The Chicago Countess

March 24, 2012 at 5:08 pm (Alice's Childhood, Chicago, Kenya, Paris, Silverthorne Family) (, , , , , , , , , , )


“de poetas y locos todos tenemos un poco”
we all have the traits of poets and of mad people
(Spanish proverb)

A PRIVATE ROOM IN EXCLUSIVE MUTHAIGA CLUB, COLONIAL AFRICA IN THE 1920S.
A sensuously beautiful woman leans casually against a wall strumming her mandolin, watching her friends banter over who she will sleep with tonight. What it is to be in demand! Her long pale fingers play seductively over the strings of her mandolin in the half-light. Plucking them slowly, one at a time, she taunts her audience with her low siren song:

“A is for Alice, a doubtful shot,
B for the boy she so nearly got
C is for C-B always demure
D is for Delamere, upright and pure
E is for Eileen the catch of the season
F is the fucking we like with good reason…”

This scene from the movie White Mischief is what the world remembers of Alice Silverthorne de Janze de Trafford. In various books and movies of the era she is the symbol of the orgiastic lifestyle of Kenya’s Happy Valley community during the 1920s and 1930s. She is remembered as the friend of the promiscuous and much-married Idina Sackville Wallace Gordon Hay (Erroll) Haldeman Soltau and as the lover of Idina’s murdered former husband Joss, Earl of Erroll. An after-thought of history.

During her life Alice was notorious as the “fastest gun in the Gare du Nord “, the beautiful young American-born countess who shot her lover then married him. What sort of woman would inspire a man to pledge undying love to her after she has very nearly mortally wounded him? Alice, it seems, inspired considerable loyalty in her men under any circumstances.

“It’s no use; I always get my own way. I always take what I want and throw it away when I like; don’t forget this ever, I hate repetition….”

Comte Frederic de Janze attributed these words to his former wife, Chicago heiress Alice Silverthorne, a year after she had “thrown him away” in a manner that made headlines on both sides of the Atlantic. Public humiliation did not prevent him from defending her in a Parisian court, beseeching the judge not to sentence Alice to jail time. Her victim had recovered from his injuries sufficiently to tell the court that the shooting was his fault. He was severely reprimanded for his troubles.

Alice’s charm however has not lasted through subsequent generations. While researching this book, one of her grandsons Guillaume de Rougemont wrote me that she was “an unhappy, insecure and deeply selfish manic depressive, who ended her own life after abandoning and totalling neglecting her two young children”. While there certainly is something that made Alice act as she did and she was deeply unhappy at periods in her life, I am not sure it is as simple or easy to explain. He goes on to say that his mother (Paola) would never admit that Alice had abandoned her “because the truth is too painful”. Indeed, my research has not turned up a single negative comment about Alice by either of her daughters.

Most of Alice’s generation is gone now. They were a generation who died young through the attrition of war, drugs, suicide and occasionally murder. A few of the younger generation still survive. They remember Alice as a true friend, a fascinator, the life of the party and in times of war, a true patriot who threw off her hedonistic lifestyle and rushed into uniform to do her part for her adopted country, dirtying her privileged hands in the blood and disease of critically wounded soldiers.

Countless Silverthorne and Armour relatives still claim Alice as kin. Many of them never met their famous relative, but they hoarded precious newspaper clippings on the Countess of Chicago, carefully tucked between the pages of books or slipped into family photograph albums for 6 or 8 decades.

In fact, despite the scandalous newspaper coverage of the time, no-one who actually knew Alice has a bad word to say about her. They speak of her kindness, her wit, her beauty, her passion for animals and her distress at injustice, particularly cruelty to animals. They also speak of her sadness, the melancholia that pursued her through four decades and three continents.

The search for Alice started in the thriving metropolis of Chicago in the beginning of the 20th Century, a time of speak-easies, prohibition and gangsters. A time when society took itself very seriously and scandals were to be hushed up at all costs.

Then across the Atlantic to Paris between the wars, the time of Hemingway and Stein, the American “lost generation” of artists and writers who sought inspiration in the euphoria sweeping the newly liberated Paris. And to the jazz age London of the Bright Young Things, wealthy glamorous twenty-somethings too young to have taken part in the horrors of the Great War but old enough to feel its apocalyptic reach as it decimated a generation of young men – their older brothers, friends and lovers. The nihilistic hopelessness it engendered in the generation that followed made them reckless and numb – in search of a thrill, something to make them feel alive, unsure why they lived when so many died. They sought their excitement in juvenile pranks and hi-jinks played upon the background of post-war London, Paris and the Riviera.

And to the colonial outpost that was British East Africa, a place of hard working settlers eking out a living from a land they had barely begun to understand. The beautiful and cruel landscape of eastern Africa, vast plains dotted with thorn trees and startlingly high mountains covered in jungle and topped with snow, inhabited by animals so bizarre and exotic when compared to the domesticated beasts of northern America and Europe. This was what drew Alice, her husbands, her lovers and her friends. This was the land that offered them a second chance, the opportunity to create a new society, a utopia, far from the censorious eyes of family and society. This was the land that ultimately destroyed them – or allowed them to destroy themselves.

And finally, a tragedy. A tragedy that drove Alice across oceans and continents, drive her to wild, impetuous and ultimately fatal actions. A tragedy that made it all comprehensible.

To call it madness is too simple.

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Rare books and great excitement!

December 6, 2011 at 1:09 pm (biography research and writing, Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

Yesterday I received a treat in the mail.

To start at the beginning, some number of years ago when I started researching Alice’s story, I rapidly assembled a list of “core texts” that I needed to be able to read. (I should add in here that the reference and bibliography sections of books are a great way of finding your way back to the original texts, both books and newspaper articles. Often they will also include the details of people interviewed as well. As I have an academic background, I am very keen on these sources, and on getting as close to the original source as possible.)

Chief in my list of core texts were the two books by Alice’s first husband, Vicomte Frederic de Janze. Frederic died aged 33 do there is no chance of getting an interview with him, so texts that he has written are the next best thing to the original source.

The first book, Vertical Land, is extensively quoted in White Mischief (Fox) and The Life and Death of Lord Erroll (Trzebinski), and pretty much any other book that touches on the Happy Valley set in Kenya. The second book, Tarred with the Same Brush, also deals with thinly veiled portraits of the Happy Valley set, and their activities.

Both are incredibly rare and difficult to get hold of.

I eventually tracked down (with the assistance of Errol Trzebinksi and Frances Osborne, author of The Bolter ) a copy of Vertical Land in the Reading room at the London Library. I was able, for a small fee, to get this transferred to the local State Library, where I was allowed to read it in their reading room and make notes. Needless to say I took so many notes and quotes I probably should have just written it out in longhand. As it is now out of copyright, it has been put online at Project Gutenberg and can be read in full here.

Tarred with the Same Brush remained elusive, although the lovely Frances Osborne sent me a photocopy of her copy. While some of the text is difficult to understand without the background knowledge of to whom it refers, and the knowledge that they are real events being recounted, albeit somewhat disguised to protect the guilty. It is only a pity he didn’t write about the shooting and court case as it would have been fascinating to hear his thoughts about what was happening with his ex-wife.

I had previously set up a number of searches through websites such as Alibris and Biblioz. These searches had managed to find a number of other rare books for me (including Oserian: Place of Peace, a private publishing by Charles Hayes, which contains a fascinating treasure-trove of stories).

To my great surprise, Alibris finally turned up gold! An ex-library copy of Tarred with the Same Brush, and at a reasonable price. And it arrived in the mail yesterday – a tattered maroon book stamped throughly inside and out with the markings of various libraries, slightly yellowed pages, the occasional ripped page or marked page. Much as I love the cheapness of e-books, it really isn’t the same as holding a real book in your hands.

I am now settling down to read the original text, dredging my memory to remember which name represents which person, fitting together the stories with the real events.

Small things can cause such excitement!

PS: Another useful resource is Open Library.

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Finding the story

September 2, 2011 at 7:46 pm (biography research and writing) (, , , , , , , , , )

While you may be fascinated by the subject of your research, unless you can find a story – with a hook – you are not going to get published.

Of course, this may not be your aim. You may be reconstructing a family history for your own pleasure or your family’s information. All equally valid.

But if you want to be read – even by a tolerant and cooperative family – you need to tell your story.

Lists of dates and facts – while interesting to you, and representing the result of hours, days, months of dedicated and creative research – are not that interesting to read. The excitement you felt when you tracked down some hard-to-find little gem of research does not usually translate to excitement in the reader. You have to assume that your average reader is not as obsessed with your subject as you are. They need to be wooed.

Is your story going to be chronological? Or are you going to start with the most dramatic part and then go back in time to show how the subject got to that point? Is there a dramatic part? Too many flashbacks can be confusing unless really well handled.

The best advice I ever received (from Frances Osborne, author if Lilla’s Feast and The Bolter, both about her ancestresses. She said “write with passion”.

It took me a while to work out what that meant to me. My natural writing style has been subjugated over the years into something the cross between a university essay and a government report. Excellent for presenting dry facts and a logical argument but not great for writing a biography.

Write with passion didn’t mean overly flowery detail, emotive words, embroidered prose. It meant entering into the spirit of the subject, the spirit of the times and telling the story from her perspective, even if it was written in third person, not first.

I’m still working on it.

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Research: Who and how?

August 7, 2011 at 8:04 am (biography research and writing, Uncategorized) (, , , , , )

So you know your topic – the person or event you want to research. Assuming it is not yourself or someone you know – where can you start to find information?

To start with, make sure you have some sort of cross referencing system ready to go. You never know what little gem of information you come across that might have significance and meaning later on. This used to be a card file of names, dates, places and subjects. Now it is more likely to be computer based. And yes, there are tools out there that you can buy that will help you. In addition to those that are specifically for biography, you can use Endnote, a really powerful research and reference tool. Ancestry tools might also be useful. Either way, it is much easier to enter the data straight away than decide later on the you need it and have to enter the data all over again.

If your subject / event is famous or infamous, they might have mentions in books. Research for you biogrpahy should certainly include finding out what has already been written. A keyword search in Amazon will turn up not only books about the topic, but also mentions of your topic in books on other subjects. And so many of the Happy Valley residents are mentioned in general books about kenya, colonialism, the Briitish in Africa etc. Also in fictional works – be careful to note what is purporting to be fact and what is fiction.

The next easiest place to look for information is in newspaper archives. As noted before, many of these are now online and also available by keyword search. Others can be located using online databases and library catalogues – libraries may be happy to send their microfiche to your local library to read on site, for a small cost.

Another really interesting and relatively easy source of infromation is travel documents / immigration papers. Ellis Island has their infromation all online now, making tracking travel into and out of the United States easy. Infromation such as who your subject was travelling with, what they listed as their occupation, where they listed their regualr address or the address where they would be staying – all useful information. Be aware that this information is not always accurate though – some of the dates of birth seem to be approximate! And tracking women is often difficult as they may be listed as “Mrs Smith” ratehr than their full name.

So what should you be noting? Obviously that depends on your topic, but generally:

names – friends, relatives, acquaintances, bystanders, contemporaries. All of these develop a background picture of the environment your subject was living in. And should this person turn out to have some significance, you need to know where to go back to find more information.

places – again, names of local places, common or colloquial names can all be followed up separately. Make sure that you keep some detail of the context – who was there and what date – again, so if you need more research on a particular place you can quickly ascertain which references to go back to.

dates – if, as Alice and her friends did, your subject/s move arund a lot, a timeline of dates and places is vital. Alice travelled extensivley between Europe, Africa and America – it was ometimes difficult to ascertain where she was when other events were occurring

When you start your research off, you don’t really know where your story might lead you. It is so much easier to do the referencing thoroughly the first time than to have to keep rereading sources to try to remember where that piece of information that is suddenly relevant, might have come from.

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Online research

July 17, 2011 at 6:00 am (biography research and writing) (, , , , , , , , , , , )

Hats off to researchers and writers prior to the advent of the internet. Research must have been incredibly time consuming and expensive, particularly if the subject you pick lived in a number of countries, none of which you happen to live in.

The advent of online genealogy websites and online newspaper archives is an amazing blessing. Being able to search electronically by keyword or name cuts down the enormous hours of reading edition after edition after edition on the off-chance that your subject is mentioned.

On-line chat forums associated with these sites and other interest groups provide access to people from around the world who have special interests in areas you might need information. For instance, the online Formula One forums helped me track down that Alice’s first husband was not a Le Mans driver when she met him (Le Mans did not actually exist prior to their marriage) despite this “fact” being reported extensively in books and nespapers of the time. Nor could the FI forum members identify anyone from any other race-courses who, even using a nom de circuit, might have been him. All this with a friendly chat at the same time. I could never have amassed their decades of knowledge to come to this conclusion.

Alice was born in Chicago Illinois. Her family was mostly from Chicago and New York, with ancestry in Scotland. She spent some of her childhood in Buffalo, New York, also took a number of trans-Atlantic trips to European countries. She spent her adult life between USA, France, Kenya and England. Her husbands were from France and England, and one lover was from South Africa. One husband travelled to South America and Australia. A number of her friends and lovers were military men and hence were posted in various battle fronts. Many of her friends and lovers travelled extensively.

This required me finding and researching newspaper and official archives from all of these countries – a great deal cheaper and easier online than through flights to various libraries to go through their microfiche archives. Photographs are available online and many national archives now have a number of their catalogues available online.

So, a few of the really helpful generic sites:
– Ancestry.com
– Genealogy.com
– Newspaperarchives.com
– jenforum.com
– mycinnamontoast.com
– Amazon.com (keyword searches and index searches)
– and of course Google, which done regularly on a range of different associated topics, turns up all sorts of amazing links.

Some newspapers and magazines (Time-Life, London Times) have their own archives which are again searchable by key-word. Newspapers from the early 1900s had very different editorial standards, and, one can only presume, were not sued on a regular basis for inaccuracies and flat-out fabrications. (“Leap Year’s Wierdest Romance” featured sketches of how the shotting may have occurred) So be careful taking their word at face value – try to back it up with documents from other sources. Nonetheless, they can be highly entertaining and give you some pointers on areas to investigate.

The best part of these forums were the people – some really lovely helpful people, some other authors that I got in contact with who were very generous with their time and knowledge.

Are there other websites and resources that you have found of help in researching biographical and genealogical information? Please let me know in the comments section and I will add them to a future post.

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