Somehow, in the swirl of history — and the re-telling of it — the presence of Pat Nixon has been diluted to an absence. This is because she preferred anonymity; of all the first ladies in the past four decades, only she declined to write an autobiography.
Ann Beattie’s “Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines a Life,” is biographical — in theory — but her essence is not fully permeated. Instead, the book is a pastiche of episodes of questionable veracity, dialogue that may — or may not be authentic, and frequent allusions to James Joyce, Anton Chekhov, Joan Didion, and Raymond Carver — all of which are more relevant to the author’s professorial life than Mrs. Nixon’s.
Some of the facts the reader knows are: Mrs. Nixon did not begin her life as “Patricia.” She was born “Thelma Catherine Ryan.” She had 11 nicknames, including “Starlight” from the White House years. She was raised, poor, on a California farm with two brothers. Her mother died of lung cancer — at the doctor’s house, a common occurrence — when Thelma was 13, followed — quickly–by her father, who contracted tuberculosis in the mines. She worked as a saleswoman in a department store — once modeling clothes to a successful sale for actor Walter Pidgeon and his teenage daughter; she enrolled at Fullerton College at 19, acted the Bette Davis role of Elaine Bumpsted in the play, “Broken Dishes,” and appeared in the movie, “Becky Sharp,” but her scene was excised from the film. After Nixon was defeated by JFK in the 1960 Presidential election, she wanted him to retire from politics.
When Thelma — by now choosing to be called “Pat” — was 26 in 1938, she “… auditioned for “The Dark Tower,” to be performed by the Whittier Community Players. Mr. Nixon also auditioned. Like any good young American, he knew about romance and knew the moment he saw her that he would marry Thelma Ryan …She was prescient only in sensing — as he sensed about his bride-to-be — that important things awaited them, but wasn’t sure about getting with him …”
Beattie, normally a sumptuous writer — particularly in the short story genre — has authored myriad collections since the 1970s, such as “Distortions, Secrets and Surprises,” “The Burning House,” and “What Was Mine.” But the in medias res quality of this biography/novel, and the author’s digressions, make it appear that her real interest is not Pat Nixon; the first lady seems to be a test case against Beattie’s concept of a fiction writer.
An admirer of Mrs. Nixon, by contrast, might — at the end, feel that her Silence Of A Lifetime has a Marilynesque mystique; in that sense, the “edges” of her alleged psyche are successfully explored, but only superficially; in the end, she is still not “knowable” — a consummation that would have pleased the real Mrs. Nixon – but disappoints the reader.
David Bruce Smith is the author of 11 books and founder of the Grateful American™ Foundation, which is restoring enthusiasm about American history for kids — and adults — through videos, podcasts, and interactive activities.