Friday, October 14, 2016

Dead End #1--Rose Wilder Lane & King Zog

Dead Ends--#1--Rose Wilder Lane

When I first began writing about Berta and Elmer Hader, I had no idea of how to write a biography. I asked others who had tackled this type of writing for advice. My son, historian Harold Cook, suggested noting every person who crossed their paths and making a file card for each. Besides family and neighbors, they had an amazing group of friends who often went on to major achievements. I used my computer to keep track of the key names and words on file cards as I came across them. They piled up.  Harold’s advice was right on. But many references turned out to be just dead ends.

 Berta moved several times as a child, while her widowed mother, Addie, worked as a social worker to support her two children—not easy in the late 1800s. Addie may have helped Berta learn social skills, as they moved from Mexico to Texas, Kansas City to Suffern, New York. Elmer had a far more stable childhood, but his parents also had to learn to adapt to new people and places. His father worked on the railroad, following it across the United States to San Francisco. His Swedish born mother would have learned how to adapt to new places and new people, as she collected recipes from the other immigrant women she met along the way. 

When Berta took over Eva Shepherd’s fashion illustrating business in 1915, she also did some freelance work for the San Francisco Bulletin. There she met two of their lifelong friends: Bessie Beatty, who was head of the women’s pages, and journalist Rose Wilder Lane.

Rose was beginning to regret her marriage to Gillette Lane—a man who had big ideas about making money, but who relied on Rose’s salary for support. The Lanes lived in the same apartment house as Berta—Rose’s mother Laura referred to Berta as the “little artist girl who lives in the basement.” When Rose left Gillette, the two women moved to tiny affordable studios on Telegraph Hill, where they became friends with more young artists and writers. As I found more about each friend, my biography cards began to fill up.

World War I scattered the group. Bessie Beatty was sent by the Bulletin to cover the Kerensky Revolution in Russia. Rose signed up with the Red Cross and was sent to Europe, and Berta went to New York City to wait for Elmer’s return. Later, after her Russian assignment, Bessie became editor of McCall’s magazine and hired Berta to work for her. After the war was over Rose moved to New York City and roomed with Berta in an unheated, run-down, old house--now the much-improved and heated Jones Street Guest House. After Elmer and Berta married, Rose’s restlessness returned and she eventually returned to Europe and Albania—a country that fascinated her.

I found a reference to a letter Rose wrote to her parents saying she received a proposal of marriage from Bey Ahmet Zogu, who later became King Zog of Albania. A letter to Berta from their mutual friend Jane Barrow referred to the proposal and said Rose had asked Berta to paint a miniature portrait of King Zog while he was in New York City. I wondered if I could find it. So I googled King Zog to see when he’d been in New York. There were no such references. Other Lane biographers implied it would have been impossible for his family to allow such a marriage. 

Still hopeful, I wrote to the Hoover Presidential Library, where Lane's papers are housed in their archives. They kindly sent me a copy of the six-page, single spaced letter she sent to her parents. In the letter she refers to “my Bey” as a diplomat in the Albanian government. It is full of details about her “proposal from a Prince” whose name she "could not mention because mail is being censored in Italy.” They were both in the town of Tirana when it was suddenly attacked by one of the mountain tribes. “Bullets, bullets everywhere and not an idea of why.” The next day her Bey sought out Rose in her Red Cross office, and proposed marriage. First he told Rose that her prematurely white hair "looked marvelous in the moonlight.” He then asked if her heart was free. "Quite, I said, and very fond of freedom. At that, the lid of Tirana blew off…and a bullet came in and took a lot of plaster off the wall behind us but we didn’t notice it much.”

She goes on about the attacks, and the history and ends the letter by saying “there is no use asking you whether or not you want an Albanian Bey for a son-in-law, as I shall decide it one way or another…I have not the least notion what a Moslem wedding ceremony is like.”

 Imagine that letter arriving at Almanzo and Laura’s house in Mansfield, Missouri! Full of references to a “Bey.” Of course the presumption was it was King Zog of Albania. The story went through the small town, and probably all her friends as an example of small town girl makes good.

I loved the letter. Rose wrote vividly. Reluctantly, I left it out of my biography because the engagement never happened, nor did Berta ever paint a miniature portrait of King Zog. 

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

A Biographer’s Joy

There is often a letdown when a project is finished and my focus has to change: after the children’s graduations, after my husband retired, when we moved to a new place to live. All these were happy occasions but they marked the end of an era. And then, of course, the new becomes the norm and life continues.

But I hadn’t expected a letdown after Drawn Together was finally launched. It was such a triumph to finally finish a very long project, and wonderful to see the manuscript turn into a real book, complete with cover, pages, and illustrations. I realized I felt bereft because I was saying goodbye to Berta and Elmer Hader, two meaningful people with whom I had spent ten years. But they also brought many new adventures and people into my life as I researched manuscript and art collections, wrote to and telephoned strangers, and connected with old and new friends who shared the same Hader passion. I felt I was also saying goodbye to all that.

But now my mail is bringing  interesting surprises. One day an excited email showed up in my mailbox, from a woman—Betty--I met years ago in my small town of Roseburg. We kept in touch sporadically after she moved away, and she bought a copy of Drawn Together through the mail from Concordia. She had just started reading the book and had come across a reference to someone familiar: Gertrude Emerson, one of the Haders lifelong-friends. Gertrude was an adventurous woman, who took a trek around the world in 1920, came back to the US, edited the then well-known ASIA magazine, and founded the still active Women’s Geographical Society. Gertrude married an Indian scientist, Dr. Basishwar (Boshi) Sen, and spent the rest of her life in India. Betty had known Gertrude’s entomologist brother Alfred, though she never met Gertrude herself, and she had also had married an Indian scientist who knew about the Sens. She was surprised to find new friends in a book. I was surprised to find we had friends in common. Who would have thought? 

Another letter bringing joy was one from an old friend from the northern Chicago suburbs—another place I lived for years. She found the book through my blog...and I had no idea she even knew I had one. She liked the book, which was good, but what was wonderful thing was catching up with long ago good friends, and finding out what their families are doing. It is way too easy to lose touch with people when we move away, but this new social media is reversing that. It’s a big world out there—but it is also very small.

I hope to have more of these serendipitous events, as the book moves out into that big and small world. I love feeling I am still linked, though tenuously, to the Haders, people I grew to love without ever meeting. It reminds me that past and present are totally linked, as well as all those people I knew once upon a time and those I have yet to meet. It also makes those ten years of sitting at my computer seem worth it!

Now that I have time to read for enjoyment, I plan to read  other biographies, and feel connected to those subjects and authors. When I was a child, history seemed very far away. Now I realize how close it really is. Why did I feel such a letdown?


Sunday, January 24, 2016


The biography of Berta and Elmer Hader is finished! The proof copies will be coming out in 3 weeks, in mid-February. It’s been a very long process.

Wouldn’t you think, as an author of eight published books and several library guides for students, this would now be easy? Hah! One of the many admirable Hader traits was the way they adapted to the many publishing changes in the early and mid-twentieth centuries. Of course, those kept threatening their livelihoods—they supported themselves all their lives on their publications and art.

My writings are more “how to do it” books—companions to my teaching career. Writing is still basically the same—put your seat on chair with a supply of ink and paper. The technologies though, have changed the way books are edited and published.

The editorial process is always interesting. It’s been different with each different publisher. My very first book, a bibliography of academic articles on how to teach library skills came out in 1986 from Garland Publishing, a small academic press. The volume itself looks very different than books published before or since. Personal computers were just coming into widespread use. I couldn’t have written and rewritten the bibliography of 700 or so citations without using one, but the publisher couldn’t translate my computer created manuscript directly to their own computer. Instead, the editor sent me a template for the pages. All the margins were marked, and my typed pages had to fit this layout. Then each page was photocopied before being printed in the book. I had to create the headers and footers for the pages, and even make the index in those early, pre-mouse days of Microsoft Word. (I still have moments when I threaten to toss Mr. Mac out the window, especially since he knows more than I do but still allows my operator errors.)

The next books were also “how-tos” based on a favorite student project: the Battle of the Books program which is in almost every state. These were authored with several other school librarians, so a teacher new to the program would have a broad overview of how it could be adapted to different types of schools and libraries. The books came out from educational publishers, and the editors knew exactly what content was needed. We librarians did much editing among ourselves. Since we were all in different states, manuscripts went back and forth via the post office and emails, and by the time the finished product was in editorial hands, most of that work was done. Another “how to” book of household tips was edited and compiled as a fund-raiser for our branch of the American Association of University Women.

Walking Portland—the first version—was published by guidebook company, Falcon Press, in Montana. This was planned to be one of a series of guidebooks to convention cities for those who were tired from speeches and wanted to see the town. The series editor, Judith Galas, had written the first guide for Colorado Springs, and we used that as a template for Portland’s. She was fun to work with. She asked me to buy two identical city maps: one for each of us. I mailed her each walk as it was completed, and she checked it against her own map for accuracy. Then she would edit the text, making sure the punctuation and spelling were consistent and matched the company’s own style manual—a hyphen in Douglas-fir for example, and that street names matched those on the map. When she returned the manuscript back it was splattered with questions and suggestions on sticky notes.

By the time the second version of Walking Portland Oregon came out (Oregon was added to the title because east coast friends wondered what I was doing in Maine) Falcon had been sold to a much larger publisher, Globe Pequot, in Connecticut. Portland had changed dramatically in fifteen years: I’d told friends I thought the rewrite would be like sprucing up a few rooms in a house, but it was more like tearing the place down to the foundation and then rebuilding each part. Much of the city artwork had been moved to different sites and many new buildings had been built. An entire new city district—the South Waterfront-- had been created, which also gave access to the older neighborhoods once cut off by the freeways. New walks took the place of older ones.

Publishing had changed too. Not only was the new company much larger, but also computers had changed drastically in the intervening years. Instead of the original editor writing corrections on sticky notes, chapter by chapter, these were now handled using the computer editing function. Instead of retyping a sentence, changes were made in the handy little drop-down box. My notes were in one color and the various editors’ notes were in another. The mistakes were obvious.

Maps were another huge change. In 1998 I outlined my walks in colored ink on a large photocopy of the city map, and then turned those individual walks over to husband John, who had studied drafting in school and could draw excellent maps. Falcon designers used these maps as a base for their own style of map, with consistent icons for playgrounds and restrooms. Satellite imagery now provides “geopoints” for every spot in the city, improving map accuracy. These left me completely baffled. Fortunately, Carolyn, my city planner daughter-in-law, rewalked each chapter and converted all my notes into this new format. The maps in both versions of the books look the same, but the technology behind them is completely different.

My latest book has been edited over and over, and will be launched sometime late spring 2016. It is a life story of two very talented New York artists/writers, who had to change their creative output to meet new publishing demands. They were friends with a large community of artists and writers, who frequently put down their typewriters and came out for the weekends, leaving their typewriters behind to help Berta and Elmer hand-build a house from the ground up. Besides their creative output (nearly one hundred books and three Caldecott awards,) and weekend visitors, the Haders were active in gardening and conservation. They even successfully joined forces with other villagers to save their village from being destroyed by the State of New York.

There will be more about writing biographies in later blogs. This has been a real change in writing direction, requiring new skills and new ways of working with editors. Nothing ever stays the same!

Now I am working with another small academic press, Concordia Publishing. Because it is in Portland, there has been much more face-to-face interaction. I know my editors personally, which makes it easier to create an acceptable manuscript, and makes it harder to disappoint. This has been another new experience: not in the technology and the distance, but all the steps involved in a new type of writing. It took me nearly ten years to finish the biography. And it seemed so simple to start!

I’ve learned a lot, and I might as well share it. If nothing else, it will help me to remember for the future. I don’t ever expect to write another biography—but I have learned never to say never! Who knows.

* I longed for the early days of Walking Portland when all footnotes were done by feet, forgetting that those entailed rewalking everything at least three times to get things right. This WAS physically easier!