One Good Apple Proves a Barrel’s Worth

One of the commonly accepted tatters of cartooning lore is that Mary Worth began syndicated life as Apple Mary. At first blush, this seems an unlikely evolution. Mary Worth is a fashionably-attired little old gray-haired lady who is forever becoming involved in the romances of young men and women she meets as she rambles on through life. Apple Mary is a somewhat raggedy little old gray-haired lady who sells apples from a cart on a Chicago street corner during the early days of the Depression in the 1930s. She fusses around in other people’s lives, too, but is mostly absorbed with mere survival for her grandson Denny, who is crippled, and a cantankerous middle-aged hanger-on named Bill Biff.

The version of history that inspires this diatribe claims that Martha Orr, a niece of Chicago Tribune editorial cartoonist Carey Orr, started the comic strip that has always been dubbed the first soap opera strip. But she didn’t start it as a soaper; and it isn’t the first anyhow. Orr’s strip is the aforementioned Apple Mary, and it was launched in October 1934 and owed its being, doubtless, to a 1933 Frank Capra movie, Lady for a Day, which also starred a little old gray-haired lady who eked out a living during those hard times by selling apples from a cart she wheeled down the streets, broad and narrow. In her spare time, she helped everyone who stumbled into her path.

Orr had been born and raised, the third of six children, in Hillyard, Washington, where her father was a broker in lumber. Her uncle, recognizing her talent, brought her to Chicago and paid her way through the Art Institute. Soon thereafter, the Depression descended upon the nation, and Orr, after a decent interval, launched the apple-cart lady.

Martha Orr was not the first woman to draw a syndicated comic strip, but Apple Mary may have been the first comic strip with an all-girl orchestra. It was written and inked by Orr, pencilled by Dale Conner, and lettered by Ruth Belew, a retired ballet dancer. Orr eventually married a man named Hassel, and in 1939, she decided to give up the strip to devote her energies full-time to raising her family. Conner took over the drawing chores, and the syndicate recruited a new writer for the strip, a columnist on Ohio’s Toledo News-Bee named Allen Saunders, who, in his off-hours, was writing Big Chief Wahoo (eventually re-titled Steve Roper), and Saunders turned the strip into Mary Worth. In the fall of 1942, Conner left and Ken Ernst came on board to do the drawing, which he continued to do until he died in August 1985.

That’s the way the history books have it, but when Martha Orr died at the age of 92 on July 27, 2001, she unintentionally launched a minor ripple of controversy in the backwater of investigative comics research. In preparing Orr’s obituary, the Chicago Tribune reporter who wrote it had the presence of mind to phone King Features, the syndicate currently distributing the strip, where he talked to an unnamed official who denied, oddly, that the two strips were at all related. Mary Worth, so this personage claimed, was a replacement strip that was offered to client newspapers when Mrs. Hassel retired in 1939. This bland denial immediately got comics scholars’ wattles into an uproar: Apple Mary not Mary Worth? Who sez?

Well, we don’t know who said. Rick Hepp, the Tribune reporter, was somewhat puzzled by the syndicate assertion: he took pains to point out in his Orr obit that “several sources, including The Encyclopedia of American Comics” by Ron Goulart, record that Orr’s strip was Mary Worth’s precursor. Later, in the tiny flurry that resulted from the King Features’ claim, the truth, in all its various guises, emerged. And it is with the object of nailing that truth firmly to the wall for all to see that I take up the issue, again, here.

Allen Saunders never had any doubts about the matter: the two Marys are the same person. And he, if anyone, should know. His autobiography was published serially in Nemo magazine several years ago, and in No. 9 of that periodical, Saunders rehearses the details of his inheriting Apple Mary. When the syndicate (then Publishers, which distributed Big Chief Wahoo) asked Saunders to take on the writing task, he was nonplussed. “I can’t even read it,” Saunders responded, “let alone write it.” But since the Toledo News-Bee had recently sunk, taking Saunders’ writing berth with it, he had no regular newspaper gig anymore, so he agreed to take on the scripting.

“Laboring over the continuity,” he wrote, “I chanced upon a happy idea one day. Instead of treacly melodrama, why not do stories of the sort that were used in popular magazines for women? No current story strip dealt with romance and psychological drama instead of action. ... To test the idea of a story with which women readers could better identify, I wrote a sequence in which a passenger plane made a forced landing in a meadow. Conveniently, [Apple] Mary Worth lived nearby. One of the passengers to whom kindly Mary gave shelter was Leona Stockpool, the daughter, naturally, of a Wall Street stockbroker.” The father hires Mary to help him cope with the headstrong Leona.

After some weeks of this sort of thing, the syndicate urged Saunders to keep on with it, and Leona marries a candidate for governor named John Blackston, which permitted Saunders to dabble in politics. The rest, as they say, is history (whether the unnamed King official likes it or not). But here’s the crucial passage from Saunders’ autobiography:

Soon after our team took over, we changed the name of the strip to Mary Worth’s Family. Later, it took on its present title, Mary Worth. In her new role, the old street merchant [Apple Mary] obviously was not usable. So Ken Ernst gave her a beauty treatment, some weight loss and a more appropriate wardrobe.... We put her applecart in storage, where it will remain, even in the event of another economic slump. Our Mary has more timely things to do than peddle pippins.

No one ever expects to get any closer to the horse’s mouth than this. Apple Mary is Mary Worth. And when I phoned the late Jay Kennedy, then King’s editor-in-chief, he was as dumbfounded by the obit’s claim to the contrary as I and all the rest of us dusty-shouldered delvers into comics history had been. Every history he’s ever read, he said, has Mary Worth morphing out of Apple Mary. So somebody in the King shop just goofed. It happens. And now that everything is sorted out satisfactorily, all is forgiven.

Still, a few doubters lingered at the fringes of this archival expedition. And then, happily, we got inside the horse’s mouth, right there amongst the molars and bicuspidors. At the New York Daily News, Jay Maeder, writer of Annie in her last days, was rummaging in his personal stash of old comic strip clippings and found some Apple Marys from 1935 and sent me copies, which are on display in this vicinity. From these strips, dated February, it is clear beyond quibble that Apple Mary is Mary Worth—and was from the very beginning. These February strips, appearing within four months of the strip’s debut, set the conditions of Mary Worth’s apple-peddling occupation before us. Maeder wrote me: “I [always] thought Apple Mary was some standard-issue Depression bag lady who subsequently came into a little money and improved herself. Turns out she was a woman of refinement and breeding the whole time, a once-wealthy individual who had been cheated out of her properties and reduced to apple-selling to keep together body and soul. Apparently, at least early on, her efforts to restore herself to her accustomed station in life provided much of the heart-tugging drama of the thing. You live, you learn.”

As have we all.

You may have noticed that the “team” Saunders refers to when they changed the strip’s name the first time evidently didn’t include Dale Conner. In the history of the feature, it did; but in Saunders recollection, she wasn’t there. Probably he knew that she didn’t want to be there.

Everyone seemed happy with Saunders’ transformation of Apple Mary into Mary Worth—with the restoration of the protagonist to her former station in life, that is—except Conner, who was then drawing the strip with a liquid line that sharply defined the milieu and the characters. She didn’t like Saunders’ changes to the strip. Writing to Milton Caniff, she said: “I’m so heart-sick over what Apple Mary has turned out to be. Working on it has become a chore. There’s no action to draw, only dull and childish conversation, and the plot is so inane that I gag as I try to make something of it. I dread seeing the proofs each week for my feeling shows in them.”

Conner preferred adventure stories—like Caniff’s Terry and the Pirates. By 1942 she was married and had endured Saunders’ scripts enough: her husband, Herb Ulrey, teamed with her to write a new strip that she drew, Hugh Striver, a epic about a high school athlete. It lasted until February 1945 whereupon the team concocted an airplane strip, Ayer Lane, which lasted only a little longer than their other effort.

Meanwhile, back for another Saunders’ Worth, we can report that the strip is still lunging along. It is so often published adjacent to Judge Parker and Rex Morgan on the funnies page that I am tempted to think the three come as a matched set. I half expect to open the paper someday and find Mary leaning over the windowsill panel border of her strip to give Rex or the Judge down below the benefit of her advice.

Mary, by the way, never married during the run of the strip. She came close once, though. In 1949 she meets a charming old coot named Drum Greenwood, who has piled up a fortune with his successful bubble-gum business. When he promises to endow in her name a slum clearance project, she agrees to the nuptials. But on her way to the church, the taxi gets in an accident, and Mary suffers amnesia. She is still, apparently, under its influence because she has never married old Greenwood.

Her grandson Denny, on the other hand, advanced in life. He lost his crutches along the way and earned himself a respected slot in a Neiman-Marcus sort of establishment, where he eventually married the fashion designer named September Smith. Lovely name.

Oh—when I said Mary Worth wasn’t, actually, the first soap opera, I was thinking of an earlier strip that oozed heartthrob and psychic agony: Sidney Smith’s The Gumps, which began its sudsy strain in the early 1920s. The strip started February 12, 1917, but it didn’t get genuinely soapy until four years later when Andy Gump’s rich Uncle Bim almost falls into the matrimonial clutches of the avaricious Widow Zander. But that’s another story for another day.