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Maritta Wolff Stegman, 83; First Novel a Sensation

July 16, 2002|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Maritta Wolff Stegman, who created a literary sensation with the 1941 publication of "Whistle Stop," a vivid tale depicting the underbelly of small-town American family life that she wrote when she was 22 and which Sinclair Lewis hailed as "the most important first novel of the year," has died. She was 83.

Stegman, who wrote six novels under the name Maritta M. Wolff and then stopped writing in the 1960s, died of lung cancer July 1 at her home in West Los Angeles.

She was a senior at the University of Michigan when she wrote a novel-length story for an English composition class. The story about a poor, shiftless and vulgar family living in a small town near Detroit earned her the university's Avery Hopwood Award for Fiction in 1940.

A year later, Random House published her novel, describing "Whistle Stop" as "a fiercely honest, tough, bare-knuckled excursion into the seamy side of American small-town life."

That the novel, which includes raw language and unflattering characters, including a subtly depicted portrayal of an incestuous relationship between a brother and sister, was written by a college student only added to reviewers' appreciation for Stegman's talent.

"Miss Wolff knows too many things not discoverable around any campus. She knows almost too much," wrote a reviewer for the New Yorker. "Miss Wolff has no right to be so ruthless and so mature at twenty-two. This is by way of saying that 'Whistle Stop' is a stunning performance for a young girl."

In the wake of Stegman's literary debut, a writer for the New York Times referred to her as "the precocious Michigan prodigy" who "writes of the seamy side of life with glittering skill and a brutal, brawling, turbulent sense of character and human drama."

Stegman, who graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a bachelor's degree in English composition, was born Maritta Martin Wolff on Christmas Day, 1918, in Grass Lake, Mich. She grew up on her grandparents' nearby farm and attended a one-room country school.

"I apparently began to write as soon as I grasped the essentials of penmanship--plays, poems, shorts stories," she said in a 1941 interview. "My one hobby, if you liked to call it that, was developing, as far back as I can remember, even under the handicap of my somewhat isolated life in the country, an inordinate interest in people and anything and everything happening to them."

Her daughter-in-law, Laura Stegman, said: "When she got old enough, she told me, she loved to sit in bars and listen to stories people would tell her."

Her field work paid off in realistic dialogue, such as this exchange from "Whistle Stop":

"Clim Hawkins, you open that door and let her get outa this car. Her nerves are all shot to hell. She didn't know what she was doin'."

"Go on, scram!" Clim said. "I'm taking her home with me, see? We're married, ain't we? There ain't a law in the land says I can't."

In a 1942 review of her second best-selling novel, "Night Shift," a reviewer for the New York Times wrote of Stegman's flair for dialogue:

"One feels certain this is a scientifically exact record of the speech of factory workers in an automobile bumper plant, of taxi drivers, waitresses in cheap restaurants, beautiful dumb women and beautiful smart ones who haunt small-time nightclubs."

"Whistle Stop" was turned into a 1946 movie starring George Raft and Ava Gardner, although it was toned down by Hollywood censors. "Night Shift," retitled "The Man I Love," became a 1946 film starring Ida Lupino.

Stegman, who moved to Los Angeles in the late 1940s, wrote five other novels published by Random House, including "About Lyddy Thomas," "Back of Town," and "The Big Nickelodeon" (a 1956 Hollywood novel that a reviewer for the Los Angeles Times called "the best in its field since Budd Schulberg's 'What Makes Sammy Run?' ").

Her final novel, "Buttonwood," was published in 1962, although she wrote another that was never published.

"They were going to publish it, but there were discussions with her to make edits that she didn't want to make," said Laura Stegman. "She was very stubborn about things."

That extended to turning down her publisher's requests that she do publicity for her novels.

"She basically said, 'I write the books, and you do the publicity,' " Stegman said. "If she couldn't do things the way she wanted to, she just wouldn't do it."

In the end, "She just said, 'Well, OK, I'm not going to write anymore.' "

Although Stegman never wrote another novel, her daughter-in-law said, she maintained a voluminous correspondence with hundreds of friends and fans.

And she never got rid of the manuscript for her unpublished novel, storing it in her refrigerator.

"I guess she figured it was the safest place for it," Stegman said.

Stegman's first husband, novelist Hubert Skidmore, author of the controversial 1941 social protest novel "Hawk's Nest," died in a house fire in 1946.

She is survived by her second husband, Leonard Stegman, whom she married in 1947; and their son, Hugh, of Los Angeles.

A memorial service will be held at 4 p.m. July 29 at Pierce Brothers Westwood Village Memorial Park, 1218 Glendon Ave., Westwood.

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