Profile is a series of brief biographies on noted Pennsylvanians.

Despite being the busy wife of a physician, mother of three sons, and victim of fragile health, Pennsylvania native Mary Roberts Rinehart became one of the most popular and highest-paid writers in America. Between 1908 and 1953, she churned out fifty-four books, mostly “whodunit” novels, which enthralled readers worldwide. In her 1980 biography, Improbable Fiction: The Life of Mary Roberts Rinehart (1990), Jan Cohn described Rine­hart as ” America’s first female Horatio Alger.”

She was born Mary Ella Roberts in Allegheny City (now part of Pittsburgh) to Thomas and Cornelia Roberts. After graduating from Al­legheny High School in 1893, she attended the Homeopathic Hospital School of Nursing (today Shadyside Hos­pital), where she met Dr. Stanley Marshall Rinehart, a junior member of the surgical staff. Rinehart’s gruff maimer intimidated her and fellow nurses until she was charmed by the warmth and playfulness he showed young patients in the children’s ward. Roberts and Rinehart married in early 1896.

Rinehart claimed her early life’s lesson was that “the Street is life” and it would be reflected in her novels. Prosperity had eluded her father and he grew increasingly discouraged as his patent ideas failed and his sales work grew more exhausting. The Panic of 1893 worsened his situation and he began drinking. In 1895, during a stop in Buffalo, New York, for a soft-drink company, Roberts was fired from his job. He committed suicide three weeks later.

Mary considered medical school, but nursing’ s long hours and exposure to the raw side of life contributed to a break down in health. She later published candid recollections about her difficult pregnancies and feeling “nearly shipwrecked by accidents and illnesses.” She affirmed she was blissful as a mother, wife, and partner – housework, childcare, answering the door of the home office for patients, and sometimes assisting her husband in minor surgery. Rinehart had always yearned to write, but had not found enough time to do so. A nurse who cared for her while she recovered from diphtheria encouraged her to put pen to paper. Early in 1904, Rinehart’s first pub­lished piece, a poem entitled “The Toy Railroad” – for which she received two dollars – appeared in the Pittsburgh Sun­day Gazette.

Reporter friends of Dr. Rinehart tried to discourage Mary. “Tell her,” one ad­vised, “to stick to housework; she has no literary ability.”

Dr. Rinehart’s successful medical practice and investments brought him relative prosperity, and his family celebrated with a trip to New York where they visited the stock exchange – just in time to witness their financial stability evaporate during a panic on the floor. Suddenly they were in debt to about $12,000, a considerable sum in 1904. “And then, quite literally, I was forced to write,” Mary remembered. Letting go all but one servant, Rinehart took on a greater workload of assisting her husband, housekeeping, and childcare. She wrote during whatever precious moments were unoccupied each day. By December, her most serious piece to date, “His Other Self” appeared in Munsey’s magazine. The story idea came from one of her husband’s cases where a man hit his head and then recognized neither his wife nor children.

Rinehart initially churned out dozens of short stories and poems for magazines such as Munsey’s, All-Story, and Woman’s Home Companion. She wrote her first play, The Double Life, in December 1906 but it lasted for only twelve performances on Broadway. It was her novel The Circular Staircase (1908), first serialized in All­ Story, which catapulted her to literary success. She soon followed with When A Man Marries (1909), The Man in Lower Ten (1909), and The Window at the White Cat (1910). When a Man Marries became a successful Broadway show and motion picture, each titled Seven Days, and as a musical, Tumble In. By 1913, Rinehart had earned about $200,000 with her nov­els and five touring companies of the play Seven Days.

On March 5, 1910, one of Rinehart’s most popular characters won the hearts of readers of The Saturday Evening Post. For the next thirty years, the delightful spinster Letitia Carberry, better known as “Tish,” embraced every new fad and technology, mixing improbable adventures, daring, and romance.

Despite her success, Rinehart remained modest. “Sometimes I realize that I am just finishing my literary apprenticeship, and that soon I shall really start to write,” she wrote in her 1931 autobiography. In 1948, when My Story was reissued, Harvard University scholar Howard Mumford Jones wrote Rinehart that he found it “a simplicity and directness of writing that makes refreshing contrast to much of the pretentious aesthetic prose I have to read.”

Rinehart possessed a restless sense of adventure. When war clouds hovered over Europe in 1914, she was determined to travel to the front on behalf of The Saturday Evening Post, despite reservations by her family and editor. Lord North­cliffe, publisher of the London Times, arranged for her transport to the Belgian front. She was the first woman and the only American granted such unfettered access. Her nursing background, and perhaps her own charm, helped convince officials who most likely believed Rine­hart to be the right person to help sway American sympathy toward supporting their cause. Just two hundred yards from the German trenches and within earshot of gunfire, Rinehart reported on destroyed and damaged buildings, bodies floating in water-filled trenches, and personal stories of wounded soldiers. She also interviewed Belgian and British royalty and Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill. Her articles were credited with increasing the publication’s circulation by fifty thousand copies, even though its editors censored Rinehart’s report on Germany’s use of poison gas. Her unabridged war accounts appeared later in Kings, Queens, and Pawns, declared by Lord Northcliffe to be the best book written on World War I.

In addition to her prolific works of fiction, Rinehart tackled serious topics. She wrote about the plight of Blackfeet Indians, earning their respect as a warrior woman who traveled to the front lines of war. Naming her Pitamakan (“Running Eagle”), they adopted her into their tribe. She took readers to Montana’s Glacier Park, where she braved the narrow, dangerous passes, hiking and horseback riding down the Flathead River, a trip that Rinehart wrote, “no other woman … [and] no other man has ever taken.” She embarrassed the Cuban government by writing about Havana’s poor accommodations and Cuba’s “political prisoners,” a status it publicly denied. She wrote propaganda to bolster support and morale when America entered World War I, although she was clearly torn by the prospect of America’s sons at war. After her husband and son Stanley Jr., were in uniform, Rinehart proposed returning to the front, using her nursing credentials to travel as a Red Cross representative. However, Secretary of War Newton Baker decided that no ex­ception would be made to the rule keeping wives and mothers of soldiers from the front.

After the war, Rinehart went to Hollywood and earned dozens of screenwriting credits. Among movies based on her books were: K-the Unknown, Her Love Story, I Take This Woman, Miss Pinkerton, and Elinor Norton. One film, The Bat, an adaptation of her successful Broadway play, The Circular Staircase, was credited by illustrator Bob Kane as his inspiration for creating the superhero Batman.

Poor health kept Rinehart from writing more novels after 1952 and she died six years later at the age of eighty-two. Her legacy endures, however. Now, a hall-century later, an annual scholarship is awarded each year by the Mary Roberts Rinehart Foundation, administered by George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia, to an individual demonstrating excellent writing ability.