Ask McGehee: Who was Sidney McCall?

Over its long history, Mobile has established a reputation for producing talented and successful writers.  As the 19th century progressed, there was Octavia LeVert, with her popular accounts of her glamorous trips abroad, and Augusta Evans Wilson, with her best-selling novels set in the Deep South.  As the century came to a close they were joined by Mr. Sidney McCall.

McCall’s 1901 melodramatic novel “Truth Dexter” sold more than 40, 000 copies in its first year of publication. The book told the story of the title character, a Southern housewife living in Boston pitted against a ruthless, husband-stealing vixen named Orchid Wiley. The popularity of the book and its subsequent successes led to Mr. McCall’s eventual unmasking.

Mr. McCall was actually the thrice married Mary McNeill Chester Scott Fenollosa. The Mobile native had grown up in a prosperous household on Church Street and attended private schools, followed by a wedding at age 18 in Christ Church.

In just 12 short years, she had buried one husband, divorced another and was married to a Bostonian who had left his wife for her. She had lived in Japan with her second husband and fell in love with that country and its culture. As a divorcee with two young children, she had moved to Boston where she landed a secretarial job in what was then known as the Oriental Department of the Museum of Fine Arts.

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Intrigued with Japan

In the 1630s, Japan isolated itself from the west with a series of laws forbidding foreigners from entering the nation and a death penalty for any Japanese attempting to leave. America successfully opened Japanese trade two centuries later, and the western world became fascinated by that nation’s perceived exoticism.

Ernest Fenollosa was a native of Salem, Mass., and a graduate of Harvard. Although he traveled to Tokyo to be a philosophy professor, his interest in historic Japanese art would lead to his becoming a world authority on the subject. He and his wife then returned to Boston where he had been hired by one of the nation’s most prestigious museums to curate their Oriental collections.

Divorce in the late 19th century was not unheard of, but polite society did not mention the word. The 42 year-old’s divorce and remarriage in 1895 to a 30-year-old secretary from Alabama led the museum to ask for his resignation. The couple left for Japan.

Mary and Ernest Fenollosa lived happily in Japan and Europe. Eventually they built a house on Tuthill Lane in Mobile, which they filled with Asian art. After Ernest’s sudden death in 1908, Mary had to  sell her home and its exotic contents. After living for a time in California, she finally moved to her daughter’s home in Montrose where she died in 1954 at the age of 89. MB

Tom McGehee

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