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Journalist Mary Pilon, in her page-turning book The Monopolists, hunts down the true story of the woman who invented the most popular board game in the world. Monopoly inventor and forgotten feminist Lizzie Magie died in 1948, thinking she was a failure, having received a total of $500 for the rights to her game. We hear about Magie’s vision and mission for the game, as well as her futile fight to defend her work and legacy, which Pilon resolutely revives from the sidelines of history. 

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Episode 6: Lizzie Magie Transcript

Our interview with Mary Pilon, author of The Monopolists, which tells the story of Lizzie Magie, the forgotten woman behind Monopoly.

Nancy: Welcome Mary.

Mary: Thanks so much for having me.

Nancy: I’m delighted you’re here. This is such a wonderful story. I mean, it’s no news that men often take credit for women’s inventions. I mean, think of all the women who say, “I had this great idea. I said it at the meeting and no one said anything and then three weeks later some guy comes back and says my idea and they all get on board and they go and do it and I don’t get any of the credit.” Your story is about the most popular board game in the world Monopoly. And it turns out it was invented by a long ago forgotten woman and not the man that Parker Brothers, the toy manufacturers, said it was. How did you find out about this sensational story?

Mary: Completely by accident. I often joke that this book is a fact checking question that ran a muck. So in 2009 I was working at the Wall Street Journal and I was covering business and finance and obviously in 2009 that was a pretty terrible year for the economy. So a lot of us were drawing these comparisons between the great recession and the great depression and culturally in terms of the numbers, et cetera. And so. I’m a long time puzzles and game dork. I grew up playing a lot of board games as a kid and video games and have always loved that world. And I heard the story that Monopoly had been invented by this man during the great depression because it was tucked into my family’s four game box, just like millions of others.

And I was going to make passing reference to this in an article and just say, “Oh, innovation can come in dark times. One need look no further than Monopoly during the great depression.” And I was looking and looking and it wasn’t adding up. The things I was finding were inconsistent and I felt like a total idiot because here we were writing about derivatives and securitization and these complex financial concepts, and I couldn’t get a sentence about a board game right. And this is also a great example of we think everything that we need to know exists on Google. I’m here to tell you that wasn’t true. There was a lot of misinformation being repeated and inconsistent things, which again, in 2009 felt a lot more revelatory than it certainly does today.

So I reached out on a whim to a man named Ralph Anspach, who I had seen and had been involved in litigation with Parker Brothers in the ’70s and it was totally on a lark. I mean, I think when you’re reporting, you cast out 10 to 15, 20 lines knowing you’re lucky if one or two come back, let alone if it’s going to help you get the answer you’re looking for, you get really used to rejection and dead ends.

So I reached out to him and I said, “Hey, I know this sounds crazy. I’m a reporter at the journal and I’m just trying to find out about Monopoly.” And he immediately got back to me. He was like, “Oh, I know all about it. It wasn’t invented by a man, it was invented by a woman. And it was played for 30 plus years. And then I spent 10 years of my own life taking this to the Supreme Court.” And off and off it went. And just like anything, any tip, any information you get, I kept reporting it out because I just have been so used to every reader thinking they’re Deep Throat. And I love interacting with readers. I love tips. I thrive off of them but trust but verify. Right?

And so Ralph, if anything, he was the rare person who undersold the story and he kept talking to me and sending me documents and things that he was finding and had found in his own legal battle. So it kind of spun out from there. I did the article and usually when I close a piece, at least I’m sick of it, I’m just done. I’m ready to move on to the next thing. But this was the first time where I had closed the story and I was like, “I have more questions. I’m limited by the print space I have, understandably, but who was this woman?” I think she might actually be all of a paragraph in the original journal story I did and how did this happen? And so I kept working on that, which became the book proposal, which then became the book.

Nancy: Let me go back a second. Ralph, who you just talked about, he comes into the story later because he created a game called Anti Monopoly, which is for those of you who don’t think it’s good to have money concentrated just at the top. So he’s the one who then got into a legal battle with the board game manufacturer, Parker brothers. So Lizzie McGee is the forgotten woman that you go on the trail to find her. Would you tell us a little bit about the wonderful, indomitable Lizzie?

Mary: She was fascinating. There had been no biographies of her. There was very little information about her. And after I sold the book, I had that really scary moment of, “Oh gosh, I have to research and write a story about a woman who is known for not existing.”

Nancy: So was she even in Google search at that point?

Mary: No. No. There was almost nothing about her. And I will say that this process, I’ve always loved history and documents, but it was such a different type of reporting. It was a totally different type of skill than I had been trained to do because she died in 1948 she didn’t have any children. I had to spend a lot of time in the geological archives trying to confirm all of that. You know, I’ve only really covered two worlds, Wall Street and sports, which are today still very male dominated. And I was like, “How the hell did a woman get a patent in 1904?” And I had to do a lot of research on the history.

Mary: I mean that was before women could vote and she’s brilliant. Her father is part of the answer to that. So James McGee wasn’t just a newspaper owner and a very politically savvy man. He had traveled with Abraham Lincoln during the Lincoln Douglas debates and was one of the early brains of the Republican party at the time. And I think to understand, Lizzie, you have to understand that she also had a father who very much believed in the potential of his daughter, believed that she could have a way with words, believe that she can be very politically active, that he was very ahead of his time and understanding the potential of his daughter. And I think that fueled her a lot. She did this pretty incredible stunt around the turn of the century where she auctioned herself off as a slave to make a statement about how women were being treated.

Nancy: When you think about what it takes to be a woman entrepreneur and someone who goes up against the odds and keeps on going, it takes a certain guts and chutzpah.

Mary: Yeah. For sure.

Nancy: Talk a little more about that ad because I never heard about that. And that goes down in the history books, what she did.

Mary: Yeah. Yeah. And it got covered and these newspapers across the country because it was seen as so scandalous. And so she puts this ad out, quote advertising herself and her eyes and her hair and her this and her that.

Nancy: But as a woman slave. Right?

Mary: Correct. And as she talks about the responses that she gets too later that people do propose marriage to her. Some nice couples are like trying to… She writes about this couple trying to just help her out and say that they respect what she’s doing, but it’s about equal pay. Like that’s what she’s like talking about, and I remember when I was looking at that thinking, “Oh my gosh, this was over a century ago and it’s the same debate.” And she had this other patent for a typewriter gadget and she had worked as a stenographer. Instant stenography is really interesting because that was one of the few… Women were working. They were working their butts off at that time. They were just unpaid. There was this whole notion of unpaid labor in this country and stenography was this interesting job because it was one of the few that was seen as acceptable for women to be in a workplace.

And so it’s interesting that she also did that. She was involved in theater, she wrote poetry, she was all about being seen in all these different ways. And then she makes games, which I think now a lot has changed in the game industry even since I started working this book. But that was before widespread radio, before TV, obviously before video games. So, if you wanted to get your message across games were a way to communicate ideas. And it’s interesting when I took the book on tour, I got a lot of really great responses from women in tech and women in game industry. And so I think stories like Lizzy’s really matter because to know that women were inventing games and doing all this, which we know they were. I mean I’m amazed that there’s documentation to be able to tell her story, frankly. I think it’s really important. We need those North stars. We need to know and credit the people who make the world the way it is.

Nancy: Absolutely. Undiscovered heroine. And the other thing — back to the patents, the fact that she got her first patent when she was 26? I mean she was just a young woman and got the patent for the typewriter. I mean she knew enough, thanks her father, that that was an important thing to do when you create something. And then what say about the board game being a marketing tool. She had ideas about leveling the playing field for women and for well men too who were making pittances and that the money should be distributed from the top. So she created the Landlord’s Game. Can you talk about that board game that she created.

Mary: Right. The Landlord’s game is a fascinating piece of history. So don’t understand the Landlord’s Game, you have to understand a man named Henry George. So Henry George was a huge deal in his time. He wrote this book called progress and poverty that was a massive bestseller. And there were all these accounts that when Henry George would give lectures. The hall would just be packed full of people. When he passed away in the late 18 hundreds there were blocks and blocks and blocks of people wanting to say farewell to his coffin as it passed by.

And he was really interested in wealth and land and how we were distributing this. Now this is at a time in the country where you have the monopolist, you have Carnegie, you’ve got Rockefeller, you’ve got an incredible amount of wealth being created in this country that we haven’t really seen at that time yet. And there were a lot of questions about how is that going to be distributed, if at all, and what was the role of the government in that?

So I won’t go on and on and give you a lecture on George’s economics, although there’s plenty online you can read about that if you’re interested in it. But he was really interested in this idea of a single tax. So the idea is that you tax land and only land, and I have to say as a New Yorker, a lot of the talk about the evils of landlords and how people are living in squalor felt very relevant all this time later. And the other thing with the single tax clubs that’s interesting is that this was really a community too. So these single tax clubs would form all over the country and they also overlapped a lot with women’s rights groups, with abolitionists’ cause and the questions surrounding rights for African-Americans post, after the civil war.

But a game is really a good way to have people live and breathe and role play with these concepts a bit. So that’s what the Landlord’s Game was all about. It was supposed to make George’s kind of lofty ideals, a little bit more tangible so people could actually see what he was talking about.

Nancy: There were two sets of rules, which is so female, I think? Rather than having one set of rules to play the game, she had two sets of rules.

Mary: Correct. And something that I think we forget about Monopoly in this era is that she makes this game and she patents it in 1904 and it was really a folk game. And what I mean by that is that she puts this patent out there. We don’t really know how much she knew about how it was spreading, but there was kind of this early idea of like you should make it your own. People would localize these boards and add their own properties to them. Instead of tokens, it was this idea of like pickup whatever you have around the house buttons, thimbles, whatever it may be.

So part of the game’s design was flexibility, including the two rule sets. She makes this Monopolist rule set, which is what later kind of spins off and becomes Monopoly, what we play today, and an Anti-Monopolist rule set. So you can read into it however you want that the Monopolist rule set, the one where we all clobber each other, is the one that really is the one that people seem to gravitate towards.

Nancy: At the end of the day, she was on a mission. I mean, and that was, seems to me, the underlying difference between her and then the guy who got credit for creating Monopoly. Could we talk a little bit about the guy who got credit for inventing Monopoly? And that, as you said, was on the history pamphlet that was inside of every Monopoly game.

Mary: Yes. So Charles Darrow, who for whatever it’s worth, I believe was a nice guy. I don’t believe… I mean, I never met him obviously, but he was also a marketing dream. So Charles Darrow, the story that Parker Brothers told was that in the heart of the great depression, Charles Darrow, he’s unemployed himself and he goes into his basement and he creates this game with these Atlantic City properties, to remind his family of vacations and better times. And that Parker brothers… This part is true. That Parker brothers financially was on the brink of destruction itself as a company. On a whim they acquire this game. And it feels really counterintuitive because why would people want to play a game about real estate and money when people are suffering so profoundly, especially with the economy.

And this game becomes this huge blockbuster and it saves Parker Brothers and Charles Darrow, not only from the brink of destruction, but it also makes Charles Darrow a very, very wealthy man. And he’s kind of hoisted up as this Horatio Alger story and this Cinderella tale. And I think to go back to what’s sinister and what isn’t in this story, I think it’s important to recognize that part of where the Darrow story has stuck, including for decades after Ralph’s lawsuit, is it’s a really incredible story. I mean, it’s really, who doesn’t want to dream of a light bulb going off and all of a sudden becoming a millionaire. I mean, I think that’s so American, but it’s not true. This game had been around for at least 30 plus years before Darrell played it and he sells a version of it to Parker Brothers, but he wasn’t even the first person to try and market it.

Nancy: The stealing of ideas seemed to be rampant during this period. It also certainly happens now, but whether it was prescient, I don’t know. But Lizzie, who was a pretty prolific writer and being published in the most popular magazines of the day, wrote a story that is almost Edgar Allan Poe-like called The Theft of a Brain. Could you tell that story?

Mary: So, Lizzie Magie writes this story called The Theft of a Brain, the story of a hypnotized novelist and a cruel deed, and it’s published in this magazine called Gode’s, G-O-D-I don’t know if I say that right.

Nancy: Gode’s.

Mary: It was a big deal at the time. It was a women’s magazine based in Philadelphia and they had published Washington Irving, Edgar Allan Poe, a lot of people.

So it’s about this aspiring novelist, her name is Laura Lynn, and she said to a friend that she could write something that everybody would read, that she’d be ‘perfectly happy,’ and that she’s talented and she’s passionate, but she just has this lack of confidence. So she seeks out this professor and he hypnotizes her into writing, and under hypnosis she writes this story called Privileged Criminals who is about a woman who’s convicted of a crime that she had committed. So when she woke up, Laura wakes up, the professor says that she had become a successful writer and she was selling her short stories for $500 each, which would have been a considerable amount of money at the time, and she’s really excited and she continues to write them and writes a novel. And then when she tries to publish the novel, she found that a plagiarized copy already existed and had become a bestseller and the plagiarist was none other than the hypnotized professor. So, you know, idea theft.

And what’s really crazy about that story is that that was published in the 1890s, so it was actually decades before. I mean, it was before she patents The Landlord’s Game, but the whole monopoly scandal really comes to roost in the 1930s, so decades before she gets completely screwed for $500 actually. That is as far as we can tell how much Lizzie Magie earned from making Monopoly. I remember actually finding that article at the New York public library, one of the great institutions that helped make the book possible and just getting like these weird goosebumps, like just chills of like, you know that this was just kind of a foregone conclusion that she understood, that she just knew that this was just what it meant to be a woman with ideas at the time, and was exploring that in her fiction.

Nancy: And she had foreshadowed exactly what happened to her. Can you talk about that moment when Mr. Parker, the granddaddy of Parker Brothers, who looks like he’s out of Central Casting with white hair and a white beard, comes from Boston down to Philadelphia, where Lizzie is now living, to meet with her.

Mary: D.C. I believe she was living in Washington, D.C. at the time.

Nancy: Oh, okay. That’s right, because she was working for the treasury. Okay, go ahead.

Mary: Darrow starts to be, kind of, touted as the man who had been a Monopoly and it isn’t long before Lizzie McGee catches wind of this, and by now she’s an older woman, she’s living in Washington D.C, and she knows newspapers, right? That was her dad’s business. She’d been writing and published for years. So she calls up two reporters, one from the Washington Post and one from the Washington Evening Star, and she says, “This is baloney. I made this game.” There’s this photo of her that’s incredible of her hoisting up her games and saying, “here’s my patents. This Darrow guy didn’t invent the game.” So we have this public record now that she says “I am not happy with this.”

So, the Parker Brothers company realizes they have a problem on their hands. So, at this point, Robert Barton, who was the founder, George Parker’s son-in-law, was running the company, but George Parker re-emerges from retirement and he’s almost 70, and he goes from Salem, Massachusetts, to Arlington, Virginia, outside of D.C where Lizzie’s living, and he realizes he needs to close up a deal. So the lawyers who’ve read the book have told me that this is the chapter that gives them seizures because it’s such a great example of like, should have had a lawyer in the room.

Nancy: Right, why you need a lawyer next to you.

Mary: Which I think is a very like now lens to put onto the 1930s. And Lizzie McGee signs this deal and she receives $500 and no residuals. Which to us today sounds crazy, but Parker had very much pumped this up as part of the deal was, Oh gosh, we’re going to acknowledge you as the inventor of Landlord’s Game, which for her, she’s so excited about because she thinks, wow, you know, Henry George is dead, but this political game and his ideas are going to get out there from the Parker Brothers, like this giant, incredible game publisher, and they promised to sell two other of her games.

She writes this letter to George Parker afterwards that says, farewell my brainchild, and it’s just very impassioned, and my blessing goes with you, and that she really thinks she’s leaving her game in good hands, but unfortunately there’s little, if any, evidence that Parker Brothers marketed these other games of hers, if they acknowledged her as the inventor, I sure couldn’t find any evidence of it, let alone did they correct the record about Darrow. In fact, as recently as last fall, on Hasbro’s website, Lizzie Magie is still not to be found. Even today, the company won’t acknowledge her role in the game, and they certainly weren’t doing it in the 1930s.

So it’s really heartbreaking, and for Lizzie, you know, because I don’t know if it was about money, although she certainly didn’t get any, but I think it was about credit and acknowledgement. One of the last traces that we have of her is the 1940 U.S. Census, which became available during the time I was working on this, and I remember popping her name in and seeing her name and where she was living, and her job description was Maker of Games, which I thought was interesting because of all the hats that she wore, that was the one that she identified with and her income was zero. So, that’s the last we hear of her. So yeah, the George Parker deal, to realize that she was so excited about it and then later so disappointed, I think is a sad ending for her.

Nancy: What is the moral of the story for…

Mary: For me, I mean, there’s so many, right? I tried the best I could in writing the book to just lay out the facts and let people draw their own conclusions. For me, I don’t know if there’s a moral. I don’t know if I’m the kind of writer who comes down hard with like a set truth. I think there’s a lot of questions for me that are raised about who owns ideas in this country, who built this country, who creates the world around us and who gets credit for it, who the decision makers are.

I didn’t even think about this when I was writing it, but now when you look at this, Lizzie Magie’s kind of the only woman in the story, that front and center, right? In terms of who made the laws, who was deciding the cases, who was representing these cases, who the plaintiffs were. Women are 50% of the population, but the Monopoly story, the power decision maker, the executives, they were all men.

Nancy: And you also say in the book that less than 1% of the patents at that time were going to women.

Mary: Correct. Correct. I think it also raises questions about the history and the lineage of this. I think for me, we hear so much about women’s history and it’s not women’s history, it’s everybody’s history, and that there’s this history of ignoring women, of wiping them out of stories, of literally not telling their stories. I remember when I was pitching the book, this project was like The Little Engine That Could. I felt like I was this crazy conspiracy theorist and I would tell people, “There’s a book about this woman,” and people for five years thought I was completely nuts.

Mary: Then the book comes out and then a couple of years pass, and it gets a response, and then the Me Too Movement happens. And then when Hasbro tries to release this Ms.Monopoly game, people really lost it because people knew about Lizzie Magie, and I felt like, wow, there’s no way 10 years ago I ever thought that people would realize the resonance of a story about a woman who really-

Nancy: Got screwed.

Mary: Didn’t get credit, and that the culture around that would change so dramatically is really, really interesting. So I think there’s a lot of morals, but I think for me, as I have more time and distance from when the book came out, and I feel like I’ve changed a lot too. It’s more of the like, new questions keep coming up because the story really ends in a lot of ways, like the bulk of the book really happened before, let’s call it the mid 1980s.

We’re never the same when we pick up a story, right? You can pick up a book as a kid and it’s one thing, you pick it up as an adult, you’re another, and I feel that way about this, that the way I felt writing it was very different than the way when it came out, which is now, but I do think if anything, it’s only aged in a way that feels more reasonable. I remember when the book came out, just being so nervous that people would think I was this-shrill is this loaded word-but that I was like this kind of Chicken Little, sounding this alarm and now if anything I feel like “Wow, Lizzie Magie has been validated” because there’s so many Lizzie Magies, they come up to me at book readings, I get emails from them. There’s a lot of them still out there.

Nancy: That is a great close. There are so many Lizzie Magies out there. And that’s why this is such a great book and why we wanted to have you, Mary, because this is a story that, you’re right, not just women need to know, but men need to know. She was passionate about changing the playing field, as I said. Can I just end with a quote that’s from your book that again, just shows how neat Lizzie was. I mean, this woman had a lot of fire in her, and this is directly from Mary’s book, The Monopolists.

“Marriage was not for her, she added, unless she could see her spouse only once every three days, she didn’t want anyone to interfere with her ability to go off into her den and spend hours plodding through books as she pleased. Personally, I love solitude and were I married, I could not enjoy that luxury.”

Mary: Doesn’t that just seem like straight up Virginia Woolf? LIke it just feels so, like exactly what I thought of. I was like, she wanted a room of one’s own.

Nancy: She did, because she was inventive, creative, and she needed her space. A great find from history. Thank you so much, Mary.

Mary: Thank you.

ABOUT OUR GUEST:

Mary Pilon author of the Monopolists on history of the Monopoly game
Mary Pilon
Twitter: @marypilon
Facebook: /marypilon
Instagram: /marypilon

Mary Pilon is the author of “The Monopolists,” a New York Times bestseller about the history of the board game Monopoly (Bloomsbury, February 2015) and “The Kevin Show” (Bloomsbury, March 2018). Her work, chiefly about sports, business, and politics, regularly appears in the New Yorker, Esquire, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, Vice, New York, and The New York Times, among other publications. She also appears on a variety of TV and radio programs and worked as a producer for NBC Sports at the 2016 Rio Olympics. 

Pilon previously was a staff reporter with sports desk at The Times and a full index of her work there can be found here, including dispatches from the Olympics, doping coverage, features on legal and financial issues in sports and the occasional video shot from a dog sled or graphic novel about cage fighting in the heartland. From June 2008 to November 2011, Mary worked at The Wall Street Journal, where she covered various aspects of business and finance. Among her lesser-known accomplishments: bringing slugsyo-yos, the NYSE movie room and square dancing to the Journal’s front page.

Her work has been featured in The Best American Sportswriting and garnered awards from the New York Society of Professional Journalists, the Freedom Forum and the Society of American Business Editors and Writers. She was part of NBC’s Emmy-nominated Olympic production team and the Journal’s squad that won Gerald Loeb and New York Press Club Awards in 2011 for covering the “Flash Crash” of 2010. She made the Forbes magazine’s first-ever 30 Under 30 list for media. 

OTHER GOOD THINGS TO DO, HEAR & READ:

  • READ Mary’s book on the untold history of Monopoly from Amazon.
  • PLAY the original Landlord’s Game with a limited reproduction of Magie’s 1906 board.
  • LEARN about Ms. Monopoly in Mary’s take for The New Yorker.

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