"Carnegie’s Maid" tells the fictional story of an immigrant housekeeper who moves to Pittsburgh and accidentally ends up serving one of the city’s most famous families: the Carnegies.
Told primarily from the perspective of the protagonist, Clara Kelley, the story is that of many other young newcomers to the city—she sends money abroad to her family and watches rapidly growing income disparities in booming industrial Pittsburgh.
While serving his mother, Clara develops a rapport with industrialist Andrew Carnegie. Author Marie Benedict, a Pittsburgh native, creates a narrative in which their relationship helps push Carnegie toward philanthropic work throughout his life.
Benedict spoke with 90.5 WESA’s Katie Blackley, who asked her how she chose the industrialist to be the backdrop of the story.
Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
MARIE BENEDICT: My family were Irish immigrants to Pittsburgh in the late 1800s. And like many of the immigrants during that time period, they took what jobs were available to them—domestics, if you were women; in the mills or the mines if you were men. And while they were willing to take whatever jobs they could to support their families, they weren't willing to stay at that station of life. They were looking to ascend. My particular family really utilized (they lived in Oakland in a really Irish, kind of, enclave) the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh as one of their stepping stones. So for me growing up, my grandmother's great aunts always talked about Andrew Carnegie as an instrumental tool in our own family's rise and ascent.
So, I didn't have a lot of those negative connotations that people who think of him in the context of the Homestead Strike in those sorts of things. So the idea of Andrew Carnegie and his philanthropy loomed large over my childhood and I was always really kind of curious about him.
KATIE BLACKLEY: What made you choose the relationship between Clara as a maid and Andrew as the master?
BENEDICT: So growing up, as I mentioned, my family always talked about Andrew Carnegie very lovingly. And I was always curious about what made him transform from this ‘ruthless’ businessman that we think of today, into [a] philanthropist.
And, you know, I'm a historical fiction writer and when I become curious I kind of go down the rabbit hole and I'm looking for stories and, in particular, I'm looking to excavate women's voices from the past, untold women's stories. And what I learned was that he made this transformation not when he was an older man, like you might assume, but when he was a relatively young man—a man in his 30s living in Pittsburgh, a man on the rise, not a man at his peak. It was actually in December of 1868 he wrote, basically what I would call a manifesto, or a promise, to himself in which he vowed to give away his fortune for the betterment of others, particularly the poor and the lower classes. So, I really became curious about what would make this young, relatively young man make this startling transformation.
When I dug a little further down my rabbit hole I learned that other historians had asked that question as well, and they had posited that it might be a relationship—that something might have happened during this time period, in the late 1860s, that caused him to change and really refocus his ultimate worldview. And like them, I looked and looked and could not find this mysterious person.
So what I decided to do was insert into the narrative a composite of my own ancestors—female immigrants who, like Andrew Carnegie, were bright, but uneducated, but very desirous of ascending and almost like a mirror to Andrew Carnegie, if you will. And I made them the impetus for his change.
BLACKLEY: Another one of the voices prevalent throughout the novel is Margaret Carnegie, Andrew’s mother. Why was it so important to have her as a business partner, nearly equal to her son?
BENEDICT: She is, or she was, a formidable force, for better or for worse. When they moved to this country in the earlier 1800s, they were impoverished. They went and lived in basically what were tenements or slums in what is now the North Side of Pittsburgh. His own father’s work had been eviscerated by the Industrial Revolution. He was a loomer and he no longer had work because it was all now done by factories. And the mother, Margaret, basically supported the family with her own industry and really encouraged Andrew.
They had a really unusual bond of intellect, mutual respect and admiration, but also he really relied on her. He would say she had a great business acumen and she really was his partner in those early days—and beyond—in advising him. But she was almost always behind the scenes. But he really gave credit to her for a lot of his success.