Why We Leave Stuff out of Memoirs

You will recall that I read Admiral Sir Guy Gaunt’s memoir with a pang of disappointment. All the good spy yarns were in there, and that was great, but he left out the juicy bits.

You will doubtless also recall that I explained these omissions as the natural behavior of an officer and a gentleman.  I was imagining Captain Jack Aubrey sitting at table on HMS Surprise with his fellow officers, telling war stories. Would he talk about the women in his life? Certainly not.

But I was mistaken. Here is a bit of typescript that was pasted inside a copy of The Yield of the Years. Not my copy. Somebody else’s copy.


Interesting to note that the address on his letterhead is Tangier, the paradise he praised in the last chapter of his book without mentioning anything that was happening in his life.

So we see that Sir Guy’s second wife was typing it all up for him, and if that weren’t dampening enough, she was doing it for their daughter to read. Everything is now explained. Do I want my children to know all the deviltry I got up to in my youth? Not on your onion.

Spinning the Memoir

I finally got my hands on Admiral Sir Guy Reginald Archer Gaunt’s autobiography this week (The Yield of the Years, a story of adventures afloat and ashore). I have now read the thing cover to cover, and while I still insist that it was worth every penny I paid for it, at least to me, it pains me to report a glaring omission.

Sir Guy never mentions his wives and children.

TuliaHe mentions a few women in passing. One is Tulia, the Samoan girl who followed him into battle with Gaunt’s Brigade to put down an insurrection (or take sides in a civil war) in Samoa in 1899. Another is an unnamed wealthy New York society woman and German sympathizer, whom I recognized as Mrs. Edmee Reisinger, the beer heiress. He talks about the pony he rode on Samoa. But if he mentions putting in at Hong Kong in 1904, he says nothing about how he married a widow there, Mrs. Margaret Elizabeth Worthington, daughter of Sir Thomas Wardle (This according to the Australian Dictionary of Biography), and how their marriage ended in divorce in 1927, after he ran away to Canada with the wife of the Royal Ophthalmologist.  Nor does he ever mention the 35-year-old widow he married in 1932 (when he was 63), Sybil Victoria Joseph, née Grant White, or the two daughters they had together.

SammyHe speaks affectionately of Sammy, the pony. Later he describes in loving detail the sailing ship he bought after he left the House of Commons in 1926 and went to Canada. But, women?

The thing is, Sir Guy didn’t write his memoirs for me to read, or any other romantic-minded woman. He wrote for his friends in the Navy, who would have thought him a complete bounder if he talked about his personal life. The stories he tells are all about his school days, his military career, and his yacht, and thumping good yarns they are, the kind of stories an old admiral would tell at a dinner of brother officers.

Franz Rintelen, German spy, wrote his memoirs too (The Dark Invader). Probably he was a bounder. His enemies said so. But included among the war stories (half of them bald-faced lies) is a touching account of how he came home to his wife after long imprisonment in Atlanta and found that his marriage was dead, whereupon he sorrowfully left. Not a word of reproach for his wife. He hadn’t been home in years and years. Reports of his death had come to her again and again. It was just too much for her.

It is interesting to note that of the two World War I spy memoirs, only Rintelen’s is still in print, while Sir Guy’s is so hard to find that one has to pay hundreds of dollars for a copy. Either that or sit in the Library of Congress and read it, a task of several days. Rintelen, I think, was writing for the money, while Sir Guy was writing because his friends told him he should. His memoir is more interesting in and of itself than Sir Guy’s, which has its charms but rambles a bit and has to be picked through for historical facts.

I ask myself: What are you allowed to leave out of a memoir? Anything you want to, I guess. It’s your story. If you don’t want to admit to ever having been married, why, go ahead and leave it out. Write it any way you want to. Lie your head off. Who do you want to be? Who do you want people to think you are? Go for it. The more unknown you are, the more free you are to make up the life you always wanted.

That’s what I plan to do, if I ever get down and write my memoirs. Maybe I’ll do that tomorrow. Let’s see. First I need a few heroic deeds. And maybe a pony.

Onward and Upward

cliff3Babbling into the vacuum of cyberspace. I love that phrase, which is not original with me, but appeared in an online article written by Caitlin Dewey and Abby Ohlheiser about some guy who used to blog about his strange views on women. Maybe two people read his posts. Babbling into the vacuum of cyberspace. I just love it. What else am I doing here?

The Knowing Ones advise us writers to keep a blog and post to it regularly, at least weekly. Maybe even block out what you’re going to be talking about for the next year or so. And yet here it is Friday, and I haven’t anything really to say. So I’m sitting here thinking about my writing career. Did you ever notice how much embarking on a writing career is like climbing a cliff? You can’t just hang there on the side of the damned cliff. You have to keep going.

Where am I right now? Still struggling up the cliff. Here’s my blog. (Everybody says you need a blog.) Here’s my web site (www.kategallison.com). The new spy thriller, FIREBOMB, needs a tiny tweak or two and then it’s set to go. I need an agent, because although I can always put up an ebook, I don’t want to. I mean, both of you are reading this for free. Probably only one of you will shell out money for the ebook. So I would make something like $2.50 for a year’s work, because I am absolutely no good at promoting my own work.

I love my friends, but not all of them want to read my stuff. Somewhere out there are readers who are strangers to me but who would be pleased to read a novel about a ring of German espionage agents in New York City in 1915, and how an out-of-work movie stunt girl brought down their network. It’s just a matter of getting it in front of them.

And now I’m starting in on a sequel about the spies who came here after the United States actually got into the war. The newspapers of the day were full of amazing lurid stories, some of which might actually be true. Seductive beauties with connections in high places. New York society ladies secretly supporting the Fatherland. Amazing stuff. All grist to my mill.

Enough babbling for today. Back to work.

The Book is Finished


On Saturday I came home from our usual tasty breakfast at Sneddon’s, sat down at the computer, and continued my second pass through the first draft of the new book. Before the day was over I was astonished to see that I had finished it.

So the book is done, the strange spy story that takes place at the outset of World War I. FIREBOMB, it’s called. Now that it’s finished I can describe it briefly: it’s about a sabotage ring that operated out of New York City in the early days of the war, and the seventeen-year-old unemployed movie stunt girl who destroyed their network.

I’m happy to report that I like it, although it isn’t as long as I had hoped to make it. Thrillers should be doorstops, they tell me. This one could probably be read in one sitting, if you’re particularly riveted and are a fast reader. I have to send it around to a few beta readers, make a few changes, find an agent, and then find a publisher, all of which will take some time and probably be boring. So now I’ll stop bending your ear about the book and find something else to blog about. Cooking recipes, maybe, or ladies’ fashions. Anything but politics.

Watch this space.


Following the Passions of your Characters

Captain Franz von Rintelen, the German spy upon whom I based the character of Fehrenbach in my thriller-in-progress, FIREBOMB, published two memoirs. Only one of them is at all famous, and that’s THE DARK INVADER, in which he describes his activities as a spymaster in New York City during the summer of 1915. (And leaves out a few, but that’s where the fiction writer gets to play.) If you read this book, you can see that the charming von Rintelen liked women as much as he liked intrigue, although he doesn’t talk about the women very much because gentlemen don’t kiss and tell.

In 1938, a few years after his first memoir came out, Captain von Rintelen published THE RETURN OF THE DARK INVADER. I would never have known that book existed if Franz von Papen hadn’t mentioned it in his own memoirs, petulantly, complaining about the nasty things Rintelen said about him (well-justified, in my opinion). Burning to know this man better, I got hold of a copy of it. THE RETURN told what happened to Rintelen when the war was over, how he went home to Germany and was badly treated by the government, how he and his wife couldn’t make the marriage work anymore after so long a separation and so many hardships, how he emigrated to England. What I found out about him that I hadn’t known before was how he loved automobiles.

So of course I have to fix Fehrenbach up with a flivver.

Studebaker made a roadster in 1913 that looks like just the thing, so that will be Fehrenbach’s car. Brad Wallace bought one a few years ago, fixed it up, and put pictures and YouTube videos of it all over the internet. It’s a beauty, as you can see in the picture above. You have to crank it to start it up, and when it runs it goes putty-putty-putty.  Fehrenbach would have bought it when he was in New York working as a banker. When he returned to Germany to join the navy he would have put it in storage, little knowing that the next time he came back to New York it would be as a spy. Spies need cars, too.