About

MARTHA

I grew up on a farm in Ringoes, NJ.  It wasn’t really a farm, a working farm, but we did have animals—sheep (which we ate for Easter and Christmas), goats, chicken (I loved collecting the eggs, small surprises somehow—even though I knew they’d be there—each morning, early, in the dark little coop) and ducks, peacocks, cats, dogs, a donkey.  The Farm (with a capital F) is a sprawling house that was a hunter’s cottage at the turn of the last century.  Over the years it was added onto, wings and lofts.

DECK

I moved there from Princeton with my three older sisters when my mother married my stepfather.  Dan had 5 children, 3 boys and 2 girls and with my mother they had another, Joan—my amazing baby sister.  Our family was a curiosity in our community.  My mother worked fulltime as a photographer in Princeton, with her own studio, developing her own film, printing her own pictures.  My stepfather stayed home and took care of the kids—sort of.  He was a dreamer really, a philosopher writing a treatise on love and sexual equality—his life’s work, which he never finished.  In town (Princeton) he had a reputation as a feminist. (In 1970, it wasn’t a given that a feminist was a good thing.) He organized sit-ins in pubs that excluded women, was vocal in his opinions.  He was many things across the years: a Jesuit in training (a novitiate at Grand Coteau Seminary in Louisiana), a Gestalt therapist, a philosopher, a house-husband, a Haitian art dealer (we spent a summer there as children, collecting art), a Texan.

Dan came into my life when I was 5, driving a Turquoise Cadillac with electric windows that hummed like flies as you put them up and down.  He was a poker player and played late into the nights with local policemen and businessmen with bank accounts in the “islands,” and stacks of kruggerrands in their vaults.  (A cop pulled my mother over once for driving through a stop sign and when he realized she was Dan’s girlfriend, the cop let her go.)  When Dan won big, he’d pin money to our bedroom doors  – tens, twenties, once or twice a fifty, a hundred.  The family attracted attention. Some Germans made a documentary about us.  A whole crew of people with names like Morning, make-up artists and caterers.  We were filmed together, doing the things we did: football games (tackle not touch) on the large front lawn, working, filling potholes on the long driveway;

DRIVEWAY

and individually, sitting in the living room by the fire answering for Morning what this life was like?  What was it like to be part of this big blended family, to have left behind the conventional lives we’d all, to some degree, lead before?  (My first two novels tried to sort that question out.)

In 1974 People Magazine sent a journalist to write a piece on us { click here for full article }.

PEOPLE

PRYDE BROWN

SIT

HOUSE HUSBAND

I can remember the cover: Marlon Brando. We had all thought it was Dan, at first, because the two men looked a lot alike.  This “media” attention had made me feel famous as a little girl.  My family was “interesting,” “unique,” “bizarre” even.  Always, however, I did wonder what it would have been like had I led the other life, the conventional life, that existed, out there, in my imagination.  The one in which I was the fourth daughter of a happily married couple who lived in a big white house in the woods in Princeton.The one in which my mother dressed us all alike in Liberty print dresses she sewed herself, coats from Best & Co.

CONVENTIONAL

STROLL

With my sisters and grandmother in NYC.  I’m in the carriage.

BEACH

This other, parallel life rises before me sometimes like an expensive helicopter.  But what comes to mind is a New Yorker cartoon by Alex Gregory in which a young woman sarcastically thanks her parents for the happy childhood they gave her.

NEW YORKER

I can’t claim that my childhood was unhappy, but it was complicated, rich.  And because of it I can say unequivocally that I became a novelist.  How could I not when a character like Dan, a poker playing texan in a turquoise Cadillac, drove into my life?


PORTRAIT

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15 Responses to “About”

  1. Dear Martha,

    Reading your story reminds me of sitting in the front seat of the van in Morocco while you told me bits and pieces about your family. I could have ridden all through the Saraha easily listening to you. These photographs bring everyone wonderfully to life. Your writing brings it all home
    again.

    I’m so happy to see your blog. This is a long time coming I”m sure, and I’m very happy to have
    a way to keep more in touch with you and continue the conversation of what makes us smile,
    what we discover, what touches us, and what is really ticking in our tickers.

    Ti mando un dolce ‘buona sera’ da Firenze.

    Bacione,
    Peggy

    p.s. loved your piece on your psychedelic cuz. Inspiring to say the least.

  2. 2 Abbey

    Dear Martha,

    Your story is wonderful, beautifully told and perfectly illustrated.

    Abbey
    (a future chapter)

  3. 3 Erin Cramer

    Oh my god, I loved this! Actual photo documentation of your and Jenny’s childhood! (Hi, Martha!)

    x Erin

    • 4 marthamcphee

      I’m so glad you saw this, Erin. Thanks for writing. xMartha

  4. Martha!

    Thank you for sharing! I know that sounds cheesy, but I just discovered your blog and I’m hooked.So beautifully organized. What a lovely lay out (seems Pryde’s talent sparked a visual knack!)

    How fun to come upon this wonderfully illustrated essay about your ‘real life family’
    Seeing your family photos here has helped me to put into context some originals that fascinated me on your apartment walls, especially after having read Bright Angel Time this summer! ( BTW I loaned BAT to my little sister Martha –who sneakily stole back to Cambridge, England with it to share with her Brit girl book group. Today I ordered another copy for myself plus Gorgeous LIes)

    The People Magazine article is extraordinary! An American Time Capsule! You’re so interesting in so many ways.Looking forward to the release of Dear Money… meanwhile it’s nice to hear you praise the
    tactile glory of the galley!

    • 6 marthamcphee

      Thanks, Jane. I’m a huge fan of your work so this means the world to me, and to know that you bought BAT twice!!! And now GL. Thanks for that too.

  5. 7 Martha Gennaro-Nunn

    Dear Martha,

    Thank you for Bright Angel Time (and thank you, too, Sister Jane). Perhaps it is the big family, perhaps it is because we share a name, but its deeply unfamiliar content, felt very familiar in so many ways.

    Love,
    Martha

    P.S. The youngest of four girls in the family of six, I got a kick out of seeing the photo of you and your older sisters dressed in your blue coats with your Grandmother. It reminds me of an Easter photo we have where all four of us are dressed in the same double breasted navy blue wool suits — which I wore for the following five years as each of them was handed down!

    And P.S.S. Thank you for the focaccia recipe.

    • 8 marthamcphee

      Dear Martha, Thank you so much for writing, for reading Bright Angel Time, for such a thoughtful comment. I am so glad and happy. I adore your sister and think she’s a fantastic artist and am honored she thought enough of my work to share it with you. I hope I get to meet you. Isn’t it a wild, beautiful ride to have so many sisters? Enjoy the focaccia. I made it again on Friday and it is so easy and so delicious. Again, many thanks.

  6. 9 Pat Newman

    I’ve spend the entire morning with you and your family, having discovered your blog from your earlier email. So beautifully done, so honest and real. I will become a regular reader of your postings as well as your books. Have pre-ordered Dear Money and can’t wait to read it.

    • 10 marthamcphee

      Dear Pat, Thank you so much for your comments. I so appreciate them and am delighted you found my website and thank you a thousand times for pre-ordering Dear Money. I’ll let you know if the winds of publishing chance blow me to SF.

  7. 11 Erica Bowman

    Dear Martha,

    Congratulations on the new book. It was wonderful to read this story of your family. It seems that every year I learn more and more of these wonderful family secrets. I look forward to reading your book and am happy that Joan sent me the link.

    Erica

    • 12 marthamcphee

      Dear Erica, Thank you for writing. I’m glad you enjoyed the story about the family. It’s so good to hear from you. xxx

  8. 13 Patrice Amburgey

    I just completed your book L’America. Loved it! All through the book I tried to envision the Fresco. Being curious I decided to research Benvenuto Cellini and actually was surprised to find he indeed was a real person. I was able to see his many sculptures (on-line) however could find nothing regarding his painting a fresco.

    Is the fresco mentioned in the book a figment of your imagination? Did it (does it) exist?
    If so, where is it? Does the painting have a name?

    • 14 marthamcphee

      Thank you so much for writing. The painting is a figment of my imagination. It wasn’t painted by Benvenuto Cellini in the book. Cellini, I believe, is the last name of Beth’s boyfriend. The crazy thing is that I can’t remember. I think that they were related to Cellini and that a lesser known cousin painted the painting. It has been at least 6 years since I’ve worked on that novel so details escape me. I am certain, however, that the painting was from my imagination. A true painting inspired the idea but it was of a religious figure and had nothing to do with what I describe. Thank you so much for caring enough to try to find the “real” painting. I do love the work of Benvenuto and that’s how I chose to use the name. My best, Martha

  9. 15 Vicky(Gould)Owensby

    Hi Martha,
    You probably don’t remember me but I was friends with your sister Sarah back in the 70’s. We went to NY on the bus from Princeton, instead of school a few times and once Sarah got all of her hair cut short. It had been almost 20 ” long. You may remember that. Anyway, I wrote on Jenny’s site about her books and just wanted you to know how much me and my sisters enjoyed reading your books. We all took turns, our mom included and shared so many memories from that era. I think your parents, mine and a handful of others were the only divorced families in town, with step-families, crazy times and growing up way too fast.
    Thank you for writing them down for us to enjoy. Give my best to Sarah if you get a chance.
    Vicky


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