Old timers will remember Marie Helme, the mysterious older woman encased, rain or shine, in a black winter coat who we'd see gingerly making her way from the Mannix Building every afternoon to the Boonville Lodge. She was as central to Boonville's human tableau as the Mannix Building itself. Once at the bar, typically on a stool at its far end, Marie, that amused little smile on her face that she wore as religiously as she wore her black coat, would down a leisurely single mini-bottle of Miller's then, just as carefully as she'd picked her way the hundred yards from the Mannix Building to the bar, and always keeping her wary, darting eyes on the uneven ground beneath her and the multiple possible hazards surrounding her, Marie would walk carefully back to her tiny apartment in Homer Mannix's intriguing two-story complex.
In the days when the Lodge was synonymous with mayhem, which would be the early to mid-1970s with sporadic reversions up through the early 1990s, Marie calmly sipped her single mini-bottle of Miller's through major brawls and at least one shooting.
Unkind Marie watchers would say that the way she looked in her black coat and the gingerly high-steps of her walk made her look like a crow, but she was just a thin, tidy, black-clad old woman making her way between the Mannix Building and the Boonville Lodge.
Marie's only other natural habitat was deep in the murk of Homer Mannix's newspaper, the Anderson Valley Advertiser, where Marie was the last of the hot lead typesetters on the last of the hot lead linotypes.
Marie lived above her job in the Mannix Building. Both she and it are long gone, Marie of old age, the Mannix Building to fire. A deceptively labrynthian pre-code structure that for years served as Boonville's civic center as Homer Mannix served as justice court judge with chambers in his own building — at a fair rent, if you please, Homer was also fire chief, ambulance boss, CSD director, and school board president. He also sold cars and washing machines in addition to presiding over a print shop which, with Marie in her black overcoat at the machinery, became a kind of museum of living print history.
Every week, as Homer and Marie approached antique status themselves, they produced a newspaper out of antiquated methods on antiquated equipment. By the time Marie arrived in Boonville in the late 1960s where she traded Homer Mannix her formidable skills for a tiny apartment above the print shop, she was among the last people in the country to possess those skills. And Homer Mannix's Anderson Valley Advertiser was among the last newspapers in the country to be produced on a hot lead linotype.
Marie at work was a sight those of us fortunate enough to have witnessed it will never forget, her fingers flying blindly to the letter cases above her as she picked out every letter for every word of every paper — capital letters, small letters, punctuation — the works, and at hummingbird speed, getting the paper done in three or four hours depending on the always unpredictable performance of the ancient press. She fixed the press, too, when it broke down. Which was often. No Marie, no paper.
And no personal revelations from her. Ever. Marie lived in Boonville for going on 30 years but no one knew a thing about her except, maybe, Homer Mannix, who knew everything about everyone when he was the go-to guy in the Anderson Valley for the Anderson Valley. The place is pretty diffuse anymore, but it was coherent then.
Unfortunately for local history, Homer took his memories with him when he died and anyway would not, being a man from a time when discretion and reticence were still valued, ever talk about himself, let alone pass along the gossip the rest of us live on.
Last month, one of Marie's nephews called. He'd seen the Marie speculations on the internet where even an old typesetter gets talked about. "Marie," Mr. Helme began, "was my mother's sister, an older sister, my aunt. She often visited us when I was a kid. She lived in Grand Rapids and we lived near Lansing. I don't know how she learned hot lead typesetting. I remember going to stay with her in Grand Rapids when she worked at the Herald there. At that time she was on the night shift at the Grand Rapids paper. We'd sneak in to watch her run the linotype. My uncle had an old linotype at his paper in Weyland, the Weyland Globe, but I don't think she learned on it."
Marie had suffered a nervous breakdown in the late 1960s. She was confined to a mental hospital after running naked through the streets of Grand Rapids. When she'd regained her senses, Marie headed west for a hot lead job in Ukiah at the Ukiah Daily Journal. When the Journal phased out its hot lead presses, Marie came to Boonville and settled in at the Advertiser. She'd been married briefly in Grand Rapids to a man named Dominic Massera with whom she bought a house and a 1951 Studebaker.
I mentioned that lots of people in Boonville assumed Marie was Native American. She had high cheekbones and, as people used to say in less sensitive times, she was "dark-complected." And undoubtedly quite attractive as a young woman.
"But we're Norwegian," Mr. Helme said, laying to rest ethnic speculation. "Funny you should say she looked like an Indian. Irvin, Marie's brother, was a tall thin fellow also mistaken for Native American."
Marie left for California after her stay in the mental hospital, and the family had no contact with her. "We always thought she was so ashamed of her breakdown that she just wanted to start new somewhere else. But in Grand Rapids, when we were little kids, and she was our Aunt Marie, we loved Marie. We visited her often and we always got presents from her at Christmas. The presents were certainly surprising. One Christmas she sent us a live goose. Another year we got a cask of apricot liqueur complete with tiny cups. She sent my mother a beautiful tea trolley; another time she sent my mom a mangle, you know, that you use to iron clothes. That thing today would be a collector's item. If Aunt Marie saw something she liked she'd buy it for us."
Marie, her family remembers, was pretty much a recluse even in Grand Rapids after her marriage, and she'd always been eccentric. "She had four large wooden crates with doors and hasps," her nephew recalls, "that she kept right there in the front room of her studio apartment in Grand Rapids. It was always a mystery as to what was in them and she'd just smile that smile of hers when we asked her."
Her family remembers Marie "taking up" with a man named Harold Steele, a railroad worker. "My mother," Mr. Helme recalled, "always said he was a bum who only claimed he worked for the railroad, but Marie liked him and he was nice to us kids."
With the passing of both the hot lead print process and Homer Mannix's version of this newspaper, Marie continued to live in the Mannix Building. She still made her way every afternoon to the Boonville Lodge for her one half-bottle of beer, her high-stepping walk more tentative, her black hair gone gray. And then she was gone, and there was a sudden absence in the Boonville tapestry.
Homer Mannix had called the Helmes in Michigan. He would have said something like, "Marie is infirm. She really can't take care of herself anymore. You'd better come out here and get her." And the Helmes came out and got her, and Marie went home to die, and did die at age 91.