Mary Louis Doherty (1896-1995) is at present best known as a friend of Katherine Anne Porter and as one of the models for the character of Laura in Porter's short story "Flowering Judas." Because of her relationships with the photographers Edward Weston and Tina Modotti and her connections with important twentieth-century Mexican artists and politicians, Mary Louis Doherty is an important figure in her own right. As an expatriate American who was committed to the ideals of the Mexican Revolution, Doherty observed Mexican politics and politicians at close range during much of the twentieth century. Her training and experience as a journalist and economist enabled her to make incisive observations about Mexico in colorful, informative, lengthy letters. Her friends and family often urged her to collect her correspondence for publication. She herself must have long contemplated that endeavor; on August 5, 1922, she wrote to Katherine Anne Porter, "I am at last doing my Xochimilco letters and will send them to you and perhaps some other sketches. It would be thrilling if you could get them published now I have the time and the peace of mind to do them." Forty years later, on August 30, 1963, Porter wrote to Doherty: "You write the kind of letters that make people who read them say, 'But she should have been a writer!' and I say, 'But look at her letters, she is a writer.'"
Mary Louis Doherty was born on October 30, 1896, in Williamsburg, Iowa, where she received her primary and secondary education. In June 1918, she graduated from the University of Wisconsin at Madison with a B.A. in economics and journalism. She was one of seven college graduates selected in competition and trained to work out a special sales promotion experiment for watch manufacturer William H. Ingersoll's dollar-watch business which was based in New York, New York. After one year, Doherty resigned to take a position as a community organizer on Staten Island with the New York Community Councils of the City Parliament of the City of New York; during this time she took courses at Columbia University.
When the New York City Parliament was disbanded, Doherty went to Mexico City in January 1921 and took a position with the National University of Mexico. Working under José Vasconcelos, at that time Rector of the University (he became Minister of Education in October 1921), Doherty undertook work in English in connection with the first summer school of the University for students from the U.S., taught English at a Federal school in Xochimilco, performed secretarial work in English for Dr. Vasconcelos, and wrote feature articles for newspapers in the U.S. When Doherty arrived in Mexico City, she stayed with Thorberg and Robert Haberman, American Socialists, who had already befriended Katherine Anne Porter. Porter had arrived in Mexico City only a few months previously in November 1920. Porter and Doherty must have shared leftist friends in Greenwich Village who had given them introductions to the Habermans. (Porter had come to New York City from Denver, Colorado, in October 1919.)
Porter and Doherty became fast friends, according to Doherty's later accounts, meeting every day and consorting with individuals from Mexican artistic and political circles: Roberto Turnbull, Manuel Gamio, William Niven, J. H. Retinger, Luis Morones, Samuel Yúdico, Felipe Carrillo Puerto, Salomón de la Selva, Dr. Atl, Plutarco Elías Calles, Xavier Guerrero, Jorge Enciso, and Adolfo Best-Maugard. Doherty remained in Mexico until December 1921 when she left to spend the Christmas holiday with her family in Iowa. She stopped off en route in Fort Worth, Texas, where she spent time with Porter who had temporarily settled there after leaving Mexico in late summer 1921. Although Porter returned to Mexico for brief periods in 1922 and 1923, Doherty did not return there until September 1925.
Doherty spent the intervening years in various places in the United States: January to July 1922 in Williamsburg, Iowa, caring for her ailing father; August 1922 to February 1924 in Victoria, Texas, working for her uncle James McDonald; March 1924 to January 1925 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, working for the Fawsett publications True Confessions and Triple X; January to September 1925 in Chicago, Illinois, working in a variety of capacities for the director of the national committee on Boys and Girls Club work, National Farm Bureau. Doherty returned to Mexico City in September 1925. On her return she took a position in the Department of Education, working under Moisés Sáenz, then an under secretary. Sáenz became Minister of Education in August 1928. When he became Director of Public Welfare for Mexico, D.F., in 1931, Doherty followed him.
Doherty's responsibilities at the Department of Education included editing, writing English correspondence, serving as secretary to the summer school of the National University, assisting visiting foreign scholars, and serving as secretary of the Program Committee for the annual Seminar in Mexico of the Committee on Cultural Relations with Latin America (directed by Hubert Herring). At Public Welfare, Doherty supervised twenty-two social workers in the Department of Social Welfare. During this period, Doherty carried on an active social life. Among her acquaintances were Edward Weston, Tina Modotti, Paca Toor, René d'Harnoncourt, Alfonso Goldschmidt, Anita Brenner, Carleton Beals, Fred Davis, Pablo O'Higgins, Jean Charlot, Diego Rivera, Roberto Montenegro, Adolfo Best-Maugard, Miguel Covarrubias, Rose Rolando, Rufino Tamayo, Maria Izquierdo, Lola Alvarez Bravo, Frida Kahlo, William Spratling, David Alfaro Siquieros, Blanca Luz, Ramón Beteta, Carlos Chavez, Elizabeth Anderson, Natalie Scott, Hart Crane, Emily Edwards, and Sergei Eisenstein.
During his second trip to Mexico, the American photographer Edward Weston engaged in a brief but decorous romantic relationship with Doherty in October and November 1926. During this period she sat for her portrait for Weston. Doherty resumed her close friendship with Katherine Anne Porter when Porter returned to Mexico in April 1930 for a stay of almost a year and a half. When Porter and Eugene Pressly, who was to become Porter's third husband in 1933, moved into a large house in the Mexico City suburb of Mixcoac in February 1931, Mary Louis Doherty was part of the establishment. She and Pressly commuted from there to their central city jobs. Shortly after Porter and Pressly left Mexico for Europe in August 1931, Doherty took Pressly's old job as economic research assistant to Eyler Simpson who was the representative in Mexico of the Institute of Current World Affairs and the executive secretary for Mexico of the Guggenheim Foundation. Doherty worked for him through July 1935, principally assisting on his monograph, The Ejido—Mexico's Way Out (1937).
From January 1936 to December 1938, Doherty was employed at the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Relations, under Assistant Secretary Ramón Beteta, one of Moisés Sáenz's closest friends. Her duties included research in economics (agrarian, labor, trade), public relations, and assistance with editorial work, translations, and English correspondence, and interpreting. She also assisted with organization and publicity and taught in the Centro de Estudios Pedagogicos e Hispanoamericanos de Mexico. After briefly working at the Department of the Interior in Washington, D. C., in early 1939, Doherty travelled, from April 1939 to July 1940, to all of the countries of Central and South America except Venezuela in connection with her travelling fellowship in the Social Sciences from the Rockefeller Foundation. In September 1940, Doherty returned to Mexican government service, once again under Ramón Beteta, who was now Under Secretary of Finance and Public Credit in the Ministry of the Treasury; her duties were virtually identical to those she formerly performed for Beteta at Foreign Relations.
In December 1943, Doherty and her sister Marguerite (Peggy) who had joined her in Mexico in 1936, left Mexico for the United States. Both worked in Washington, D. C., during World War II. Mary Louis Doherty worked first (January-July 1944) at the Office of the Coordinator for Cultural Relations, Library Service Division, U.S. Office of Education, and later (November 1944-December 1945) at the U.S. Foreign Economic Administration as a Foreign Economic Specialist, Bureau of Areas, Pan American Branch, Mexico Division. This period is also notable because, in the summer of 1944, she and her sister Marguerite shared a house in Georgetown with Porter. By February 1946, the Doherty sisters were back in Mexico.
In December 1946, Mary Louis returned to work for Ramón Beteta, who was now Minister of Finance and Public Credit at the Ministry of the Treasury. During her tenure in this position, Doherty served as a member of the Mexican delegation to the United Nations trade conference in Havana, Cuba (November 1947-April 1948). From January 1953 to April 1956, Doherty worked as an economic analyst and translator in Mexico City, Comision de Valores (Mexican Securities and Exchange Commission). For the remaining years of her working life, Doherty worked as English secretary to former Mexican President Miguel Alemán, translating English legal contracts and business dealings into Spanish. At the time Thomas F. Walsh met Doherty and her sister Marguerite in Mexico City in the mid-1970s, they were essentially retired. In 1982, Doherty and her sister moved their permanent residence to Cuernavaca where they had long maintained a weekend getaway home. After the death of Marguerite Doherty in October 1987, Mary Louis Doherty remained in Cuernavaca where she died on May 17, 1995.