CAMDEN — Mary Borden was an heiress from Chicago, suffragette, missionary in India, best-selling writer, decorated World War I and World War II hero, the first American woman to be awarded the French Croix de Guerre and a pioneer of mobile frontline hospitals. Mary’s father, William Borden, was the Borden who built “a holiday home overlooking the bay” on Fox Hill in Camden in the 1890s, and although she travelled the world and lived much of her life in Europe, her Camden connection was strong. Her daughter Joyce was born in Maine in 1908, and her granddaughter, Mary Bok, lives in Camden.
Jane Conway, a writer in London, England, has written the biography, “Mary Borden: A Woman of Two Wars.” She will speak about the book and about Mary Borden at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 31, at Camden Public Library.
“She came to the U.S. every time she published a book,” said Mary Bok of her grandmother, “and she would come up to Maine to visit with her grandchildren. She was an amazing woman and an amazing grandmother.” Bok attended her grandmother’s funeral in January 1969, at St. Paul’s Church, Knightsbridge, London, England.
Mary Borden’s father had trained as a mining engineer, made a fortune in prospecting in Colorado and invested it in Chicago real estate. Mary Borden (1886-1968), known as May to her close friends and family, inherited her share of the fortune. But her childhood was overshadowed by her mother’s conversion to an extreme form of evangelicalism, and May escaped her influence as soon as she was old enough, travelling to India where she married and had two daughters. This life proved equally claustrophobic, and in 1913, she moved her family to London where she became a part of the literary circle, socializing with writers Ford Madox Ford, E.M. Forster, George Bernard Shaw and Ezra Pound, and falling for the charms of the painter Wyndham Lewis.
After the outbreak of WWI, she used her substantial inheritance to fund a frontline mobile hospital for the French Army, earning medals for her bravery under fire and going on to run the biggest military hospital during the battle of the Somme. She met the love of her life, Capt. Edward Louis Spears, during the war and together they set up home in Paris, keeping open house throughout the peace conferences for an eclectic mix of writers, poets, artists and politicians.
During the interwar years, May wrote prolifically, becoming an international best-selling author, with close literary friends, including Noel Coward, Freya Stark and Cyril Connolly. Her rebellious and questioning nature meant her novels were often boundary-breaking and controversial. She helped her husband on the campaign trail when he stood for parliament, giving speeches and descending deep into the mines in his constituency to canvas the workers.
Throughout WWII, she ran mobile hospitals at the front and had a terrifying escape from France during its fall. Back in England she became involved with the Free French under de Gaulle and took a newly established unit to the Middle East.
After the war, she continued writing, publishing her last novel at age 70. She often returned to the country of her birth and helped her nephew-in-law, Adlai Stevenson, run for the presidency, writing some of his speeches.
Mary Borden’s sister Joyce Balokovic moved to Camden and built the house on Barnestown Road in 1940 where Mary Bok now lives. Jane Conway, author of the biography, came to Camden and stayed with Mary Bok while doing research for the book. Conway teaches English for Westminster Adult Education Services. She lives in London with her husband and three children.