Sandoz – a thousand rejection slips and two Hollywood movies

May 11, 1896

On this day, author Mari Sandoz,  famous for making her father infamous, was born in the middle of the Nebraska Sandhills.

“Old Jules,” Sandoz’ seminal work on the hardships of the homesteaders, finally saw the light of day in 1935 to immediate critical acclaim after being rejected at least once by every major publishing house in the country.  Two of her later books, the 1942 “Crazy Horse,”  and “Cheyenne Autumn” in 1953, became Western film classics in the hands of director John Ford.

Sandoz (above) refused to varnish facts in either her fiction or non-fiction and became controversial as a result.  The novel “Slogum House,” which followed “Old Jules,” in 1937 was sorely resented by Nebraskans who considered it an unsavory portrayal of their pioneer culture. The 1939 book, Capital City, got her in an equal amount of trouble with residents of Lincoln.  Out of favor at both ends of the state, the 43-year-old writer moved to Denver.

Nebraska Sandhills

It was just the latest unhappy chapter in Sandoz’ life.  Born Mary (Marie) Suzette in the isolation of western Nebraska, she spoke little English as a young girl and didn’t manage to complete the eighth grade until age 16.  

Dominated by her brutal and volcanic immigrant father, (below) she suffered years of back-breaking labor along with physical and mental abuse.  Rescuing the family’s livestock during a blizzard cost her the sight in one eye from snow blindness and her hands were permanently damaged from holding a hoe.

Finally making a bid for freedom, she passed the rural school teachers exam despite her lack of a high school education and taught in one room country schools for a number of years.

But an unhappy marriage to a neighboring rancher, Wray Macomb, at 18, on the heals of her unhappy childhood, was not salvation.  Divorcing after six years, she moved to Lincoln.  Absent a diploma, she still managed to enroll at the University of Nebraska as an English major.  (Sandoz, circa 1920)  

A succession of low-paying jobs followed while she continued to write as Marie Macomber.  Having received more than 1,000 rejection slips, she retreated back to the Sandhills, burning hundreds of pages of manuscripts beforehand.

On his deathbed, Jules, who considered artists and writers the “maggots of society” reportedly asked that she write the story of his life.  Shortly after he died in 1929, Marie Macomber was left behind. She became Mari Sandoz and Old Jules became a literary legend.  

A man of many flaws and a few virtues, her story follows him through four failed marriage, conflicts with cattle barons and nearly everybody else, coupled with a shady past on Europe. Revealed as part monster and hero, the writing allowed Sandoz to reconcile her own ambivalence toward her father. (Left, Mari’s mother, Jules’ fourth wife)

Despite his complete lack of interpersonal relationships, Jules sited hundreds of homestead claims in Western Nebraska and was a talented amateur horticulturist.  Their ranch was crossroads for traders, trappers, adventurers and Native Americans with stories that Mari absorbed as a young girl.

Apparently passing on his strong will and determination to his daughter, allowing her to survive the bleak years of rejection to become the “story teller of the plains.” Among her many awards, she received an honorary doctorate from her alma mater, the John Newbery Medal in juvenile fiction for “The Horsecatcher,” the Distinguished Achievement Award of the Native Sons and Daughters of Nebraska and was inducted into the Nebraska Hall of Fame in 1976. 

Mari Sandoz grave site

The author died of bone cancer in New York on March 10, 1966, and was returned to the Sandhills for burial.  Her grave overlooks the family ranch just south of Gordon.  

The Mari Sandoz High Plains  Center, 1000  Main Street, Chadron State College, Chadron, Nebraska, features photographs and artifacts from the center’s collections that examines the author’s advocacy for Native Americans, her affinity for the prairie landscape and her dedication to research.  Located on the main floor of the Sandoz Center, it joins five other permanent exhibits, including the C.F. Coffee Gallery, which tells the story of cattle ranching in the plains, the E.H. Barbour Paleontology exhibits, and a tribute to Mari’s sister, Flora, and her love for Nebraksa’s wild flowers. 

Admission is free.  The center’s summer hours run from May 28 through August 31.  It is open 10 to noon Monday through Thursday and 1 to 4 Friday, 10 to noon and 1 to 3 Saturdays.  Closed Sundays and holidays.  Winter hours apply from September 2 to May 25,  Open 10 to noon and 1 to 4 Monday through Thursday, 10 to noon Friday, 10 to noon and 1 to 3 Saturday, closed Sundays and holidays.  For more information go, e-mail sandozcenter@csc.ed, call (308) 432-6401 or write Mari Sandoz High Plains Heritage Center, Chadron State College, 1000 Main Street. Chadron, NE 69337   

© Text Only – 2019 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.

*Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable.  When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.