Rose Wilder Lane (December 5, 1886 – October 30, 1968) was an American journalist, travel writer, novelist, and political theorist and the daughter of American writer Laura Ingalls Wilder. Along with Ayn Rand and Isabel Paterson, Lane is noted as one of the founders of the American libertarian movement.
Wilder was the first child of Laura Ingalls Wilder and Almanzo Wilder and the only child of her parents to survive into adulthood. Her early years were a difficult time for her parents due to successive crop failures, illnesses and chronic economic hardships.
During her childhood, the family moved several times, living with relatives in Minnesota and then Florida, and briefly returning to De Smet, South Dakota, before settling in Mansfield, Missouri in 1894. There, her parents would eventually establish a dairy farm and fruit orchards. Wilder attended secondary school in Mansfield and Crowley, Louisiana, while living with her aunt Eliza Jane Wilder, graduating in 1904 with a class of seven.
Her intellect and ambition were demonstrated by her ability to compress three years of Latin into one, and by graduating at the top of her high school class in Crowley. Despite her academic success, Wilder was unable to attend college due to her parents’ financial situation.
After high school graduation, Wilder returned to her parents’ farm and learned telegraphy at the Mansfield railroad station. At age seventeen, she was working for Western Union in Kansas City as a telegrapher for $2.50 a week. She worked as a telegrapher in Missouri, Indiana, and California for the next five years.
In March 1909, Wilder married salesman, promoter and occasional newspaperman Gillette Lane. Soon after, she left her job with Western Union and embarked on travels with her new husband to promote his various schemes, traversing the US including Kansas City, Ohio, New York and Maine. While staying in Salt Lake City the following November, public records indicate Lane gave birth to a premature, stillborn son.
The topic is mentioned only briefly in a handful of existing letters written by Lane and written years after the infant’s death to express sympathy and understanding to close friends who were also dealing with the loss of a child.
For the next few years, Lane and her husband continued to live a nomadic lifestyle, traveling around the United States to work together and separately on various promotional and advertising projects. While letters to her parents described a happy-go-lucky existence, Lane’s subsequent diary entries and numerous autobiographical magazine articles later described her mindset at this time as depressed and disillusioned with her marriage.
She felt her intellectual interests did not mesh with the life she was living with her husband. One account even had her attempting suicide by drugging herself with chloroform, only to awake with a headache and a renewed sense of purpose in life.
Keenly aware of her lack of a formal education, during these years, Lane read voraciously and taught herself several languages. Her writing career began around 1910, with occasional freelance newspaper jobs that earned much needed extra cash. Between 1912 and 1914, she and her husband sold farm land in what is now the San Jose/Silicon Valley area of northern California.
Conditions often required them to work separately to earn separate commissions, and Lane turned out to be the better salesperson. The marriage foundered; there were several periods of separation, and eventually an amicable divorce.
Her diaries reveal subsequent romantic involvements with several men in the years following her divorce, but she never remarried, and eventually made the conscious choice to remain single and free of romantic attachments.
The threat of America’s entry into World War I had seriously weakened the real estate market, so in early 1915 Lane accepted a friend’s offer of a stopgap job as an editorial assistant on the staff of the San Francisco Bulletin. The stopgap turned into a watershed. She immediately caught the attention of her editors not only through her talents as a writer in her own right, but also as a highly skilled editor for other writers.
Before long, her photo and byline were running in the Bulletin daily, churning out formulaic romantic fiction serials that would run for weeks at a time. Lane’s first-hand accounts of the lives of Henry Ford, Charlie Chaplin, Jack London, and Herbert Hoover were published in book form.
Later in 1915, Lane’s mother visited San Francisco for several months. Together they attended the Panama-Pacific International Exposition; details of this visit and Lane’s daily life in 1915 are preserved in Wilder’s letters to her husband in West from Home, published in 1974.
Although Lane’s diaries indicate she was separated from her husband in 1915, Wilder’s letters do not indicate this. Lane and her husband are recorded as living together with him unemployed and looking for work during Wilder’s two-month visit. It seems the separation was either covered up, or had not yet involved separate households.
Lane played a hands-on role during the 1940s and 1950s in launching the “libertarian movement” and began an extensive correspondence with figures such as DuPont executive Jasper Crane and writers Frank Meyer as well as her friend and colleague, Ayn Rand.
She wrote book reviews for the National Economic Council and later for the Volker Fund, out of which grew the Institute for Humane Studies. Later, she lectured at, and gave generous financial support to, the Freedom School headed by libertarian Robert LeFevre.
With Wilder’s death in 1957, ownership of the Rocky Ridge Farm house reverted to the farmer who had earlier bought the property on a life lease, allowing her to remain in residence. The local population put together a non-profit corporation to purchase the house and its grounds, for use as a museum.
After some wariness at the notion of seeing the house rather than the books themselves be a shrine to Laura Ingalls Wilder, Lane came to believe that making it into a museum would draw long-lasting attention to the books, and sustain the theme of Individualism she and her mother wove into the series. She donated the money needed to purchase the house and make it a museum, agreed to make significant contributions each year for its upkeep, and also gave many of the family’s belongings to the group.
Lane’s lifetime inheritance of Wilder’s growing Little House royalties put an end to her self-enforced modest lifestyle. As a result, she began to again travel extensively and thoroughly renovated and remodeled her Connecticut home. Also during the 1960s, she revived her own commercial writing career by publishing several popular magazine series, including one about her tour of the Vietnam war zone in late 1965.
In later years, Lane wrote a book detailing the history of American needlework for Woman’s Day. She edited and published On The Way Home, providing an autobiographical setting around her mother’s original 1894 diary of their six-week journey from South Dakota to Missouri.
Intended to serve as the capstone to the Little House series, the book was the result of Wilder’s fans who were writing to Lane asking, “what happened next?”. She contributed book reviews to the William Volker Fund, and continued to work on revisions of The Discovery of Freedom, which she never completed.
Lane was the adoptive “grandmother” and mentor to Roger Lea MacBride, later the Libertarian Party’s 1976 candidate for President of the United States. The son of one of her editors with whom she formed a close bond when he was a boy, Lane later stated she was grooming him to be a future Libertarian thought leader.
In addition to being her close friend, MacBride became her attorney and business manager and ultimately the heir to the Little House series and the multi-million dollar franchise that he built around it after her death.
The last of the protégés to be taken under Lane’s wing was the sister of her Vietnamese interpreter. Impressed by the young girl’s intelligence, Lane helped to bring her to the United States and sponsored her enrollment in college.
Rose Wilder Lane died in her sleep at age 81, on October 30, 1968, just as she was about to depart on a three-year world tour. She was buried next to her parents at Mansfield Cemetery in Mansfield, Missouri.