In April 1952, Harper’s Magazine published “The Pirates’ Nest of New York,” a report on the aftermath of a wildcat strike on the city’s docks. The piece begins with a longshoreman and two activist priests conducting a friendly argument about exactly how a port reformer of an earlier era had been murdered. Was he shot, garroted, or immersed in fresh concrete? The article moves with an easy authority, sustaining its momentum by shifting between narrative and analysis every several paragraphs. By the end of its roughly ten thousand words, the reader knows why (and to what extent) longshoremen’s wages were lower in New York than on the West Coast; which Manhattan piers were under the sway of “the pistol local,” also known as “the superhomicidal local”; and how the shipping companies themselves were complicit in the mob corruption that had crippled the longshoremen’s unions.
Was this the work of an upstart writer inspired by the reportage of Edmund Wilson’s early Depression-era dispatches, The American Jitters? No, the energy that drove the creation of “Pirates’ Nest” was not the energy of a young reporter on the make. Its author was Mary Heaton Vorse, a seventy-seven-year-old who had been writing about labor for Harper’s (and many other outlets) since 1912.
Vorse was never a household name, but in her long career she witnessed an astonishing range of events. She interviewed Belgian refugees in the Netherlands during World War I, and then was detained at the German-Swiss border on suspicion of espionage; she was present at the creation of the Provincetown Players, who initially performed on a converted pier that she owned; she barnstormed for women’s suffrage in 1915; she organized textile workers in Pennsylvania in 1920; she visited Berlin during the grim summer of 1933, and wrote a dispatch for The New Yorker; she covered one of the Scottsboro Boys trials for The New Republic; and she attended the auto workers’ victorious sit-down strike in Flint, Michigan, in 1937. (Hours after General Motors capitulated, Vorse’s son, who was also a labor reporter, was shot and seriously wounded when vigilantes attacked a United Auto Workers celebration in Indiana.)
Not all of Vorse’s journalism has aged well. Her work from the 1910s and 1920s is often bracing, but it sometimes suffers from left-wing cant and overheated prose. Men and Steel, her book on the 1919 steel strikes, begins with this description of the industry: “The Principality of Steel is young. It has the despotism and the power of youth; its power rests only on wealth and dominion. Power without responsibility. Power that throttles among its subjects all efforts at self-government. Power brutal, young, riotous, lusty, driven by the force of steam. Power which treats men’s lives as commodities.” It was only in the early 1930s, when Vorse was approaching her sixtieth birthday, that her prose grew less strained and her reporting became consistently vivid and persuasive.
But even Vorse’s weaker writing holds a certain mesmerizing power today. She created a vast record of America’s labor battles, many of which would otherwise have been forgotten. Few present-day reporters cover social movements of any kind in such depth. She was occasionally sentimental, phony, and posturing, but those vices might have been inseparable from the motivation that pushed her through her fifty-year career.
Vorse was born in 1874 to a wealthy family, the Heatons, who divided their time between Manhattan, Paris, and Amherst, Massachusetts. In an essay in The New Yorker in 1930, she recalled playing in Bryant Park under the watchful eye of a governess, desperately envying the freedom of a friend named Ethel who was “alone and unattended” and who “skated freely with the ‘lowlifer’ boys” from the other side of the Sixth Avenue el.
At nineteen, Mary Heaton persuaded her parents to send her to an art school in Paris and another in New York, but neither venture was a success. She married Albert Vorse, a young Harvard graduate and would-be novelist, in 1898, and the two of them set up house in proto-bohemian Greenwich Village.
Equally fond of alcohol and other women, Bert turned out to be a disappointment. But his failures helped give rise to Vorse’s career: while he struggled and slouched, Vorse supported the family, which soon included two children, by selling dozens of short stories and light essays to The Atlantic Monthly and other magazines. Vorse separated from Bert in 1910, and a few months later he died of a cerebral hemorrhage. Vorse’s mother died the next day, after hearing the news of son-in-law’s death. She had long been horrified by her daughter’s unorthodoxy, and she had entirely disinherited her. Now Vorse and her children were truly on their own.