Of the writers who have lived in Skaneateles, New York, none can hold a candle to Louisa Shotwell (1902-1993), the author of Roosevelt Grady (1963) and Adam Bookout (1967), but I still delight in discovering new contenders. My most recent find was prompted by an inquiry about Oscar-winning actor Frederick March, born Fred Bickel, whose older brother, John, worked for the Carrier Corporation and lived in Skaneateles for a time.
It was a tenuous link, but far more interesting to me was John Bickel’s wife, Mary Elizabeth Dupuy Bickel, who was an author of mysteries and romances. In 1934, Mrs. Bickel submitted her first manuscript, a courtroom mystery about a woman on trial for murdering her fiance, to Liberty magazine’s first novel contest. The novel was entitled Brassbound, and it won, topping more than 6,000 other entries. Mrs. Bickel saw it serialized in Liberty in June, pocketed a $10,000 prize, and was published in hardcover.
The following year, the novel was published in England as The Trial of Linda Stuart. The reviews, however, did not exactly glow. A critic in the New York Times noted, “As a murder story it offers a fair amount of entertainment. As value received for $10,000 it seems decidedly shortweight. As a first novel it is moderately good going, rating higher in plan than in execution.”
In 1936, Mary Bickel followed Brassbound with House Guest, a novel about a man who comes home one afternoon to discover that his wife has invited a touring speaker to stay at their home, unaware that the woman was the husband’s lover while he was recovering from a war injury in Paris. The French woman is accompanied by a son who seems oddly American, who falls in love with the daughter of the house, and the inevitable complications ensue.
In 1937, Mrs. Bickel provided the story idea for a film called 45 Fathers. The screenplay was written by Frances Hyland; the film starred Jane Withers. Mary Bickel had begun writing when her second daughter went off to kindergarten, leaving her with some time for herself. (One of her earliest works was a poem called “Measles,” for the Pictorial Review in April of 1935.) When not raising her children and writing, Mrs. Bickel was either packing or unpacking; the family made 13 moves in their first 19 years of marriage.
In 1947, John and Mary Bickel built a home on East Lake Street in Skaneateles, and lived here at least until 1957, when John retired from Carrier and they moved to New Jersey. Her time here seems to have been conducive to writing, and she found a niche in writing “complete novels” for magazines. In July of 1948, Secret Between Two Women appeared in Redbook magazine, followed by At Her Own Risk in April 1950, Her Word of Honor in September 1952, and Gift of Life in March of 1954. The Dark Flower appeared in the Toronto Star Weekly in August of 1959. At Her Own Risk was published in book form by Avalon Books in 1961, followed by Between Women in 1962.
In 1973, the Bickels moved to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. John Bickel died that year, and Mary Bickel died in 1975. Her obituary was headlined, “Mary Bickel, Author,” and indeed she was.
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“Brassbound,” New York Times, September 30, 1934; “Two More Aces in the Alumnae Deck” by Henrietta Kessenich, The Wisconsin Alumnus, January 1937; notes from the Skaneateles Historical Society.