Ida Alexa Ross Wylie was born in Melbourne on March 16, 1885. As I. A. R. Wylie, the novelist, short story writer and screenwriter achieved worldwide renown, though in most readers’ minds, as a male author.
Before her birth, the writer’s father fled his English debtors for Australia after his first wife divorced him. He then married the daughter of a Melbourne merchant. The couple named their daughter, Ida Alexa Ross Wylie, after themselves — literally, after themselves: Ida Ross and Alec Wylie. Alec returned to England with his family in 1888 and his new wife died soon after. Young I. A. R. Wylie then endured a childhood of sustained crisis.
Because her father, according to her autobiography, never paid a bill in his life. ‘Dashing and handsome’, he found one woman of means after another to marry or take as a mistress. He stayed with them only until their money ran out.
“From the day of his birth to the hour of his death he never had a penny that he could legitimately call his own. If by some strange chance he had earned it, he already owed it several times over, and it was only an additional reason for borrowing more.
“Quite often he didn’t have a penny of any sort, and there were days in our large absurd house in London when there was no food for anyone except the bailiff occupying our one completely furnished room. But in the nick of time, Father would run into some fine fellow who understood his situation perfectly, and we would be in funds again. The bailiff would be wined and dined, and sent on his way, rejoicing and proud to know us, and the furniture vans would begin to arrive with expensive, unpaid-for furniture.”
He, his, she and her
I. A. R. Wylie began her career writing short stories. She published her first two novels in 1910. Called ‘Uncle’ by most of her female friends, her actual gender was a source of confusion from the very beginning of her career.
In 1910, Mills & Boon published a full-page ad in the London Evening Star to promote their current offerings. They devoted a third of the page to I. A. R. Wylie’s The Rajah’s People, published earlier that year, and her latest release, My German Year.
Bizarrely, the advertisement denoted her pronouns as he, his, she and her. ‘Mr’ I. A. R. Wylie penned the first book and ‘Miss’ the follow-up.
Almost half a century later, most readers still assumed the author was a man according to her local Courier-News.
“Few people knew that the byline of I. A. R. Wylie was not that of a man.”
The newly successful writer became a suffragette in the years before WWI. She provided a safe house for suffragettes on the run from the authorities, including the editor of The Suffragette, Rachel Barrett. Rachel Barrett and I. A. R. Wylie later travelled to America. Newspapers reporting on their attendance at social events described Rachel as the author’s secretary. (Read enough queer history and you start to think ‘secretary’ is a word meaning ‘lesbian lover’.) When Rachel Barrett returned to England, I. A. R. Wylie stayed and began selling her stories to Hollywood. Eventually, over thirty of her novels and stories were adapted for the screen.
Although I. A. R. Wylie never explicitly outed herself as a lesbian, she wrote candidly of her relationships with women in her autobiography and made her disinterest in marriage abundantly clear.
“I have always liked women better than men.”
“I have always liked women better than men — I am more at ease with them and more amused by them… Here and there and especially in my latter years when there should be no further danger of my trying to ensnare one of them, I have established some real friendships with men in which we meet and like each other on equal terms as human beings.
“But fortunately, I have never wanted to marry any of them.”
Sara Josephine Baker
Uncle did however enjoy a long romantic relationship, but with a woman, the physician Sara Josephine Baker. Known as Dr Joe, she was famous for her pioneering advocacy of child hygiene and preventative medicine.
Dr Joe wore masculine clothing — tailored suits, high collars, and neckties and took delight in men forgetting her actual gender. She wrote in her autobiography about pulling up a colleague moaning to her about women doctors.
“What kind of creature do you think you are talking to now?”
The doctor blushed.
“I’d entirely forgotten that you were a woman.”
In the thirties, Uncle and Dr Joe moved to a farm in New Jersey with their friend Dr Louise Pearce. During her career, Dr Pearce developed a treatment for African sleeping sickness which previously decimated African populations.
The three probably met earlier through their mutual membership of Heterodoxy, a New York feminist group that included numerous lesbian and bisexual women.
Dr Joe died in 1945, followed by Dr Pearce and I. A. R. Wylie in 1959.
Uncle once described the fundamental theme of her writing as compassion.
“We can’t avoid man’s ill-treatment of man but there is also man’s compassion toward man. That still exists. I believe in it and I like to write about it.”
Prince Manvendra, March 14 <— On this day —> March 17, Rudolf Nureyev
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