|Jan/Feb 2014 Nonfiction|
Image courtesy of British Library Photostream
The first giant I ever met stood just four-foot eleven and weighed all of 90 pounds. At first, I wasn't sure the woman in Apartment Ten would answer the door. But I was a persistent child and, in spite of the silence coming from inside, I kept knocking.
Finally, the door opened a crack and an ice blue eye could be seen.
"May I help you?" came the voice from inside.
I extended the colorful, crumpled catalog and passed it to the woman through the cracked door. "My school is raising money and I thought you might like to buy something."
The woman shut the door on me, and defeated, I turned to leave. But the sound of the chain sliding in the lock and the latch releasing again made me pause. The door opened wide to reveal a tiny woman. She was wearing a blue dress with a white box collar and a single strand of pearls. Her hair, whiter than the pearls, was a short bob that revealed a pair of matching pearl earrings.
"For what," she asked, "is your school raising money?"
I choked. The truth was, I didn't know. The catalog, dog-eared and wrinkled, had been passed out to each student by a nice man in a sports coat and checkered shirt who promised that the top seller of candy tins and fruit cakes in the school would receive the grand prize—a bicycle in his or her choice of colors and styles. For the underperformers amongst us, rewards ranged from paltry freebies like scented candles and ready-baked pastries to subscriptions to Boys Life or Girls Life, a bevy of gender-appropriate recreational items—camping and outdoors gear for the boys, instructional cookbooks and various and sundry pink things for the girls. With the cornucopia of promised rewards available to the sellers, I imagine that no one paid attention to what the money was for.
"It's just for our school," I said. "But if I sell the most, I win a bicycle."
"You don't have a bicycle?"
I nodded. "Yes, ma'am. But this is a better bicycle."
Sensing my growing discomfort with the bicycle question, the woman mercifully shifted her attention back to the task at hand.
"So let's see what we have," she said, reaching for the catalog. As she leafed through the pages, she continued to quiz me. What school was I attending? What grade was I in? Had I joined the band? What instrument did I play? Each time, I made sure to respond with a polite, complete sentence. I was in the seventh grade. I went to West Monroe Junior High School. Yes, I was in band. I played the trumpet.
"What do you want to be when you grow up?"
"A writer," I replied instantly. She raised her eyebrows and I sensed the need for a defense. "I just won my school's writing contest."
"So you are a writer," she said, more of a statement than a question. "I am a writer, too. I don't believe I got your name."
I told her.
"Well," she said, closing the catalog on her lap. "I'm Maude Files Zimmer. It's always nice to meet a writer."
Maude Files Zimmer was born in 1905 in Oak Ridge, Louisiana, a sleepy farming community that takes its tremendous wealth from a fortuitous placement atop some of the richest alluvial deposits in the Mississippi Delta. Her father ran a dry goods store in the center of town that supported his wife and their five kids—of which Maude was the only girl, a fact that often got her into trouble.
Growing up the lone girl in a house of boys instilled in Maude a sense of independence and a lack of any real sense of gender limitations, a rare combination in turn-of-the-century rural America. So it was no surprise that Maude would leave home at an early age, that she would attend college, or that she would travel the world as a professional journalist well into the years after she had become a mother and wife.
Working as a captions writer for National Geographic, Maude visited every corner of South America, a series of travels that produced some of her more harrowing experiences. When she returned to the United States, she settled in Hartford, Connecticut and secured a job with the Hartford Courant, which at the time was a well-respected newspaper with a national reputation. Yet, while in Connecticut, her mind never strayed far from home, and she produced a series of memoirs recounting her youth in Oak Ridge.
The first volume of this collection, A Time to Remember, cemented for Maude a relationship that would go on to define much of her adult life. Robert Speller and Sons agreed to publish her first book of stories. They would go on to publish four more books over the next decade. Maude's time with Speller and Sons, though, also put her in touch with one of the more bizarre chapters in world history.
"Well, it was very nice to meet you, but it's getting late and I must call my niece," Maude said, signaling our time together had come to an end. "But do come back."
I would have to, I told her, in order to deliver the two packages of Divinity she had ordered. I thanked her again and placed her check in the envelope affixed to the back page of the catalog. "One more thing," she said, stopping me short of the door.
She returned a moment later with a copy of A Time to Remember, its dust jacket still bright white and green, betraying none of its thirty-plus year age. She offered it to me.
"This is for you," Miss Zimmer said.
I opened it carefully, a small, valuable treasure. In later years, through numerous moves, through a divorce, two downsizings, and a few economic hardships, I've often been surprised that I managed to keep up with A Time to Remember, that I had not lost it, destroyed it in a backpack, or given it away to someone. There it sits, today, on the shelf behind my desk, a quiet centurion over my own career, its inscription, in a careful, measured hand, almost a commandment to success:
"To a fellow writer—Maude Files Zimmer."
I sometimes wonder, and should ask Carolyn—the niece—if that just might be the last autograph her aunt ever signed.
When I got home that evening, I showed my mother the book. At once she was concerned. Who was this woman? she demanded. Didn't I know better than to go into a stranger's house?
At that point in my life, my mother still entrusted much of our daily care to the revolving series of babysitters-cum-nannies. This particular babysitter, her best friend Kim, fell into fault because I had been at Kim's apartment when I went selling and met Miss Zimmer. So I showed her the check.
The next time she dropped us off at Kim's apartment, she made sure to stop by and meet Miss Zimmer. When she left this time, I had her permission to visit my writer friend whenever I wanted, so long as I didn't bother her.
Before my mother was out of the parking lot, I was knocking on the door to Number 10 for the second time of what would be many more in decades to come. Miss Zimmer answered quickly and this time invited me in.
"There was one time, we were on an expedition with a scientist who was hoping to make contact with a tribe that had never seen a white man before," Miss Zimmer said. I was perched on the edge of the sofa, leaning forward, taking in each word. "And we were deep in the Amazon rainforest, with a translator who spoke the language of this tribe. He was from another tribe, an unfriendly tribe, but he had been living in society for a long time."
By this time, I had been visiting Miss Zimmer for more than a year. Each visit revealed another story, another set of facts and adventures, another facet to her personality. I sometimes wonder what a bother it must have been, to periodically end up with a young charge in your living room for hours on end. Inevitably I arrive at the same conclusion: Maude never felt put out, if only because she liked the company.
Maude's travels had taken her deep into the rainforest, which came alive at her telling. She was one of only two women on the expedition, and she was a petite woman at that. The tribe they were visiting, the name of which was not important she assured me, was a matriarchal society run by the women.
"We had learned over the years that it helped to bring treats and toys for the children. Hard candies, spinning tops, the kinds of things my father's store carried when I was a child," Miss Zimmer said. "So I was loaded down with butterscotch candies, my favorites, and several tin whistles."
She described the sounds the "Whoopie Whistles" made, and we laughed. I knew exactly the whistle she was talking about, I said, because I had one at home. "But it's plastic now, not tin."
"Well, we finally make our way into the village. And this tall, tall woman approaches us across the village square. She's wearing a headdress, the beads, everything. And our interpreter explains why we are there, that we wanted to take her photograph and photographs of her people. I do not know what was said, but she became angry and she spun around to storm off," Miss Zimmer said. She paused, took a sip of her coffee or tea or whatever she was drinking. "I was mad. We'd been walking for weeks through the jungle. It was a long way to get there. So I snatched up one of the tin whistles around my neck and just blew it as hard as I could. She turned around again and glared at me. I was sure I was as good as dead. She said something to the interpreter. He then told the leader of our expedition that we could take all the photos we wanted—if I would give her that tin whistle!"
She laughed again, smiling. "I saved the expedition with a five-cent toy!" Another sip from the cup, which she returned to the saucer. "Did I ever tell you I met Hiram Bingham?"
I had recently mentioned we were studying South America in my social studies class. Machu Picchu had come up. But if my social studies teacher had mentioned the name Hiram Bingham, it hadn't stuck. "Who was that?" I asked.
"He discovered Machu Picchu," she said. And then, she proceeded to tell me how.
Even when the stories weren't hers, Miss Zimmer made them come alive. She told me about the fog shrouded Andes Mountains, about the whole city on top of the mountain. So vivid were the details, I could see the fog lift and break to reveal, at just the right moment, the lost city to Bingham's team.
"He had found Machu Picchu," she said. "Right where it always was."
Sometime in the mid-1960s, the publisher Robert Speller of Speller and Sons was contacted by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. It seemed a Soviet double agent, Michael Golienewski, had recently decided that he would reveal his long-hidden identity as Alexei Romanov, Czar Nicholas II's only son.
Golienewski was neither the first Romanov claimant, nor was he the most famous. At the time, that distinction belonged to Eugenia Smith, one of the writers at Speller and Sons Publishers, which had just recently published Smith's own book, in which she defended her claim to the Grand Duchess Anastasia identity.
The CIA's request seemed simple enough: put the two in a room and see what might come of it. Obviously, the logic went, putting these two together would either confirm their true, imperial identities, or it would reveal them both as hucksters. For reasons unknown, Speller agreed.
So on a bright, New England morning, Eugenia Smith sat waiting in a conference room for the arrival of a Polish turncoat spy. Speller made sure to have Maude on hand, though what purpose she might serve remains unclear. Nevertheless, she was there when they met.
"He came in, and he had those piercing, blue eyes of the Romanovs," Maude would recall. "He walked with a limp, a holdover from injuries received at the hands of the Bolsheviks. I remember, though, he greeted me with a deep, formal bow, those eyes never leaving mine."
When Speller put Golienewski in the room with Smith, the two immediately recognized one another and began conversing in a mixture of English, Russian, and French. They traded recollections and stories, confirming for those present that the pair was, in fact, long separated siblings now rejoined by fate. Speller would go on to secure Golienewski's own 'autobiography,' the first chapter of which recounted his reconciliation with his dear sister. The book would sell well, especially when packaged alongside Smith's own 'autobiography.' The only problem: none of it was true.
What actually transpired in that meeting, Maude would later realize, was the culmination of a pair of unrelated hoaxes, a unique moment when two skilled grifters met up and, through half-winks and a mutual benefit, entered into the biggest of all grifts. Their dueling cons would not be revealed until months later, when Anna Anderson laid her own claim to the Anastasia identity and rocked the world with a story so convincing that only DNA evidence two decades later would confirm she, too, was a deluded fraud.
Nevertheless, Golienewski and Smith were, at least briefly, hailed as living, breathing Romanovs. They even took part in a couple of parades before laying claim to a vast fortune supposedly on deposit in the Bank of England.
Maude would later speculate as to the reasons the US government put Golienewski's claim out to the public in such a big way. Given her activities during World War II—she worked as a censor for the censorship bureau—she was prone to seeing a conspiracy when there was one.
"The government thought Alexei might have a claim to a restored Russian throne," Maude said. A claimant, once verified, might help overthrow the communists in Russia and establish a constitutional monarchy.
Along the way, the ruse became so convincing that even Maude bought into the tale. Smith and Golienewski's identities as Romanovs was a fact for Maude until years later, when James Lovell published Anastasia: The Lost Princess, and Anderson's claims eclipsed Smith's. Only then did Maude decide that, in fact, Speller and Sons—and much of the world—had been taken by a hoax.
There was the time Miss Zimmer was on a banana boat somewhere in South America when "the natives got restless and a gunfight broke out." Her son hid behind her white dress as she peeked out from her berth on the boat's promenade deck, the crew running past with rifles. On another occasion, she recounted a second expedition into the jungle, this one involving a troupe of mischievous monkeys that followed them from camp to camp and repeatedly wreaked havoc at night.
Many times, her stories involved providing "the real story" behind events recounted in her books about Oak Ridge and her childhood there.
Always, the stories held my attention.
My family and I moved away from Monroe—and away from Kim, the babysitter—while I was in high school. I still visited with Miss Zimmer when I could, but one day, after a prolonged summer away, I knocked on the door of Apartment Ten and a stranger answered. She had been living there for a month or so. The old woman who lived there had been moved into a nursing home.
As fate would have it, though, I managed to bump into Carolyn, the niece, at a bookstore. She informed me Aunt Maude was in a comfortable private room at Avalon Place, and that she was sure a visit would be most welcome.
So our visits continued, though now we shared stories about my own life—adventures on the stage, which at the time held my attention more than writing; my plans for college, just beginning to take shape; ideas for how better to research the Romanov family, since all of my letters to the CIA and FBI had proven dead ends.
"They all say the same thing," I told her. "'We can neither confirm nor deny the existence or nonexistence of records pertaining to your request.'"
The same letter, again and again, no matter the request. Each time I visited, I would have a new stack of request letters, a new stack of denials, to share with Miss Zimmer. We would discuss some of them at length. Many times, she provided thoughts or ideas that might help crack a riddle, pull back the curtains on the Romanov saga, or provide just a little bit of closure to the story for us both.
Then, on one particular visit, I asked a question and, instead of answering, Miss Zimmer sighed. At the time, I did not recognize what I know now was a memory lapse, the effect of numerous ailments common to a woman of ninety.
"Shane," she said, calling me by middle name, as does my immediate family. "I think maybe it would be best if we didn't visit for a while. I just do not feel up to visitors anymore."
Though I excused myself politely, I didn't understand. My grandmother would later explain that, maybe, she was tired. Or, maybe, she didn't want to feel sad or upset.
I stayed away for more than a year, returning just once more. The nurse at the desk remembered me. "Miss Maude, she ain't the same she used to be," the nurse said. "She don't have her memory anymore. I'll take you back, cause you're family. But she don't even know Miss Carolyn most days. I just want you to be ready."
She led me back to the room Maude had stayed in for almost seven years. The big picture of the family home in Oak Ridge, long since torn down, hung crookedly over the dresser. Maude sat in a wheelchair by the bed.
"Miss Maude," the nurse began. Miss Zimmer looked up at the woman, but before the nurse continued, her eyes, alight, fixed on mine.
"Shane!" she exclaimed.
Then the light went out, and she was gone.
Getting out of the car and rushing into the restaurant, I realized quickly just how hot it was for an early March afternoon. The sun beat down, and the asphalt parking lot radiated heat in visible waves. My cell phone rang.
I was running late, and I almost ignored the call. The restaurant was between shifts, and I was nearly out of time to get the front house prepped for dinner service. But the call was coming from my grandmother.
"Hey, Little Mama. What's up?"
She sighed loudly. "Well, son. I just wanted to make sure you knew Miss Zimmer died."
I froze, stunned. I hadn't seen Maude in years, since before the marriage, before 9/11, before finishing my first book. My grandmother took my silence as answer enough.
"The funeral is at four, at Kilpatrick's on 165," she continued. "I thought you'd like to know."
I thanked her and hung up, rushing into the restaurant, where I informed my staff that I would be absent for the remainder of the day. I hurried home and pressed a pair of khaki slacks and a shirt. I donned a tie and a sports coat and rushed back to Kilpatrick's, arriving five minutes into the three o'clock visitation.
Walking into the chapel, Carolyn looked up and smiled. "Shane! Thank God you're here."
I hugged her neck as she rattled to family about how "This is Shane, Aunt Maude's friend. I didn't know how to get in touch with him, but I knew he'd be here."
She showed me the program for the service. The pastor had been slated to give the eulogy but, since I was there, "Of course you'll be doing it," she finished.
Of course, I would be doing it.
An hour later, I stepped to the podium, still not knowing what I was supposed to say about a woman who had meant so much. So I did what she had always done. I told stories.
I started out with the story about the expedition to the last tribe in the Amazon. Then, there was the banana boat revolution. "And," I added quickly, "she knew many famous people—including Hiram Bingham, the archeologist who found Machu Picchu, the hidden city of the Inca in Peru."
I told the few friends and family about the woman's son, long buried in South America, about her time with the War Department's censorship office, about Robert Speller and Sons. The Romanovs factored prominently, too.
As I came to a close, I thought about Maude Files Zimmer, always honest, always forthright, always to the point. I told them about our last visit, about that brief moment of recognition, and then the nothing that came afterward.
When the service ended, Carolyn thanked me with a smile and a nod. "Aunt Maude would have loved that."
Over the years, I have often wondered about Maude's life, about her successes in South America, her work in the Censorship Bureau during the war, where she worked to spot codes hidden in copies of Reader's Digest and censored classified information from personal letters, her time at The Courant, and the years she spent with Speller and Sons. It was only natural that such thoughts crossed my mind. After all, she was a formative influence. I even based a pivotal character on her in my second novel. At dinner with my daughter one evening, while making notes in my Moleskine, something clicked. I immediately picked up the phone and dialed Carolyn.
"I have a question," I said, my typically curt, no-greeting method of beginning conversations.
"I was just thinking about you!" Carolyn said. "How are you?"
"I'm fine. All is well. New book's out in October."
She took down the title so that she could order a copy for the Oak Ridge Library, which she was now running.
"So what can I do for you?"
"I'm going to say something. I think it's crazy, but if you think about it, it explains a lot about Aunt Maude," I said. Somewhere over the years, I'd taken to referring to Miss Zimmer as Aunt Maude. After all, the only times I ever spoke of her was to Carolyn, and it made no sense to refer to Carolyn's aunt as Miss Zimmer.
"I think Aunt Maude was in the CIA," I said.
The words hung on the line between Carolyn and me and, for a moment, I wondered if the line had gone dead. Then, she exhaled.
"You know, I've often wondered that, too," Carolyn said.
We commiserated. If Maude had been involved in foreign intelligence, it would explain her actions in South America before the war and her job with the War Department during the war. It even shed some light on the Speller and Sons connection. Speller had long been rumored to be a CIA operative, after all.
"And what better way to hide money moving from the CIA to people than through a publishing company?" I said. "After all, who can say how many books sold or didn't sell? Speller and Sons did have their own press."
All the pieces were there, we decided. The travels to South America, the work for the War Department, Speller and Sons's success in spite of numerous flops. It all pointed to an invisible hand just outside the frame. Before we could follow the rabbit trail much further, the waitress delivered the food and cut the conversation short.
We ended with the promise that we would get together soon to compare theories. But we never did.
Sometimes I ponder firing off a letter to the CIA, a request for information about Maude Files Zimmer's activities on behalf of the agency. I figure I'll get a form letter reply and, discouraged, put away the notion. But a lot has changed over the years. Through my career as an investigative journalist, I learned the ropes of FOIAs. I know what to ask for and how to ask for it. Maybe this time will be different. But I move on, preferring instead to allow the fog of uncertainty to descend again over the improbable life of a tiny woman from a tiny village in Louisiana. Obscured safely behind the Romanovs, Amazonian queens, and coded messages intercepted in copies of The Reader's Digest, Maude remains to me the way she wanted to be remembered: as the little girl from her books, roller skating on her mother's hardwood floors.