LITTLE BALKANS CHRONICLES — The Woman Behind the Looking Glass

J.T. Knoll
Marcia Ethelwyn Mendenhall

The following story, sent along by Pittsburg Public Library’s Carol Ann Robb, not only speaks to local history but also tells an adventure story that stretches coast to coast. — J.T.K.

2021 marks 80 years since the painting “Alice Through the Looking Glass” came to Pittsburg Public Library. The iconic artwork holds a special place in the memories of generations of children, but few people know the story about Ethelwyn Mendenhall, the woman behind the Looking Glass.

Marcia Ethelwyn Mendenhall was born on November 25, 1905, in Greensburg, IN, the second child on only daughter of Edgar Nelson and Marcia Miller Mendenhall. Ethelwyn, who went by her middle name, no doubt to preclude any confusion with her mother, Marcia, was born into a family that valued education. Her father was then the Superintendent of Schools of Decatur County and her mother taught music before her marriage. After the births of two more sons, the family moved to Goshen, IN, where Edgar took over the reins of the school system there.

When Ethelwyn was twelve, the family moved Pittsburg, where her father became a professor in the education department at Kansas State Teachers College. She and her brothers attended College High (and prior to that, probably the training school then housed in Russ Hall). One can assume she was a lively, engaged child; perhaps a bit of a tomboy being the only daughter in the family — and certainly an independent thinker.

Like her brothers, Ethelwyn attended KSTC where she was active in the Art Club, Lambda Phi Delta, served on the Kanza staff and “was popular with the younger set.” After graduating with an English degree in 1926, she worked briefly as the society editor at the (Pittsburg) Sun before heading to Columbia University to continue her education — a path also taken by her brothers.

While at Columbia, Ethelwyn began going by her first name Marcia (although it appears she remained Ethelwyn to the Mendenhalls and her Pittsburg acquaintances) and caught the attention of a young instructor, Donald Scott Snedden, who also came from a family of educators.

A graduate of Stanford, Donald possessed an athletic prowess that he first displayed by biking from New York to California to attend his freshman year - and later as a member of the Stanford gymnastics, swimming, and diving teams. He also spent time as a shipman’s apprentice aboard a three-masted schooner as it sailed around the world, gaining superb sailing skills. (How could the lively, winsome, progressive young woman from Kansas not be attracted to the rugged instructor who exhibited as much braininess as brawn?)

They married on January 21, 1928. The bride was 22 and the groom, at 27, was already a professor at Harvard. Marcia continued her studies in psychology, the field she took up while at Columbia and seemed to have left her Midwestern ways behind her. In a letter dated June 11, 1928, KSTC English professor, Margaret Haughawout, wrote to a friend describing the young bride:

“The Mendenhalls are in Pittsburg again. Thank the Lord! More of the sort are needed. Dr. Snedden, whose son Don married Ethelwyn was here a week ago for a number of lectures. He was stimulating. Ethelwyn, by the way, keeps her own name. Someone here wrote her under her new name. I mean under what would be supposed by conventional-minded people to be her real name and heard nothing from her. Accounts from her mother of their attempts of finding the new way are interesting to me. Mrs. Mendenhall is a rare mother, by the way. Did you know that Ethelwyn has a ‘job’ in Harvard giving tests and measurement? Don teaches there next year. More power to the Mendenhall children! They all have found good spots in the East.”

By 1930, the couple returned to New York City when Don became a professor of psychology at NYU and Marcia found a job working at psychiatric clinics at Bellevue Hospital. They were surrounded by family; the three Mendenhall brothers lived near them in the City and Don’s parents were also close by as his father taught at Columbia. A niece of Don’s recalled meeting them when she was young and remembered Marcia as being “a lovely person” and Don as not knowing quite what to make of small children. In the words of her mother-in-law, “Marcia was a slight, graceful woman of indomitable spirit, an able brain, and an especially loving heart toward all the family.Despite the distance, Marcia and her brothers returned to Pittsburg each summer to visit their parents. In a letter dated June 14, 1930, Professor Haughawout again wrote of Ethelwyn, this time noting, she ...

“…has the same winsome sprite-like charm she used to have. She is very scornful of us now & has a frightful New York state-of-mind. But she comes of a good mother and will recover some day. She is dear but has no idea how funny she is. Perhaps I went through a good deal of it myself and that is why it is so entertaining to me now. It is not that she smokes you know but the way she smokes. She is working for her doctors and the boys too are far along toward being educated! They have really all done very well in New York. Ethelwyn has left art and writing far behind for science or, as she says, for a self-respecting career…”

In all likelihood, this visit was the last time Marcia’s parents saw her and their eldest son, Robert.

— Carol Ann Robb

Note: Next week’s column concludes the story and reveals how the painting “Alice Through the Looking Glass” came to Pittsburg Public Library.