Friday, August 21, 2009

Gertrude Beasley: The Rest of the Story

A Texas literary mystery – “Whatever Happened to Gertrude Beasley?” -- has been solved. Sort of.

Edna Gertrude Beasley -- who graduated from Simmons College in Abilene in 1914, taught school in West Texas and Chicago, and traveled the world as a journalist -- wrote a provocative autobiography published in Paris in 1925, My First Thirty Years.

The graphic language and content of the book resulted in it being banned in England despite a positive review by one of America’s best-known critics, H. L. Mencken, who called it “the first genuinely realistic picture of the Southern poor white trash.”

“Thirty years ago,” the book began, “I lay in the womb of a woman, conceived in a sexual act of rape, being carried during the prenatal period by an unwilling and rebellious mother, finally bursting from the womb only to be tormented in a family whose members I despised or pitied…”

She went on to tell how one of her first memories was her 16-year-old brother pressing down on top of her trying to rape her when she was 4, among other gruesome, explicit and lurid details.

In early 1928, at age 35, Gertrude Beasley vanished, as far as anyone knew. No one had been able to trace her whereabouts since.

And many have tried, including novelist Larry McMurtry, Texas literature authority Don Graham, and author Bert Almon, all of whom have written about Beasley over the years. Actress Veronica Russell performed a 90-minute one-woman off-Broadway show in New York four years ago based on Beasley’s book.

Among those who have developed a keen interest in Beasley is Alice Specht, dean of libraries at Hardin-Simmons University. Over the years Specht has acquired an impressive collection of information about Beasley and has corresponded with family members and others seeking details about the writer’s life after 1928.

On Jan. 7, 1928, while aboard the ship the S.S. Republic, Beasley wrote a long letter to the U.S. Secretary of State claiming that the British government owed her $25,000 for arresting her, trying to deport her and conspiring against her as a writer.

And that was the last anyone heard of Gertrude Beasley.

Until a couple of years ago when researcher John Cummings wrote Specht that he had found evidence from the 1930 U.S. census that Beasley may have been residing in a Suffolk County, New York, mental facility.

However, Cummings and Specht were unable to confirm that she was the same Gertrude Beasley they were looking for. Specht tried to get more information from the institution but couldn’t because she had no family standing.

Earlier this year, Specht received an e-mail out of the blue from a Fort Worth relative of Beasley’s – Juanita Jones – granddaughter of one of Beasley’s brothers. Jones said she had just learned of the Beasley book and asked Specht’s help in locating a copy.

Specht told Jones about the 1930 census, and Jones inquired to Suffolk County as a family member.

Last month, Specht received an e-mail from Jones which included a copy of the Suffolk County death certificate for “Edna Beasley,” a single, white, female writer born in Texas on Edna Gertrude Beasley’s known birthday, June 20. It listed her father as William Beasley, which was Gertrude’s father’s name.

The certificate showed that Beasley died at the Central Islip State Hospital in New York on July 27, 1955. Further, it noted that she had lived at the mental facility for 27 years, six months, and eight days, or since early 1928.

Additionally, Jones said she had discovered information written by one of Gertrude’s brothers in 1967 that said she was sent to a mental institution, but “she was no more crazy than you or I” and even ran the facility’s bookkeeping department. He implied that publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst, who owned several of the publications Beasley wrote for as a journalist, had her committed.

The death certificate said Beasley died of pancreatic cancer and that she had also suffered from dementia and paranoia.

So was Gertrude Beasley crazy, or was she put away because she was too outspoken? That part of the mystery still remains.