March 8, 2017

“A Riddle Wrapped in a Mystery Inside an Enigma” — Relating to James A. Michener

I have no idea who I am. — James A. Michener (1907-1997)

Exactly when or where the novelist James Michener came into the world has never been officially documented. Which is why I’ve never had a satisfactory answer to the question I’ve been asked most of my life the moment people hear my last name:

“Any relation to the author?”

Perhaps the most remarkable instance of this perennial minor dilemma occurred recently at the Doylestown museum that bears Michener’s name. Although I’ve been showing my press card at the admission desk for 13 years in the course of covering close to 30 exhibits, this was the first time I’ve been asked the any-relation question. I gave my usual answer: “Well, uh, um, no, not really, but —”

If I have time or energy for the conversation that often follows, I’ll offer the standard storyline, which is that the famous, fabulously successful author was a foundling taken in by a distant cousin of mine, Mabel Michener, a Quaker woman in Doylestown, Pennsylvania who raised him along with a coming, going brood of as many as 13 homeless children. If time permits, I’ll mention the rumor that says he was Mabel’s illegitimate son, a theory expanded on in Stephen J. May’s biography A Writer’s Life (Univ. of Oklahoma Press 2009), which is that he was born out of wedlock to Mabel at her brother’s house in Mount Vernon, New York, on or around February 1, 1907. After she returned to Doylestown, the infant was “delivered” to her care as a foundling.

In a 1985 New York Times Magazine profile (“The Michener Phenomenon”), Michener tells Caryn James,”I have no idea who I am. I know what I was told at the time, that I, like all the others, was a foundling. When I applied for a passport in 1931, there was no birth certificate, so the procedure was for the Government to establish with reputable people who I was. Nobody could trace me back farther than 2 years old; the investigation went on for a long time. They did establish that I was in Pennsylvania at the age of 2.”

A Heroine Out of Dickens

According to A Writer’s Life, Mabel Michener was “an impish woman with an unassuming oval face, a dimpled chin, and dark eyes” who “wore her brunette hair parted in the middle and pulled into a bun.” No doubt May has been looking at the photograph I just viewed online. “Impish”? Why not say “pretty” or “comely”? It’s a sensitive, forthright, intelligent face I could imagine belonging to a heroine out of Dickens, an Amy Dorrit or Esther Summerson. Clearly Mabel was an admirer of Dickens. In the Times Magazine profile, Michener recalls that while “reduced circumstances” forced her to send him to the local poorhouse, “at home he felt loved and was inspired by her reading aloud from 19th-century novels, particularly Dickens.”

In Michener’s House

During last week’s visit to the Michener Museum, I gave most of my attention to the replica of James Michener’s office, located to one side of the front entrance and open to the public at no charge. I’ve looked around his space in the past, but I was usually busy checking out the current exhibit. What drew me in and held me this time was a posted quote from playwright Arthur Miller: “I have seen people reading Michener on airplanes and in airports all over the world and on both sides of the now tattered [Iron] Curtain. And I can’t help feeling, each time I see this, a certain reassurance that the well-advertised despair of our time will be held at bay in these readers.” What Miller’s suggesting is confirmed by another sign quoting Michener himself: “It seems I was born to smile at the world, and such men do not write tragedies.”

Of all the writer’s habitats I’ve visited, this one is the most suggestive of an author who only a minute ago left his work space in the middle of a project. Here’s his big Olympia typewriter with a page half typed still in the roller, pages from a work in progress splayed out on the same desk used in the writing of Sayonara and Caravans.

If, like me, you’ve been reading A Writer’s Life at the nearby Bucks County Library, the office provides a life-sized visual commentary. For one thing, you’ll find photographs of the nine different houses the author lived in from childhood through high school, mentioned in the book’s account of how “Mabel hooked up with a local real estate agent who installed her and her family in decrepit houses” and “would help her fix the places up,” then relocate her to another house “to resume the process.”

Here, too, are shelves of recordings, evidence of his passion for music (particularly opera) that began when Michener’s uncle presented him with a Victrola in the summer of 1914 (“Jim listened spellbound,” May writes, “as the voice of Enrico Caruso rose from the Victrola”). Also on the shelves laden with sets of 78s, LPs, and innumerable 8 track tapes are the speakers of a sound system Michener built himself. Propped nearby is a baseball bat signed by members of the Baltimore Orioles and next to it the cane that he used on long walks near his Bucks County home accompanied by his dogs Java and Burma, whose collars, with bells attached, can also be seen. There are trays teeming with pens and other writerly necessities; drawers holding papers, games (Scrabble is in evidence), and the art reproductions he began cutting out of magazines and pasting on to postcards when he was seven, keeping them in an old shoebox. Among the books on the shelves are numerous classics from the Everyman Library and an immense set of Balzac given to him by his Aunt Laura when he was a boy.

Following Pip

In A Writer’s Life, May describes how Mabel Michener would emphasize “the artful narrative voice of various authors” as she read to him and the other children on evenings “that were a time of family togetherness.” While Michener found his “surrogate fathers” in Dickens, the character he expressly identified with was Pip in Great Expectations: “Pip was an orphan and so was I. His problems were solved by his being taken into the home of his older sister and her husband. Mine were minimized by my being taken into the home of an almost saintly poor woman …. Therefore I followed young Pip with a magnifying glass, aware at every turn of the brilliant plot” and “the extent to which the happenings might apply to me.”

The equivalent of the fortune that came to Pip began coming to Michener when his Bucks County neighbors Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein bought the rights to his first book, Tales of the South Pacific (1947). Michener’s one percent share of the profits of the hit Broadway musical, South Pacific, brought him ten thousand dollars a year for the next 20 years, helping to support the writing of the best-sellers to come.

Kent State

When my third novel, Rosamund’s Vision, came out, my editor thought I should send a copy of the bound proofs to Michener for a blurb. I drafted a letter, but I couldn’t go through with it. For one thing, I felt funny introducing myself as a writer who had gone through life being asked “Are you any relation to the writer?” I thought of telling him that his early autobiographical work The Fires of Spring had been one of my favorite novels in high school and that I was within hailing distance of him when he came to my southern Indiana hometown stumping for Kennedy in 1960, along with Jeff Chandler, Angie Dickinson, and my boyhood hero, Stan Musial. I was standing next to the speakers’ platform looking out at the jeering, sign-waving crowd (We Don’t Want a Red in the White House) when Michener rose to the occasion, took the microphone and said, loud and clear, “Now I see why they call this a depressed area.”

Fast forward ten years, however, and Michener was being congratulated by the Nixon White House for his book Kent State: What Happened and Why, in which he blamed an SDS “conspiracy” for the National Guard’s killing of four students and wounding of nine others. Here was a man who had run for Congress as a Democrat taking the side of Nixon and Agnew. I like to think that Nixon’s top aide H.R. Haldeman is right when he suggests that Kent State “began the slide into Watergate, eventually destroying the Nixon administration.” More than anything else, it was Michener’s position on Kent State that made me uncomfortable asking him to read my novel.

The Russian Connection

Now here we are, a country in crisis, with a demented president firing off childish, churlish messages denouncing his predecessor. In view of all the marches and demonstrations and protests that have taken place since November 8, 2016, how long will it be before some organized force taking its cue from a repressive government opens fire on people expressing freedom of speech and assembly?

In case you’re wondering who first came up with the riddle/mystery/enigma line, it was Winston Churchill in a radio broadcast in October 1939. What was the context? “I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia,” he said. “It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. The key is Russian national interest.”

In March 2017, no doubt about it, Russia is the key.

The Michener Art Museum’s new big exhibit is “Charles Sheeler: Fashion, Photography, and Sculptural Form, which runs opens March 18 and runs through July 9. The museum is located at 138 South Pine Street in Doylestown. For more information, visit