A Very Special Lady Part 2
Last month I told the story of Patton’s daughter, Ruth Ellen Totten, and how she changed my life. For some years the family kept her biography of her mother within the family until one day in 2004 when I received an e-mail from James Patton Totten that revealed his interest in seeing his mother’s story published. I was asked for advice and after determining that the best chance for publication lay with a university press, recommended the University of Missouri Press. UMP had for many years published very high quality books, and it helped that I knew the editor-in-chief, Beverly Jarrett, for whom I had previously worked. I contacted her and recommended Ruth Ellen’s manuscript for publication. UMP loved it and elected to publish it in 2005 as The Button Box: A Daughter’s Loving Memoir of Mrs. George S. Patton.
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Click here to read Part 1: A Very Special Lady
Here is the foreword I wrote for the book:
Ruth Ellen Patton Totten’s The Button Box is an engaging memoir of the life of an extraordinary woman: her mother, Beatrice Banning Ayer, who was the daughter of Frederick Ayer, a self-made New England millionaire entrepreneur. Growing up in wealth and privilege, Beatrice Ayer was an accomplished equestrian, a skilled racing sailor, a talented musician and songwriter, and later in her life, a published author. By the age of eighteen, when she was first introduced into Boston society, Beatrice had matured into a confident, independent, strong-willed woman. Her father expected she would one day marry a man of proper social standing. Instead, Beatrice gave her heart to a young dyslexic Californian by the name of George S. Patton.
Her courtship by Georgie, as his family and close friends called him, began in 1902 and continued while he was a cadet at West Point. Frederick Ayer quite liked young Patton but deplored the prospect of his daughter marrying a lowly career Army officer with little money and few prospects in an era where Yankees like Ayer thought of soldiering as the last refuge of scoundrels, and a profession of the “brutal and licentious mercenary.”
Obsessed with a deeply held conviction that his destiny was to become a great battlefield commander, and that he would one-day lead an army in a desperate battle, Patton steadfastly resisted Frederick Ayer’s attempts to persuade him that he could have a successful civilian career of his own choosing. Failing that, Ayer turned his attention to dissuading Beatrice from marrying young Patton; and when that too failed, he vetoed the marriage. In response, his headstrong daughter locked herself in her bedroom and staged a hunger strike that soon led to her father’s capitulation, and his blessing of the marriage. After a lavish wedding that was one of the noteworthy social events of 1910 on the fashionable North Shore of Massachusetts, Beatrice Ayer Patton entered into a new way of life for which nothing could have adequately prepared her. The young woman who had been the toast of Boston suddenly found herself an Army wife.
The life of a cavalry officer’s spouse in the “Old Army” of the early twentieth century was one of hardship and habitually Spartan living conditions. On the remote cavalry posts of the American West where her husband was assigned the days were regulated primarily by the evocative sounds of the bugle and of horses. When the Pattons arrived at Fort Riley, Kansas in 1913 traces of the old frontier army were still in evidence, including some grizzled veterans of the Indian wars of the nineteenth century. A sign on the parade ground read: “Officers will not shoot buffalo from the windows of their quarters. By order of the Commanding Officer.”
For a time Beatrice questioned seriously if she was cut out for such an existence. Ruth Ellen writes that, “She was beginning to feel she was a terrible failure as an Army wife … It all seemed very wild and crude and savage.” The story of Beatrice Patton’s epiphany in the wild, open spaces of Kansas and how it changed her life forever is one of the most heartwarming anecdotes in this memoir. Henceforth, Beatrice not only embraced her new way of life with the same passion she brought every endeavor she ever undertook, but as Ruth Ellen writes, “Her inner eye had been opened … She had discovered the whole world.”
Beatrice’s role in Patton’s life was indispensable and throughout their turbulent, thirty-five year marriage her influence upon her flamboyant, mercurial husband was profound. She was also fiercely protective. Shortly after World War I Beatrice demonstrated the same warrior spirit as her husband at a white-tie dinner in Washington, DC. As Beatrice waited in foyer while Patton parked their car, a stout, unmistakably deskbound officer began making snide remarks about him. “Just look at the little boys they are promoting to colonel these days; look at that young chicken still wet behind the ears, wearing a colonel’s eagle,” he complained. The next thing Beatrice remembered was sitting astride the officer’s shoulders, banging his head on the back-and-white marble floor tiles. It took Patton and another officer to pull her off the dazed officer.
Although he is not the principal character, the book also reveals a great deal about George S. Patton as a father and husband. As Ruth Ellen has noted, her father is “a twice-told tale, and Ma is a tale that has never been told.”
Ruth Ellen Patton Totten was a singular, outspoken and resolute woman with an irreverent sense of humor. I first met her in 1992 at the Patton family home in South Hamilton, Massachusetts while researching my biography of her father. She not only told me about her parents and her late husband, an army general, but also spoke thoughtfully about herself. I learned of her photographic memory, her belief in reincarnation and her philosophy of life. Both George and Beatrice Patton believed passionately in reincarnation and that conviction seemed to rule Ruth Ellen’s life. Death to her was merely a passage to a new life in another time and place. My visit with her remains one of the most exceptional and unforgettable days of my own life.
The reader will find this book poignant, amusing and enormously entertaining. For example, the anecdote the author relates of how her father taught her and her sister, Beatrice, to memorize and recite his ribald version of “Itsy Bitsy Spider” in front of a roomful of eclectic characters like Ellie, with her mass of tinkling bracelets, and the elderly lady with an ear trumpet, remains the most uproariously funny tale I have ever read.
Originally written for the edification and amusement of her family, it is the insightful portrait of a remarkable American family. Its publication will serve as a lasting testament to a very unique woman, to a bygone era we will never again see, and as a portrait of some of the most interesting characters that one could hardly invent any better in an E.L. Doctorow novel.
In May 2012 the new president of the University of Missouri, without bothering to obtain input from his faculty, unilaterally announced the closing of the Press after fifty-four years of publishing very high quality books. Apparently the president does not feel the $400,000 subsidy to run one of the nations most prestigious university presses is worth the investment. Never mind that the university reaps huge sums from its big-time football program and could easily continue to support UMP, which has already enacted meaningful cost cutting.
It’s a sorry commentary when venerable institutions like this are summarily cast aside, in this case, at the whim of a former software executive who apparently hasn’t the slightest appreciation for anything but the bottom line. More than 5,000 people have already signed an online petition protesting its closure and efforts are underway to rally support through other protests. Whether or not the University of Missouri Press can be saved has yet to be determined.