I. A. R. Wylie subtitled her book, My Life with George, “An Unconventional Autobiography,” and the adjective was appropriate in more than one way. George, she tells us in an opening paragraph, is that “factotum … known to the general public as our subconscious.” Given the Gay Old Nineties illustration on the book’s dust jacket and the sly reference to Clarence Day’s then-recent best-seller, Life With Father, it appears that Wylie and/or her publisher were playing a little joke on buyers, who probably assumed George was some character from the author’s past.
But Wylie’s title is also appropriate because her life itself was unconventional, particularly by the standards of the America and England of 1940. Aside from a few years in a boarding school in Brussels, she was largely self-educated, and she was certainly largely independent from an early age. She pedalled her way back to London from a family holiday at the seaside when she was just ten years old, spending a night along the way.
This trip was, in fact, her father’s suggestion, and he was the first reason her life was so unusual. Alec Wylie was, if his daughter’s account is accurate, a volatile and manic personality, who managed to flout Victorian conventions by a combination of charm, luck, and the kindness of strangers:
From the day of his birth to the hour of his death he never had a penny that he could legitimately call his own. If by some strange chance he had earned it, he already owed it several times over, and it was only an additional reason for borrowing more. Quite often he didn’t have a penny of any sort, and there were days in our large absurd house in London when there was no food for anyone except the bailiff occupying our one completely furnished room. But in the nick of time Father would run into some fine fellow who understood his situation perfectly, and we would be in funds again. The bailiff would be wined and dined and sent on his way rejoicing and proud to know us, and the furniture vans would begin to arrive with expensive, unpaid-for furniture–quite awful stuff because Alec’s taste was Victorian in its last most ponderous convulsions.
Ida–named quite literally after her parents, Ida Ross and Alec Wylie–was born in Melbourne, Australia in 1885, the first child of Wylie’s second marriage. Having married, and fathered two children, he divorced his wife and fled England with creditors at his heels, pausing only to propose to his ex-wife’s sister Christine on the way to the docks. He sweet-talked his way into a marriage with Ida Ross, the sad and plain daughter of a wealthy businessman, but quickly grew bored in Australia. On the pretext of pursuing a law case in England involving his father-in-law’s firm, he cashed in the return tickets for luxury-class one-way fares and took his wife and newborn daughter back to London.
Alec resumed his erratic affairs in London and his wife soon wasted away and died, knowing she would never see Australia again. Fortunately for young Ida, though, not before striking up a deep friendship with Christine, the woman Alec had once tried to marry. In an extraordinary example of loyalty, Christine took on the primary responsibility for making sure that Ida was clothed, fed and cared for, despite the vagaries of Alec’s fortunes, until the girl was in her late teens. Christine was just the first of a line of women who proved far stronger and more reliable than any man in Ida’s life.
This life was also unconventional for its time because Wylie’s precocious independence didn’t stop with solo bicycle rides. Having spent many hours playing by herself and filling the time by making up her own stories, she took easily to writing fiction, and, at the age of 19, sold the first short story she sent off to a magazine editor. From that point on, she was able to support herself–and eventually, Christine as well–as a writer.
She did it, in part, because she was always driven by a pragmatism that may have been a reaction to her father’s fantastic behavior. Rooming with another young English woman who had been raised in colonial India, she wrote and sold several stories based her roommate’s recollections: “At the end of my first year Esme rejoined her parents in India but she left behind her enough sahibs, memsahibs, Bo-trees, ayahs and compounds to furnish me with all the necessary ingredients for an Anglo-Indian novel which I wrote when I was twenty-one.” She went on to write at least five books based in India–The Native Born, or, The Rajah’s People (1910); The Daughter of Brahma (1913); Tristram Sahib (1915); The Temple of Dawn (1915); and The Hermit Doctor of Gaya (1916).
Along with her tales of faux India, Wylie also had considerable success with a series of books based on her experiences of living in Germany in her early twenties: My German Year (1910); Rambles in the Black Forest (1911); and The Germans (1911). Although she returned to England in 1911, she kept in touch with German friends and tried to offer a more balanced view of the German people against the jingoism of British propaganda during World War One. Her novel, Towards Morning (1918), was perhaps the first in English to suggest that not all Germans were evil imperialists (one character is shot for cowardice after refusing to take part in a particularly vicious attack).
In England, Wylie continued to go against the tides of convention by joining the Suffragette movement and providing a safe house where women who had been released from prison to recover from their hunger strikes were smuggled away from police surveillance. As she tells in the book, one of her allies in this effort was another young Englishwoman named Rachel.
After the war, Wylie and Rachel travel to the U.S., where Wylie’s books and stories have enjoyed commercial success. Despite having no driving experience, they buy a car and spend over a year travelling all over the country, from New York City to San Francisco and southern California. Wylie has her first encounter with Hollywood, which had already begun to mine her catalog for stories. Unfortunately, she was hired as a color consultant for “Stronger Than Death”, based on her Anglo-Indian novel, The Hermit Doctor of Gaya, and had to confess that she’d never actually been to India.
That didn’t keep the studios from continuing to hire Wylie. Over thirty movies made between 1915 and 1953 were based on her works, including “Torch Song” and “Phone Call from a Stranger”, which feature great scenery-chewing performances by Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, respectively. Her story, “Grandmother Bernle Learns Her Letters,” published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1926, was filmed twice–by John Ford in 1928 and by Archie Mayo in 1940, both times for Fox. Ford called “Grandma Bernie,” which portrays the four sonds of a German family divided between sides in the First World War, “first really good story” he ever filmed. The best-known film made from her work is probably “Keeper of the Flame” (1942), which is usually remembered as the one non-comedy that Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn made together.
Anyone reading My Life with George today will have no trouble identifying one unconventional aspect of Wylie’s life: her sexuality. She mentions a number of women with whom she spends time and shares homes, although she never even remotely suggests any physical aspect of these relationships. She does, however, admit,
I have always liked women better than men. I am more at ease with them and more amused by them. I too am rather bored by a conventional relationship which seems to involve either my playing up to someone or playing down to someone. Here and there and especially in my latter years when there should be no further danger of my trying to ensnare one of them I have established some real friendships with men in which we meet and like each other on equal terms as human beings. But fortunately, I have never wanted to marry any of them, nor with the exception of that one misguided German Grenadier, have any of them wanted to marry me.
She also acknowledges that many of her women friends refer to her as “Uncle,” and her choice of being credited as “I. A. R. Wylie” instead of Ida Wylie was certainly an attempt to downplay her gender in publications.
Somewhere in late twenties, Wylie became friends with Josephine Baker, a pioneer in the field of public health. The first director of New York’s Bureau of Child Hygiene, Baker had helped locate “Typhoid Mary” and introduced the first programs of publically-funded pre- and post-natal care in the country. Neither Baker nor Wylie ever declared themselves openly as lesbians, but according to Dr. Bert Hansen’s article, “Public Careers and Private Sexuality: Some Gay and Lesbian Lives in the History of Medicine and Public Health”, the two women were partners.
When Baker retired in the mid-1930s, she, Wylie, and another pioneering female physician, Dr. Louise Pearce, bought Trevenna Farm, outside Skillman, New Jersey, and lived there together. Baker died in 1945; Pearce and Wylie in 1959. The farm, coincidentally, went up for sale again recently.
The literary merit of My Life with George diminishes as the book goes on, though. With all the events of her young life and her own ironic commentary, the first two thirds is terrific. It’s fast, funny and vibrant demonstration of how resilient some children can be in the face of staggering adult neglect.
After her first circuit of the U.S. with Rachel, however, Wylie loses focus. Editorial opinions are poor substitutes for first-hand observations even when fresh–and they don’t stay fresh long: “I would wise with all my heart that in the coming struggle between Good and Evil–for me it amounts to that–America would stand full-armed, shoulder to shoulder with nations who for all their shortcomings are the defenders of civilization against barbarism.” The last book staggers through its last 50-60 pages loaded down with such baggage.
Aside from direct-to-print copies of her works now in public domain and a couple of library reissues, Wylie has not had a book in print since the early 1960s. Her last novel, Claire Serrat, was published in 1959, as was praised by one reviewer as “the book of the month.” Interestingly, Ben Brady used a scenario based on Claire Serrat as the centerpiece for his 1994 book, Principles of Adaptation for Film and Television.
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My Life with George: An Unconventional Autobiography, by I. A. R. Wylie
New York City: Random House, 1940