Sunday, August 8, 2021

Davenport Iowa Author Alice French / Octave Thanet


Alice French
(The Reader. October 1904.)
In the 1890s, Alice French, pen name Octave Thanet, was hailed as “the wittiest letter writer among women.” Another paper declared, “she is without doubt one of the best writers of short stories in the United States.”[1] Several of her books sold over a hundred thousand copies, making her one of the highest-paid writers of the day.

Today, when she’s talked about at all, Alice is best-known as that lesbian writer from the turn of the century. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette called her the “best-known “lesbian Arkansan of the 19th century.” The paper noted that Alice, and her lover, Jane Crawford, lived “openly” from 1883 to 1909.[2]


For over three decades, the couple split their time between Thanford, their estate at Clover Bend, Arkansas, and their home in Davenport, Iowa.


Thanford was a lavishly appointed antebellum estate. After it burned in 1895, the couple built a 15-room mansion nearby, on a curve of the Black River. They enjoyed winters there until 1909, when Alice began to spend more time on the road. After that, they made their permanent home in Davenport.


Contemporary articles referred to Crawford as the author’s companion. The Des Moines Register followed suit in 1909, describing Jane as Alice’s “chosen friend and companion.”[3]


Jane and Alice were close in their teens and early twenties. Jane married Joseph Crawford in 1872 and divorced him four years later, in 1876. The two women got back together in 1882. They stayed close for the remainder of their lives, except for the short period Jane spent touring Europe.

Alice’s first story, Hugo’s Waiting, was published under the name Frances Essex. It appeared in the Davenport Gazette in 1871. Her first paid work, The Communist’s Wife, was published in Lippincott’s Magazine in 1878. She was paid $42. Bishop’s Vagabond, the story that brought her to national attention, was published in The Atlantic a few years later.


Alice’s book, Stories of a Western Town, was set in her hometown of Davenport, Iowa. The main character, Harry Lossing, was an Iowan through and through. Or what most reviewers considered “a western character.”


The narrator explained Harry’s dilemma early in the story. “The time comes to every man when he wants a dog, just as the time comes when he wants a wife, and Harry’s dog was dead.”


Harry started looking at St. Bernard’s, but…


Horatio Armorer spent thirty years in Chicago amassing his fortune. His dream was to return to Davenport and “live in pomp on Brady Street hill.”


When he returned, he would drive a buggy drawn by two horses, and his wife would have two servant girls. That was the life he dreamed of, but even when he had a thousand times the money he needed, he didn’t come back.


Horatio shows the western spirit of self-determination when discussing his future son-in-law. “I think a fellow who can make his own fortune is better than a man with twice that fortune made for him.”


Still, he had reservations about Harry marrying his daughter. Not so much because he didn’t like him, but because he was afraid to let his daughter go. If she married Harry, Horatio would be left alone.


Horatio tells his sister Margaret, now that his other two daughters had married, there wasn’t “one damn bit of need for Esther to marry. If I had known there was a confounded, long-legged, sniffy young idiot all that while trying to steal my daughter away from me.”


Finally, Horatio asks his sister, “you don’t suppose it would be any use to offer Esther a cool hundred thousand to bounce this young fellow?”


It was precisely the opposite of Alice’s experience. Her parents constantly wondered why she refused to go on dates and why she hadn’t married. They likely would have paid an eligible young man to marry her.


Alice’s experiences, again, totally contradict her writing. Her lifestyle and her writing were out-of-sync. While the women in her stories, and Alice herself, led atypical lives for their time. She opposed the suffrage movement and actively campaigned against it.

But that’s another story.


Harry Lossing wins Horatio’s approval and gets the girl. In the end, he delivers the pivotal line of the story. “What would the west be but for bragging?”


Horatio’s sister, Margaret Ellis, was a woman ahead of her time. She walked, ran races, did gymnastics in the park, and had “a regular trainer, like John L. Sullivan.” In another story, Margaret and Lorania Hopkins had a skeleton in their closet—the dread of growing fat.[4]


Alice French and her life-long companion, Jane Crawford, lived at this mansion on Tenth and Iowa Streets in Davenport, Iowa. Theodore Roosevelt was one of the many prominent visitors who called on Alice there. (The Daily Times. November 4, 1910)


That may have been Alice French’s fear. Many of her stories dealt with women grappling with body image issues. Alice was a big girl who stood six feet tall, tipping the scales at 200 pounds. She likely shared the same fears as her female characters.


Alice French was born in Andover, Massachusetts, in 1856. The family moved to Davenport, Iowa, at the start of the civil war when she was five. Her father, Colonel George French, opened an agricultural equipment company and thrived in the booming post-civil war economy.


As a result, Alice never had to worry about money. The family had plenty of it and gave her the type of education few girls could dream of. Alice studied at Vassar, then later transferred to the Abbott Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. After graduation, she returned to Davenport and took up the pen.


At first, she was scared to use her own name. Women didn’t write fiction then, especially about manly subjects.


The name Thanet came to her purely by chance.  She was traveling to Boston and saw it chalked on a freight car. “I had never seen the name before, nor have I seen it since,” chuckled Alice. “It caught my fancy.” Octavia Putnam, Octave for short, was her college roommate’s first name at the Abbott Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. “I loved her—and her name,” said Alice. So, she became Octave Thanet.[5]


By Inheritance, published in 1910, dealt with the negro question in the new south—especially the educated negro.


By today’s standards, Alice French was a racist. But in her day, she drew widespread praise for daring to grapple with questions generally left unvoiced. The portraits she painted of blacks reflected the views of southern society at the turn of the century.

In By Inheritance, she implied that higher education was wasted on African Americans. The men were best suited for agricultural work, the women for domestic service. If the blacks didn’t realize that the influx of immigrants would soon steal those jobs from them.


A black youth questioned his education. “I don’t know if that Harvard education is a blessing or a curse. Sometimes, I think if I had gone into a good family and learned to be a chauffeur, I’d be happier. All my own race would admire me, and I’d have my own position with the whites. Now, I’m neither fish nor fowl. An educated negro is the loneliest creature on earth.”


Davenport author Alice French penned a long series of short stories and novels under the name Octave Thanet. The name Thanet came to her purely by chance.  It was graffiti chalked on a freight car. “I had never seen the name before, nor have I seen it since,” chuckled Alice. “It caught my fancy.” Octavia Putnam, Octave for short, was her college roommate’s first name at the Abbott Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. (Dalles Daily Chronicle. May 10, 1893)


Later, French pokes fun at negro spiritualism and their voodoo religion. Then she tops it off, implying slavery was a blessing. “You didn’t all come from a garden of Eden,” said Giles. “And if your voodoo practices are a sample of your style over there, you were lucky to get free passage out, even if you didn’t come, first class.”


And like their religion, negro ministers were a different breed and practiced unorthodox methods.


“Niggro ministers are—different,” said Miss Caldwell dryly. “They are a queer compound. They have to have magnetism and a certain gift for leadership and be politicians in a way, too, and they are likely to have strong emotions; and they seem to think repentance is more important than not sinning. Anyway, their notions of sin are not ours. It’s a venial sin to lift chickens, but it is deadly for a church member to dance; they usually don’t sweat either, but the other commandments have to take their chance.”[6]


Alice fancied herself a photographer and spent many hours in the darkroom developing negatives. That sparked another book, An Adventure in Photography, published in 1893.

Writing was somewhat like Alice’s description of portrait photography. “The photographer is between two fires, his imperious art ideals and his more imperious sitter who wants pretty pictures. What folks want in photographs is to look just like themselves, only a heap better looking.”[7]


“The lens is an unconscionable liar. There are almost no bounds to be placed to the falsehoods of the photograph.”[8]


The resulting picture was usually a compromise. People wanted pictures that portrayed them as they look—only better. Writers painted word pictures that resembled life—warts and all.


Her two passions were intertwined, and reviewers often noted it. The Reader Magazine said, Alice “is a close observer of people and customs. Anything out of the ordinary is sure to attract her attention.”[9] She wanted, no demanded, photographic realism in her stories. That’s what gave them the local color most reviewers praised.


Many of Alice French’s books dealt with complex social issues—poverty, industrialism, black and white relations.


That’s what set her apart. Alice was a realist.


“She made her characters so human,” wrote one reviewer, “that their originals might read about themselves with the feeling that they were talking with each other about each other, rather than reading about made-up folk in a storybook.”[10]


But as often happens, times changed, and writing styles changed. Alice didn’t.

Literary changes passed Alice by as her style of realism fell out of favor with readers. She told one interviewer Ernest Hemingway was a “bore.” Sinclair Lewis barely “scraped the surface” with his exposes.[11]


In 1934, Alice told an interviewer that literature is drunk. The characters are not real flesh and blood people. They are mere shadows passing on the screen.”[12] She felt modern literature should be tossed in the garbage can, “where it belongs.”


It was a jab at the movies and how they had changed literature and society.


Alice felt the same way about modern life. She didn’t like change. Short skirts and short hair bothered her. Toward the end of her life, she started carrying a gun in case some thug busted into her rooms. If they did make it in, she told reporters, they’d face the pistol hidden under her pillow.[13]


A parade of dignitaries paid homage to Alice while she lived in Davenport.


Colonel Theodore Roosevelt arrived in Davenport early on the morning of November 4, 1910. He was in town to make a speech for Charles Grilk, a congressional nominee. Still, the first matter of business was a meeting with Alice French. Roosevelt carried Stories of a Western Town with him while he was on safari in Africa. His children had grown up reading her Good Bear Stories. Alice had visited him several times when he was in the White House, so it was only proper he return the visit.


The colonel enjoyed breakfast with Alice at her home on Tenth and Iowa Streets. The guest list included Judge Nathaniel French, Colonel George French, Jane Crawford, the congressional nominee, and several other notable citizens.


The table decorations celebrated Roosevelt’s recent African safari. There was a giant bronze elephant surrounded by dark red Liberty roses. There was a lake in the center, with tropical foliage and mini palm trees. Further off in the jungle sat a “life-like alligator” and other desert creatures.


The meal started with a grapefruit concoction created by Alice, Teddy de Rose. That was followed by salmon caught special for the occasion and several selections of wild game.[14]


After breakfast, Roosevelt was the perfect guest. He complimented Miss Lenholm, the cook. Then, he shook hands with each of the maids before taking his leave.


By all accounts, Alice had an “attractive face” and was a brilliant conversationalist—she was “witty and funny.” Strangely, none of the interviews with her showed it.


Alice constantly evaded questions—trying to shift the conversation to topics she preferred. She was always “very approachable,” said Mary Reid, “but sometimes, is as elusive as a wild bird about revealing herself to a stranger.”[15]


When asked about her next book in 1903, Alice remained evasive. “I cannot say more. You see, I might change it in many ways, and then I would have told what is untrue. My publishers must do the talking.”


“Will you give a word of advice for young writers?”


“No. I wouldn’t presume to do that.”


The interviewer pressed her. “And you would say to young writers?”


The answer was less than helpful. The experienced writer told aspiring writers it was pointless. “I would say they mostly would better not.”[16]


The interview lasted for hours, but nothing of substances came from it. A few quick tips on the art of writing or even a few words about the setting of her new book could have turned it around. But no, Alice remained closed-lipped.


Alice loved to read. She would read just about anything, but detective stories were her passion.


She turned detective in 1901 when she sat in on the Fosburg murder trial held in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. The family was friends of hers. Robert Fosburg was accused of murdering his sister in what appeared to be a bungled robbery. Three men masked with loosely fitted pillowcases covering their faces entered the home, then trashed the girl’s room, leaving her dead in their wake.


“Now, don’t ask me for my opinion,” she told reporters. “I haven’t formed it yet.”


However, that wasn’t entirely true. Alice believed the family’s story. “I believe absolutely that the Fosburg girl was killed by an intruder in that house.”


Alice summed up the crime scene, then presented her observations. “If the intruders were burglars, they were clumsy burglars, not skillful at their work. They were bunglers of the kind who steal petty things instead of daring rogues who go after rich plunder.

“Instead of running immediately as the skillful burglar does, they fought. The expert housebreaker first makes a way to get out and never fights unless absolutely corned.”


Her final piece of evidence turned on a fancy patent leather shoe left at the crime scene. That led her to believe it was someone who wanted revenge on the Fosburgs for some unnamed crime against them. No petty burglar would wear such a fancy, expensive shoe, especially to a robbery.


After listening to it all, the reporter asked the inevitable question. “Shall you write a book about the case?”


“Perhaps,” whispered the author, just the slightest trace of a smile lined her lips.[17]

That’s how ideas come to writers. One thing leads to another. One chapter builds on another. Pretty soon, like the clever detective, you come up with the story, or better yet, the solution.


In the end, Alice French was just such a mystery. She had many friends, left behind an extensive collection of works, but never revealed her authentic self.


That’s the real story of Alice French/Octave Thanet. She told authentic stories of western men and women but refused to show her authentic self.


Old age took its toll. Alice lost a foot in 1927 to gangrene, and cataracts tormented her eyes for the remainder of her years. She often had to use a magnifying glass to read.

Jane Crawford died in 1932, Alice French in 1934. Both women are buried at Oakdale Memorial Gardens in Davenport.

[1] The Dalles Daily Chronicle. May 20, 1893.

[2] Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. April 7, 2013.

[3] The Des Moines Register. December 26, 1909.

[4] Thanet, Octave. “The Stout Miss Hopkins’ Bicycle Stories. Stories That End Well. 1911.

[5] Chicago Tribune. August 16, 1926.

[6] Thanet, Octave. By Inheritance. 1910. P. 38.

[7] Thanet, Octave. An Adventure in Photography. 1893. P. 154.

[8] Thanet, Octave. An Adventure in Photography. 1893. P. 158.

[9] The Reader. October 1904.

[10] The Kansas City Star. January 16, 1934.

[11] The Gazette. April 26, 1931.

[12] Sunday Times-Democrat. March 24, 1963.

[13] Quad-City Times. February 18, 1979.

[14] The Daily Times. November 4, 1910.

[15] Ladies’ Home Journal. August 1895.

[16] The Daily Times. January 17, 1903.

[17] The Davenport Democrat. August 3, 1901.

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