique shop and bought an eight-inch wooden doll called Hitty. The book that followed, Hitty, the First 100 Years, was a breakthrough for her, winning her the Newbery Medal for the most distinguished book for children the year before.
Her prominence increasing, she fell in love with Lyle Saxon, a writer and journalist from Louisiana. Unfortunately for Rachel, Saxon was gay. He rebuffed her passionate advances, wrote Wood. But he didn’t break off their friendship until sometime in 1930 when Rachel must have realized the hopelessness of it all.
“Something must have come about that made the impossibility of the love affair clear to Rachel,” wrote Wood.
She and Lyle had a mutual friend, Arthur Pederson, a struggling actor from Minnesota, eight years her junior and lacking her social pedigree. Perhaps he appealed to her nurturing instincts. They embarked on a slow-motion courtship that finally culminated in marriage. Rachel, then 40, still held out hope for a child.
She won the National Book Award in 1936 for her first adult novel, Time Out of Mind. Universal Studios bought the film rights, giving her real financial security. She and Arthur then began crisscrossing the country between New York and Hollywood. Rachel wrote two more novels made into films. One, All This and Heaven Too, told the story of Great-aunt Henriette Desportes and starred Bette Davis. In 1938, she sold the rights to it for a staggering $52,000 – about a million dollars today. She also wrote the English lyrics to Ave Maria for the 1940 Disney film Fantasia, and made it onto the short list of screenwriters for Gone With the Wind.
In 1939, at the age of 45, Rachel and Arthur adopted a six-week-old baby girl they named Hannah.
By 1941, the Pederson family was firmly ensconced in California, and Rachel sold the Sutton Island house. Then in early November she discovered she was pregnant. Her 47 years of patient toil and of cheerfully overcoming setbacks had come to this: success, financial security, a home, a husband and now a second child.
It all came crashing down. She hadn’t felt well for a while, and in early March began experiencing a great deal of pain. She entered the hospital on March 5, 1942, and doctors found cancer throughout much of her body. They operated, but she died 10 days later of pneumonia.
The Field House
Robin Wood, a full-time mom, credits Rachel Field with getting her started as a writer. She spent 14 years in her Sutton Island house before getting serious about writing her biography. She read her childhood journals, many many letters, her poetry, her plays, her novels and her screenplays. Finally she successfully pitched a story about living in Rachel Field’s house to the Port City Life magazine in 2009.
In 2021, She Writes Press published Wood’s book about Rachel Field. The Field House: A Writer’s Life Lost and Found on an Island in Maine. Part biography and part memoir, it received positive reviews.
Images: Sutton Island By Debivort at en.wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17001647.
This story updated in 2022.