Unpacking Rosalie Edge, Slowly Stories Hawk of Mercy Doesn
When I became a serious biographer I encountered the litigious specter of the late J.D. Salinger. The author’s spirit got touchy way before he died; since 1988 it has hovered around all those who dare to write books about the lives of others. In a landmark decision, J.D. Salinger v Random House ruled that unpublished private letters are copyrighted just as any literary expression is. Salinger argued that not a word from his personal letters could be excerpted in a biography of him without his permission--or now, presumably, without his legal heir’s. Largely owing to Salinger’s expansive privacy requirements, copyright belongs to any writer of a personal letter for 70 years after the letter writer’s death—whether the letter turns up in a private collection or a library.
So those tart exchanges between Rosalie Edge and ‘Opponents A-Z’ that I was reading in the Conservation Collection files at the Denver Public Library? And the lily-livered replies from Gilbert Pearson, president of the National Association of Audubon Societies, to Edge’s questions about the future of ivory-billed woodpeckers and bald eagles? Without permission to quote from authors of the 60-year old letters or their heirs, the exact wordings I read in the library stayed in the library.
On a hot summer day in Winnetka, Illinois a few months later, I was walking up the driveway to the elegantly fatigued house of Edge’s son Peter. The license plate on the car parked in front read HOOPOE.
When I rang the doorbell this time, I was not wearing a Snugli-encapsulated infant (See Post #1). At 77 Peter Edge was surpassingly tall and shaggy. A masterful birder on seven continents, Peter looked like he had just returned from one of the farthest ones. His manner was stern, and he spoke in the haute-New York accent that sounded like FDR’s, and that I associated with giving orders. Right there in the front hall I believe he began to assess whether I had what it took to be his mother’s biographer. He told me in our initial phone conversation that others had wanted to write his mother’s life story but he had not provided much encouragement. Yet I quickly discovered how kind Peter was. After his first wife Mary died, he married Charleen, and insisted that her mother move in with them.
We stopped by a room near Peter’s book-crammed study to say hello to his frail 93-year old mother-in-law and chat with her for a few minutes about why I had come. Over a lunch prepared by the beautiful and gracious Charleen I mentioned I would soon visit my grandmother at her bungalow in the Catskills. Peter’s wild brow arched.
“My mother is buried in the Newburgh cemetery,” he said. “It might not be terribly inconvenient for you to go there. Surely you must.”
Next Time: At the Newburgh Cemetery.