Thirty years ago yesterday (March 18), one of the most interesting women (in my view) in the 20th century quietly died. She was Catherine Marshall, the wife of Senate Chaplain Peter Marshall who, after her
husband’s untimely death in 1949, reinvented herself as an author who had a writing ministry that reached millions. Many babyboomers and people over 40 remember the Marshalls, including Catherine’s only son, Peter Marshall, Jr., who died not long ago. Catherine is best known for her book “Christy” (which was also a TV show/movie), “A Man Called Peter” and many other books. There are enormous amounts of Catherine Marshall fan bases on the Internet plus the people who attend the annual summer “Christyfest” in east Tennessee. I even stumbled upon a Diane Sawyer essay that told of how she first met Catherine Marshall when Diane was 17.
I felt a kinship with Catherine as it was her book, “Beyond Ourselves” that I read in 1972 that so changed my life. And years later I happened to visit her family home in Lincoln, Va., a lovely place 50 miles west of DC, while a friend was renting it. Back in 2011, I got the bright idea of writing a biography of Catherine Marshall, as the centennial of her birth (Sept. 27, 1914) is next year. My agent was super excited about it, as he knew publishers who were looking for good bios for the evangelical Christian market. I went to the University of Maryland library where I got a ton of info about this remarkable woman. First, when Peter Marshall Jr. died in September 2010, there were 15 pages of tribute on the Boston Globe’s web site. Included in those tributes were notes from people who still remembered “A Man Called Peter” more than 50 years later. One biographer called her a ‘reluctant feminist’ because she would have preferred to stay home as a widow and watch her 9-year-old son, but she had to work and so she began to write best-sellers. So many people remembered Catherine’s legacy. OK, she had written an autobiography, “Meeting God at Every Turn” in 1980, but I had a feeling there was a lot more to her life that had not been written about and that would fascinate people in the 21st century. I had never known, for instance, there was a 12-year-age difference between her and Peter Marshall Sr. And I always wondered how Catherine felt about the Community of Jesus, the Christian community in Orleans, Mass., that drew her son in to where it could have caused he and his wife, Edith, to divorce. One of my reporter friends wrote about the CoJ’s cultic tendencies years ago, so I’ve always been suspicious of them even though Christianity Today magazine did a puff piece on them in more recent years. But how that must have broken Catherine’s heart. She wrote about her own life in much detail but to my knowledge never mentioned that community.
But I digress. First I discovered that Catherine’s grave site was a mere two miles from my door. She had been buried at Ft. Lincoln Cemetery in NE Washington back in the days when whites were buried in one place and blacks were buried in another. One of the workers at Ft. Lincoln told me back in the 1940s, this was considered the white cemetery for that part of town and sure enough, it was not that far from the Capitol where Peter Marshall Sr worked. Knowing her grave was so close to Hyattsville (where I lived), I thought maybe this was a sign I should pursue this project further. I started seek out members of the family. Her stepdaughter, Linda Lader, who lives in the DC area, was very hard to reach and when I did reach her, I got the royal brush off. Linda referred me to a relative who was the family lawyer who in no uncertain terms told me that if I wrote about Catherine, I was inviting myself in for a very expensive lawsuit. She even cited a law saying I would need their permission to write anything about Catherine as they didn’t want anyone – except themselves apparently – making money off Catherine’s memory. After all, they’re still selling stuff off Peter Marshall Jr’s web site plus getting royalties from Catherine Marshall’s 20-something books. I told this attorney I’d written a huge biography a few years back (of Graham Pulkingham who she’d never heard of) and knew how to do research and would love to take a new look at Catherine but nooooo, she was not convinced and in a nice way told me to keep my hands off Catherine’s name. Sure made me wonder what was up, but I was a freelancer at the time, so was in no financial position to hire a few lawyers myself and go after this story. I tried contacting other family members but couldn’t get anywhere. Their loss. Catherine was such a special woman and her life and works deserve to be known in this century as well. Read the entries in her cemetery guest book and see how many people still remember her.