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Wallace Stegner's widow, Mary, dies at 99 [Updated]

May 21, 2010 | 10:18 am


Mary Stegner, the widow of writer Wallace Stegner, died on Saturday. She was 99. The couple was married for almost 60 years, from 1934 until 1993, when Wallace Stegner died after being injured in a car crash.

Closely associated with the American west, Wallace Stegner won a Pulitzer Prize in 1972 for "Angle of Repose" and the 1977 National Book Award for "The Spectator Bird." Stegner founded the Stanford University creative writing program, which included students Ken Kesey and Larry McMurtry, and ran it for more than two decades. His legacy there continues with the prestigious Stegner Fellowship.

Mary Stuart Page met Wallace Stegner at the University of Iowa, where he was a graduate student and she was an undergraduate working in the school library. Wallace Stegner's teaching took them to Salt Lake City, Utah; Madison, Wis., and Harvard in Massachusetts before they got to California in 1945. Mary was along for the ride. "She quite deliberately decided that his gifts and talents were so great, the best role she would play was to be his helpmate," their son Stuart Page Stegner told the Salt Lake Tribune. "She wouldn't win any points in the modern women's movement for that, but that's what she did, and did deliberately."

Stegner explained how Mary enabled his work -- and reeled in his worst impulses -- in the book "Stealing Glances: Three Interviews with Wallace Stegner" by James R. Hepworth"

She has had no role in my life except to keep me sane, fed, housed, amused, and protected from unwanted telephone calls. Also to restrain me fairly frequently from making a horse's ass of myself in public, to force me to attend to books and ideas from which she knows I will learn something; also to mend my wounds when I am misused by the world, to implant ideas in my head and stir the soil around them, to keep me from falling into a comfortable torpor, to agitate my sleeping hours with problems that I would not otherwise attend to; also to remind me constantly (not by precept but by example) how fortunate I have been to live for fifty-three years with a woman that bright, alert, charming, and supportive.

We'll never know what his work might have been like without his wife Mary, but it sounds like he thought there would have been less of it, and it would not have been as good. And his work was significant: Wallace Stegner received the L.A. Times Kirsch Award for his distinguished body of work writing about the West in 1980.

[For the Record, added at 12:01 p.m. May 24: An earlier version of this post referred to Wallace Stegner's Pulitzer winner as "Angel of Repose." This version has been corrected, with thanks to the readers who pointed out the error.]

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Wallace Stegner in 1996. Credit: James Pease / For the Los Angeles Times

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