Fall wedding drew prying eyes: McCarthy/Yarrow nuptials inspired classic song
On Oct. 18, 1969, a wedding at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Willmar prompted an overflow crowd of the invited, interested and nosy. Local girl Mary Beth McCarthy, 21, daughter of Dr. A.M. and Muriel McCarthy was to marry Peter Yarrow, 31, of the folk music ensemble Peter, Paul and Mary, who would have the No. 1 song in the land ("Leaving on a Jet Plane") within 60 days. It may have been the lone wedding in city history to draw next issue photo coverage in the local newspaper. The ceremony featured the first public performance of Noel Paul Stookey's "The Wedding Song (This is Love)." Mary Beth McCarthy Yarrow recently recalled the remarkable day with retired Tribune reporter Rand Middleton and his wife, Donna, Tribune news clerk. Here is her story:
The wedding, the campaign and the band
Dad's good friend, Al Deniger, who owned Al's Blue Chip Cafe and Al's Liquor, was also a photographer. He took some informal photographs that day, but for some reason they stayed in the proof form.
My inseparable childhood girlfriend Lanna Deniger, Al's daughter, was my personal assistant. She would have been my maid-of-honor, but I felt my sisters should be that. But how to pick just one? So I made all my sisters maids-of-honor.
Dad walked me down the aisle. I wasn't nervous but when we sat down for the performance part of the ceremony my legs went numb. I felt like I might faint.
The church was full. I have no idea how many invited guests. There were mom's and dad's friends and relatives, many who came from out of town. There were my high school classmates and Willmar friends. Dad was a prominent physician in the area with many acquaintances and that meant more people.
Although very excited about the wedding, the months leading up to the wedding became traumatic for my mother. Mom and Dad had lived at 909 Walnut Place in a house they built in 1951. They had wanted to build a year-around home on Eagle Lake. They put the house on Walnut up for sale and it sold practically overnight. We had nowhere to go as plans for the lake house changed and were then abandoned.
For a time, they rented a little house off Kandiyohi on Third Street. It was during this time that Peter and I decided we wanted to get married the coming October, and Mom and Dad didn't have a home. Being young and oblivious to such things, it made no difference to me. I really didn't think about it.
Mom needed a house to host her family and friends coming to the wedding of her first daughter. They quickly decided to build a home at 1420 Grace by October 18. For Peter and me, the date fell between two important anti-war marches: on Oct. 15 in New York City and the Great March on Washington set for Nov. 15 for which Peter was organizing the performers.
There was a window between marches that we set for Oct. 18. Mom was in total panic. She would often make reference to the book "Future Shock" because so many decisions needed to be made in too short of time. The Monday before the wedding the man who had made all the draperies arrived and the wallpaper was being hung. Her friends were there in force to unpack and ready the home for a wedding that Saturday. Somehow, it all got done.
My uncle Gene (McCarthy, U.S. Senator from Minnesota) was at the wedding, Mary Travers was there, and her former husband, Barry Feinstein, came, too. He had taken photographs used for album covers for the group and others. He was now married to Carol Wayne. She was a buxom blond and a favorite on the Johnny Carson show. A lot more eyes were on Carol in her furs and her low-cut top than on the bride, but to me it wasn't a competition.
Also there was Peter, Paul and Mary's manager, Albert Grossman, who would also manage Bob Dylan. He had seen Peter performing in Greenwich Village and realized something was there. Albert suggested forming a group of two men and a woman. They found Noel Paul Stookey introducing acts at a coffeehouse. He was a stand-up comic and played a little guitar.
It took time to find the female. Someone suggested a barista with a compelling voice who worked in the Village. Mary Travers had not graduated from high school, but she was very well read and had a reputation of being undisciplined. The three of them met and tried to find a song that all three knew. All they could come up with was "Mary Had a Little Lamb." The harmonies worked immediately.
Five days a week they went to Mary's apartment with arranger Milt Okun until they had the arrangements for 15 songs. After nine months, they were ready to perform. They were booked into the Bitter End for a week. After the first night, there were lines around the block.
They worked 360 days for the next two years. At Eagle Lake the summer that I was 15, we would blast the first Peter, Paul and Mary album loud enough to be heard on the diving tower, and most probably across the lake.
How it all came to be
I graduated from Willmar High School in 1965 and chose to go to the University of Colorado in Boulder. I was misguided, uncertain of what direction I wanted my life to take. I squandered two years of higher education. I realized Dad was working too hard to pay out-of-state tuition for me to just tread water. After a detour to Arizona, I moved back to Willmar with thoughts of enrolling at the junior college for spring semester.
Critical of the Vietnam War, Uncle Gene had entered the New Hampshire presidential primary in February, 1968, and essentially won with 42 percent of the vote, leading to Lyndon Johnson's announcement in March that he would not seek re-election. Suddenly, my uncle was a national figure and I felt a calling to show up and do something. I phoned the St. Paul office, explained I was Gene's niece and asked if I could help.
We did not grow up in a political family. Dad was a surgeon, often on the road to area towns. He had time only for work, the family and the lake. I was naive, and ill-informed, unaware, politically unconscious.
I thought I could stuff envelopes, make phone calls; really, I had no clue. The campaign office felt I could help in Wisconsin. I didn't know the issues but I was outgoing and I believed in the humanity of Gene McCarthy.
The organizers understood I couldn't go out alone to these small gatherings that were the nature of the campaign. They needed someone to accompany me who could talk about the issues. But I was bright, smart, a fast learner. It was baptism by fire.
I soon found myself talking at luncheons, small household gatherings, anywhere they could send me that the connection to the McCarthy family made a difference. My sisters, Patty and Julie, did the same. I traveled to the primaries in Indiana, Nebraska, Kentucky, Texas and Oregon.
While flying around Oregon, we learned that Peter, Paul and Mary were coming to Portland. Peter had written a campaign song that the group had recorded: "If you love your country and the things for which it stands, then vote for Gene McCarthy and bring peace to this land."
Although Peter, Paul and Mary had been supporting Gene, the group felt that they could not use the stage as a political platform since people at a concert were of many views. Peter suggested that we could arrange for someone related to Gene to be in the audience, Peter would ask that person to stand up before singing "Blowin' in the Wind."
Then it happened: "Please stand up," Peter said from the stage. "The spotlight washed over me. I stood and waved. It was my Cinderella moment."
After the concert, we gathered in Gene's hotel room. It was a magical evening, an elevated moment. I felt privileged to be there. I was 20. Like Alice, I had entered Wonderland. I was humbled, but undaunted and kept moving forward.
Peter invited me to join him for dinner — it was always his want to invite lots of people to dinner. He gave me his phone number and asked me to call him when I was coming to New York in July for the primary. While Peter, Paul and Mary traveled to Japan, the California primary was still ahead for us. After Bobby Kennedy was killed on June 6, 1968, the campaign was suspended for a few weeks and we were all sent home.
In July, I went to New York for the last of the primaries. I called Peter when I arrived. He and Paul were in the studio mixing the album Late Again. Peter had rented a car and afterward we drove around Central Park and the city. I was staying at the Henry Hudson Hotel where the campaign workers were headquartered. We drove up to the hotel and I put my head on his shoulder. We were a couple.
Peter came to Willmar that summer. On the lake, the flies were out. We were at the table with dad at his end and mother at hers, each with a fly swatter. Peter and I were somewhere in between. We wanted to discuss getting married. Peter would start a sentence, and "whack!" He'd talk a little more of our plans and "whack! ... whack!" It was kind of funny. Fly swatting wasn't something Peter was used to.
At the groom's dinner at the Fireside, which included Peter's mother, Vera, Noel Paul said he had composed a song for us. He played only a few chords that night. At the wedding, the sound of his voice echoed through the church. It was just wonderful. When Noel sang the first verse a glow just washed over me.
The union of your spirits, here, has caused Him to remain
For whenever two or more of you are gathered in His name
There is Love. There is Love.
Noel Paul didn't perform the "The Wedding Song (This is Love)" again for two years, and then only when Peter requested it with me in the audience. He had told Peter it was just for us. Noel was a Christian. He felt he was not the author but that it was only channelled through him and he felt it was sacred. He never put his name on the record or the sheet music, still among the world's best sellers. The royalties go to a trust fund called Public Domain Foundation and are distributed to individuals and foundations worldwide.
We had two children, Bethany and Christopher. After a 12-year separation, Peter and I divorced in 1991; however, we never lost respect or appreciation for one another. Our love was never extinguished. We didn't injure the other irrevocably and no blame was assigned. As Peter often says, we remain more married than some people who are. I always say he's my former husband, never my ex.
Peter loved my mom and dad and they loved him and stood by him. He was always welcome at the lake and for Christmas at the Grace house. Peter was of the Big City; I think Willmar was a grounding for him and remains an important touchstone for both of us.
Mary Beth McCarthy Yarrow lives in St. Paul and is a film producer. "The Willmar 8" for PBS TV marked her professional debut in 1980. Her current project is a film on her uncle, "Gene McCarthy: Alone in the Land of the Aardvarks."