Prouty was born in Worcester in 1882 to Katherine Chapin and Milton Prince Higgins, who would raise one of Worcester’s most prominent, and one of Worcester Polytechnic Institute’s most important, families. The Higgins family residence was at the corner of West Street and Salisbury Street, where WPI’s Goddard Hall now stands. Prouty spent most of her childhood deeply connected to WPI as her father was superintendent of the Washburn shops and supervised its very construction. Milton and Katherine Higgins had four children in total, all of whom would go on to make generous contributions to WPI, including Higgins Laboratories, Higgins House, Sanford Riley Hall, a scholarship, and a library fund. Milton Higgins was not only prominent in the development of WPI, but he was also an entrepreneur, buying the Norton Emery Wheel Co. with George Alden in 1885 and serving as its president until his death in 1912.
Prouty’s mother was also an active member of the growing Worcester community. Katherine was the superintendent of the Sunday school at the First Congregational Church and insisted upon Olive joining the church at age thirteen. Katherine was also the founder of the Parent Teachers Association, having spoken in many states for the PTA throughout her lifetime.
Prouty was close to her parents despite their busy professional lives, and speaks of her time in Worcester and at WPI with great fondness. Though she had an early interest in rhyme, Prouty did not have much early success at school, and the anxiety that resulted was a precursor to nervous troubles that would come later in her life.
Nevertheless, Olive Higgins graduated from Smith College in 1904 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Literature and returned to Worcester determined to start a writing career. Prouty feared that her marriage to Lewis Prouty would hinder her attempts to write professionally, but Lewis turned out to be supportive and introduced Olive to the editor who would publish her first stories. The Proutys moved to Brookline, Massachusetts soon after their marriage in June, 1907.
Prouty’s first novel Bobbie, General Manager was published in 1913. She tried to keep up with her writing, but by 1920 Prouty was feeling more and more torn between her writing and her duties to her family. As the Proutys were quite prosperous, Olive had trouble balancing the social obligations that came with prosperity with her family obligations and still having time to write. When her third daughter Anne died in 1919, she decided to devote herself to the care of her children.
Prouty’s youngest daughter Olivia was very dear to her, possibly more so than her other two surviving children. In both her published and unpublished works, she rarely mentioned Richard or Jane, but she wrote quite a bit about Olivia. Olivia’s death in 1923 of encephalitis devastated Prouty, and the nervous breakdown that resulted led her to spend some time at the Riggs Foundation in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Her psychiatrist, Dr. Austen Fox Riggs, encouraged her to treat her writing professionally, and Prouty was immeasurably grateful for the new freedom that afforded her.
Stella Dallas, one of Prouty’s most famous works, was published around this time. It was eventually made into a play in 1924, then a radio serial, and then its first movie incarnation in 1925. In 1937 it was remade with Barbara Stanwyck, and Be
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