A journalist posed these questions to Robert Lindsey-Nassif
- Who was Opal Whiteley?
First let me say that the value of the diary is not dependent upon the origins of its author. If actual DNA evidence should one day prove that Opal Whiteley is indeed a Whiteley or should it be discovered that the diary is a hoax, it would not lessen my admiration for the diary in the slightest. In fact, I would probably be even more impressed at the achievement, as it would have required all the more imagination and creativity; in fact, I think a superhuman effort, to fabricate such a document.
Second, let me say that I’m the writer and composer of the Off-Broadway musical OPAL and owner of the dramatic rights to the British copyright of the diary. My musical deals in a fanciful manner with the events described in the diary and does not deal with the life of the author or authenticity of the diary. If the diary should one day prove to be a hoax, it would not influence or devalue my musical in the slightest. The New York Times actually noted very favorably in its review of the show that I wisely avoided any issues outside the diary itself. Therefore Opal’s origins and the authenticity of the diary are a non-issues with regard to my musical.
Those things said, I want to make clear that I have the strongest conviction that Opal was exactly who she said was and that she wrote the diary when and as she claimed.
I knew Opal personally for over a dozen years and know people who were close to her for over sixty years. I have studied the diary text for 20 years — perhaps more closely than anyone else, as I have continued to work on my musical. I am convinced she could not possibly have both been a Whiteley and also written that diary. Those possibilities are mutually exclusive. I believe the simplest and most logical explanation is exactly what she always claimed: that she is the daughter of Henri D’Orleans, making her the great great grand daughter to Louis Philippe, the last king of France; that she was taken to live in a lumber camp in 1904 at age seven; and that, on scraps of paper she scavenged, she wrote about her experience.
There is the theory that Opal was actually a Whiteley and schizophrenic (whatever that, actually, means — and I believe it is a very nebulous term) and somehow that explains her ability to write the diary in the voice a young girl. To me, that is a non sequitur. I fail to see any logic in that argument and one has to bend over backwards to make that scenario work.
It seems incredible to me that the daughter lumber workers (who, according to the diary, had only three books in their house) was able to write a highly literate diary displaying great familiarity to the Catholic mass (when the Whiteleys were Protestants and there were no Catholic churches in the lumber camp) and filled with allusions to obscure figures in history, royalty, the arts, sciences and D’Orleans family.
The diary also contains acrostic puzzles that are seemingly-innocent lists of French terms for flowers and plants. However, the first letters of these words spell out the names of various members of the D’Orleans royal family. Significantly, Henri was a botanist. He may well have taught his daughter a word game.
Either the diary is a hoax or Opal is who she claims and wrote the diary when she claims. I see no logical middle ground.
Now, who her mother was is less certain. I happen to feel it was an east Indian princess. I feel this because of Opal’s face — particularly around her eyes — her skin tone, and her petite size and fine bone structure — she was not the daughter of laborers. Also, she was welcomed back into India, where she traveled with a royal passport, and, as I understand it, was allowed in places where an American would normally be forbidden.
To me the simplest explanation of Opal and her diary is that she was born out of wedlock to Henri D’Orleans. He hid this child (perhaps so as not to disgrace his family) in some out of the way place, perhaps a convent, where he visited her periodically (as Opal describes in the diary preface). He may have had other illegitimate children; this is not an unheard of. Henri died in 1901, age 31 I believe, and with him, I would imagine, went the money to support the child. How Opal got to America, I cannot say, but there is emerging evidence that the D’Orleans family had ties to a convent in Oregon, where, I understand, there is even a record of their having given money a number of years before Opal’s birth. Steve Williamson has uncovered some remarkable information by searching worldwide archives and libraries via the internet. Significantly, the more evidence that is uncovered, the more likely Opal’s story becomes. It is a kind of proof that, as more hitherto unavailable facts come to light, Opal’s story becomes not less but more plausible.
Some people find it incredible that the daughter of an aristocrat ended up in Oregon. I think that’s a naive and provincial viewpoint. Amazing things happen every day. My sister, a woman from Iowa, ended up marrying a British Lord and dividing her time between Iowa and London. Who would believe that? What’s incredible is that Opal was a genius. Genius is inexplicable.
I might also mention that my feeling that Opal’s story is believable is influenced by my sister and brother-in-law. My sister is Lady Patricia Acton, married to Lord Richard Acton — a hereditary peer who was one of twelve life peers recently reappointed to the House of Lords by the Queen and Tony Blair. Richard also has several other titles in France and Italy which I’ve heard a hundred times and can’t remember (it’s easy to look him up in DeBrett’s) but they include Duke and Baron. I only mention this to say that Richard is an aristocrat and is conversant with the ways of the aristocracy. His aunt, the Honorable Mrs. Woodruff, was the daughter of a Lord and a friend of Opal since the early 1930′s. Aunt Mia did not suffer fools and she could spot a fake a mile away. Mia absolutely believed Opal’s claims, as do my sister and Richard.
My viewpoint on the diary is also shaped by my association with lawyers. My sister is an attorney, law professor and Dean of the London Law Consortium. Richard is a former barrister. My sister met Opal several times and Richard read a eulogy at Opal’s funeral. They both find Opal’s claims absolutely credible. My sister says that, from a legal standpoint, the diary is it’s own best evidence — with its unfaltering internal consistency and sheer magnitude. She said that murder cases have been decided and criminals have been executed on less evidence than is presented in the diary itself.
- What was your relationship with Opal?
She was a dear friend to me and my family for the last twelve years of her life. I visited her on many occasions and also brought my sister, Elizabeth Lawrence and Aunt Mia Woodruff to see her.
- How/when did you first meet her?
In December 1980. I had read the diary and fallen under its spell. I knew I had to meet the author, while there was still time. I wrote Napsbury Hospital and received permission to visit her. I recall getting a standby ticket to England then rented a car and drove to Napsbury Hospital north of London. I stayed several days, meeting with Opal each day. Thereafter I returned to visit her every year or two.
Her lawyer and protectorate, W. H. McBryde of the office of the Official Solicitor to the Supreme Court of Protection, always welcomed my visits, as did the administrators and nurses at Napsbury Hospital.
Other people were denied access to Opal because they failed to ask permission or because the staff felt they would upset Opal.
- What was Opal like?
Opal (and hereafter I’ll call her Francoise, which is what she preferred) was enchanting. Her eyes twinkled impishly, brimming with soul and understanding. She was like a sprite. Young, though old. She always spoke emphatically — with great enthusiasm and feeling. Her voice came from deep, deep within. “I’m so glad that you have come,” she would often say in rather deep, raspy tones. She was small and delicate and moved with great poise and grace — like a princess.
- What were your visits like with her at Napsbury?
They are some of my most cherished memories. I would go every year or two and stay several days. The staff at Napsbury Hospital always welcomed me warmly. The nurses reported that Francoise would always say, “Robert with the mustache is coming. Robert from New York is coming to see me.” The entire staff called her “Princess.”
I always visited her several times on consecutive days. I would go and sit with Francoise for up to three or four hours. The first time I visited I had lots of questions. But after that, I just came to be with her and cheer her up. I would bring her chocolates, shawls, house coats, fruit, teddy bears and Mentholatum — which she asked for, and which figures, interestingly, in the diary. I also brought her an “Opal” doll my mother had sewn. When I visited her two years later, she still had the doll prominently displayed in her small room.
We would talk a while then sit quietly while she rested. She appeared to be in physical pain at various times, but in later years was more at peace. The nurses sometimes put flowers and ribbons in her hair when they knew I was coming, as a gesture of greeting. And I want to stress that, from all I ever saw, they were lovely to her at Napsbury. Of course they were protective and didn’t let just anyone come see her. That was as it should be for Francoise or any of the people under their care. But they always welcomed me warmly and treated Francoise with great kindness and respect. Once her solicitor took me personally to visit her. They could see I had no ulterior motive. I had already acquired the dramatic rights to the copyright of her diary, I needed nothing from Francoise or her solicitor. I just came to visit out of friendship and love.
Let me also point out that in all those twelve years, Opal’s answers to my questions remained the same. Occasionally, just out of curiosity, I would return to a question I had asked Francoise years before. Her answers never varied. Even as her memory completely faded and she sank deeper within herself, she never changed her story. To me, this unflagging consistency is a kind of proof of the truth of her claims. It’s as if extraneously memories sifted away from her mind, leaving only the truth behind.
When I visited her, she was warm and friendly, but I also had the sense of being granted an audience. Without meaning to, she behaved as a dignitary. Her deportment was regal and confident. She did not gesture as she spoke. Her movements were refined and formal — as a queen might behave. She spoke in a very emphatic, expressive, deep, throaty voice and with a melodiousness that sounded European to me. She did not speak, she sang. Physically, she looked like a princess — petite and fine-boned. Her eyes were very dark and expressive. They twinkled with delight and impishness, as if she were about to laugh at any moment. Each time when I left, there was no gratuitous sentimentality. Merely a sing-songy “goodbye,” as if the visitation was over and others were waiting to see her next. In short, she behaved like aristocracy, with quiet command and dignity.
I will never, never forget the magic of those visits.
Sadly, Francoise died while I was in rehearsals for the Off-Broadway production of my musical OPAL, which is based on her diary. This was extremely difficult for me, as you can imagine. I could not attend the funeral. The production had been funded by the Richard Rodgers Award foundation. They and the producers of a very costly production were depending on my remaining in New York and attending rehearsals. My sister and brother-in-law attended the funeral along with Elizabeth Bradburne Lawrence (whom I consider the world authority on Opal) and Aunt Mia. Also in attendance were Francoise’s longtime solicitor, W. H. McBryde, whom I also count as a friend, and several of the nurses from Napsbury Hospital. Mr. McBryde arranged for Francoise to be buried in the prestigious “Writers’ Corner” of Highgate Cemetery. For her gravestone, he chose the biblical inscription: She Spoke as a Child.
Since her death, I’ve only been to England once or twice, I think. It is difficult for me to go and not be able to visit Francoise, as I had always done. And I still haven’t been to her grave at Highgate. It was simply too soon and too sad. I wanted to remember her alive.
- What was her mental condition?
She was quite acute mentally when I first began visiting her. She was full of emotion and spoke with great emphasis. But in later years, she became less and less articulate and less passionate. I believe during the last visits with her only words were yes and no. But I know she always recognized me and the nurses were impressed with how I could bring her out of herself. I believe she became more and more at peace.
- Do you think Opal was mentally ill?
Clearly she would not have been at Napsbury without cause. I think, as the diary demonstrates, Francoise was simply too sensitive, too delicate for the world. In addition, she had a childhood filled with neglect and abuse and nearly 50 years in an institution. That certainly contributed to mental problems. And, as I understand it, Francoise suffered a sunstroke while in India.
Her solicitor once told me, however, that had Francoise come to their attention today, she would never have been considered a severe enough case to enter Napsbury. She would have been left on her own. The treatment of mental health problems has changed considerably in the last half century.
As I’ve said, schizophrenia is so loosely and variously defined that I have no idea what is meant by that diagnosis. She may have had some delusions, but remember that much of what I believe was true about Francoise would have been interpreted as delusional by her doctors. I’ve no doubt there were many “princesses” in Napsbury.
- What was Opal’s family’s reaction to her being institutionalized at Napsbury?
Who do you mean by “her family?” Francoise had no family she recognized or who ever helped her in any way — financially or emotionally. The British government paid for all of Francoise’s care and needs for nearly fifty years because no one claimed her. If any family would care to step forward at this point to repay the British government, I’m certain that would be welcome.
- What was Opal’s experience in Napsbury like?
The area of Napsbury I saw was very low security. The patients were allowed to roam freely throughout the beautiful grounds, which were wooded and filled with flowers like a vast park or public garden. It was often hard to tell who were the patients and who were the staff. I would have been allowed to drive Francoise into town or anywhere if I’d wanted. I recall asking her, but she never wanted to go. I think she felt secure at Napsbury. Besides, given her age and physical state, I didn’t think that was wise.
- Did Opal have many friendships in Napsbury?
I don’t think so. She seemed fairly isolated and out of place — just as she must have been in the lumber camps. Her entire life was marked with a feeling of otherness — of being an outsider. In addition, there was something formal about Francoise. She did not invite intimacy or informality.
- Opal’s “treatment” included a lobotomy, shock treatments, and heavy medicating. What effect did these treatments have on her?
It is possible that these things were done, as it was not an uncommon practice at the time. If she were given a lobotomy, it could certainly account for her delusions.
- What do you know about Opal’s final days? The final moments before her death? Parting words?
My sister may have heard some of her last words. I was in America and unable to visit Francoise, but my sister visited her in the spring of 1991. The nurses told my sister not to expect Francoise to say anything, as she hadn’t spoken a word in some time. And, in fact Francoise was entirely silent and unresponsive during my sister’s visit. But as my sister left, my sister bade her goodbye and Francoise replied her usual sing-song, “Goodbye.”
- What was Opal’s response to the scandal surrounding her diary?
I want to make clear that I think the scandal has been highly exaggerated and dramatized to serve certain authors — especially Elbert Bede, an untalented writer who made a cottage industry of betraying his former friend with his libelous book. It was his one and only claim to fame. Scandal makes good copy and sells books. The diary was really a minor publication so far as I can see. The Atlantic Monthly published a relatively small number of copies. I don’t think the book was a great success and I believe it was largely forgotten, as was Francoise, until Elizabeth Bradburne Lawrence rediscovered her in the early 1960′s.
- Can you speak about Opal’s famous charisma?
She was enchanting. As I mentioned, her eyes were brimming with delight and amusement. There was something about her that made you feel fortunate to be in her presence. She was everything you would expect a princess to be. I’ve worked many years in the theater and certainly know artifice and pretense when I see it. I also know aristocratic breeding when I see it and I’ve seen it. Francoise was the genuine article.
- Why do you think that Opal never got married or had children?
I think it is not unusual for an adult survivor of child abuse (and that is clearly what is described in the diary) to have difficulty forming attachments in later life. Their trust has been violated, their body has been violated, and they have formed protective emotional barriers around their feelings. I think she loved men, but always found herself attracted unattainable or unavailable men — as if subconsciously she gravitated to relationships that were guaranteed to be superficial and fleeting.
All this meant that Francoise was not likely to find a permanent relationship and she would never have considered having children out of wedlock.
- Opal became quite famous with the publication of her diary. Can you talk a little bit about the type of reaction the diary initially received?
Again, I really think this has been exaggerated. I think the diary received some attention, then the public moved on. The diary was obviously successful enough in its initial publication in Atlantic Monthly to be republished in book form simultaneously in America and the United Kingdom, where it is still under copyright. (It is important to realize this because many people do not know the diary’s copyright is in effect throughout most of the world.) Thereafter, I believe Francoise became a prized bauble of the upper classes — a sought after dinner guest and nanny. But I imagine Francoise was very eccentric and soon wore out her welcome. And, as it became clear the authoress wasn’t going to author another significant book, the upper classes moved on to the next celebrity.
- In your opinion, did Opal deliberately execute a literary fraud?
Certainly not. I knew Francoise as well as anyone and my brother-in-law’s aunt knew her from the 1930′s until her death — probably longer than any other single person.
The Francoise we knew would have been morally incapable of fraud. And, even if she wished to perpetrate a fraud, Francoise did not have had the organizational skills to do so — to write hundreds of pages in a childish scrawl on pre-WWI paper she had managed to save in massive quantities; to remember to write in a handwriting style that evolves to simulate aging; then tear up the pages, store them in a damp forest, fool Ellery Sedgewick into asking about them, sending for them and publishing them; and then lie about it consistently for the rest of her life — another 73 years. She was, as Sedgewick described her, a fluttering bird. An innocent. Her other published books, The Fairyland Around Us and Flower of Stars betray tremendous disorganization. In both books, for example, there of advertisement of books “to be published” in the future that are actually in that very volume. The organization of Fairyland is particularly chaotic. Francoise could not have masterminded anything let alone a hoax of this magnitude and duration. That she never again was able to sit still long enough to write anything of similar quality, size and scope is itself a kind of proof of the diary’s authenticity, written when Francoise was a child.
- What, if any evidence do you think supports the idea of child authorship?
I’ve seen many of the actual diary pages. None of her biographers or detractors has laid eyes on any of the actual diary pages, except Elizabeth Bradburne Lawrence and a graphologist who examined the pages in the early 60′s. The pages are clearly not the work of an adult. The age and type of paper and the Crayons used to write the pages are all in line with Francoise’s claims that she started the diary in 1904. Even the invention of Crayons supports that date. Elizabeth Bradburne Lawrence is a respected authority on education and child development. She has pointed out that the pages are all decorated with borders, something that is characteristic of insecure children.
Also, that her later writings were not noteworthy is another kind of proof that the diary was written at an early age since she could not replicate its quality in her subsequent work. ThoughThe Fairyland Around Us and Flower of Stars are clearly by the same author as the diary, bearing the same idiosyncratic syntax, etc., they are nowhere near the same literary quality as the diary, which shows that they were written at an earlier time. Like many child prodigies, Francoise lost the gift. She became self-conscious and formal, unable to recapture the spontaneity and freshness of the diary’s prose.
As my sister has mentioned, there is also the evidence within the diary itself. The published diary is nearly 300 pages long, and yet the diarist is consistent in her viewpoint and vantage point, which is clearly that of a child. An adult would have given themselves away in some small, careless way. I’ve lived and worked with the diary for twenty years, and Elizabeth for forty years. Neither of us has ever found the slightest evidence of a hoax within the diary text. It all rings true.
- Do you think that Opal was the daughter of Henri D’Orleans?
Absolutely. I find that the simplest, most logical explanation. What’s astonishing is not that she was an aristocrat’s unwanted and illegitimate child, but that she was a genius.
Whoever she was, Francoise was certainly not a Whiteley. I think the strongest evidence of this is a 1920 letter from Dr. Evert Baker to Ellery Sedgewick, the publisher of the diary. Baker was a lawyer and a leader of the Christian Endeavor movement in Oregon. In the letter Baker states that on two separate occasions he and his wife both remember Mrs. Whiteley referring to Opal as not being her own child and thanking Baker for “being kind to a an orphan.” A signed letter from a highly credible witness such as this would stand up in court.
- If so, how did Opal fall under the Whiteley’s care?
I don’t claim to know how this happened, though I have some theories. Francoise always told me she was born February 6, 1897. I wonder if perhaps she and her unwed mother may have been housed at Henri’s expense and kept a secret from his family. (I don’t know where they would have been housed. Perhaps India, perhaps England, perhaps even Italy.) When Henri died in 1901, the funds to support them would have vanished and it’s possible his family never knew about the child or the mother. (Remember, at this period, an unwed mother would have been an utter outcast, perhaps disowned by her own family and an illegitimate child would have been a great embarrassment.) It’s possible the mother and child, voluntarily or not, set off at this point to live with relatives — perhaps in Canada. I’ve been told that the American Northwest and British Columbia were, up until the 1950′s, known as “dumping grounds” for European aristocratic black sheep.
In the preface to the diary, Francoise recalls her mother being drowned during a shipwreck. If they had set sail from India, the ship would have been bound for the west coast of America. Or the shipwreck may have been on the east coast. There were orphan trains running from the east coast across America until the 1930′s, which would pack up orphans and give them away at train stops. It’s possible Francoise was put on one of these trains. Farm families often took these orphans in because they needed an extra hand. However, a small, delicate, fine-boned child such as Francoise would not be attractive to families looking for a laborer, nor would a child who did not speak English well. Perhaps it was hard to find anyone to take this child, and she kept traveling west on the orphan train until she reached the end of the line.
Or, it’s possible the D’Orleans family knew about Francoise but considered a child born out of wedlock an embarrassment (particularly at a time when there was a movement by Royalists to bring the family back into power) and they arranged to have Francoise removed. Steve Williamson of Eugene, Oregon has recently uncovered some very interesting evidence via research linking the D’Orleans family to a convent in Oregon. There is apparently a record of the D’Orleans family giving money to this institution a number of years before Francoise’s arrival in Oregon. (Steve informs me there was a now-vanished town called “Orleans” in Oregon, along with many other French-named towns, that can be found on historic maps.) Perhaps Henri’s family intended Francoise to be placed there, but en route someone more or less abducted the child. The Whiteleys may have always known there was something suspect about their acquisition of this child (there were no papers, after all) which is why, out of fear of the law, they always claimed that Francoise was their own child.
It’s possible to look at childhood photos of Francoise and her foster sister and see a resemblance. But it’s just as possible to look at photos of members of the D’Orleans family and see a resemblance to Francoise — especially the wide-set eyes and high forehead. Aunt Mia once told me of an aristocratic friend of hers who knew Francoise. The friend went to visit a member of the D’Orleans family and upon seeing this person immediately recognized a resemblance to Francoise.
- Who were “Angel Mother and Angel Father”?
Henri D’Orleans was the father. I’m not certain who the mother was. Perhaps an East Indian Princess. Perhaps a cousin of Henri’s — Arch Duchess Margaret Mary of Salzburg, Francoise claimed, who would have been merely 16 years old when Francoise was born. Henri would have been about 27. Again, Henri never wed.
- Many theories exist as to why Opal claimed to be the daughter of French royalty. They include that she was schizophrenic, suffered from Typhoid fever as a small child, was motivated by recovered memory syndrome, or that she was simply a liar. Do you have a comment on any of these theories?
How do these theories explain the diary? Does everyone who has Typhoid fever write an exotic literary masterpiece filled with acrostics and obscure allusions? I don’t see a logical connection. It’s imperfect reasoning.
Regarding the theory that schizophrenia accounts for the diary, there is a romantic notion that madness releases artistic genius. I believe psychiatrists today largely discount this idea. It has no logic, deductively or empirically. There have been many well-adjusted artistic geniuses — Haydn and Stravinsky, for example. Conversely, not every schizophrenic is an artistic genius. Napsbury Hospital is filled with schizophrenic patients who claim to be royalty. Have they produced such a work? Would they even be capable of writing at such length about it? So the logic of this argument breaks down immediately.
Contemporaries of Mozart claimed he couldn’t have possibly written the flute/piano forte sonatas at age five, or the delightful symphonies composed at age eight. They attributed them to his father — who was an alcoholic and a mediocre composer. But, as we now know, only Mozart could have composed those works. Similarly, contemporaries said of Jesus, “This is just the carpenter’s son from Galilee.” Jesus’ reply, which certainly applies to Francoise, is that a prophet is never honored in his own country.
One of the major proponents of the schizophrenia theory never actually laid eyes on Francoise — not once. Never heard her voice. Never saw and examined the actual diary pages. Never examined Opal’s private papers, books and letters. Never met anyone who knew Francoise for more than a brief period of time. I have done all these things and I believe Francoise is telling the truth. Again, as my sister, the attorney, professor and law school dean has said there is more evidence to support Francoise’s claims than is often present in a murder conviction.
Some detractors have interviewed people who knew Francoise as a child when she lived with the Whiteleys. As the Whiteleys moved approximately twelve times in fifteen years, I doubt anyone knew the family well. And, truly, no one knows what goes on within a family — especially one in which a child is profoundly abused, as is described in the diary. Child abuse entails a code of secrecy. The child is too terrified to consider telling anyone about the abuse and may not even recognize the abuse as abnormal until adulthood. No one knows the secrets of such a family — especially since they were transient workers. How often do you hear people say of a murderer, “He was such a nice guy. So quiet and friendly. I can’t believe he’d do this”? Certainly no one knows what may or may not have been the truth concerning the Whiteleys.
I believe Francoise wrote the diary when she was a child. I think her later writings bear this out — though they contain the syntactical, stylistic imprint of the author, they are of markedly lesser quality. The printing on the diary pages is of a small, weak hand, and a graphologist determined they were printed on paper that predates World War I. And it was written in Crayons, which I believe were invented just before 1903. Undoubtedly these were the “colored pencils” that the man that wears gray neckties gave the child. Francoise always told me that she was brought to the lumber camp in September 1904, when she was seven. All the dates align.
If you accept that the diary was written by Francoise as a child, then she must be who she says she is. Nothing else so simply and elegantly explains the following: The mixture of French and English in the diary; the odd syntax; the familiarity with the Catholic mass; the references to such things as portrait galleries, lion sculptures at the entrance to grand estates, the names of unmapped streams near the D’Orleans family estate; the acrostic puzzles using French terms for plants and flowers to spell out names of the D’Orleans family (and remember, Henri D’Orleans was a botanist); the esoteric references to obscure figures in history and the arts; the obscure literary allusions and quotations; the remarkable education this child obviously had — the sort a child would receive at a private school, not a one- room school house in a lumber camp. The diary is filled on every page with allusions and references a lumber camp girl in 1904 could not possibly have known. Clearly the child was full of esoteric knowledge but she lacked all practical knowledge of chores and farming, which she would have learned had she been born to an ordinary family. And where is her birth certificate? Why do the Whiteley’s have certificates for all their children except Opal? How does schizophrenia explain any of that?
As for the theory of her simply being a liar — I know a man named Elbert Bede wrote a book that basically called Francoise a liar. Bede was an editor at the Cottage Grove newspaper. He had formerly been a great supporter of hers. For some reason Bede turned on her — and this was after Francoise moved away and her diary was published. Indeed, when Francoise spoke of him, she remembered him as a great friend. She had no knowledge of his defamatory book published nearly 40 years after she left Oregon.
I think it strange that Bede’s book was published in the 1950′s, over thirty years after the publication of the diary when Francoise was long gone and the diary was all but forgotten. It’s as though something festered inside of Bede all those years. I think it was simple jealousy. I work in the musical theater and know that fellow writers can sometimes be full of pettiness. Hal Prince said something to me recently that is relevant. Remember that Hal is the most successful director in history; he has won more Broadway Tony Awards than anyone; he directed PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, EVITA, SWEENEY TODD, A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, and most of Stephen Sondheim’s shows including his newest show. I’m working on two shows with Hal.) Hal said, regarding success in general, “No one wants you to succeed.” I think this describes Bede perfectly. Bede’s book is very poorly written. He seems incapable of writing clearly-constructed, grammatically-correct sentences. He clearly had no writing talent whatsoever. And here was the little girl he had watched grow up, who had once played with his daughters, who somehow had written a book that was bringing her great acclaim and international admiration. I think it was simply too much for him to bear. In his jealously, he struck out by defaming her. It would not be the first time the former friend of a celebrity betrayed them.
Let me say something else that may apply to Bede and certainly other detractors. I think a certain amount of criticism of the diary is misogynistic. At the time the diary was published, women in America weren’t even allowed to vote. Even today, what woman is really given her due as an artist or business woman? Successful, self-possessed or ambitious women are routinely ridiculed and disparaged. If a man had written the diary, I predict it would have been more highly-lauded and credited. It is even seen by some to be suspicious that Francoise flirted with Hollywood. What of it? What’s wrong with having dreams and aspirations in any medium? Would such ambitions be criticized in a man?
Look at Martha Stewart for example. She is the target of scorn. Why? Because she’s clever and she worked hard and she became a billionaire. Men, and even women, hate her for that. Especially the people she left behind.
Then there’s Harper Lee. It has been frequently rumored that it was Truman Capote not Harper Lee who actually wrote To Kill A Mockingbird. (And, interestingly, like Francoise, Lee never wrote another book.) Why can’t people believe a woman wrote that masterpiece? Why is it easier to believe a man wrote it? (And, by the way, I don’t believe the detractors in this circumstance, either. First, Mockingbird is really not stylistically like Capote’s other work. Second, Capote was said to have been livid when Lee won the Pulitzer for Mockingbird. He never won one himself. And, finally, he certainly was never one to keep secrets. All through his life he was a name-dropper. His last, unfinished book was to be a tell-all about his friends and associates. Had Capote written the Pulitzer prize-winning To Kill a Mockingbird, he would have been the first to tell. He could never have kept it a secret all those years.)
With regard to Francoise, the world hates women who achieve and succeed. I think a great deal of the criticism heaped upon Francoise — especially from the people she left behind in Oregon — is pure misogyny. Were she a man, people would have applauded her and claimed her proudly as their native son. But she was a woman, and so she was crucified in her own country.
- How do you explain the financing of Opal’s trip to India by Henri D’Orleans’ mother?
I have no doubt that Francoise met Henri D’Orleans’ mother (her grandmother), who I believe would have been living in England. Francoise herself told me they met on June 23, 1924. Francoise had many aristocratic friends who could have arranged it — particularly Lord Grey. As you may know, there is a draft of a letter Francoise wrote to her grandmother, the Duchess of Chartres, recounting the afternoon they spent together. It is full of authentic-sounding details. It was found in Francoise’s papers and is probably a practice version of the letter she actually sent. In it, Francoise is careful to call Henri “the explorer,” not “my father.” This seems perfectly credible to me. Francoise would not have been very careful in her approach of this delicate situation.
And I have no doubt that Henri’s mother could not possibly have acknowledged Francoise as her granddaughter, because the girl could then have claimed part of an inheritance. There might also have been a sense of shame that her granddaughter was born out of wedlock. Henri died in the east under suspicious circumstances. I can understand his mother wanting to know more about it and here was a person eager to retrace her son’s footsteps. Someone had to have funded the trip, as Francoise was always without money.
- What role do you think Opal’s writings could have in contemporary times?
Opal’s diary reminds us of what it felt like to be a child. And it reminds us that all children have native talent that must be nurtured and encouraged. I believe we are all Opals. We are full of tremendous talent and promise, until the world beats it out of us. Unlike the rest of us, Francoise had the genius to record the thoughts of childhood while she was still a child. She documented what we have forgotten, which is why the diary is so powerful. That it rings so true and strikes such a deep chord within us all is itself a kind of proof of the diary’s authenticity. Who else but a child could have written this?
If you think the diary is too brilliant to have been written by a child, I submit it’s too brilliant notto have been written by a child. It is not unusual for artistic child prodigies to produce extraordinary works only to have their talent evaporate as they age. For example, Felix Mendelssohn, in my opinion, wrote his finest work at a young age. The early compositions were far fresher than any of his later works. (And, as I’ve said, the same is true of Francoise, whose later writings, though they are clearly by the same author, lack the enchantment and originality of the diary. Like so many child prodigies, she became self-conscious about her gift as she grew up, and thereby lost it.)
- How do you think that Opal should be remembered?
As one of the great American primitive writers and as the daughter of Henri D’Orleans, who overcame unimaginable adversity to write a work of astonishing beauty.
- Is there anything else you’d like the public to know about Opal?
It would have been extremely important to Francoise to have it recognized that her diary is still under copyright in Britain and throughout most of the world. Therefore, publication royalties are due her estate, which is managed by the Library of University of London. However, to the best of my knowledge, none of the currently-published versions of the diary are paying royalties to Francoise’s estate. This would have upset her tremendously, as she felt she had been victimized and exploited her entire life. On behalf of Opal, I would like to urge the editors and publishers of these versions of the Opal Whiteley diary to pay royalties to her estate (which is maintained by the University of London).
Also, I believe that, absent of solid DNA evidence, I think it’s impossible and irresponsible to reach any conclusion about Francoise’s origins. The best we can do is speculate and leave the question open. Though I happen to believe her claims are true and the diary is authentic, it is of no consequence to me personally or professionally either way. In some ways, I think the mystery is part of the magic of the diary. The diary is a work of genius, and genius is innately mysterious.