Reading a Witness to History: Adela Rogers St. John

honeycomb

Janelle’s emails were siren songs:

There are remaindered books in the back room at the library. Today’s books are American literature. Please come and help yourself.

I won’t go, I vowed. I do not need any more books. I swear I am not going to go…

…Wait. I am across campus with an empty canvas bag swinging from my arm.

Well. In that case: maybe I’ll just look.

I slinked into the library, waved sheepishly to my peeps, and plunged into the back room. There were treasures there too precious to ignore and too wonderful to leave behind.

*********

I just read The Honeycomb, plunder from that day, an autobiography by Adela Rogers St. John. Her name was familiar, but I had never read her work; when I picked up the volume, stroked the spine, opened the cover to look at  the pages of pictures, I was hooked. This was a groundbreaking woman: a journalist when few women wore that mantle, and a witness and a chronicler of some of the most fascinating history of the first half of the twentieth century.

St. John was born in 1894; her father was a renowned defense attorney. Her mother was absentee. Adela, known as Nora as a child, grew up in a world created and defined by her father. Her familiars included detectives and madams, boxers and reporters.

It’s interesting that she frames her life story in the context of Pilgrim’s Progress.  She flails through controversy, painstakingly records history, courts scandal and notoriety, and ends her life as an ordained minister.

young-adela

St. John was one of the first well-known women journalists. She declined to go to college; her father told her she’d better have a trade then, and he connected her with William Randolph Hearst. Hearst was an innovator and a prophet; he took a chance on a female writer, and he benefited from her unique way of expressing herself. From her first job with the San Francisco Examiner, readers loved her voice and style.

St. John would bound back and forth between kinds of writing during her career. As, even when married, the main support of her family, she found ways to bring home the bacon even when she couldn’t work a 9 to 5 job. So she wrote in-depth features, and she did interviews with Hollywood stars that earned her the title of Mother Confessor. She wrote movie scripts–pretty well-known ones, well-acclaimed ones, like the script for A Star is Born. She wrote short stories to pay the rent; she notes that her Hollywood features were sanitized, but, in the stories, she could disguise and present the truth. She wrote books of fiction and she wrote the story of her father’s life and of her own.

And along the way, she was witness and chronicler of some of the most amazing history of the first half of the twentieth century. St. John did a stint as a sports feature writer–Hearst wanted someone who didn’t understand the games to write for an audience that, unlike today’s, was often unfamiliar with football or basketball or boxing. So she covered the Dempsey-Tunney long count fight.

She went undercover as a poor women and wrote about the real life plight of single, unemployed women during the Depression.

She had a front row seat at the trial of Bruno Hauptmann, the alleged killer-kidnapper of the Lindbergh baby. She befriended Huey Long; she was in Washington when he was assassinated. She covered the long, sad story of Edward the VII’s abdication to marry twice-divorced Wallis Simpson. She was there at the Democratic National Convention of 1940, when FDR was tapped to run for a fourth term.

arsj-and-cg

She befriended Marion Davies, WR Hearst’s long-time lady love, but she gave fair footage to Hearst’s wife, as well. She was rumored to have borne Clark Gable’s baby. She traveled in exotic circles, dropping names like Mabel Normand and  Louis Bromfield and Rudee Vallee and Rudolph Valentino. She became a subject of controversy when she went to court for custody of her children, and when she went to court to commit her aging, ailing father to a home.

St. John married and divorced three times; she adopted a child as a single woman, after her last divorce. She lived on the east coast and on the west coast. She came out of retirement in 1976 to cover Patty Hearst’s bank robbery, trial, and conviction–reporting on the granddaughter of the man she revered, and who launched and supported her career. And, in her latter years, although she doesn’t discuss this in the book, she found religion and became a minister. A fitting ending, though, to a pilgrim’s progress.

She claims to have known dark secrets. She was honest about the people she met, admitting that she didn’t much care for Wallis Simpson, and that Huey Long was a careening, unsteady man. She respected strong women, like Anne Morrow Lindbergh and Eleanor Roosevelt. She lost a son and a baby brother in World War II.

adela_rogers_st_johns

I finished her book with questions and doubts, but I am glad to have read it, and I look forward to reading Final Verdict, St. John’s story of her father’s life as the top defense lawyer in the United States…and his battles with his own demons.

*******************
She is funny and thoughtful and cagey and open in her writing, is Adela Rogers St. John. The Honeycomb was thoroughly engrossing. And reading her book is a reminder that there are amazing authors out there to be discovered, that rich and rewarding books remain hidden, waiting to be found.

My eyes are open; I’m scanning the horizon. I wonder who I’ll meet next.

 

(All photos from open-source internet sites.)

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