I was listening to a 94-year-old man give a confession of a terrible deed he committed when he was eight years-old on the National Public Radio Story Corps. And it made me revisit this blog I wrote a few years ago about my research into one of the main characters in my trilogy on the Durant family, William West Durant (1850-1934).
Over the past few years I've scoured library museum collections to discover more about William and along the way I've learned that he may have embellished, and he definitely left out, some elements of his life story to his last known biographer, Harold Hochschild.
For me, the quest to find the truth started when I read Mary Ellen Domblewski's dissertation on William's style of Great Camp Architecture (Cornell University, 1974). In it she conjectures that Durant may have visited Switzerland, specifically Bernese Oberland, during his time abroad in the 1860-70s. It would be there, she believed, he would have observed the Swiss cottage style that he emulates at his Great Camps in the Adirondacks: Pine Knot and Sagamore.
Finding no evidence of his travel to this region from his papers in the Adirondack Museum, I visited the Library of Congress to view papers that were donated by his second wife Annie in the 1960s. The first thing that struck me was a type written biography - the first page in the folder - it was not signed or dated and it was almost word for word what I had read in Harold Hochschild’s account (1962), as if his wife Annie wanted whomever read his letters to know, this was his official biography, this is what the world should remember about him. And I suppose she may have been correct, it is what ended up in other biographies written about him, and his Wikipedia page.
Most of his documents at the Library of Congress were personal correspondence dated between 1860-1899. Many were from friends in England. I read through every letter in the folder, documenting the addresses and places William had traveled in his youth. One particular letter struck me. It was from his dear friend William Napier, later to become 11th Lord Napier of Merchistoun. It was dated 1870; William would have been twenty years old, just returning from his first trip along the Nile. In it Lord Napier asks him: how the deuce did you end up in Dresden? I later found letters (1869) in the Durant family volumes at the New York Public Library (NYPL) from Mrs. Durant to Dr. Durant stating that she and Ella were staying in Dorf Gastein (present day Austria) to take in the healing waters and that William was traveling back from Dresden to see them. I believe William drew his inspiration for his Great Camps from Austria and from the English Royal family's chalet at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, not Switzerland as many of his biographies conjectured.
I also found no evidence that William had any formal education although the Hochschild biography states he attended University of Bonn. None of his letters at the Library of Congress indicate he ever stayed in Bonn. It seemed to be a big missing link. In fact, his good friend, Lord Napier, wrote to William regularly from 1869-1899 and while mentioning his own exams and entrance into the foreign service, never once asks William about his own studies.
That piqued by curiosity so I contacted the University of Bonn archivist who searched and found no record of William attending from 1866-1874. If William was enrolled at the University, it must not have been an official enrollment, maybe he sat in on some classes?
Why though would William tell Hochshild he attended Bonn University? Was he trying to give the impression he attended a University that was also attended by Royalty? I wasn’t sure. It got me wondering though what other things he told his biographer Hochschild that may have been a stretch of the truth or downright exaggeration of fact. Was he purposely being misleading because he knew they were documenting his life story or was he at an age in his life where he may have believed these things himself?
Discovering this tidbit of inaccuracy made me also wonder about his claim, that he hosted royalty on his yacht the Utowana while stationed in Cowes on the Isle of Wight during the races in August 1891-92. Hochschild states in his biography (1862) that he viewed the registry and it bore the signatures of the Prince of Wales, Prince Henry of Prussia, and the Duke of Connaught. Where was this registry then? I couldn’t find it. That surprised me given that William saved a lot of personal memorabilia: menus from Egypt and Paris restaurants, notes from ladies he knew, his first hunting license acquired at age 16 on the Isle of Wight. Wouldn’t he have saved the guest registry, as it had great significance to him and especially if he’d kept it up to the point where Hochschild was able to see it? Another mystery. It was solved by his great-granddaughter - the guest registry is in family hands.
I also found a letter from William addressed to Poultney Bigelow (1932) in the New York Public Library where he writes to Poultney: You from boyhood knew the Kaiser, but since 1892 I had his brother as an agreeable friend.
Well there you have it, maybe he did know royalty. It does lend itself to a better story. As I worked on the third book in the trilogy on the Durants, I found myself wondering what would William think of my portrayal of him? In the narrative he's in his early eighties, telling his story to Harold Hochschild, his last biographer. What elements of his life would he embellish for the sake of his legacy and what would he leave out?
If you were telling your story, what parts would you embellish? More importantly, what would you leave out? We all have our secrets. I suppose the biggest decision would be what to leave unknown.