With a friend from Ipswich, Mary Pennington Updike Weatherall traveled to Alabama in 1965 to join the march the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. led from Selma to Montgomery. She worked with Ipswich’s Fair Housing Committee, but felt called to do more — to participate in one of the era’s defining civil rights protests.
“Whenever the fields on our left gave way to woodlots, we saw the National Guard, their backs turned on the march, scanning the landscape for snipers,” she wrote a few days later for the Ipswich Chronicle, her artist’s eyes as discerning with details as the more famous writer in her household back home.
“They seemed oblivious to the march and had of course been recruited from the white South,” she noted. “State troopers, wearing Confederate insignias on their uniforms, directed traffic on our right or turned often to take pictures of particular Negroes in the march.”
An artist before meeting and marrying the writer John Updike, Mrs. Weatherall largely set aside painting while raising their four children, only to return to her brushes and easel with renewed purpose during her second marriage. She was 88 when she died of pneumonia Feb. 25 in her Ipswich home.
After marrying Robert K. Weatherall in 1982, “she began to paint a lot more and she began to participate in local art shows. People liked her work, mostly local landscapes of Ipswich,” said her son David Updike of Cambridge.
“I think her artwork is outstanding,” said Bill Wasserman, a friend of more than 50 years who formerly edited and ran the Ipswich Chronicle.
“She caught the flavor of what she was painting and put it in bold terms — surprising, really, because Mary was not a bold public person,” he added. “Even in private conversation, she was always modest and fairly reserved. She was always steady, though. There were turbulent times, especially in Ipswich, but she was steady.”
A fictionalized version of some of that Ipswich turbulence appears in the short stories of her first husband, including those recounting the lives of Joan and Richard Maple. “The Maple stories are basically a fictional account of my father’s and mother’s marriage, which I think in general she didn’t mind,” David said. “But sometimes fiction writers take what they want and leave out other stuff and make up new stuff. Sometimes, she felt people were reading too much into fiction — stuff about her that wasn’t necessarily true. I guess that’s the pitfall of being married to a fiction writer.”
As significant, or more so, was the pause in her art. Mary Pennington was a fine arts major at Radcliffe College when she first encountered Updike, a Harvard College student. They met in a medieval art class at the Fogg Museum in fall 1951, and in the spring they took a drawing class from Boston artist Hyman Bloom. After graduating, she was an unpaid painting and ceramics teacher at Shady Hill School in Cambridge, and she studied at the Ruskin School of Art in Oxford, when they lived in England early in their marriage. Updike, meanwhile, was quickly becoming one of the most prolific and lauded authors of his time.
“She said to me, ‘How could I compete with that? How could I take myself seriously as an artist?’ I think a lot of her success later had to do with Bob’s support and adoration of her,” David said. “No slight on my father, but she flourished in her second marriage.”
Mrs. Weatherall painted well into her 80s — two of her paintings were in a local show a year or so ago. When she turned 70, the Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute hosted an exhibition of her work. “Many people came,” David recalled, “and I think for the first time in a while, in a big sense, she felt dignified as an artist and respected by her college.”
The older of two sisters, Mary Pennington was born in Braintree and grew up in Cambridge. Her father, the Rev. Leslie Talbot Pennington, was the minister at the Unitarian church in Harvard Square. Her mother, the former Elizabeth Entwistle Daniels, taught Latin at the Buckingham School in Cambridge. “Her parents prized art and she, at an early age, demonstrated a talent for drawing and painting,” David said.
Mary grew up “in a highly cultured, politically progressive household,” according to “Updike,” Adam Begley’s 2014 biography. When her family moved to Chicago, she returned to Cambridge to graduate from Buckingham. As a Radcliffe student, she was “a smart, good-looking, and capable young woman with a broad, engaging smile and a dash of bohemian style – sandals, ballet slippers, peasant blouses, dark hair worn long or cut dramatically short, no makeup, no lipstick,” Begley wrote.
She graduated in 1952 and married Updike the following year. They lived in England while studying at the Ruskin School, and then were in New York City while Updike wrote for The New Yorker magazine. Then the couple “decided to move to Ipswich, where they had spent their honeymoon,” David said. His parents, he added, “decided small town life would suit them better.”
As Updike produced a draft of each short story, “I would read it and I would be able to say what I thought,” she recalled in an interview for the 2017 book “John Updike Remembered,” edited by Jack A. DeBellis. Updike, who died in 2009 at 76, also consulted her about changes editors suggested, and she offered opinions on topics such as “whether he was repeating himself, or whether characters were saying appropriate things to each another.”
They divorced in 1977 and a few years later she married Weatherall, a longtime Ipswich friend whose first wife had died. Weatherall, who formerly was a longtime administrator at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an elected Ipswich official, died in their home in 2014 at 83.
“So much of her adult life she devoted to raising children,” David said. “She was a very loving, lovely mother and wife, very sensitive, very artistic in a day-to-day sense.”
In addition to David, Mrs. Weatherall leaves two daughters, Elizabeth Cobblah of Maynard and Miranda Updike of Rockport; another son, Michael Updike of Newbury; three stepchildren, Robert Weatherall and Helen Weatherall, both of Ipswich, and Alexander Weatherall of Wellesley; seven grandsons; and a great-grandson.
A funeral service will be held at 2 p.m. May 5 in First Church in Ipswich.
Decades after working to ensure that black homeowners were welcome in Ipswich, Mrs. Weatherall lent her support to Syrian refugee organizations, and considered taking refugees into her home. Such advocacy was an extension of her civil rights-era activism, which she wrote about 53 years ago this month.
At day’s end after marching toward Montgomery, “the campsite looked like a rundown carnival,” she wrote, adding that despite the mud and drenched clothes, “the whole place was miraculously organized: sore feet were bathed and taped, vast numbers of people fed, blankets provided.”
And as she stood with marchers at the state Capitol listening to King speak, “the Alabama and Confederate flags were flying from the dome of the State House, as if to suggest why we had come.”Bryan Marquard can be reached at email@example.com.