“Voice, may I help you?” For 25 years callers to The Village Voice were greeted with those words, spoken scores of times daily by a woman whose soft voice still carried in it faint traces of a girlhood spent in the South. Five rote syllables can hardly convey the essence of any human, and yet in the case of Mary Wright even the most routine gesture had about it unmistakable qualities of dignity, deep courtesy, and the good-natured reserve that anyone who knew her can tell you were the essence of this woman. She died of cancer the early morning of April 16.
It took a certain kind of humor and fortitude to remain poised in a setting where the egos were mammoth, where the cast of characters changed like crazy clockwork, where queries from the public might strain the sensibilities of someone with an elephant’s hide, and where it was not unknown for irate journalists to be seen chasing each other down the hallways with murder in mind. Mary Wright’s job description was receptionist, and certainly no one could have been better equipped to handle the millionth request for the Village Halloween Parade route, irate calls from the Reverend Al Sharpton, or queries from she-male body workers on how best to market dimensions that ran to 38, 24, 36, plus nine.
But beyond the framework of her salaried employment, Mary Wright evolved into an indispensable part of the Voice‘s history and fabric, as a confidant and mentor to numerous staff members including writers, editors, ad salespeople, and even the owners. For a devout Baptist whose formal education ended at high school, and a woman whose leisure was spent singing in a gospel choir, Mary Wright’s catholic roster of friends came to range impressively from hardline feminists to traditional muckrakers, from gay activists to writers who cultivated neurosis as an occupational tool. “Mary Wright,” staff writer Nat Hentoff recently said, “was the most openhearted and principled person I’ve ever known.”
That she was the same maternal and coolly diplomatic presence with everyone—restrained in her counsel, generous with home-baked cakes and pies—is perhaps not so surprising given that she was the second-born in a family of 13 children raised in Allendale, South Carolina, and Jersey City, New Jersey, by Mary Hutchinson and Sam Hutchinson. When she arrived at The Village Voice in 1977, Mary Wright was a recent widow with three young sons, Renardo, Todd, and Joseph. She leaves behind those sons; her foster son, Terrence White; her mother; six siblings; and the numberless friends whose deep affection was, she always said, her wealth and who themselves are far richer people for having known her.