Just at the moment, I’m thinking about the relationships between writers and a couple of things, one of which is the personal, oral, family history which we learn (proverbially and frequently literally) at our grandmother’s knee. When I’m up to date with current obligations, I plan on blogging accordingly.
Meantime, imagine my delight when I was interviewing Lisa Tuttle for the upcoming issue of Interzone, and conversation turned to this very topic. She’s very kindly expanded on this in a fascinating guest post.
(And do keep your eyes open for her forthcoming novel, ‘The Curious Case of the Somnambulist and the Psychic Thief’ (Jo Fletcher Books). It’s excellent!
I Dream of Genie – Lisa Tuttle
To me, the experience of doing family history research falls somewhere between what it feels like to read a novel and writing one. These people were real, not fictional creations, but their stories have been lost….only scattered references, clues and hints, the occasional memory or newspaper references remain, so I must use my imagination to try to bring them back to life.
The figure who first caught my interest in this way was my great-grandmother, my father’s paternal grandmother, Eugenia Ash Tuttle – “Genie” – who died a couple of years before I was born. Here’s what my Aunt Gracia (my father’s older sister) remembered:
“She travelled all the time, all over the world, and crossed the Atlantic 17 times. When my father was a little boy, he lived in Paris, and spoke French before he spoke English. His mother had great E.S.P. and believed she was clairvoyant. She studied astrology in Egypt. After she divorced Mr Tuttle [this was her third divorce at a time when it was rare], Genie moved to California and starred in silent movies. Late in life, when she was down on her luck (like me) she went to live with her son in Birmingham, Michigan, but she could not stand the quiet, missed the excitement of her life in California, so back she went!”
Genie’s first husband – my great-grandfather — was Robert Elliott Clarke. He was ten years older than 20-year-old Eugenia, who had known him barely twenty-four hours when she married him in Chicago in 1886. He was the son of Irish immigrants, grew up in Brooklyn, left school at fourteen, had worked as an actor and as a voice teacher. Their son, born in 1889, was years later adopted by his stepfather, Clarence Tuttle, and became Robert E. Tuttle.
My grandfather never saw his real father again after the age of about five, and I suspect any discussion of Clarke was verboten for at least as long as Mr Tuttle was around, but later he did some investigating of his own – the copy of his parents’ marriage license was my own starting point, decades later. The story that came down to me was that Clarke had been “physician to the Court of St James” at the time of Queen Victoria.
From a biography of Queen Victoria I learned she’d had a personal physician named Sir James Clark. Could this possibly be my ancestor? The dates did not fit, nor did his life – he never went to America, and nor did his son, who had no children.
My reading was too random to be classified as research. Only after the internet came along, and the wonders of searchable digitized archives and newspapers, did I make a real effort to unravel this old family mystery, and discovered this headline from Washington, D.C. in February 1891:
“Robert E. Clarke Disappears – He Left Many Checks, but No Bank Account”
He’d been selling bogus shares in property investment, and skipped town just in time to avoid arrest. Thanks to the many digitized records available through Ancestry.com, I was able to find out where he “disappeared” to: In March, he applied for a passport, to include his wife Eugenia and their little boy, at the American Embassy in Berlin. He claimed he was a “merchant” from New York.
What they did, how they survived, abroad for the next four years I don’t know. They moved around. They spent time in Paris (where my grandfather learned French) and in London. But I have no detailed evidence of their lives abroad, and that blank spot has inspired a curiosity, which has led to me a fascination with the period. I have read a lot about other people who lived in – and Americans who visited — London, Paris and Berlin in the early 1890s, developing a feel for the zeitgeist of the time. This led me to write fiction – not about my great-grandparents (I want to know them, not turn them into fictional creations) but set in that time, so I embarked on a series of detective stories….and the first novel in the series, The Curious Affair of the Somnambulist and the Psychic Thief, set in London in October and November 1893.
My grandfather returned to the U.S. – for good – with his parents in April 1895. They left Southampton on 4 April 1895, on the Manitoba, bound for New York. It was a single-class passenger liner and there were only 26 passengers on board for that voyage, so they would all have become acquainted during the 12-day journey – I imagine it a bit like a floating house-party. Among the passengers were three prominent members of the Theosophical Society – Dr Archibald Keightley (who had been responsible for bringing the founder of that group, Madame Blavatsky, to Britain from America, paid her bills and supervised the publication of her book The Secret Doctrine), his wife Julia (formerly Mrs Verplank) and their close friend Alice Leighton Cleather. I feel sure Genie would have been fascinated by Theosophy as she was by all such spiritual, esoteric subjects.
On the passenger list, Robert E. Clarke claimed his profession was “Physician.”
I’m guessing this reflected a new scam he’d developed to earn a living whilst in Europe. And he continued to call himself a doctor after he got back to New York, as per an article that appeared in the New York Herald, Monday, 16 December 1895:
MANY SEEKING G. ELLIOTT CLARK.
An Army of Creditors Call at His Former Residence To Find Him Gone
FAT PERSONS DISGRUNTLED
He Agreed to Cure Them Of Obesity, but Many Still Mourn Over Their Corpulency.
How He Made Men Taller.
The story beneath the interesting headlines says that he put the letters “M.D.” after his name on his card, although “he did not openly practice as a physician.” He sold bath salts that were supposed to aid in weight reduction, and special shoe inserts to make men taller. By the time he left – assumed to have returned to London – his wife had taken their son and gone back to her mother in D.C. She did not stay where he might have found her, but went to Chicago, divorced him, and – but the rest is a story for another time.