Mary O’Hara: Jersey Girl

At the end of the 19th century, Cape May Point was a thriving little community established as a religious retreat by prominent ministers and businessmen. Here, on July 10, 1885, a baby girl was born to the Reverend and Mrs. Reese Alsop. They called their daughter Mary O’Hara, after her maternal grandmother. Years later, upon the publication of her best-selling novel, My Friend Flicka, about the young son of a Wyoming rancher and the special horse he loves, the world would call Mary one of the most talented writers of her generation.

The Alsops were passing through Cape May Point on their way to the Episcopalian clergyman’s new Brooklyn parish when Mary entered the world. Though the exact location of Mary’s birth is unknown, Mrs. Alsop’s journal notes that she was attended by both a doctor and a nurse—unusual for the times and indicative of the Alsops’ position in society. Mary’s birth at Cape May Point gave the Alsops their third of four children. It also gave Reverend Alsop the perfect nickname for his beloved daughter.

“On the July night I was born my parents were traveling through New Jersey to take up my father’s new position,” wrote Mary at age 90 in her autobiography, Flicka’s Friend. “I was, as it were, dropped en route. So I became ‘Jersey’ to my father.”

“Jersey’s” childhood was privileged. She, her parents, older sister Elma, older brother Reese and younger sister Bess lived in the select neighborhood of Brooklyn Heights. There were private schools, pretty dresses and parties. Summers were spent at Deercreek, the thousand-acre estate outside of Pittsburgh owned by her wealthy grandmother, Mary O’Hara Denny Spring. Grandma May, as she was known, was an elegant, cultured woman who had a profound impact on young Mary. Grandma May imparted her love of music and her talent as a pianist to her granddaughter, who regarded music as a thing of wonder.

Photograph Courtesy of Mary O’Hara Collection, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming

“It flooded me with happiness. It was as if I opened a door into another world and that world was full of surprises and peace and beauty,” wrote Mary.

When Mary was six years old, her mother died, and Grandma May assumed an even bigger role in her life. Grandma May travelled to Europe several times with Mary and her sisters, staying at grand hotels and introducing the girls to fashionable, accomplished people. In addition to her relatives, Mary’s constant companions were her music—she became an accomplished piano and violin player—and her writing.

“I was destined to be a writer. I might almost say predestined, for I wrote my first short story when I was seven. As soon as it was finished I wrote another, and since then have never stopped writing.”

Upon their return from Europe, Grandma May moved the extended family into a big house in Brooklyn. Mary’s teenage years had all the hallmarks of a wealthy New York upbringing. She attended finishing school, made her debut to society and was courted by many young men. In 1905, against her father’s wishes, Mary married her third cousin, Kent Parrot, a charming and dashing young man with vague plans to enter law and politics. After the birth of their daughter O’Hara, they moved to Los Angeles and welcomed a son they called Kent. For several years, their lives were a swirl of country club dances, golf, parties and a parade of interesting people. (One day on the 18th fairway of the Los Angeles Country Club, Orville Wright taxied up to Mary in his new plane and offered to take her flying. Mary accepted.) Mary and Kent’s glittering life was eventually marred by Kent’s wandering eye, though, and they divorced.

Around this time, two exciting things happened that fed Mary’s artistic soul and also yielded an income for raising her children: she purchased her first piano, a cherished possession upon which she would successfully compose numerous songs for publication, and she became a screenwriter for Metro Pictures, one of the four big motion picture studios in Hollywood.

The 1920s were the zenith of the silent film era. Developing scripts for the silent screen involved the very specific craft of continuity writing. This was the intricate process of turning an original story or book into a script, complete with stage directions and the brief titles that would appear on screen to provide background to the audience. The best continuity writers received up to eight thousand dollars per script—a fortune in those days. Mary became one of the best, and was known as the Queen Bee for her talent. She went on to work with famous filmmakers such as Cecil B. DeMille, and to write continuities at Metro, Paramount and Warner Brothers studios for over 15 silent films, including The Last Card (1921), The Prisoner of Zenda (1922), Braveheart (1925), and Framed (1927).

Mary’s second marriage took place during this prolific period. The end of World War I brought Helge Sture-Vasa to America. This strapping blond Swede was the son of a diplomat and a veteran of the U.S. Army’s Remount Service, which provided horses for troops during the war. Helge became a set builder in Hollywood, where he met Mary in 1922. Their marriage was a happy one in the beginning, marred only by the tragic death of Mary’s daughter O’Hara from Hodgkin’s Disease.

After O’Hara’s death, Mary and Helge moved to Wyoming in 1930 and bought a ranch outside of Cheyenne. Mary was captivated by the expansive vistas and wild horses who roamed freely in this beautiful part of the country. Helge named the home Remount Ranch, in honor of the horses he cared for during the war. His intention was to make his fortune as a sheep farmer. Mary was skeptical, but happy to make the move.

“I was ready for Wyoming,” she wrote.“It was almost as if I had intuited the fact that in Wyoming I would meet and get acquainted with those wild horses which roam our western plains. And, unless that had happened, I never could have written My Friend Flicka.”

Photograph Courtesy of Mary O’Hara Collection, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming

One of these wild horses in particular became Mary’s inspiration for her novel. Mary was devoted to a young filly that, like Flicka of the novel, became entangled in barbed wire near a stream while roaming the range. After realizing she couldn’t free her pony alone, Mary hurried home for help. By the time they returned the next morning, Mary’s filly had died of her injuries. Mary was bereft. When she started writing My Friend Flicka at age 56, she decided to create a happier ending by having the young protagonist, Ken McLaughlin, stay by his Flicka’s side throughout the night. Ken’s love pulls his pony through, though at great cost to his own health.

Remount Ranch had its own trouble pulling through. The Great Depression had ruined its prospects as a sheep farm. To make ends meet, Helge and Mary opened the ranch as a summer camp for wealthy prep school boys. However, with the 1941 publication of My Friend Flicka, Mary’s writing career took off and life on the ranch became easier. The sequel, Thunderhead, followed in 1943 and Green Grass of Wyoming, the final book of the trilogy, in 1946. Twentieth Century Fox made each book into a movie during the 1940s, and My Friend Flicka was also developed into a 39-episode television series that ran from 1955 to 1956.

Unlike the success she experienced with her writing, Mary’s marriage to the philandering Helge was failing. They divorced in 1947 after 25 years together. Mary was alone again, but that didn’t stop her from living life.

“Her writing and integrity was how she weathered the storms of her two marriages,” said Melanie O’Hara, former faculty member at the University of Wyoming at Laramie, where she helped archive many of Mary’s personal papers for the school’s American Heritage Center.

Photograph Courtesy of Mary O’Hara Collection, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming

Mary moved to Connecticut and built a house where she continued her writing and composing. She eventually wrote nine books, including The Son of Adam Wyngate in 1952 and Wyoming Summer in 1963. Despite her prolific writing, Mary never neglected her music, composing a folk musical titled The Catch Colt in 1961, and creating many well-regarded piano compositions, including May God Keep You and Wind Harp.

Mary’s later years were rich with grandchildren, her siblings and their families, and friends. My Friend Flicka was translated and published into 14 languages, and remade as a movie in 2006. At age 71 Mary saw The Catch Colt performed at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. and again in Cheyenne. Her writing and composing continued, both from Connecticut and from her second home in Washington, D.C. near Kent and his family. Even the gradual loss of her vision couldn’t prevent her from writing, and she began her autobiography, Flicka’s Friend, on her ninetieth birthday. In it she said, “I am not just marking time. I could not do that. It would be too boring. Besides, no prolific writer comes to the end of one piece without another —sometimes two or three—already taking shape in his mind.”

Mary O’Hara died on October 14, 1980 at age 95. Cape May Point’s hometown girl had led a full and exciting life, leaving behind a rich writing and composition legacy.

The View from Here

People like to go to the top of things. Don’t ask me why. And it’s no good asking them, either, because they don’t know. Nearly a century ago, a reporter from the New York Times asked George Mallory why he wanted to go to the summit of Mount Everest, and he famously answered, “Because it’s there.” (Mallory’s frozen corpse was found on Everest 75 years later.)

It’s an old craving, of course. In the book of Genesis, some people wanted to build a tower “whose top is in the heavens,” but for reasons not well explained the project displeased the Lord, who forcibly scattered the builders. In Dubai, people flock to the top of the Burj Khalifa. At more than half a mile high (2,722 feet), it’s the world’s tallest building. They spend up to $80 per person for the privilege, which is especially odd since—take it from me, I’ve been there—the only thing worth seeing in Dubai is the Burj Khalifa, and you can’t see it when you’re in it.

Until the era of hot-air balloons and airplanes, of course, you couldn’t get a bird’s-eye view of anything. Today, the lowliest of us can achieve breathtaking views of sights that all the princes and potentates of yesteryear could only dream about. Aboard regular commercial flights, I’ve soared above the Grand Canyon, the glaciers of Greenland, and the gorgeous coast of Vietnam near Hue, where countless hundreds of circular pools along the beach capture the oranges and reds of the setting sun—beautiful until you realize that each one is a bomb crater created by American ordnance. As Judy Collins sang, “I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now.”

And then I was asked to take a hike—literally, up to the top of the iconic and much-photographed Cape May Lighthouse. Having lived year-round in Cape May for a while now, I’d never ascended those heights, nor did I have any burning desire to do so. The ocean, it seems to me, looks pretty much like the ocean, whether you’re sitting on the beach drinking a rum punch or looking down on it from a 157-foot tall lighthouse. However, plenty of people don’t agree, as evidenced by the fact that paying customers who climb the lighthouse provide Cape May’s Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts and Humanities, which leases the lighthouse, with its biggest money-maker by far.

Putting aside my skepticism, one bright morning, with temperatures in the mid-70s and a few high, scattered clouds in a crystalline blue sky, I began my trek.

For those of you thinking about following in my footsteps, let me assure you that it’s a less-than-daunting project. The friendly man downstairs who sold me my ticket—“that’ll be eight dollars”—laughed when I asked him how many steps there were. (I guess he gets asked that a lot.) “I really don’t like to talk about how many steps there are,” he said. “It’s about eight minutes of exercise.” No matter: I’d already read that there are 199 steps. He helpfully added that “every 31 steps” there was a landing where climbers could gather their breath.

Once inside, an original cast-iron spiral staircase swirls around and around above you. At each landing, there are old photographs, maps, and charts with friendly lighthouse facts for your edification and amusement. You’ll see diagrams showing how Cape May Point has been encroached upon by the ocean, and how long-gone South Cape May eventually fell victim to the waves. And even if you’re only slightly winded, you can pretend to be absolutely riveted by the information therein—while you huff and puff. But really, unless you are grossly overweight —a not-uncommon condition in a state where deep-fried Oreos exist—you aren’t likely to tax your stamina overmuch.

At one landing, a placard reveals that the rest areas were built into the original design to accommodate the original lighthouse keepers. “Landings were probably necessary to give the keeper a rest as he climbed the tower,” it tells us. That made me think that nineteenth-century lighthouse men were sadly out of shape—until I learned, later on, that in the old days they had to lug extremely heavy and cumbersome containers of whale oil to the top, back in the days before electricity.

(The current lighthouse was first lit in 1859.)

Spiraling upwards, at the top you’ll enter a beautifully restored circular room, enclosed in warm, stained-wood wainscoting. “It’s called the watch gallery,” said Perry Buckley, whose name badge read “Lighthouse Keeper” and who’s worked at the lighthouse for MAC since 2000. “A lot of people think that the lighthouse keepers lived up here,” says Buckley. “They didn’t. They lived on the ground.” Above the watch gallery are the rotating lights, with light bulbs that cost $240 each, making a full round trip precisely every 30 seconds. Pretty much everything up there is original, he says, and it’s been lovingly cared for. Buckley enjoys answering questions from those who’ve made the climb, and there’s a sign-in guest book—he shows one page filled with names of people from China, Singapore, and other far-off points of origin. And in a drawer he maintains a special registry in which people who’ve come to Cape May to be married inscribe lengthy passages about their hopes and dreams—and for those who’ve proposed to their would-be spouses at the top of the lighthouse.

Stepping through a breezy doorway, you find yourself on the circular gangplank that goes all the way ‘round, providing 360-degree views of, well, Cape May. It’s safer than safe: the original, waist-high steel railing is still here, but the current management has installed what they call a “birdcage,” making it impossible for even the most rambunctious child to endanger himself or herself. Off in the distance is the coast of Delaware, the bay, and, in the other direction, the rooftops of Cape May City. Directly below are the homes of Cape May Point, St. Mary’s by the Sea retreat center, the old, abandoned World War II concrete bunker, and the Nature Conservancy’s South Cape May Meadows, a nature preserve and birder’s mecca.

I decided to ask Buckley if he often has to deal with people who’ve had trouble climbing the steps. It’s very rare, he says. But, just in case, he keeps a first-aid kit and bottles of water in a cabinet.

As I started down the steps, though, I began to feel a little guilty, like I hadn’t really experienced the physical challenge of the climb because I’d stopped all along on the way up to read the placards and study the old photos. So I asked Buckley how long it takes to make the ascent, without stopping, at a steady pace. “For most people,” he said, “it’s about six or seven minutes.” Well, I was certainly going to test that. Back at the bottom, I pulled out my phone, set the stopwatch, and hit “start.” Up I went, around and around, with perhaps two or three five-second pauses to catch my breath. Back at the top, Buckley asked, “How long?” I showed him my stopwatch. “Two minutes and fifty-seven seconds,” I said.

He smiled. “Don’t put that in the article. People will start trying to beat your record.” Feel free. It’s easier than it looks.

A Rare Vintage

When Ed Wuerker takes flight, everyone in the neighborhood knows it.

Wuerker is the proud owner of a TBM Avenger, one of the most famous fighter planes of World War II. The mighty warbird has a gross weight of more than five tons, and boasts a turbo-charged Wright Cyclone engine. When it’s cranked for takeoff, the roar can be heard for miles around.

“I don’t even tell my wife most days when I get ready to fly—she can hear it,” says Wuerker, who lives in Rio Grande, a short distance from Cape May County Airport. “Each stack is over 900 horsepower, and there’s no muffler. So when it barks, it’s quite loud.”
The vintage planes are sometimes called “turkeys,” and the shoe fits. Avengers are bulky and utilitarian, with a wing span almost equal to their length. They’re a far cry from the light, sleek dive bombers—Corsairs, Mustangs and Lightnings—that took the lead in aerial dogfights.

The Big Guns

But Avengers, with room for 2,200 pounds of bombs, were also built for action. And they saw it—at the epic Battle of Midway, and in every major air-sea battle of the war, including Guadalcanal, the Battle of the Philippine Sea, and the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the largest naval battle in modern history. There, in a pivotal victory for the Allies, Avenger torpedoes helped sink Japan’s two largest battleships. (In a historic footnote, a young aviator piloting an Avenger was shot down in the Pacific in 1944. Though his crew members died, George H.W. Bush managed to release his payload before bailing out. He went on to win the Distinguished Flying Cross—and later, the presidency.)

Because Wuerker’s plane was one of the last to roll off the GM assembly line in Trenton in 1945, it never saw combat. “The war was winding down,” he says. “It was assigned to a squadron in California and put on surplus, then put to use as a fire bomber for the Forest Protection Unit.” Other Avengers in the original fleet of 10,000 also were retrofitted with water tanks inside the bomb bays. “That saved their lives,” says Wuerker. “There probably wouldn’t be any left if not for that.”

Today, about 70 of the historic crafts remain. Some are in museums; one is hangared inside the Naval Air Station Wildwood Aviation Museum at the county airport. Perhaps 35 Avengers are still flyable, including his, says Wuerker.

As for the others? “Well, you may be cooking your supper on one,” he says with a laugh. “Aluminum frying pans—who knows what they turned into? They were scrapped like thousands of other bombers, just ground up. Then some nostalgic people decided they were chopping up history. And that’s when they started saving them.”

Eyes on the Skies

Wuerker has always loved flying. He grew up on a county farm, and was just a tot in 1941, when the United States entered World War II and the local airport was built. As a child, he would watch with fascination as fighter planes swarmed the site, which was then commissioned as an active dive-bomber squadron training facility.

“I lived right on the other end of the runway, so I always saw the airplanes flying around,” he says. “I was just…‘I want to do that.’”

Though his mother disapproved, Wuerker started flying lessons when he was in high school, and later joined the Civil Air Patrol. He even remembers when he took his first flight: May 28, 1957. The date has double significance: it is also the birthday of Wuerker’s wife, Suzanne. Fittingly, her name, in elegant script, now graces the side of the vintage craft.

“It’s her plane,” Wuerker says. “She just lets me fly it.”

Suzanne Wuerker wasn’t really surprised when her husband decided to buy a World War II plane. “Early on in our marriage he said, ‘I really want to get a P51’”—a Mustang dogfighter, which can sell for millions of dollars. “My jaw dropped, and I got my Irish temper up,” says Suzanne. “Every kid growing up wants one, but it’s not realistic. I said, ‘Don’t even think about it.’”

Then, in 2006, they discovered that a TBM Avenger was for sale in Canada. Comparatively speaking, it was a bargain: just $60,000. “We went together in the camper and saw it,” remembers Suzanne. “When they started it up they said, ‘Stand back and put your fingers in your ears.’ I was glad they forewarned me.”

Among the challenges in flying this craft: the cockpit is not equipped with dual controls. In other words, “You have to read the manual to fly it,” says Wuerker. “There’s no way to get dual-seat training. But if you’re a pilot, you know what you’re looking for and what to do. And the thrill of pushing the throttle forward for the first time in this thing is quite awesome.”

Up, Up and Away

Like the Avenger, Wuerker himself never went to war. He joined the National Guard in 1957, after World War II and the Korean War, and before the United States became deeply involved in Vietnam. “I did my six years when nothing much was happening,” he says. Then he returned full-time to farming, and continued to fly as a private pilot. In addition to the Avenger, he owns a four-seat Cherokee 160. And in the mid-1980s, he even built his own Scorpion helicopter, a project that took several years to complete.

“That was before the home-built craze, before it was chic,” he says. “The first time I brought it out of the barn to fly, I cried. The joy of it is hard to describe—I built the thing. I did the metal tubing and the plates. I cut the steel. And it was flying. I can imagine what people feel when they make these rockets that shoot to the moon. To see this piece of hardware you put your heart and soul in, to see it do what it’s designed for, is a tremendous feeling.”

To this day, Wuerker has a heliport on his property. But when the family farm became Hawk Haven Winery, the helicopter was moved out of the barn to make way for other equipment. It’s now “sitting in the weeds,” says Wuerker. “I haven’t flown it in 20 years.”

He also rarely flies the Avenger, for several reasons: it requires a ground crew to remove the chocks and start the propeller. And as hobbies go, this is an expensive one: the plane consumes 70 gallons of fuel an hour, at $6 a gallon. “I can see the same sights out of my smaller airplane,” says Wuerker, “and for a lot less money.”

Though the Avenger is largely a showpiece, he’s proud to own a piece of history, a plane that helped the Greatest Generation win its war. One member of that generation is Nick Cooney, a 90-year-old veteran who was born in Philadelphia and now lives with his daughter and her husband in Swainton.

Cooney was a turret gunner, who occupied the seat behind the pilot. (A third crew member would sit in the bombardier position, in the belly of the craft). He was barely out of high school when he joined the Navy and volunteered for gunnery and aerial training. In one memorable battle, searching for a Japanese convoy in the China Sea, his Avenger found the fleet before U.S. fighter planes arrived. “We were hung out to dry,” remembers Cooney. “We got a shell in the back of our plane, and our radio man was fatally wounded. His face was blown away. I tried to help him, but he bled to death in just a couple of minutes.”

For his service, from 1943 through 1945, Cooney would earn battle stars for Iwo Jima, Okinawa, the China Sea and the Japanese Homeland, as well as the Distinguished Flying Cross and a Presidential Unit Citation, among other brass. He is also an honorary member of the Battle of the Bulge South Jersey Chapter.

Of the Avenger, he says, “It was one hell of a plane. It could take a beating like no other. One time when we got back we had 108 holes in the thing. Another time we came back with part of our tail shot off, but we were still flying. Anyway, it was super plane. If I had to go again, that would be the plane of my choice.” Even so, asked if he would take a ride with his old friend Ed Wuerker in the Suzanne, Cooney is blunt. “I wouldn’t get in that damn thing,” he says. “It’s 50, 60 years old!”

But Wuerker keeps flying. He couldn’t keep it a secret if he wanted to.

“We know when he’s up there; that plane has a particular sound,” says Dr. Joseph “Doc” Salvatore, founder of the Naval Air Station Wildwood Aviation Museum. “Can you imagine in World War II, there were 300 airplanes here with that sound? Eddie lived right across the street, so he was aware of a lot of that stuff. That’s what got him started.”

“Yes, it’s noisy,” says Wuerker of his vintage plane. “To me, that’s the sound of freedom.”