Her eyes are almost colorless but lambent, set in a weathered, kindly face beneath reddish hair. She reclines on a bed in the alcove; a hummingbird feeder is framed by the picture window, and beyond are the tawny brown hills of California’s Napa Valley. Jessamyn West is speaking with some asperity: “Why is it that you can write a book like Looking for Mr. Goodbar—a book about bad people—and nobody takes it for granted that you are a whore. But if you write a book about good people they think you are pure as the driven snow.” Much to her displeasure, that typecasting has been thrust upon her since the publication in 1945 of The Friendly Persuasion, her first book. The story of a Quaker family on the Indiana frontier in the 1860s, it became a best-seller and a popular movie with Gary Cooper and Dorothy McGuire. Now 30 years and 15 books later, Miss West has shocked and angered some of her devoted readers with another best-seller, The Massacre at Fall Creek. “You should see some of the letters I got,” she says. “Well, the fact is that people do go to bed together. Everyone wanted another Friendly Persuasion.”
Instead they got the romantic attachments of 17-year-old Hannah Cape intermingled with the brutal (and historically accurate) killing of nine Senecas in the Indiana frontier town of Fall Creek in 1824. The spellbinding tale centers on the unprecedented trial and conviction of the white assassins, which represented a turning point in white-Indian relations. The Massacre at Fall Creek (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich) was a Literary Guild selection and has been purchased for $250,000 by producer David Merrick for filming.
Jessamyn West lives in a rambling house which she and her husband of 50 years, Dr. Harry Maxwell McPherson, a retired school superintendent, have occupied for most of that time. Shaded by big trees, surrounded by a profusion of plants—monstrous gladioli, giant peonies, clumps of lilies and spreading ferns—their menage includes five cats, three dogs, a hen, a rooster and a Tennessee walking horse.
She was born a Hoosier, part of a close-knit Quaker family which moved to Southern California when she was 6. The Wests settled first in Yorba Linda, then followed their kinfolk, the Nixons, to Whittier. Through the years Miss West has remained friends with her second cousin Richard. Like him, she attended Whittier College (as did her husband). It was she who named Nixon’s Irish setter, King Timahoe, and though a nominal Democrat she crossed party lines in 1972 to vote for him. On July 18th, her 73rd birthday, the former President called to offer best wishes. “One thing no one has ever written about Richard, that has been written about John Kennedy,” she says, “is that Richard Nixon had an older brother—a brighter, more handsome fellow—who died at 23 of TB. I’m sure in his family they felt the best had been taken. I don’t know, but maybe he felt he had to fill shoes that he couldn’t fit exactly.”
Like her cousin, Jessamyn West also had tuberculosis. At the time of her collapse she was about to take oral examinations for a Ph.D. at Berkeley. After two years in a sanitorium in Southern California she was sent home as incurable. But her determined mother refused to contemplate her death and nursed Jessamyn back to health. “I can’t say God bless TB, because that was a hellish time, but if I hadn’t had it, I never would have started to write. I would have gone on to be an academic.”
Twenty years ago, on a trip to Ireland, Miss West met an 11-year-old girl in a dime store. “I went in to weigh myself, and a little girl stepped up and asked if I wanted her to hold my heavy purse.” The encounter led to tea and cakes. Miss West found that the child lived with her widowed mother and five brothers and sisters in an abandoned barracks. Touched by their plight, the McPhersons decided to bring little Ann McCarthy and her sister Jean home to live with them. When the girls’ emigration was held up by red tape, Jessamyn appealed to her cousin—then-Vice-President Richard Nixon. “In a few days we had their passports,” she says. The girls are both married now and have provided the McPhersons with three grandchildren.
It was “Max” McPherson who first urged his wife to submit her stories to magazines. She sent one of them to New Masses, the Communist-oriented weekly, and it was accepted and published under the byline Jessamyn McPherson. The newly appointed school superintendent of Napa said to his wife, “I think it would be wise from now on if you publish under the name of Jessamyn West.” And she did.
As a woman who has been writing with her husband’s encouragement for half a century, Miss West does not see her work as a struggle for women’s rights. “There is a class at the local high school studying women writers, and I resent it,” she says. “I take no pride in being included in that. I am not so much for celebrating being a woman as I am for celebrating being Jessamyn West.”