Like a character out of movie, à la Diane Keaton in Interiors and Manhattan and Mary Astor in The Maltese Falcon was how I always thought of Mary E. Allen. She was part screwball comedy heroine and part hardboiled reporter with witty timing. I can still hear her smooth voice that conveyed erudition and street smarts. Born on Long Island, she was poised to be among the literati.
In the 1980’s, I was a teenager in college and working as an usher at the 8th Street Playhouse movie theater. The cashier called out that the woman in the lobby had a pass—free admittance and therefore had no ticket. Mary and I chatted. She was a film critic for the East Village Eye magazine and was reviewing the movie. We spoke afterward and she gave me her business card. She worked for McGraw-Hill as a writer for their company newsletter. If I ever wanted a book that they published, I should let her know.
A short while after, I read an enticing New York Times book review of Strong Opinions, a collection of Vladimir Nabokov interviews published in paperback by McGraw-Hill. I called Mary and asked if she could get me it for me. “Sure.” Later on, I was at McGraw-Hill and saw her in her office wearing smart business attire. She introduced me to her coworkers, and we chatted before she gave me the book and I left. Out of my affinity for Nabokov and sentimentality, I still have it.
In that pre-internet era, keeping in touch with friends was a matter of phone calls, leaving messages on answering machines and running into one another. Mary lived on Sullivan Street and I lived on West 11th Street. For a period of some years we socialized on a number of occasions, mainly going to the movies.
Meeting her when I was young and impressionable, she truly seemed larger than life, making my memories of her so vivid. “Thanks for ruining it!” was her angry retort about my remark, “The funny thing is nothing happens!” She’d mentioned that she was reading Joseph Heller’s novel Something Happened. In those days, we were passionate about books.
Having her work in the Village Voice was a goal of Mary’s and she had feature stories published there. I was an intern at the Voice’s film desk, and we’d say hello when we were both there at the same time. She was acquaintances with many writers and editors including film critic Tom Allen and television critic James Wolcott. None of her writing appears to have been digitized.
I’d get a late call sometimes when she was “pulling an all-nighter” and wanted company. She’d be in her cramped studio apartment, sitting at a table and typing away, smoking cigarettes and pouring cups of coffee. It was all very Jane Fonda/Lillian Hellman/Julia. She’d show me the review that she was writing, I’d comment, and we’d converse. Once, she was enthused about a short story she was working on “that would be perfect for the New Yorker.” Alas, it was not published there. This rejection was in tune with later events.
McGraw-Hill ceased their newsletter, and so her full-time job was gone. The East Village Eye closed, and new editors at the Voice weren’t giving her assignments. She soldiered on as a freelance writer and photographer. I called to congratulate her after I saw a picture in the newspaper of Norman Mailer at court during the Jack Henry Abbott trial. Below it read, “Photo credit: Mary Allen.” She was jubilant. Over time, and possibly due to contractual reasons her name is no longer attached.
I would later learn from her that she’d been seriously injured in a mugging. She avoided eviction by going on public assistance as she’d been unable to work during her convalescence. I moved to Hell’s Kitchen and we drifted apart.
I searched Facebook a few times over the years, but could not find the right Mary Allen among so many. One recent search brought me to Mary E. Allen. She looked virtually the same as I remembered her. She had continued as a photographer and also had become an independent video producer. She was a ardent animal rights activist and there were pictures of her with Gabe, a rescue dog she adopted. She was also dead.
On her timeline was the bulletin from a friend, alerting everyone that Mary had died on March 1, 2019, two weeks short of her 65th birthday, after a five-year battle with ovarian cancer.
The evening I discovered this news, I was seeing a play in the West Village. I got out of the subway at West 4th Street. I thought about walking to Sullivan Street to look at the building she had lived in, but didn’t. It had already been a struggle not to cry all day.
In an alternative universe, such a brilliant, talented, driven, ambitious individual with artistic aspirations, who set up in Manhattan and developed solid contacts would have gotten the necessary big break leading to recognition.
Mary’s later years were filled with love from friends and animals which sustained her passion and creative edge. That’s evidenced by the wonderful pictures and videos she kept taking. Her websites are gone but her YouTube channel is active.