A Very Special Lady
One of the things that make being an historian unusual and occasionally so are the times when we get to meet extraordinary people. This is the first of a series of articles about those that I’ve had the good fortune to meet who have had a great influence on both my life and my work.
A very special and remarkable woman played an enormously important part in the research and writing of my biography of General George S. Patton, Jr. In 1990, when I first decided to write Patton’s biography, I was aware that, because they received so many requests from other writers, historians, and wanna-be biographers, that the Patton family was not thought to be responsive.
As I would also learn during the course of my research, the family had for many years resisted supporting the making of a proposed Hollywood film about Patton. They believed he had not been well treated by the media and that any film about him was bound to be biased.
Nevertheless, since the publication of my first book, Decision in Normandy in 1983 I had been in touch with Patton’s only surviving daughter, Ruth Ellen Totten. I had made it a point to send her copies of my two books about the war in the Mediterranean, Bitter Victory, the Battle for Sicily, 1943 and (far more importantly as it would later turn out) Fatal Decision, Anzio and the Battle for Rome. Each time I received a polite note back from her, thanking me for thinking of her.
Patton and his wife, Beatrice, had three children: a son, George S. Patton IV, and two daughters, Beatrice (Bee, the eldest child) and Ruth Ellen. Bee had died many years before I began the project and that left George IV and Ruth Ellen as possible sources. Thanks to advice from Patton’s official biographer, Martin Blumenson, I was aware that Ruth Ellen was regarded as the family historian and would be an excellent source of information. I had also previously visited Patton’s son, a retired major general, who offered his assistance and strongly recommended that I make it a point to see his sister.
I wrote to her and asked if she would see me and after and exchange of correspondence a date was set for me to visit. We met on a summer day in 1991 at her house, the original Green Meadows homestead that her parents had purchased in the late 1920s in the picturesque Massachusetts town of South Hamilton.
Like so many things in life, it’s all about luck and timing and as it turned out, the day she decided I should come and see her turned out to be my lucky day. It would also be one of the most fascinating and extraordinary days I’ve ever experienced.
We met in her lounge and immediately hit it off. It was soon obvious that she had a way of putting people at ease. We conversed on a variety of subjects. She was frank and often outspoken in her views, and, as I soon learned, you always knew where you stood with Ruth Ellen.
At one point, she escorted me into a room that served primarily as a library and removed a signed copy of my book, Fatal Decision: Anzio and the Battle for Rome, that I had sent her nearly ten years earlier.
She told me she was very grateful that I had sent it to her because the story it told led her to understand for the first time what her late husband, Lieutenant Colonel (later Major General) James W. Totten, had endured at Anzio where he was severely wounded and nearly died while serving as an artillery officer. Like so many veterans, her husband had never revealed his wartime experiences to her.
After awhile Ruth Ellen said she had to take a brief break to take care of some family business, and handed me a package that had just arrived in the mail. “Have a look at this,” she said, “you may find it amusing.”
What she gave me was a copy of an unpublished book she had written called “Ma: A Button Box Biography”, the life of her mother. But when I began looking it over it was apparent that this was not merely a biography of her mother but the story of the Patton family. It was a goldmine of Patton family lore that even Martin Blumenson did not know existed.
When she returned I urged her to loan me the manuscipt, pointing out its importance to the biography I was writing. I said I would copy and return it to her within seventy-two hours, and she agreed.
Over lunch our conversation ranged from stories about her parents to her views on death and life after death. Like her mother, Ruth Ellen firmly believed in reincarnation, that death was merely a journey into a new existence in an afterlife. She said she had absolutely no fear of death. It was the first time I had ever met anyone who was so eloquent in her conviction or so articulate on a subject that we all contemplate but seldom discuss. To this day I vividly recall sitting mesmerized as Ruth Ellen spoke of light in a long corridor containing doors that led to another world. Her mother, she said, walked in that corridor to eternal life and one day she too would do the same. Death, she explained, was nothing more than the start of a great new adventure.
As I learned from her that day and from reading her manuscript, and would later write, both Ruth Ellen and her sister had premonitions of their father’s death on December 21, 1945 in Heidelberg, Germany. She was asleep more than three thousand miles away in Massachusetts when she awoke with a start to find her bedroom bathed in light, and her father stretched out on the seat in front of a bay window. “He had his head propped on his hand. He was in full uniform and looking at me fixedly. I sat up in bed – I could see him plainly. When he saw I was looking at him, he gave me the sweetest smile I have ever seen. It was loving and reassuring and his very own. Then he was gone … I felt as if some burden had been lifted.”
I also learned during our visit that Ruth Ellen had a photographic memory, which explained how she was able to recall so vividly even the earliest childhood memories and how it enriched her narrative.
One of the stories she told me was remarkable. In the biography I describe how Patton’s life was deeply affected by dyslexia. Because dyslexia was not identified until the 1920s, his parents only knew that he suffered from a learning disability that kept him from reading and writing or to undergo formal schooling until he was eleven. To compensate for his lack of formal education, his father and eccentric aunt read to him daily from famous texts ranging from the Bible to the most prominent books of history and of the time, never knowing if the young boy was retaining any of it. He was – and did – and this experience became the basis for his ability to recall from memory sources and quotations for the remainder of his life. This experience turned out to be one of the defining events of Patton’s life.
Dyslexia skipped a number of Patton generations, but, as Ruth Ellen explained, existed among several of her grandchildren. Taking a leaf from the experience of her father, Ruth Ellen began reading to a grandson who, at the time, was struggling in high school. She related that she read to him every day for some eighteen months, and the result of her efforts was that he would soon graduate from Syracuse University. It was, she said, the most rewarding thing she had ever done in her life.
Throughout our visit that day a noisy, very talkative macaw in a cage in the kitchen kept babbling in a rich vocabulary that included an occasional expletive. As we had lunch in the kitchen, I was warned not to get my fingers anywhere near his cage as he was known to dislike males and would bite them at any opportunity. I kept my distance!
I departed that afternoon certain that I had just spent one of the most interesting and unique days of my life with a remarkable woman who understood both life and death better than anyone I’d ever met. As I reflect upon that day over twenty years later, it still shines like a bright beacon in my own life experience.
Just as importantly, by permitting me to use her manuscript, it opened a window into Patton’s life that would have been impossible for me to attain any other way.
My debt to her remains indelible. Sadly, Ruth Ellen died in 1993 at the age of 78. It is one of my greatest regrets that she did not live long enough to see the publication of my biography, Patton: A Genius For War, in 1995. Nevertheless, I have never doubted that she would have liked it.
Fourteen years after that amazing day I was able to repay my debt to her by assisting in the publication of her superb manuscript.
Next month, the story of how the manuscript came to be published in 2005 by the University of Missouri Press.