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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in search of…

August 21, 2011 at 8:19 pm (biography research and writing, Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , )

If you are lucky, your biographic subject, their friends, relatives and times, might appear in books, newspapers and magazines.

However, unless you are researching someone who is currently famous, these resources may be difficult to find. Here are a few hints I came across.

1. Newspaper archives. As mentioned, the wonderful newspaperarchive.com has an increasing number of papers from all around the world, and going back over a hundred years. They are also searhable by key word. This remains problematic in tracking down references to women who are oftend referred to as “Mrs John Smith” rather than their own name “Eleanor Smith” (for example). Also, if your subject has a common (popular!) name, this can be difficult.
Other newspapers also have their archives on line.

2. Magazines. These are much harder to find. Few magazine archives seem to exist, with the exception of Time and Life (online). A number of magazines articles I came across were sent to me by family archivists and geneology buffs.

3. Advertisements, postcards and other ephemera. These turn up on ebay from time to time, particularly if you have a topic of popular interest. For instance, Armour and Co. advertising material is frequently for sale. Postcards of towns are also for sale – handy if you are trying to get some idea of how a town looked many years ago.

4. Books. Amazon has an excellent second-hand book seller option, which often has items for sale very cheaply. In additon, some of the harder to find books can be sought through online searches at Alibris.com and Biblioz. Both of these take your details and the details of the book and then set up a permanent search.

5. Libraries often have books and newspapers – but you may have to go there to get them. Alternatives can be to get your local library to borrow it for you on an interlibrary loan, or to purchase copies of microfiche. Some libraries offer this, others don’t.

6. Geneology groups, family groups often have someone who is the collector of family history, particularly if there is someone notorious or famous in the family tree. They may have already collected the items you are after. Family may be happy to loan you items, providing you are not unearthing their family skeletons! If you are, then be aware you may only be given access to the items they want you to see.

7. Google. Don’t overlook Google as an excellent source of leads in tracking down items. Many of the online forums have buffs who are excellent sources of information, and of resources.

Happy hunting!

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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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The winds of change….

July 15, 2011 at 12:30 pm (Alice's Childhood, Chicago, Faurot Family, PD Armour and Family, Silverthorne Family) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

When Armour Felt Works, which used the fur from the animals, collapsed following a catastrophic fire, Henry Faurot, carefully trained by his mentor PD Armour to recognise an opportunity, saw a gap in the market: a number of skilled workers with industry experience but no work. Armour and Co also had nowhere else to off-load the fur that they had used to make felt. An honourable man, Faurot sought PD Armour’s permission before he took advantage of the situation. His previous experiences in business with his wife Catherine’s brothers had been profitable and so in 1899 he approached his brother in law William Silverthorne to finance a new venture. The Western Felt Works was born, a change in industry for the Silverthornes and another profitable one. Later the same year another brother, George Morrill Silverthorne joined them.

Western Felt Works initially took over where the Armour Felt Works had left off. Its product range was identical, felt pads and horse blankets, and suited the market demand for the time. However as motorcars replaced the horse and carriage, the company needed to reposition itself to survive. Staying with transportation, they changed their products to suit the burgeoning automotive industry and produced seat padding. Considering Chicago’s future as a centre of car manufacture in the United States, this proved a prescient and fruitful decision.

Alice’s father William E Silverthorne was also an entrepreneur in the truest sense of the word, backing a number of new inventions. He had a particular interest in the development of pour-outs for bottles and methods for treating paper containers for holding liquid products, precursors to milk and juice cartons commonly in use today. His interests extended to mining. He organised and financed the Alice Loraine Company, which held mining leases and properties in the Cobalt Section of Canada.

In 1899, the same year his daughter Alice was born, William E Silverthorne, by now managing operations in Buffalo New York, was appointed the first president of the Western Felt Works. This was the apex of his career and influence. He was married into the influential Armour family, whose tentacles of influence reached far outside the mid-west into the White House, was president of his family firm, receiving income from the felt-works and several lumbar mills, and his beautiful wife had presented him with a remarkably pretty baby girl, another heir for the Armour fortune. The future looked golden for the Silverthornes.

Within ten years it would be unravelling, and within fifteen years it would all be gone, leaving him disgraced, an outcast and broke, forever estranged from his daughter.

The Armours, Silverthornes and Faurots were social lions in turn of the century Chicago, a city undergoing enormous change, caught in the grind between the past and the future. The industrial revolution had brought wealth and privilege to a few, and grinding, soul-destroying production-line manual labour and poverty for many. Silverthorne’s mills, Armour’s meat-packing plant, Faurot’s felt works and associated industries had provided great wealth and power for their families but the tension between the wealthy and the poor had spawned a new class – the criminal class. With the introduction of prohibition, speakeasies sprang up, flaunting the restrictions on alcohol, attracting the working class and the elite alike to a dangerous glamorous flirtation with organised crime. Mob bosses became household names, garnering inches of newspaper space as they seized control of the illegal alcohol trade and sought new vices as opportunities for income. City life stepped up a notch.

The tension of this social change would shape Alice’s life. The passions and restlessness it inspired in her would catapult her from the conservative Chicago debutante scene to new horizons in lands far away. While she was in some ways an independent woman ahead of her time, in other ways she was very much a product of the times, a woman who did not accept the social boundaries and mores of her elders and instead explored the world and all it had to offer. And for beautiful passionate Alice, a lot was on offer.

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The woman who shot her lover then married him

June 3, 2011 at 10:31 am (Chicago, Happy Valley, introduction, Kenya, Paris, PD Armour and Family, Silverthorne Family, Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

In 1984, when I should have been studying for my senior school exams, I was reading a book called White Mischief about the unsolved murder of the adulterous Earl of Erroll in Kenya at the height of World War II.

One chapter entitled “The fastest gun in the Gare du Nord” caught my attention.  This was the story of Alice Silverthorne de Janze de Trafford, a Jazz Age American heiress with a troubled story, who along with her husband, a French Comte, was friends with Erroll and his wife Idina (nee Sackville, daughter of Earl de la Warr).  Alice was also, with Idina’s knowledge, Erroll’s mistress for over two decades.

Alice was best known at the time however, as the woman who shot her lover Raymond de Trafford, in the Gare du Nord in Paris, then five years later married him, and it was this part of the story that stayed with me. What sort of woman can shoot a man and still convince him to marry her?

Fast forward to 1999 and I was on bed rest with a high-risk pregnancy, and bored, bored, bored. Surfing the net was one of the few things I could safely do.  After exhausting the multiple birth sites and scaring myself with the possibilities of what could go wrong, I turned instead to the genealogy websites, and, having exhausted my own family, started researching Alice. 

At first this was quite difficult but as more and more resources started being available on the net, a fascinating story emerged of a complex woman struggling with her psychological inheritance in a world where there were few rules that could not be broken.

This led to a journey of over a decade and brought me into contact with some interesting people whose lives were intimately or tangentially affected by Alice and her story.

This is the story of that journey, of the people who helped along the way, the clues that led to understanding, or sometimes led to more puzzles, the tangents too obscure to include in a biography, but ultimately as fascinating as Alice’s story itself, her friends and family whose lives were as interesting and complex as Alice’s. 

For Alice, was a product of her times, of her family and her friends and of the lands that her adventurous spirit took her to.  The tragedy that befell her was both of her own making and also predestined by her personality, upbringing and the tragedies that befell her.

And I fell in love with Alice’s story.

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