'Mrs. Nixon' Reimagines An Enigmatic First Lady

Nov 12, 2011
Originally published on November 17, 2011 7:41 am

Aside from being the wife of one of the most well-known politicians in recent American history, Pat Nixon is mostly a mystery. Throughout crisis and scandal, she somehow managed to remain a private public figure.

So who was Mrs. Nixon? That's the question award-winning author Ann Beattie aims to answer in an unconventional new novel. Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines a Life isn't quite fact, and it isn't quite fiction. With both humor and gravity, Beattie pieces together letters, conversations, imagined sketches and even literary criticisms to craft an insightful portrait of the former first lady.

Beattie tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer that when she first conceived of the book, she wasn't sure what form it would take. "It's a genre bender, that's for sure," she says.

Drawing A Line Between Fact And Fiction

Though the novel does include fictionalized moments of Nixon's life, Beattie says she was careful to distinguish those moments from the factual ones.

"The book is very thoroughly researched, and any point at which I diverge and am writing fiction — which I wouldn't say happens all that often in the book at all — I do let the reader know that I'm writing fiction," she says.

One of the book's more historical chapters, entitled "The Quirky Moments of Mrs. Nixon's Life," features brief snippets pulled from Pat Nixon: The Untold Story, a book written by the former first lady's daughter Julie Nixon Eisenhower.

Beattie quotes Nixon Eisenhower's real-life stories verbatim. In one episode, Nixon Eisenhower recalls how then-President Lyndon B. Johnson had sentimentally arranged for the Nixon family dogs to be the first to greet them as they entered their new home at the White House. In that same chapter, Beattie includes scenes of Pat Nixon walking on railroad tracks, and rolling and smoking cigarettes in her youth.

These historical snippets are followed by a chapter called "Moments of Mrs. Nixon's Life That I've Invented." It includes a sketch of Nixon drawing sea creatures in the sand — musing about the size of the octopuses that lurk in the Florida waters — as her husband reads by the pool, one of his preferred pastimes.

Beattie explains that she wrote these imagined moments in a halting style that's almost like shorthand.

"I wanted it to be almost as if I had a camera [and] I was able to move in on a detail and come in sharp focus," she says, "This isn't, clearly, very elegantly written ... It's as though in the moment I'm clarifying this to myself, but just letting the notes more or less stand."

Beattie says she based many of her imaginings on truth — President Richard Nixon, for example, did reportedly prefer sitting in a chair by the pool, rather than swimming in it.

"I'm calling on things that I have read are the way things were," she says. "Even though it may be a little bit subtle ... I think that you pick up a kind of cryptic quality about it."

Reading Between The Lines

Pat Nixon was one of the few modern first ladies not to write a memoir, but there's a lot to be learned by simply looking at her life.

For example, Nixon may not have written about the risks, dangers and anxieties of her duties as first lady, but her courage in carrying them out is undeniable.

"She took many trips abroad with [her husband] when there was a lot of opposition to the policies of the United States" Beattie says. "They were in car caravans that were attacked by angry mobs — yes, certainly, she was often in danger."

Beattie says that even after all her research, Nixon remains an enigma. But there are things the former first lady simply couldn't hide; whether she liked it or not, people who are photographed as often as Nixon was can't help but give you certain information.

"They give it in their eyes; they give it in their body language; they also give it sometimes in the things that are in effect off the page," Beattie says, "the things that they don't say."

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Writer Ann Beattie has written a new book called "Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines a Life." But it's not an historical novel about the wife of former President Richard Nixon, nor is it a biography. It's more like an entertaining scrapbook in words. Some bits are true, other parts are invented, and perhaps it all adds up to a portrait of Pat Nixon, a woman I remember for being beautiful but unknowable. Ann Beattie calls her enigmatic.

Ms. Beattie joins us from member station WMEA in Portland, Maine.

Welcome to our program.

ANN BEATTIE: Thank you for having me.

WERTHEIMER: I have no idea what to call this book except to talk about what it isn't.

BEATTIE: Well, it's a genre-bender, that's for sure. And I hope it's something that is energetic and entertaining too. I didn't really know what the form of the book would be when I began, but the book is very thoroughly researched, and any point at which I divert and am writing fiction, I do let the reader know that I'm writing fiction.

WERTHEIMER: Well, now, here's a little example of what happens in the book: you have a chapter entitled "The Quirky Moments of Mrs. Nixon's Life." These are little tiny accounts - it's not even two pages long - that come from her daughter Julie's book, I guess, "Pat Nixon: The Untold Story."


WERTHEIMER: So why don't you pick a quirky moment and read it.

BEATTIE: OK. (Reading) On inauguration morning, the Lyndon Johnsons arranged a little joke or something. One can't be sure what the Lyndon Johnson's thought. Somehow they got the Nixon family dogs into the White House. Julie Nixon Eisenhower narrates, quote, "Lyndon and Lady Byrd Johnson were waiting at the top of the steps, a few feet away where our French poodle, Vicky, dressed in a new white jacket, trimmed in red, white and blue, and Pasha, our Yorkshire terrier, his thin hair pulled back from his face by a ribbon. President Johnson sentimentally had there were arranged for the dogs to be the first to greet us in our new home."

WERTHEIMER: You conclude your quirky moments with a couple that - one is, (Reading) As a girl, Mrs. Nixon walked on railroad tracks. And then, (Reading) As a girl, Mrs. Nixon rolled and smoked cigarettes.


WERTHEIMER: And then, the next chapter is called "Moments of Mrs. Nixon's Life That I've Invented."

BEATTIE: Yes. Pretty clearly it's a cue to the reader that it's fiction but here's one of them. (Reading) At the beach Mrs. Nixon liked to draw sea creatures in the sand with her big toe. She was also good at drawing the chambered nautilus. She thought anyone could do a starfish. She sometimes did octopi, though they were unlikely to be in the water. Her husband preferred the pool - actually, reading in a chair by the pool.

WERTHEIMER: So explain it all to me.


BEATTIE: Well, to my way of thinking it's almost a form of shorthand. I don't mean to be talking around the point, but I don't mean this to be highly symbolic either. I wanted it to be almost as though if I had a camera I was able to move in on a detail and come in sharp focus But this isn't, clearly, very elegantly written. It's almost haltingly written. So, actually comma, reading in the chair by the pool, you know, it's as though in the moment I'm clarifying this to myself, but just letting the notes more or less stand.

WERTHEIMER: And the notion of juxtaposing things that are true with things that are not true but might have been.

BEATTIE: Yes, it is true that Mr. Nixon preferred to sit in a chair by the pool than to swim in the pool, by all accounts. So, I'm calling on things that I have read or are the way things were but the rest of it is imaginative.

WERTHEIMER: And the point of putting them together like that - or is there a point of putting them together like that?

BEATTIE: I think there sort of is a way in which it does make sense to put them together like that. I mean, for the sake of this kind of a reading of the life of Mrs. Nixon, because even though it may be a little bit subtle I think that you pick up a kind of cryptic quality about it and that is a kind of limitation that I have in that I never was privy to these scenes.

WERTHEIMER: Now there are two things that seem to be very important about her. Why did she marry Richard Nixon? And what did she think in the end about what happened to him and to them? Do you think you understand anything more about these questions that you raised than you did when you started?

BEATTIE: I don't think I have a clear answer to something that as far as I'm aware of really doesn't exist. In other words, there isn't a diary and Mrs. Nixon, you know, wrestles on the page with whether or not she should marry Mr. Nixon. In effect though, we can certainly go back and look at when their first meeting was, see that she moved away from that community for a period of time, moved back and did not phone him, that it was quite a while. He has really had to sort of lobby to get her back in his life in any way. So there are moments like that that are obviously very telling moments. Other times I used particular things as a kind of stepping off point, but really and that the book was written so much not knowing what I would arrive at the end of the book. They were stepping-off moments into space, and often I stay in space. I wonder if she did to sometimes.

WERTHEIMER: Do you still think of her as an enigma?

BEATTIE: Oh yes, I do still think of her as an enigma. Yes. She is one of the only few modern wives of presidents not to write a memoir or anything like that. She kept her thoughts very much to herself. But anybody who is so publicly exposed, anyone who is so often photographed, it does give you information whether they realize they're giving it or not. They give it in their eyes, they give it in their body language, they also get it sometimes in the things that are in effect off the page, the things that they don't say - and that make her very analogous to what happens in the process of writing, I think too, as I think about it.

WERTHEIMER: So now that you've written this oddly assorted book about Mrs. Nixon, are you thinking that this is a form that you might return to?

BEATTIE: I agree with you that it's an odd book, let me tell you that. I really had a lot of fun with the book too. I hope that this book was appropriate to Mrs. Nixon in the way I might go about revealing somebody who was very much in the private eye but who didn't want to be there at all, and who actually in some ways did not have good coping strategies and to simply was shy. Now I'm sure she'd have all kinds of people talking to her and debriefing her about the way she could at least look more engaged and speak differently and so forth. But she had enough of her fortitude and her own essence that I think even at the time people who might have said those things backed away from her.


BEATTIE: She indicated she didn't want to be messed with.

WERTHEIMER: Ann Beattie, her new book is "Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines a Life." Thank you very much.

BEATTIE: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.