Sunday, August 31, 2014

Historical Biographies and William West Durant

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhat follows is a guest essay by Sheila Myers, who is working on a historical novel based on the life of William West Durant.

In science there is an expression that theories can never be proved, only disproved. I teach science, and that may be why a comment I read while researching William West Durant for my novel about his life provoked me to find out where this famous builder of Great Camps in the Adirondacks drew his inspiration. This then led me to uncover some fallacies in his biography.

It started with the dissertation by Mary Ellen Domblewski (Cornell University, 1974). In it she conjectures that Durant, having no formal training in architecture, may have visited the Bernese Oberland during his time abroad. It would be there, she believed, he would have observed the Swiss cottage style that he emulated at great camps Pine Knot and Sagamore.

Finding no evidence of his travel to this region from his papers in the Adirondack Museum, I traveled to Washington D.C. and the Library of Congress to view papers that were donated by his second wife Annie in the 1960s. The first thing that struck me was a type written biography – the first page in the folder – it was not signed or dated and it was almost word for word what I had read in Harold K. Hochschild’s account (1962). I put it aside thinking nothing of it until later that day. Most of the letters in the folder were personal correspondence between 1860-1899. Many were from friends in England. I read through every letter in the folder, documenting the addresses and places William had traveled in his youth. One particular letter struck me. It was from his dear friend William Napier, later to become 11th Lord Napier of Merchistoun and 2nd Baron Etterick. It was dated 1870; William would have been twenty years old, just returning from his first trip along the Nile. In it Lord Napier asks him: “how the deuce did you end up in Dresden?” I later found letters (1869) in the Durant family volumes at the New York Public Library (NYPL) from Mrs. Durant to Dr. Durant stating that she and Ella were staying in Dorf Gastein (present day Austria) to take in the healing waters and that William was traveling back from Dresden to see them.

He had been sick, Mrs. Durant said, and he was getting better – a bout of diarrhea. Maybe he was visiting doctors in Dresden? But where I thought, were his letters while he was attending University in Bonn? It seemed to be a big missing link. I found no evidence that he ever lived there. Lord Napier, who wrote to William regularly from 1869-1899 mentions his own exams and entrance into the foreign service but never once asks William about his own studies.

That led me to contact the University of Bonn archivist who searched and found no record of William attending from 1866-1874. She sent me the online records. I found nothing, not even his mother’s surname, Timbrel. If William was enrolled at the University, it must not have been an official enrollment, maybe he sat in on some classes? Like many well-to-do he was probably privately tutored. In his transcribed Egyptian Diaries (1869 & 1873), found in the NYPL, he travels with a Rev. C. Woolis, who may have been his tutor.

Why though would William tell Hochshild he attended Bonn University? Was he trying to give the impression he attended a University that was also attended by Royalty such as Prince Albert and his grandson Kaiser Wilhelm II? I wasn’t sure. It got me wondering though what other things he told his biographers Alfred Donaldson and Hochschild that may have been a stretch of the truth or downright exaggeration of fact. Was he purposely being misleading because he knew they were documenting his life story or was he at an age in his life where he may have believed these things himself?

Discovering this tidbit of inaccuracy made me also wonder about his claim, that he hosted royalty on his yacht the Utowana while stationed in Cowes on the Isle of Wight during the races in August 1891-92. Hochschild states in his biography (1862) that he viewed the registry and it bore the signatures of the Prince of Wales, Prince Henry of Prussia, and the Duke of Connaught. Where was this registry then? I couldn’t find it.

That surprised me given that William saved a lot of personal memorabilia: menus from Egypt and Paris restaurants, notes from ladies he knew, his first hunting license acquired at age 16 on the Isle of Wight. Wouldn’t he have saved the guest registry, as it had great significance to him and especially if he’d kept it up to the point where Hochschild was able to see it? Another mystery. My online search of the Adirondack Museum’s collections on Utowana – does not show a registry. The only evidence is a print with William’s signature addressed to Prince Henry of Prussia. I also found a letter from William addressed to Poultney Bigelow (1932) in the New York Public Library where he says to Poultney: “You from boyhood knew the Kaiser, but since 1892 I had his brother as an agreeable friend.”

Yet this story of hosting royalty was also relayed by the news of the day. The New York Daily Tribune (1899) mentions that William once entertained the Prince of Wales on his yacht.

I went to the Isle of Wight in England to look through the archives of the newspapers from around the time William’s yacht was stationed there (1891-92), and queried the news online. I found nothing to indicate he hosted royalty. Granted, being an American, he may not have warranted that kind of press. But the papers were pretty meticulous about reporting whose yacht the royals visited during the week of the races. The only mention of Utowana is a blip about it being at the Royal Yacht Club for repairs.

So what is the truth then? I’m not sure. I enjoy the hunt for information, but realize maybe some things may be left to interpretation.

Sheila Myers is an Assistant Professor at Cayuga Community College where she teaches Ecology and Natural Resources Conservation. She has written one self-published titled Ephemeral Summer, and is working on a historical novel based on the life of William West Durant. Her blog on this work can be found at

Photo: Great Camp Pine Knot.

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The Adirondack Almanack publishes occasional guest essays from Adirondack residents, visitors, and those with an interest in the Adirondack Park. Submissions should be directed to Almanack editor Melissa Hart at

2 Responses

  1. Avon says:

    I think the author needs to be reminded that history can never be proved, only disproved.
    To say that the missing evidence indicates discrepancies (he didn’t attend the Univ. of Bonn; he didn’t have a registry aboard his yacht) is just a theory.
    I myself wondered if he “attended” a university it meant what we call “auditing,” since otherwise he’d have said “registered” or “enrolled” or “matriculated;” the word “attended” in prior centuries used to imply waiting upon or standing by.
    There would have to be affirmative evidence of a conflicting story or a contradicting itinerary before the doubt about his accuracy rises above mere suspicion.

    I don’t really understand the mention of Dorf Gastein in addressing the Swiss-chalet theory of Adk design, but as one who’s seen an awful lot of Swiss chalets, and similar structures in other parts of Switzerland, the online photos of Dorf Gastein (which is near Salzburg, quite far from Switzerland) show totally different typical architecture.

    This kind of inquiry is fascinating. But it’s not easy, and I don’t think it can likely be done by a solo effort. Expertise in the localities, linguistics, architecture, social life and university customs of the time and place is probably needed to prove anything.

  2. Sheila Myers says:

    Thank you for your comments. I am not clear what the difference is between attended and enrolled, All that I do know is that the U of Bonn records are of anyone enrolled in a class and Durant was not listed. As for online picture of Dorf Gastein. I do not have any on my blog. The online pictures on my blog are from the Isle of Wight. Prince Albert built a Swiss Chalet at their summer residence for his children in remembrance of his own home in Bavaria. I never implied that William was inspired by his visit to Dorf Gastein on my blog. Although he may have been, just like he may have been inspired by his trips to Norway and home in Isle of Wight.