Thursday, May 26, 2016

Leslyn MacDonald (1904-1981)

Poet, Actress, Theater Director, Teacher, Science Fiction Fan
Born August 29, 1904, Boston, Massachusetts
Died April 13, 1981, Orange County or Stanislaus County, California

Leslyn M. MacDonald (also spelled, erroneously, McDonald) was born on August 29, 1904, in Boston, Massachusetts. Her father was a Canadian, her mother a Bostonian. Early in life, Leslyn moved to California with her family. That's where she lived and that's where she died. For some reason, as I write this, I sense a pall over her life. That may be just my imagination. But she was once young and beautiful. She had dreams of love and all the other things of which we dream. She wrote poetry, went to the university, acted on stage, and was married to one of the greatest of all science fiction writers. They slept together on the night they met, he proposed to her the next morning, and they remained together for a decade and a half before infidelity, heavy drinking, divorce, and other everyday dramas brought an end to it all. Leslyn remarried. Her second husband, like her father, worked in a hotel. He died in middle age. She survived but has slipped from memory. Maybe we owe her something a little better than that.

Leslyn MacDonald's father, Colin MacDonald, was born in Sidney Mines, Nova Scotia, on October 17, 1873. He came to the United States sometime around the turn of the century and was naturalized as an American citizen on May 13, 1901, in Boston. A little more than a year and a half later, on September 3, 1902, he married Florence Caroline Gleason in Worcester city or county. Born on April 8, 1883, in Westborough, Massachusetts, she was ten years his junior and had just turned eighteen.

The MacDonalds had two daughters, Leslyn, born August 29, 1904, and Keith, born September 9, 1906, both in Massachusetts. (Yes, Keith was a girl.) I don't know how long the family lived in Massachusetts or where else they might have resided, but by the time Colin MacDonald filled out his draft card in 1918 (the day after Keith's twelfth birthday), they were in Riverside, California, and he was working as a clerk at the Glenwood Hotel. Here's a news item with the heading "Laguna Beach News Budget" from the Santa Ana Register, dated June 28, 1917, showing that the MacDonald family were calling California home for at least a year and a half before that:

I had no idea what the "large Cravath cottage" might have been, but I did a search for "Cravath" and "Laguna Beach," and I feel pretty confident in saying that the reference is to professional baseball player Clifford "Gavvy" Cravath (1881-1963), who was a real estate developer in Laguna Beach. The "two children" in the article were of course Leslyn, then aged twelve, and Keith, then aged ten.

So the MacDonalds were not short on means. In 1920, they were in Riverside, where Mr. MacDonald worked as an office manager in a chemical works. That same year, Leslyn had a poem published in the Los Angeles Times and reprinted in other papers:

When "Freedom" was reprinted (in the Concordia Blade-Empire of Concordia, Kansas) on September 20, 1920, Leslyn was barely past fifteen. I'm no critic of verse, but it seems to me a work of sophistication rare for a teenaged poet.

Leslyn matriculated at the University of California, Southern Branch, later known as the University of California, Los Angeles. There she was a member of Delta Tau Mu; Kap and Bells, Dramatics; and the Manuscript Club. One of her classmates and a fellow member of Delta Tau Mu and Kap and Bells was Agnes De Mille (1905-1993). Here is a photograph of the two side by side:

Left, Agnes De Mille (1905-1993), and, right, Leslyn MacDonald (1904-1981) in the University of California, Southern Branch, yearbook, 1926.

According to the Wikipedia biography of Agnes De Mille, she was not considered pretty enough to be an actress, so she became a dancer instead. (1) Leslyn MacDonald, on the other hand, did become an actress, if only for a little while. In August 1924, she appeared in A Midsummer Night's Dream under the direction of Madame Margarita Orlova, a play staged at Madame Orlova's beachfront Woodland theater in Laguna Beach. (2) The Santa Ana Register observed that Puck was "very prettily played by Leslyn MacDonald of Laguna Beach" (Aug. 19, 1924, p. 14), while author and screenwriter Elinor Glyn remarked, "I have seen 'The Dream' on several occasions, but I have never seen a  more charming Puck" (Santa Ana Register, Aug. 22, 1924, p. 12). For a season at least, Leslyn was a star. She later acted with the Pasadena Playhouse (1927), directed experimental theater, and worked in the music department at Columbia Pictures. 

Leslyn graduated from the University of California with a degree in philosophy and a minor in drama, presumably in 1926. She took her master's degree from the University of Southern California in 1930. Again, the subject was philosophy. The enumerator of the 1930 census found Leslyn living in Los Angeles with her cousin, engineer Chester S. Beard, and his family. She was then working as a teacher in the public schools. Meanwhile, another star was on a collision course with hers. His name was Robert Anson Heinlein, and in the early 1930s, he was married, soon to be divorced, still in the U.S. Navy, but before the decade was out, ex-Navy and a published writer of science fiction. He and Leslyn were introduced in January 1932 by Heinlein's friend Cal Laning. Despite the fact that she was Laning's girl, Heinlein took her to bed that first night, then married her on March 28, 1932. There is a wedding picture of the couple, with Heinlein in his regalia and a very slight Leslyn at his side, here. Heinlein had his peculiarities: he was a nudist and a wife-swapper. Leslyn cared for neither activity. But she was an inspiration to her husband and devoted to his career and interests. Her poem "Freedom" from 1920 may very well have been a prophecy of their lives together.

Heinlein and his wife were at Denvention, the science fiction convention, in 1941. He was the guest of honor. She wore "semi-oriental dress [representing] Queen Niphar in Cabell's Figures of Earth." (3) She was with him, too, in Philadelphia, where he worked at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard during World War II. She knew Isaac Asimov. I suspect she knew the other writers of the southern California science fiction scene, writers such as Ray Bradbury, Forrest J Ackerman, Henry Kuttner, and possibly L. Ron Hubbard. Anthony Boucher cast her as Mrs. Carter in his 1942 roman à clef, Rocket to the Morgue. John W. Campbell, Jr., and his wife Dona named one of their daughters for her. Later she wrote to Frederik Pohl, "sad, wistful, lonesome letters," he called them, reminding him "over and over of the wonderful times she and Bob [Heinlein] and I and other local science-fiction writers and fans had had sitting around her kitchen table in the old days." Pohl continued:
This worried me. You see, it had never happened. I had never been in her kitchen, nor indeed had I met Leslyn anywhere else, either. The woman clearly was not in close touch with reality. I could think of nothing to do about it other than to reply to her letters as pleasantly and noncommittally--and briefly--as I could. (4)
Those letters would have come, of course, after Heinlein and Leslyn had divorced. That unhappy event occurred in 1947 after fifteen years of marriage. In 1948, Heinlein remarried. Leslyn also remarried. Her second husband was Jules G. (or Jewel G.) Mocabee, born on February 10, 1919, and a U.S. Army veteran of World War II despite weighing only 117 pounds at his enlistment. Like Heinlein, he was a native Missourian (possibly from New Madrid County). Mocabee received only a grade-school education and seems not to have been very gainfully employed. If the abbreviation "pdlr" stands for "peddler," then he was a peddler. He also worked at a place called the Morningside Inn in Stockton, California. He only made it to age forty-seven, dying on October 10, 1966, in San Joaquin County, California. That very likely left Leslyn Mocabee alone, for she seems not to have had any children, and her only sibling, her sister Keith MacDonald Hubbard, had died on August 9, 1949, in Orange County, California. Her father, Colin MacDonald, had also been gone many years, having died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1929. I don't know when her mother, Florence MacDonald--nicknamed "Skipper" by the way, and a Theosophist--died, but I have a feeling it came in the 1940s as Leslyn's marriage to Heinlein was unwinding. Sad, wistful, lonesome. And though her life ended in 1981, a pall of sadness remains, even today.

So my feeling that Leslyn MacDonald lived an unhappy life has been borne out by the research I have done for this article. Described by Heinlein's biographer William H. Patterson, Jr., as "a very slim, intense dark-brunette with medium complexion, lively and attractive, not quite five feet, one inch tall" and as "an unusual woman--astonishingly intelligent [and] widely read," she deserved better. Some sources on the Internet suggest that her drinking and her purported separation from reality contributed to her failed marriage to Robert A. Heinlein. There was a history of drinking in her family to be sure. And her mother, being a Theosophist, subscribed to some pretty kooky beliefs. Leslyn must not have had a very good start. But what kind of husband is a nudist and wants to swap wives? And what effect must those things have on a woman who devoted herself to her husband? No one knows the mysteries of another person's marriage, but let's be kind to Leslyn MacDonald and give her at least some benefit of the doubt. Instead of remembering her as the distaff side and possible cause of Heinlein's second failed marriage, let's remember her as a poet and a woman, as a thinker and a muse, and as a lover and a human being, and let's remember the behind-the-scenes contribution she made to science fiction in America.

Leslyn MacDonald's Poem in Weird Tales
"The Ballad of Lalune" (May 1941)

Further Reading
Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century: Volume 1: Learning Curve 1907-1948 by William H. Patterson, Jr. (Macmillan, 2010), here.

(1) Agnes De Mille, by the way, was the daughter of William C. De Mille, niece of Cecil B. De Mille, and granddaughter of Henry George, for whom Volney George Mathison was named (in part).
(2) Margarita (also spelled Marguerita) Orlova, was an actress and a self-proclaimed Russian princess. She was more likely just an American pretender to her title, name, and nationality. Madame Orlova later was half-owner of Sherwood Forest, an artist's colony located on the opposite coast, in Oakland, New Jersey.
(3) From All Our Yesterdays by Harry Warner, Jr., (Chicago: Advent, 1969), p. 103.
(4) From "The Wives (and Drives) of Robert Heinlein: Leslyn" by Frederik Pohl on his blog, The Way the Future Blogs, dated May 19, 2010, here.

Original text copyright 2016 Terence E. Hanley


  1. Thank you for this balanced and kind short biography of Leslyn MacDonald.

  2. Thank you for this balanced and kind short biography of Leslyn MacDonald. I wish there were a publication of Leslyn's writings, including her correspondence with Pohl. There had to be more to her choice to write cryptically which to Pohl just seemed "out of touch with reality". She was a complex, tragic case, and insgead of Heinlein seeing her through her own troubles, his own male ego took precedence. I am drawn to such complicated life stories as these.

  3. You're welcome, Unknown, and thank you.

    By the way, your user name is the same as the fantasy magazine of 1939-1943. Or are you that magazine, both incarnated and reincarnated?


  4. Excellent article Patterson's Biography was actually pretty good, IMO, but he glossed over the fact that, after Leslyn had lost her whole family, her husband packed up and left her, too. I wish we knew more about her after the breakup.

  5. In 1930 Leslyn collaborated with Chuck Baldra on a song for Columbia Pictures 1934 movie “Fighting Through”. They used the music to “Mademoiselle From Armenteirs” and wrote lyrics together. I think the song was called “When the Round-up is Done and Over”. I have the licensing agreement they both signed with Columbia Pictures which also bears Samuel Bischoff’s signature. Can anyone help me verify the song’s name and get the lyrics? I cannot find the movie to watch it.