Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Maggie-Owen Wadelton

Maggie-Owen Wadelton (b. Roscommon, Ireland, 24 January 1894?; d. Indianapolis, Indiana, 4 February 1972)

Maggie-Owen Wadelton published four books in the 1940s. Three are autobiographical, and the fourth is a supernatural novel. The autobiographical books are very problemmatic because none of the details of Wadelton's early life, and the names of her relations, as given in the three books, can be confirmed through genealogical resources like censuses and birth and marriage records. And in fact Wadelton in the mid-1940s gave conflicting information to two biographical references, including Who's Who (1944 supplement) and Catholic Authors (1948). Even bibliographically there are problems with her works, including two supposedly published books which do not seem to exist.

Her first autobiographical book was The Book of Maggie Owen (1941), which was evidently based upon (yet revised from) some diaries of her childhood in Ireland that had recently come back into her possession (after the death of her great aunt in Ireland). The book gives no author name other than Maggie Owen, and it begins on her supposed twelfth birthday of 24 January 1908. The second volume, Maggie No Doubt (1943), as by Maggie-Owen Wadelton (the same byline as her two subsequent books), and it covers her time in Ireland, America, England and France up to her third marriage in June 1917 to an American reserve captain in World War I. After 1917, Maggie-Owen's life is fairly well documented, and this time period is also covered in her third autobiography (and final book) Gay, Wild and Free: From Captain's Wife to Colonel's Lady (1949).

Maggie-Owen's story, as can be pieced together from the first two autobiographies, is that her young mother (married at age fourteen) had died as Maggie-Owen was born, and her father, who was the seventh child of a family that had moved to America and left him behind in Ireland, abandoned the baby girl with her mother's family and soon afterwards perished in battle in Africa or India. Maggie-Owen was raised mostly by two great-aunts, and some of their other relations. After a trip to New York where she met some of her father's family, they petitioned the Irish court for custody of the minor Maggie-Owen to be given to them, and a plot was hatched that a sham-marriage for Maggie-Owen took place in France with a gentleman temporarily unable to marry the woman he loved. The “marriage” was annulled after some twenty-two months, when Maggie-Owen reached the age of eighteen. Her second marriage, probably in the summer of 1915, was to her childhood love Edward, who was killed in the war three weeks later.

Tommy Wadelton
Maggie-Owen Wadelton and her third husband Thomas Dorrington Wadelton, Jr. (1886-1945) had one child, a son, Thomas Dorrington Wadelton III (1925*-1974), who after publishing two short stories was courted by publishers, and thereafter produced four books (as by Tommy Wadelton) in the early 1940s when he was very young. These include humorous portrayals of his mother and father, respectively, in My Mother Is a Violent Woman (1940) and My Father Is a Quiet Man (1941), and of himself, in Army Brat (1943), which was made into a film as Little Mister Jim (1946). A final book was Silver Buckles on His Knee (1945). Tommy went on to study photography and worked as feature photographer at the Indianapolis Star for more than twenty-two years. When Colonel Wadelton retired from the army in 1939, after some twenty moves to various postings, the family settled in Indianapolis.

Maggie-Owen's birthname, birthyear, and parentage is uncertain. From The Book of Maggie Own, it would seem that she was born in 1896, but in other places the year is given as 1895, 1894, or even (in the Social Security Death Index) as 1890. She told Catholic Authors in 1948 that her birthname was “Margret [sic] Kearns” but she gives it in The Book of Maggie Owen as “Margret Owen” and in Maggie No Doubt as “Margret-Owen Coughlin.” Her parent's names are given variously as Maggie-Kate Melody and Owen Coughlin (in Maggie No Doubt) and on her 1972 Indiana death certificate as Maggieowen O'Malley Kierns and Phenis Paul Kierns (the informant being her son Tommy, but here her birthdate is listed as 23 January rather than the usual 24 January). Her father's family in America appear in The Book of Maggie Owen as the Coughlins. Some Kearns relations of Van Etten (New York?) appear actually to have been of Rhinebeck, New York, where in the 1940s and 1950s Maggie-Owen visited the Mistresses Mary Kearns and Catherine Kearns, who are called in contemporary newspaper accounts her “sisters.” (And Mary Ellen Kearns is the dedicatee of Maggie no Doubt.)

Her first husband's name is given in Maggie No Doubt as Ernest Ruthven Kenmore, but in the 1944 Who's Who as Ernest Leslie Kenmore. Her second husband appears as Edward Bootham Turner-Holt. Her great aunts as Ann (Melody) Conner, and her sister Kate Melody, elsewhere Kate Holt Melody. In the 1920 and 1930 US Censuses, Maggie-Owen's name is given as “Jeanne K. Wadelton.” Yet in a letter to the Indianapolis Star in 1940 she signed her name as "Maggie-Jeanne Wadelton."

All these discrepancies are confusing. One can presume that her birthname was probably Margret Jeanne Kearns. (A 1941 newspaper profile notes that the "Owen" is a Gaelic form of Eugenia, which perhaps explains her evolving nickname Maggie-Jeanne / Maggie-Owen.) She also claimed to have used for some years the surname of her great aunt, named as Kate Melody in her autobiographies. 

Her Who's Who entry lists her education at the Sacred Heart Convent, Paris, 1909-1911, and at Carshallton House in Surrey for 1911-1912. She also volunteered as a member of the British Ambulance Service in World War I.

Catholic Authors notes that “under the name of Melody she wrote Sheila and Ponobscot Ferry.” I can find no trace of any such publications. In a 3 October 1943 Indianapolis Star newspaper profile, she reportedly began writing after the stock market crash of 1929, and sold verse to Poetry, a lengthy article on the history of lace to a New York department store, and various short stories to pulp magazines. In the newspaper profile Wadelton notes: “Then I wrote a novel, which is probably the worst book ever written. It is full of rape and murder and everything terrible. I called it 'Sheila.' Scribner's published it--though I don't see why.” None of these publications have been traced. She did write at least one other novel, finished in the summer of 1947, titled Gillian Benedict, about an alcoholic woman in London between the wars. It was turned down by Bobbs-Merrill, who had published her other books.

Her one known and published novel Sarah Mandrake (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, [February] 1946) is the work that concerns us here. Sarah Mandrake has restored a large mansion on the Hudson River in Dutchess County, New York (the setting is based on the house Wadelton visited as a child, as described in her first autobiography). After living there for a while, she disappears, leaving the house to a relative, Stephen Ellers, a British war veteran with his wife and infants, who must unravel the story of her life and of her legacy. The Catholic World called the book a “fascinating, red-blooded ghost-story 'in modern dress'” (July 1946); while Kirkus called it “with deliberate British formality,a sometimes overplayed, overlong tale of evil and retribution, real and spectral, to satisfy some tastes” (January 1946). Sarah Mandrake was reprinted in 1966 as a Paperback Library Gothic.

Both Maggie-Owen Wadelton and her husband are buried in the Arlington National Cemetery, in Arlington, Virginia, across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C.

* Tommy's birthyear is usually given as 1926 or 1927, but U.K. Birth records confirm he was born in 1925.

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