Strong historical women are the focus of Marie Benedict’s bestselling novels, which are fictional stories based on real women. But the subjects of Benedict’s books may not be the first to come to mind when thinking about history. Women, as Benedict says, may at first glance be overlooked – including Albert Einstein’s first wife; actress and inventor Hedy Lamarr; Clementine Churchill, and Agatha Christie.
“These women are literally hidden in plain sight, waiting for us to uncover their narratives. I find them everywhere—in my research, in everyday newspaper articles, from friends, on the blue historic plaques on the sides of buildings. All we need to discover them is to be looking for them,” Benedict said.
Despite the fact that Benedict now has several best-selling books, she didn’t always aspire to be an author. Benedict, whose real name is Heather Terrell, worked as a commercial litigator in New York City for large law firms and Fortune 500 companies for over a decade. “But I always knew it wasn’t what I was meant to be doing,” she said.
While practicing law, Benedict took graduate classes and considered pursuing a doctorate in history. “Ultimately, I circled back to what I’d been passionate about since I was in middle school—the untold stories of history, particularly those about women,” she said, “Now I am fortunate enough to write novels that shine the light on crucial women from the past who have left important legacies but about whom we often know very little. That said, I use the research, writing, and advocacy skills I developed as a lawyer every day as a writer.”
It’s fitting that Benedict credits a strong woman with helping to inspire her. “I was a voracious reader and lover of history with a wonderful aunt who also happened to be an English professor, who introduced me to the larger mysteries of the past and the different voices lurking in history,” she explained.
“While she fed me a steady diet of phenomenal literature, it was Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon with its revolutionary, female-centric telling of the famed Arthurian legends—in which the focus was on Arthur’s wife Guinevere and his sister Morgan le Fay—that really opened my eyes to the hidden world of women’s stories.”
Benedict said she began asking herself how ‘history’ is really fashioned. “I wondered why these women’s stories were not part of the history I’d been taught. I became obsessed with unearthing the unknown stories of women from the past,” she explained.
Benedict lives in a historic neighborhood in Pittsburgh and credits her ties to the city—her Irish and Italian immigrant ancestors settled here in the 1800s—with helping her develop the idea of one of her novels, Carnegie’s Maid.
“People supported their families by working in mines and mills if they were men and as domestics in the homes of the wealthy if they were women,” Benedict explained. “Through the Carnegie libraries of Pittsburgh and other programming, my particular family was able to access education and opportunities. Andrew Carnegie and his libraries loomed large in our personal family history, and I always wondered how the tycoon became the world’s first true philanthropist since the founder of those libraries so affected my own family.”
Benedict said she began to imagine how an immigrant woman like her own ancestors, intelligent but without access to formal education, could have inspired Carnegie to change and impact the lives of thousands of others through the formation of the first free libraries. “After all, Carnegie himself started out as an impoverished immigrant who was bright but uneducated,” she said. “So, in my very real female ancestors’ honor, I created Clara Kelly, the heroine of the novel, and placed her into the very real historical tale of Andrew Carnegie.
“Clara Kelly is an unschooled, bright woman with an intense desire to better herself—a female version of Carnegie if you will,” she added. “And there were many, many local historical women like her.”
In 2020, Benedict co-authored the Personal Librarian, with Victoria Christopher Murray. Based on the life of J.P. Morgan’s personal librarian, Belle da Costa Greene, the book became an instant best seller and Good Morning America Book Club selection.
“It was—and is—a joyous experience to write with Victoria, who is now not only my writing partner but my sister as well,” said Benedict. “Creating our books has been utterly transformative for me as a person, and the lens that Victoria has generously offered me to see the world—so very differently—altered me and continues to do so. And I hope those experiences are reflected in the pages of our books.”
The writing pair has teamed up again and will release The First Ladies in late June. “It is about the extraordinary partnership between First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune, a story of two different, yet equally formidable, passionate, and committed women, and the way in which—hand in hand—they forged a singular, close friendship that helped form the foundation for the modern civil rights movement,” Benedict said.
Benedict also has published the historical novels The Chrysalis, The Map Thief, and Brigid of Kildare under the name of Heather Terrell.