Mary O’Hara Sture-Vasa: "My heart is in Wyoming"
April 14, 2006
Mary O’Hara Sture-Vasa
by Frances E. Hanson
Her socialite and celebrity friends thought she had lost her mind. Could an heir to the Denny fortune, and the darling of the Hollywood celebrity jet set exchange her gilded lifestyle for that of a ranch wife in the wilds of Wyoming? Her friends thought not.
In 1930, fed up with the fantasy world of the rich and famous, 45-year-old Mary O’Hara Sture-Vasa gave up her highly successful career as a screenwriter; gave up the easy luxurious, modern city life of swimming pools, patios, running water, electricity, and servants for the beauty and hardships in the rustic, wilds of Wyoming.
As she rode across Wyoming, Mary thought it to be “A secret hidden world unknown to the rest of the country; serene, calm, with a slow heartbeat.”
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Along with her second husband, Helge Sture-Vasa, Mary began life on a 3,000-acre ranch where she wrote and composed, while he and his partner raised horses and sheep. Helge, confident his old war-time buddy, Carlson from Cheyenne, knew about sheep raising and marketing them, put his friend in charge of the sheep. Mary and Helge backed him.
Between Mary’s savings and the Denny Estate, money was no problem. In addition, the long bull market, which preceded the depression of the 1930s, had thrown the entire country into money madness. No one worried about money ” just buy into the market. Though the Stock Market had taken a plunge, the economy did not look that bleak to the new ranchers.
At 8,000 feet high, the ranch, located on the old Lincoln Highway (U.S. 30), between Cheyenne and Laramie, was first homesteaded by Thomas Gunson in the 1870s. He built a house from railroad ties with a bunkhouse to match. The cowboys called it the “Temple of Virtue.” The ranch sat between two low, nearly barren ridges.
The part of the ranch which was tucked into the foothills of the Rocky Mountains consisted of the home buildings: the log house, a bunkhouse for the hired men, a number of sheds and outbuildings and a big barn, set deep down into the earth for winter warmth.
The barn had room in it for all the animals that might need to be sheltered there. The interior was like a cathedral with three compartments. It had a peaked roof, made of the straight slender poles from Pole Mountain (which the state supplied free to anyone who wanted to cut and transport them).
Early on, Helge recognized the barn, with its old, dry pitchy knots, was a tender box just waiting to catch fire. He refused to let Mary store her valuable furniture and paintings there. Shortly before they left the ranch, the barn did indeed burn down in spite of efforts to save it.
Helge named the place, “Remount Ranch” because his dream ranch began when he was in charge of the American Remount program in Belgium. They called Remount Ranch home for 11 years. The famous and not-so-famous found the beauty and solitude of Remount Ranch refreshing and relaxing, as did Mary.
The neighbors sniffed their disapproval at the Sture-Vasa’s idea of building a ranch, saying it looked more like a resort than a ranch, while the new ranchers said they were just making it “home.” Running water, a bathroom, electric lights and additional rooms were added to the house. The first year, while Helge did extensive remodeling to the old house ” from foundation to rooftop, adding terraces, flowerbeds, shrubs, courtyard and trees ” Mary worked on her composing and writing. On the second floor, Helge built a large combination bedroom and writing room for Mary, complete with a fireplace. Working on two stories at one time, she kept two typewriters an arm’s length away. The small room next to Mary’s held Helge’s bed, nightstand and a chair.
Hiring a cook-housekeeper, Mary began a routine she stuck to for the next 11 years. An early riser, she began her day with a rigorous exercise program, followed by a light breakfast of coffee and bread. Then, at her grand piano, she passed the mornings by composing her many great works. During warm weather, Mary kept the top half of the Dutch door open letting the music float across the ranch, much to the enjoyment of her husband and the ranch hands.
Frequently, in late afternoons, Mary grabbed a pole, saddled up, and with her favorite dog trotting beside her, rode out along a stream until she found a good fishing hole. More often than not, she brought back a mess of fat brook trout. In late afternoon or early evening, the couple rode over the mountains and meadows.
During a ride that first summer they came upon what Mary thought the most beautiful sight she had every seen: a band of wild horses. Observing the ranch animals, especially the wild horses became her daily routine. Mary let her eyes roam over the sight including the new sheep dotting the hills, committing every detail to memory. Back at the ranch, with the Corona on her lap, Mary recorded her observations of the day. Thus began the notes about a little filly that became caught in barbed wire.
Isolated from the world at large, the couple blissfully labored at building their ranch. Meanwhile, the economy continued its downward spiral, with continued bank failures, until everyone who had anything lost it. The Denny Estate also went bankrupt.
Now, the couple had only the ranch. Devastated, they devised a new game plan. They sold what sheep they could, gave some away, and turned the rest loose on the range. Helge came up with the idea of breeding horses for the Remount service. A stallion was acquired, but Mary knew it would be four or five years before this venture became profitable.
Every rancher around had a herd of milk cows as a sideline to carry the overhead. Mary purchased 30 milk cows, and delivered milk to the Cheyenne creamery. With trailer hooked behind, she hauled milk and ranch supplies through blizzards, in sub-zero temperatures and through winds of hurricane force. Mary wrote, “I felt often as if my car, trailer, milk and all would be blown into the ditch.”
Driving their old secondhand truck, Helge went to Colorado for sugar beets, Nebraska for corn and the elevator for other grains to feed the dairy cows. Often, Mary stood at the window staring into the dark looking for two big headlights to come clattering through the wind and snow down the ranch road. After a year of fighting heat, snowdrifts, the wind and long distances to find feed for the dairy cows, Mary-Dairy failed. The couple learned the hard way that one cannot pay retail for their supplies and come out ahead.
Thinking she could keep them afloat with her writing, Mary went to work. Thousands of miles away from her Hollywood writing sources, Mary aimed her writing at the women’s magazine markets. Manuscript after manuscript was neatly copied, letter perfect, well packaged, stamped and addressed. One by one, each returned with a rejection slip.
Helge was quite at home at Fort Francis E. Warren, just 50 miles from the ranch. He found friends among the officers and hung out with them in Cheyenne’s little cafes or the Plains Hotel. Often, he and Mary attended the dances at the big ballroom. Nonetheless, Mary missed her professional writing colleagues.
That winter, Helge kept the home fires burning while Mary spent time in Hollywood learning how to write for publication. Mary rode the bus home, knowing that somehow she must find the money to take her work to the publishing world in New York.
Their next adventure, a summer camp for boys of the wealthy, soon became a financial success. Helge built summer cabins for the boys. Like all ranchers, Mary had trouble finding dependable hired help. A few days off for the cook often meant Mary did the cooking until the cook needed more money.
Cheyenne Frontier Days became the highlight of each boy’s stay at the ranch. Helge and his hired hand outfitted two or three covered wagons and a chuckwagon, loaded up the boys, and trailed across the ranch, camping out a night or two, before entering Cheyenne where they camped for the duration of Frontier Days. Remount ranchwagons loaded with boys, Mary, and Helge rode in every parade.
Often, parents of the boys came to visit, too. Soon, Mary had established East Coast publishing connections that later paid off. Each winter Mary and Helge closed up the house, leaving the ranch in charge of a hired man, and went back east to scout out guests for the next summer’s camp. In addition, Mary found winter a perfect time to compose, write, take lessons and attend school to further expand her writing and composing. She enjoyed being with her old influential wealthy friends and family.
Wherever Mary went, an audience soon gathered as she began to spin tales about her ranch animals. By 1940, “My Friend Flicka” spun Mary Alsop into the field of classic literary writers.
The seemingly happy couple had been estranged for months. Helge had found other women to occupy his time when Mary was writing, composing and traveling in connection with her work. They sold the ranch and moved to Santa Barbara, Calif. In 1947, after 20 years of marriage the couple divorced. Mary moved to Tyrawley, Conn., and spent her winters in Washington with her son.
Children worldwide wanted more stories like “My Friend Flicka.” Mary’s editors agreed a sequel to Flicka was needed. Next came the classic, “Thunderhead,” then “Green Grass of Wyoming”; both of which were as successful as Flicka. Just as today’s children turned out by the thousands to see Harry Potter, in 1957, American movie fans (young and old) flocked to see “My Friend Flicka.”
After moving to Tyrawley, Mary penned her first big novel, “The Son of Adam Wyungate.” Although a good book, it did not enjoy the success that her Wyoming books had. One day, while cleaning out a closet, Mary found her diary of a summer at her Wyoming ranch.
“I had found a treasure. I gave it the title ‘Wyoming Summer,’ and it was published by Doubleday.”
The many goals Mary set for herself included writing a musical. The musical was produced at Catholic University of America and at the Lincoln Theatre in Cheyenne. Then, Mary wrote the play as a novel and it was published in 1979.
Time was running out for Mary. After surgery to remove a lump in her breast, she returned home to write about her ordeal. In 1975, on her 90th birthday, she began her autobiography, “Flicka’s Friend.”
At the age of 95, Mary Alsop O’Hara died at her Chevy Chase, Md., home on Oct. 14, 1980, ” with her heart in Wyoming.