New exhibit showcases the career of alum Mary Wickes, famous character actress

Wickes starred in 50 films including Now, Voyager and Sister Act

article image
Mary Wickes teaches Washington University in St. Louis performing arts students in 1984.
(Credit: WUSTL File Photo)

In celebration of Wickes’ long career in Hollywood and on Broadway, Washington University Libraries presents the special exhibition “In Character: The Life and Legacy of Mary Wickes.” The show chronicles her childhood in St. Louis, her education at WUSTL, her work in beloved movies such as Now, Voyager, White Christmas and Sister Act, and her close friendships with Lucille Ball, Doris Day and other movie stars. Wickes died at age 85 in 1995. She donated $2 million to establish the Isabella and Frank Wickenhauser Memorial Library Fund for Television, Film and Theater Arts at Washington University Libraries.

The Record asked University Archivist Sonya Rooney about the exhibit and what made Wickes such a beloved character both on campus and on film.

Mary Wickes was never the romantic leading lady, but rather the acerbic sidekick. What is her legacy today as an actress?

In the reviews I read for various shows, especially when she was getting started in the theater world, they would say, “This play wasn’t that great, but Mary Wickes was wonderful as the nurse or the housekeeper. She really made you laugh.” Her career was so long and expansive because she was so versatile as a supporting actress.

Was Mary Wickes like the characters she played?

She loved to make people laugh and had a lot of close friendships with her co-stars. She was very close friends with Lucille Ball and also with Doris Day. The exhibit has some of those personal letters and signed autograph pictures documenting those relationships. Those famous friends were really part of her family. Because she was an only child and never married, she would often spend Christmas or Thanksgiving with the people she worked with.

What was her relationship with Washington University after she graduated in 1930?

I was amazed at how many times she came back. She was brought back for an artist-in-residence in the Performing Arts Department a couple of times. She would teach classes while she was here. She really enjoyed sharing what she learned. The university also honored her several times including presenting her with a distinguished alumni award and an honorary degree. We also have her papers and a large endowment for the library. Part of the exhibit includes items we have purchased using her resources. The university has purchased more than 16,000 books, journals, DVDs, databases and film prints with her funds and continues to make additional purchases each year.