Callahan, Margaret Bundy (1904-1961)

  • By Paula Becker
  • Posted 3/19/2013
  • Essay 10346

Margaret Bundy Callahan was a Seattle writer, journalist, and editor. She reported for The Seattle Star and The Seattle Times, and she wrote and helped edit the arts weekly Town Crier during the 1920s and 1930s. Married to painter Kenneth Callahan (1905-1986) in 1930, for most of her life Margaret Bundy Callahan was at the nucleus of Seattle's creative artistic community. Many Seattle writers, artists, and performers felt the improving influence of Bundy Callahan's keen intelligence, encouragement, and strong opinions. Artist William Cumming (1917-2010) called Margaret Bundy Callahan his sensei (teacher). To artist Mark Tobey (1890-1976), she was the Mother of the Northwest School.

Strong Mother, Strong Daughter

Margaret Macauley Bundy was born in Everett on January 24, 1904. Her mother was Mabel Upton Bundy (1874-1957), a physician, and her father was Edward W. Bundy (1872-1959), a lawyer. On October 18, 1905, Margaret's brother Robert Egbert Bundy (1905-1960) was born.

Margaret Bundy's mother set a strong example of the energizing effect of having engaging work.  Mabel Upton began working as a practical nurse at a sanitarium in her home state of Wisconsin at the age of 12, leaving school in order to do so. She trained as a skilled nurse and then, mentored by the male physician in whose office she was employed and then by female physicians who were her professors, worked her way through Northwestern University Medical School and a residency at the Children's Hospital of San Francisco, graduating in 1902.  Later that year she married Walter Bundy, a young Everett attorney whose courtship attempts she had put off during her training. 

Although she founded a medical laboratory in Everett, Mabel gave up the thought of opening a medical practice, concentrating instead on family life while her children were young. Once her children were in high school, she returned to work outside the home. There was no easing back: Dr. Bundy, age 48, reentered the medical profession by volunteering 12 hours a day at a Seattle hospital during the 1918 influenza epidemic. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this led to a job offer. From 1918 until 1929, Mabel Upton Bundy was employed by the Child Welfare Division of the Seattle-King County Health Department.  She later spent nine years as a consultant to the Washington Children's Home Society. 

Educating Margaret

The Bundy family moved to Seattle in 1907, building a home at 138 North 76th Street in the Greenwood neighborhood. The move was prompted by a client of Edward Bundy's who paid his legal bill by signing over the building lot. Margaret attended Greenwood Elementary School. In 1918, the Bundys moved to the Ravenna neighborhood, settling at 6201 23rd Avenue N (now NE). The new house was within walking distance of the University of Washington, where the Mabel and Edward Bundy planned to send their daughter and their son. 

Margaret attended Seattle's Lincoln High School, graduating in 1920. At age 16, Margaret -- who reported for the school newspaper -- was already identified by her peers as a writer. The text accompanying her photograph in the 1920 Lincoln High School Totem read:

"Here is a girl most unusually clever
Known to shirk at her favorite calling? Ah never!
A writer of parts, Peggy Bundy's ambition
Is to make her news writing a worthier mission" (p. 17).

Bundy attended the University of Washington, graduating with honors with a degree in Journalism in 1924. She wrote for the University of Washington Daily during her entire time at the school, and was on staff for the Tyee yearbook as a sophomore, junior, and senior. She pledged Alpha Chi Omega sorority and was a member of Theta Sigma Phi, the woman's professional journalism fraternity. 

Front Page

After graduation, Bundy joined the editorial staff of The Seattle Star, then the city's third daily newspaper. The Star had flash compared to the august Post-Intelligencer and its archrival Seattle Times -- its articles more bombastic, sometimes sensationalistic. The Star's readership was predominantly blue collar.  Margaret worked as what was known at the time as a "sob sister" -- a female journalist whose stories are meant to inspire pity. Writing mostly exposes and human-interest stories in a smoke-filled newsroom replete with crusty (mostly male) peers, Margaret Bundy plunged into professional journalism. (The Seattle Star was published daily between February 27, 1899 and August 13, 1947.) 

In April 1928, Bundy was hired as a columnist for the Town Crier, Seattle's weekly literary, arts, and culture publication. (The Town Crier debuted September 3, 1910, and ended its run in December 1937.) Bundy became associate editor at the Town Crier in February 1930. Over her many years with the publication, her articles covered all aspects of the Crier's content.  She wrote a brisk what's happening column called "About It And About" (later called "What People Are Doing"), a column of interviews and human interest stories called "The Observer," and reviews of art exhibits, theatrical performances, concerts, and restaurants.  During the early 1930s, the Crier published short stories, many of them written by Margaret Bundy.

An Artistic Partnership

In 1929, while on assignment to cover the Northwest Annual art exhibit, she met a young painter, Kenneth Callahan. A Spokane native who grew up in Glasgow, Montana, Callahan had briefly attended the University of Washington before ending up in San Francisco, where he had his first one-artist exhibit. After spending the waning years of the 1920s working his way around the world as a ship steward, he made his way to Seattle. Sometime after meeting Margaret, Kenneth Callahan began reviewing art exhibits for the Crier. On November 7, 1930, Bundy and Callahan eloped.

In 1932, the couple spent six months traveling in Mexico, a journey funded by Margaret's savings from her Town Crier salary and by the sale of paintings to Dr. Richard Fuller (1897-1976) and his mother Margaret MacTavish Fuller (1860-1953), who were at the time acquiring a collection for their soon-to-open Seattle Art Museum. In 1933, Callahan's work was included in the seminal First Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary Art at the Whitney Museum in New York. Windfalls from grants or painting sales funded the couple's travels to New York in 1934 and to Europe in 1936.  Margaret reported on these trips -- especially the Mexican journey, which was detailed in the Crier -- for her employers. 

Margaret Bundy had already amassed a wide variety of friends in many varied circles of Seattle society: from struggling artists, writers, and actors scrabbling to make their work while still managing not to starve during the Great Depression; to friends from high school and college days; to wealthy arts patrons she encountered at the plays, concerts, and art exhibits she reviewed. Callahan's circle overlapped Margaret's, and as a couple, the two became the nucleus of a powerfully artistic clan that went on to dominate and define the landscape of Northwest art.

Holding Her Own

In a society that usually erased married women's names and careers while favoring the imprint of their husbands, initially Margaret remained known for her own work. She was often mentioned and recognized in her own right in newspaper articles documenting Kenneth Callahan's increasing fame. A Seattle Times article announcing that one of Callahan's paintings had been honored in a New York exhibition stated, "Both Callahan and Mrs. Callahan, the former Margaret Bundy, are widely known in Seattle newspaper and art circles" (December 6, 1932). Seattle Times society columnist Virginia Boren, reporting on the preview reception for the brand new Seattle Art Museum, mentioned that Kenneth's paintings hung in the facility's Northwest Gallery and that he attended the preview reception with "his brilliant young wife, Margaret Bundy Callahan" (June 29, 1933).

Painter William Cumming, who met the Callahans in 1937 and appreciated Margaret to the point of reverence, described her in his 1984 memoir, Sketchbook:

"Margaret (was) above the medium height of women, graceful, beautiful without any hint of shallow prettiness, a long-bladed nose and pointed chin, her eyes grey-blue, calm, taciturn, a natural observer with a genius for being with you.. ... She had an instinctive ability to bring out the keenest edge of others' ideas, without compromising the intensity of her own certainties.  She was a voracious reader, who devoured books whole" (p. 39-40). 

Cumming's memoir addresses Margaret as his own mentor, not as a writer.  Although this sums up only part of her character, it does describe the kind of alchemy many of the artists who knew her seem to have felt the atmosphere surrounding her worked upon them:

"There was a house with a fireplace and a dog and a cherry tree. In that house those friends gathered. They sat around the fireplace in a sort of circle, talked of painting and poetry and life and played silly parlor games. At the center of the circle was Margaret. She set out the chairs and she cooked the meals and she nurtured the conversations in which was created the vision of an art which would make a difference in the world.  Margaret nurtured the vision of an art growing out of the natural morality of the universe as it is, no preaching, no propagandizing, no self-righteous gestures. The art ultimately produced out of this circle of friends tolerably conforms to this vision" (p. 139).  

Work and Getting By

With the nation, Seattle felt the rapidly increasing economic chill of the Great Depression. The Town Crier was not exempt, and by 1931 had shrunk to 16 pages. Staff salaries were cut in half.  Margaret's writing for the publication began to be curtailed as the content dribbled down to editorials, book and art reviews, and advertisements for the stalwart few businesses still able to afford them. In June 1934, the publication became bi-weekly. Margaret Bundy Callahan's last byline -- a  report from Panama City and Havana -- appeared in the issue of July 15, 1934. The Crier became a monthly in 1936, and ceased publication in 1938.

In addition to Kenneth Callahan's work as a painter, from 1933 to 1952 he was employed half-time as a curator at the Seattle Art Museum, also working summers as a fire lookout in the North Cascades. From 1954 to 1959, he wrote a weekly art column for The Seattle Times. These earnings coupled with income generated by Margaret's journalism allowed the couple to operate from a baseline of financial stability.  On January 25, 1938, the couple's only child, Brian Tobey Callahan (1938-2013), was born.

After the Town Crier's demise, Margaret worked as a freelance journalist for The Seattle Times and other publications. She contributed full-page biographical essays to the Times during the 1940s and 1950s. Their subjects included poet Theodore Roethke (1908-1963); illustrator Richard Bennett (1900-1971); Elsie "Sydney" Bard (1878-1957), who was the mother of writers Betty MacDonald (1907-1958) and Mary Bard Jensen (1904-1970); Frederick and Nelson's Little Gallery director Theodora Laurenson Harrison (1890-1961); among many others. Many of Bundy Callahan's subjects were artists and writers who were part of her very large circle of friends. 

Drawn to Nature

In 1938, the Callahan family began renting a small cabin at Robe Ranch on the south fork of the Stillaguamish River, near Granite Falls in Snohomish County. Margaret's journal and unpublished writings (compiled and edited by her son in 2009) describe that while the couple was economically "definitely not in the summer home bracket ... contact with nature was one of the primary sources for Kenneth's paintings, and it had become as necessary to our physical and mental well being as food and drink" (Margaret Bundy Callahan…, p. 2).  

Only 50 miles from their home at 2407 Ward Street in Seattle's Montlake neighborhood, the cabin (and others the family subsequently rented on the Robe Ranch property) was a relatively accessible respite where they could retreat on weekends and for long stretches in the summer. In 1945, they borrowed money and (in partnership with painter Guy Anderson (1906-1998)) purchased 160 nearby acres and built their own cabin by hand. Margaret's interest in tree farming and in wilderness conservation grew and was reflected in her writings. For The Seattle Times, she profiled Snohomish County Forest Service ranger Harold Engles (1902-1993), septuagenarian mountaineers Ralph (b. 1883) and Florence Watson (b. 1885), and North Cascades packer and guide Edith Bedal (1903-1995), among many others.  In 1949, she wrote the opening chapter of the book The Cascades: Mountains of the Pacific Northwest.

Balancing Kenneth's Increasing Fame

Kenneth Callahan's fame increased steadily through the years of his marriage to Margaret, although sales of his work during her lifetime by no means generated sufficient income to support the family. In 1950, his work was included in "American Painting Today," a major exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In 1953, Callahan was included -- along with fellow painters Mark Tobey, Morris Graves (1910-2001), and Guy Anderson -- in a Life magazine article entitled "Mystic Painters of the Pacific Northwest," a turning point in the recognition of art in the region and of the general public's awareness of Kenneth Callahan.  

Margaret continued to publish throughout her marriage. In 1954, Kenneth Callahan was awarded a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship.  He and Margaret used these funds to travel to Europe.  Accompanying Kenneth on a State Department-sponsored traveling exhibit of American art in 1957, she filed reports with The Seattle Times. During 1957 and 1958, Margaret published some 20 articles reviewing art exhibitions.  Her final byline in The Seattle Times --  a review of 45 watercolor sketches by John Singer Sargent on display at the Frye Museum of Art -- appeared on November 24, 1958.

Margaret's journals make it clear that her devotion to her son and husband and her acquiescence to personal and societal expectations of her activities as a wife and mother did not define her.  Neither did her sustaining presence in the lives of her friends.  Her struggle was to summon the energy and courage to pursue her work as a writer during what time she could parse out from family duties.  "Mark (Tobey) told me that he had commented to Morris (Graves) that in every community of artists there had always been a 'mother' to them, and that I fulfilled that role here," she wrote in her journal in 1941.  "She must be a woman of creative talents who allows them to be absorbed by their work.  It is rather pleasing to me to be thought of thus, but it would be more satisfactory to give vent directly to my desire to write" (p. 165).

A Life Cut Short

In the summer of 1961, Margaret Bundy Callahan was diagnosed with cancer. An exploratory operation revealed that the disease was far advanced, and she was given only weeks to live. 

Margaret died at her home on September 23, 1961. Despite her lifelong journalism career, during which time her many hundreds of articles almost invariably appeared under the by-line Margaret Bundy, Margaret Bundy Callahan, or Margaret B. Callahan, The Seattle Times headlined her obituary with her husband's famous name: "Death Takes Mrs. Kenneth Callahan." And although the Times had published her work for decades, the obituary merely stated, "She worked for the old Seattle Star and other newspapers and journals" (September 25, 1961). 

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer headline, meanwhile, gave two nods to Margaret's husband, but also managed to squeeze in her professional occupation: "Wife of Artist: Mrs. Kenneth Callahan, Writer, Dies" (September 25, 1961). The P-I's text was also slightly more expansive: "Mrs. Callahan, the former Margaret Bundy, was a well-known writer. She was the wife of Kenneth Callahan, one of Seattle's leading artists." 

In 1963, the Callahans' beloved Granite Falls cabin -- filled with paintings, books, records, and family treasures -- was destroyed by fire.  Margaret's ashes, also in the cabin, were lost in the blaze. 

Sources: A Glimpse of Heaven: The Life of Mabel Upton M.D. ed. by Brian Tobey Callahan (Victoria, B.C.: Trafford Publishing, 2010; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Callahan, Kenneth (1905-1986), Painter" (by Delores Tarzan Ament), (accessed March 6, 2013); Margaret Bundy Callahan: Mother of Northwest Art ed. By Brian Tobey Callahan (Victoria, B.C.: Trafford Publishing, 2009); The Twelfth Totem Annual (Seattle: Lincoln High School, 1920); The 1924 Tyee (Seattle: Associated Students of the University of Washington, 1924); William Cumming, Sketchbook (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1984); Matthew Kangas, William Cumming: The Image of Consequence (Seattle: The Charles and Emma Frye Art Museum, 2005); "Mystic Painters of the Pacific Northwest," Life, September 28, 1953, p. 84-89; Deloris Tarzan Ament, Iridescent Light: The Emergence of Northwest Art (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002), p. 62; "Wife of Artist: Mrs. Kenneth Callahan, Writer, Dies," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 25, 1961, p. 23; "Death Takes Mrs. Kenneth Callahan," The Seattle Times, September 25, 1961, p. 39; "Town Crier's Yule Offering Is Off The Press," Ibid., December 18, 1932, p. 8; "Funeral of Dr. Bundy Tomorrow," Ibid., January 3, 1957, p. 41; "Seattle Artist Receives Honor," Ibid., December 6, 1932, p. 5; Virginia Boren, "Seattle Society Looks With Awe At Museum," June 29, 1933, p. 19; Margaret Callahan, "Sargent Show At Frye Is Warm, Bright," Ibid., November 24, 1958, p. 25; Margaret Callahan, "Americans Stationed Abroad Well-Behaved And Eager To Find Favor among Foreigners," Ibid., August 14, 1957, p. 8; Margaret Callahan, "German Recovery in Opera, Drama is Impressive," Ibid., August 5, 1957; Margaret B. Callahan, "Mountain Woman," Ibid., July 5, 1953, p. 7; Margaret B. Callahan, "From Stump-Ranch Boy to Artist-Author," Ibid., November 2, 1947, p. 11; Margaret B. Callahan, "Story of a Full Life," Ibid., July 3, 1949, p. 8; Margaret B. Callahan, "Art Is Her Merchandise," Ibid., November 6, 1949, p. 7; Margaret B. Callahan, "Forest Ranger," Ibid., May 12, 1957, p.8; Margaret B. Callahan, "Seattle's Surrealist Poet," Ibid., March 16, 1952, p. 7; Margaret B. Callahan, "Seventy-Year-Old Mountaineers," Ibid., October 30, 1955, p. 2; Margaret Bundy Callahan, "And Points South," Town Crier, July 15, 1934, p.  8.

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