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Queen of the Fabricated Memoir

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When I was 12 or so – this was the late 1940s – I found a book in a second-hand store.  Twelve, but already bookish enough to note that it was a first edition and had been printed in 1929, and to believe, from the endpapers and the name on the spine, that it was the story – the adventure – of a girl I would like to be. She grew up on a clipper ship in the South Pacific.  How great – just the life for me!  I would not learn for almost 50 years that the book was regarded as a great hoax – a book that was presented as autobiography, but was – in fact – pure fiction.

In the early weeks of 1929, Joan Lowell, 26 years old, was having the time of her life.  Her publishers, Simon & Schuster, had told her that the first run of 75,000 copies of her book would be followed by another 75,000 before the month was out.  It was getting ecstatic reviews on both sides of the Atlantic, and best of all, the fledgling Book of the Month Club had announced its March choice – "Cradle of the Deep," the story of a girl raised on board a clipper ship in the China seas by her sea-captain father.  The public embraced the story and it was selling briskly – the Great Depression was barely a cloud on the horizon.

Simon & Schuster gave a publishing party for Joan and 500 guests on board the Isle de France in New York Harbor.  Among the invited was director D.W. Griffith, who announced that he would film the story and star Lowell as herself – not such a stretch, actually, because Joan had been an ingénue in Hollywood and landed a bit part in Charlie Chaplin's "Gold Rush."  Perhaps her mentor Edward L. Bernays was among the guests.  And surely her new – fairly new – husband, playwright Thompson Buchanan, was by her side.  They had had left Los Angeles together to come to New York City to be writers, to be actors-to become famous.

Birth records show that Joan was born in Berkeley, California, in 1902 and that her birth name was Lazzarevich.  Later she would supply the 1936 edition of Who's Who with the information that her father's name was Captain Nicholas Wagner and her mother was Emma Lowell Trask (she would later act under the names Lowell and Trask).  Candidates for Who's Who, traditionally, supplied their own data, including DOB, and the publisher took the subject's information at face value.  Much of the information on Wikipedia is wrong, especially the account of her early childhood, which is taken straight from her book.

Joan attended Berkeley High School and then the Munson School for Private Secretaries in San Francisco, but she must have been dissatisfied with her prospects because around 1923 or 1924 she went for a visit to Los Angeles, where she was soon cast as an unnamed saloon girl in Chaplin's 'Gold Rush."

She was in two more silent films, "Cold Nerve" and "Loving Lies."  She got third billing in the last, a melodrama about seafaring lives which was written by writer/actor Thompson Buchanan.  After their meeting on this project, they decided to go east together and seek their fortunes in theater.  While they were both acting in a traveling troupe, they secretly married.

In New York City, Joan tried her hand at acting, playwriting and journalism.  She came under the wing of mentor Edward L. Bernays, known as the father of modern public relations.  It was he who encouraged her to put her "yarns" into a book.

"The Cradle of the Deep" tells the story of Joan, raised from infancy to 17, on board her sea captain father's clipper ship, and her coming of age in that unusual and exclusively male environment.  She learns domestic skills from the sailmaker and cook; she learns arithmetic from calculating her father's course; she studies cultures when the ship puts in at exotic ports; and when she asks about sex, her father allows her to assist in the dissection of a pregnant shark caught by the crew.  Joan was every girl's heroine; feisty and adventurous, following the sailor's code: Never squeal on anyone, take punishment without a squawk, and never show fear.  My code as well, as a matter of fact.  And although I lived totally landlocked, it seemed important to me, too, to learn to spit into the wind.

Lowell's immediate success blew up in her face.  The questions began, including whether a girl who had demonstrably lived most of her life in Berkeley, attended Berkeley High School and a San Francisco secretarial school could have racked up 100,000 nautical miles on the open seas. Most vociferous were sailing experts who questioned her savvy – gained, they claimed, "20,000 leagues away from the sea."

There was a powerful backlash against the book, and it was said that members mailed it back by the thousands to the Book of the Month Club, which paid in full.  It was not that readers hated the book, or hated the author.  It was that they had loved the book extravagantly, and were heartbroken to learn that it was fiction.

In England, where the book was popular, readers laughed at what they called "a most absorbing scuffle in Printer's Alley."  They labeled it autobiographical narrative, perhaps another term for what recently is being called fictionalized memoir.  "We on this side of the water are less concerned that our light reading should be veridical.  All we ask is that it should be reasonably well written and amusing enough to carry us... so that we shall not mind a stretching of our credulity now and again," said the Observer.

Lowell's own response – the only relevant quote I could find – is the claim that "Truth is contained as much in the dreams and legends of people as in the factual chronicle of their lives."  The book continued to be categorized as nonfiction.  In "80 Years of Bestsellers From the New York Times," it is listed as No. 3 of the top 10 bestsellers of 1929, with the note "The sensational spit-in-the-wind 'Cradle of the Deep' followed in 'Trader Horn's footsteps."  That reference is to the book by Alfred Aloysius Horn recounting his youth as an ivory trader in Central Africa – supposedly a true story.

I knew nothing of this controversy, I hadn't been born yet.  In the late 1940s my family in St. Clair County, Alabama, made an annual trip to Birmingham to visit the dentist and do our Christmas shopping.  I had very early discovered the city's second-hand bookstore.  There I found a battered copy of "Cradle" and it became my favorite book, for years my most revisited book.  I was especially thrilled by the scene in which young Joan witnesses childbirth on a Pacific isle.  I was 12, and I, too, knew nothing about sex or childbirth.  This girl, growing up in a male environment, was boldly pursuing the subjects that puzzled me so much.

Years later, in the 1960s, when my children were young, we spent summers on Big Cranberry Isle in Maine, and at church bazaars and yard sales, old copies of "Cradle of the Deep" would turn up for a quarter or even a dime.  Copies were still plentiful, even then, because between them the publisher and the book club had run off so many.  I bought copies for my girls and for their friends.  These young readers loved the book unconditionally.

Twenty years later, when my oldest daughter decided to try her hand at turning the book into a screenplay, I had to pay a bookfinder $60 to locate a copy.  To help her, I volunteered to do some research on the book, trying to track the copyright renewals.  As far as we knew then, she had only written one book.  A few lines on the Internet alerted me to the book's history as a hoax, and my focus switched from the book to its author.

On a trip to California, I searched the Berkeley Archives and visited the Alameda County Courthouse and its museum room.  The Academy library in Los Angeles came up with a publicity still that showed her as a classic beauty, with the strong jaw, brow, and nose of beauties of that time, like Irene Dunne or Joan Bennett.

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Martha Moffett is a  retired editor, now a freelance line editor, and a writer (see books on Amazon)

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