A short biography of the life of Mary Borden

1886 - 1968

Mary Borden, known as May to her close friends and family, was the daughter of a prominent Chicago millionaire.  Her childhood was overshadowed by her mother’s conversion to an extreme form of evangelicalism and May escaped her influence as soon as she was old enough, setting off on a world tour. In India she met her first husband and settled there, raising her two daughters. This life proved equally claustrophobic and in 1913 she moved her family to London where she was soon a part of the literary circle, socialising with writers such as Ford Madox Ford, E.M. Forster, George Bernard Shaw and Ezra Pound and falling for the charms of the painter Wyndham Lewis, becoming his patron and lover.  

At the outbreak of WW1, she used her substantial inheritance to fund a front line mobile hospital for the French Army, earning medals for her bravery under fire and going on to run the biggest military hospital during the battle of the Somme.  She met the love of her life, Captain Edward Louis Spears, during the war and together they set up home in Paris, keeping open house throughout the Peace Conference for an eclectic mix of writers, poets, artists and politicians.  Their affair, and subsequent marriage, provoked a particularly unpleasant custody battle over May’s three daughters, and their kidnapping by their father.  May’s second marriage endured for 50 years, in spite of Louis’s affair with his secretary that lasted almost as long as his marriage.

During the interwar years May wrote prolifically, becoming an international, best-selling author, with close literary friends such as Noel Coward, Freya Stark and Cyril Connolly. Her rebellious and questioning nature meant her novels were often boundary breaking and controversial. She made films with Alexander Korda at the height of his fame - though their first collaboration was shelved due to the censorship of its subject matter - and she became embroiled in a legal suit with the Catholic Herald for her down to earth portrayal of Mary of Nazareth.  Another book advocating divorce and pre-marital sex also caused a storm of protest.  She helped her husband on the campaign trail when he stood for parliament, giving speeches and descending deep into the mines in his constituency to canvas the workers.  She was an outspoken critic of the government when she did not agree with policy and campaigned for women’s rights and other causes, as well as arguing vehemently against the policy of appeasement.

Throughout WW2 she ran mobile hospitals at the front and had a terrifying escape from France during its fall.  Back in England she became involved with the Free French under de Gaulle and took a newly established unit to the Middle East. As well as running her unit, she had to fulfil her duties as wife of the first minister in the Levant where she played hostess to the key figures of the war.

After the war, she continued writing, publishing her last novel at the age of 70.  She often returned to the country of her birth and helped her nephew-in-law, Adlai Stevenson, run for presidency, writing some of his speeches.   She was also a guest of Albert Einstein’s at his home in Princeton where they debated, among other things, the existence of God.   Until the end of her life in 1968, Mary was a high-profile public figure who supported young writers and artists and campaigned tirelessly for her various causes.