Book on Lincoln household disputed by some

April 23, 1993|By Chicago Tribune

When Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln and their children lived in Springfield in the 1850s, they apparently employed a laundress named Mariah Vance. Who better than the laundress to wash the Lincolns' dirty linen in public?

New York publisher Morrow & Co. seems to think so. It just plunked down $1 million for rights to a book on the Lincoln household said to be based on Vance's recollections. However, Vance's story has been touched -- some might say, touched up '' -- by so many hands that Lincoln scholars doubt the accuracy or value of her account.

"This is more the stuff of a television presentation than a book that can be used by scholars," said John Y. Simon, a Lincoln expert and history professor at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale who has read the manuscript.

He said he doesn't believe the manuscript is fraudulent, just not factual. "This is good, dirty fun, but not to be believed as anything serious," he said.

Not so, says Lincoln collector and illustrator Lloyd Ostendorf, who co-edited the book with Walter Oleksy and who owns the original typescript that is the basis for the forthcoming book.

"It is the truth. I have believed in it for 40 years," said Mr. Ostendorf in a telephone interview from his Dayton, Ohio, home. "If I didn't have all this faith in it, I wouldn't have put this much work and time in it."

"Those who have expressed doubt have not read the manuscript," said Mr. Oleksy, author of many juvenile and adult books.

"All we're asking is this: Take a look at this manuscript without prior prejudice and judge it for what it is," Mr. Oleksy said. "I'm really convinced that once scholars read it, they'll believe all -- or at least a lot -- of it."

The book is called "A House Divided: Mistah Abe and De Missy. The Personal Lives of Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, As Told '' in a Oral History by Mariah Vance, Their African-American Maidservant, 1850-1860." It is tentatively scheduled for publication next February, in time for the observances of Lincoln's birthday and Black History Month.

Disparaging words about the book's veracity probably won't deter publication.

In their quest for bigger blockbusters and bigger profits, many publishers have abdicated responsibility for the accuracy of "factual" books, a situation illustrated by Alex Haley's "Roots" and by the 1990 biography of Greta Garbo, which was widely believed to be a fantasy of the author, Antoni Gronowicz.

Messrs. Ostendorf and Oleksy are reluctant to divulge details of "A House Divided," but Mr. Oleksy said it will be the "the first intimate look at the family life of the Lincolns in the Springfield years," before their move to Washington and the White House.

But people who have seen the manuscript said it relates incidents that strain credulity. Among them: Lincoln stealing out of the house late at night so he can be baptized in secret before leaving for Washington; and Mary Lincoln lunging at her husband with a fork when he brings home a picture of someone resembling his dead, former love, Ann Rutledge, and tries to put it in the family album.

Vance apparently witnessed, overheard or otherwise learned of such events during her working hours at the Lincolns' home. Perhaps because she wasn't a live-in servant, she isn't mentioned in most histories of the Lincolns.

Wayne Temple, chief deputy director of the Illinois state archives, investigated Vance's background at the request of Messrs. Ostendorf and Oleksy. He is convinced she lived in Springfield during the 1850s and later in Danville, Ill., and he believes she worked for the Lincolns.

Mr. Temple said what Vance says "rings true," but he acknowledged it would be impossible to authenticate what Vance did or didn't tell to Adah Sutton, one of her laundry customers in Danville.

Between 1900 and 1904, Sutton is said to have listened to the stories of Vance, then an elderly woman, and to have taken them down scrupulously in shorthand. Sutton was then a secretary, explained Mr. Ostendorf, although she later became an antiques dealer. Her collection included a bed and other items that the Lincolns supposedly gave Vance.

It would be more than 50 years before Sutton would type up her notes, at the insistence of Mr. Ostendorf. Mr. Ostendorf said that, during the 1960s, he helped her with the work and bought her typescript before she died.

Before linking up with Mr. Oleksy, Mr. Ostendorf worked with another editor on the manuscript and circulated it without success among publishers in the 1980s. Mr. Oleksy said that version was written in a black dialect that made it objectionable and unpublishable.

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