79. Nancy Wilson Ross, Stanley Young, A Book And A Song

79. Nancy Wilson Ross, Stanley Young, a Book and a Song

This morning after waking I found myself humming (internally) an old popular song, dating from my high school days and long forgotten; it was on the “hit parade” in 1941 (a recording by Jimmy Dorsey’s Orchestra can be heard on the web). The song is titled “My Sister and I.” The persona of the song, the imagined speaker or singer, is a Dutch boy driven from his home and parents, along with his sister, by the brutal Nazi German occupation of Holland early in World War II. Behind it was a best-selling book with the same title (for that, see on the web “My Sister and I, Dutch Boy) which sold more than fifty thousand copies in the 1940s; as propaganda, it helped to change Americans’ attitude toward England—the English had taken in the boy and his sister as refugees--and to open the way for our entry into the war.  Its real authorship is thus a matter of some importance. The Diary of Anne Frank, completely genuine (by contrast) and in the end far more moving, was not only much later, first published in England and the U.S. in 1952, but had no such initial success—its worldwide acceptance as a real and heart-breaking document came only later. The book “My Sister and I” was eventually recognized to be a fabrication—the Dutch boy and his sister never existed—but the true origin of the text was never clearly established. The Wikipedia entry notes that “the real author is unknown” but that there are “several theories” about it: one for which a 1990 book by Paul Fussell, Thank God for the Atom Bomb, is cited, is that “Stanley Preston Young, a young writer in the 1930s who worked at Harcourt, Brace,” was the real author.

I haven’t read Paul Fussell’s book (except for browsing it on the web) and don’t know where his information came from, but I can testify that on this point he is right.  Nancy Wilson Ross, Stanley Young’s wife, told me the story, and I later communicated it to someone—could it have been Paul Fussell?—in the   1960s, after Stanley’s death—I saw one of those little bottom-of-the-page queries in the NYTimes? or NYReview of Books? asking anyone with information on the real authorship of “My Sister and I” to communicate with him, and wrote a response identifying Stanley, after getting Nancy’s permission by mail—she didn’t want to write to this person herself, but agreed that I should. (Anyone seriously interested in reconstructing this whole matter can look in the folder under my name in the Nancy Wilson Ross personal archive at the University of Texas at Austin, or the folder of correspondence with her in the archive in my name at the Freer Gallery of Art.)

Fusell introduces the reference in a negative account of the efforts to bring about the entry of the U.S. into the Second World War in support of Britain; he calls Stanley Young “a rabidly pro-British interventionist working as an editor at the publishing firm of Harcourt, Brace” who “rapidly produced “ the little book in January, 1941 as dishonest propaganda. Nancy’s version was very different: as she told it (more as an entertaining story than to make any political point), Stanley had not intended his piece to be taken as a genuine document; he meant only to write an imaginary but moving account as a Dutch boy might have told it. But it was wrongly taken as a true reminiscence and quickly got out of hand, to the point where he was unwilling to acknowledge his authorship of it and lose the value it was having for a cause he believed in: convincing Americans that they should come to the aid of the British.

Enough of that: I don’t mean to take sides, except to express doubt that Stanley was “rabidly pro-British” with dishonest intent. I began this, really, more to write about Nancy.

Nancy Wilson Ross (1901-1986) was a popular novelist (The Left Hand is the Dreamer, Westward the Women, etc.) who also wrote and compiled popular books on Eastern religion (The World of Zen, Three Ways of Asian Wisdom, others.) While she was working on The World of Zen, an anthology published in 1960, she wrote to the Freer Gallery asking permission to reproduce several of its paintings in her book. As the young Freer curator assigned to respond to such requests, I replied that the Freer always agreed to them without restrictions, so long as the entire work was reproduced. But I added privately—and quite improperly—that I felt she should know that the paintings in question—ink monochrome pictures in free styles, as I recall--had nothing at all to do with Zen Buddhism. I was just then confronting what I saw as an attempted take-over by “the Zen people” of all they liked best in Chinese and Japanese culture: spontaneity, humor, aesthetic subtlety, etc. Nancy, instead of being annoyed, was amused and interested, and invited me for a lunch when I next came to New York. Later she came to the Freer to see paintings; and for quite a few years from that time we saw a quite a lot of each other. She wrote a very positive review of my Skira Chinese Painting book that was published on the front page of the Arts Section of the Herald Tribune; I helped her with references and readings on Zen, Daoism, and other matters. My then-wife Dorothy and I spent several days with her and Stanley at their summer house on Moose Lake was it? in Maine. I arranged for her to come to S.F. as speaker for an annual meeting of the Society for Asian Art in San Francisco. And so forth—it was a long and mutually productive relationship. I have fond memories of her.

Stanley had been, among his other literary activities, a less-than-successful playwright for the Broadway stage, and they told entertaining stories about that—how his play about the legendary actress Lauret Taylor was torpedoed by the unprincipled last-minute withdrawal of Billy Holliday, who was to have starred in it. Nancy also told, as I remember, about her involvement in the 1951 movie made from her Westward the Women book, and had many other good stories about literary and show-business worlds beyond my experience. Looking back on those years, I realize that she and I enjoyed each other’s company because of a shared pleasure in communicating whatever we understood about East Asian culture to readers of our writings. In that way, she was important to my life.

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