Chicago-based author Gioia Diliberto has written biographies of Jane Addams, Hadley Hemingway and Brenda Frazier, as well as two novels, I Am Madame X, a fictional memoir of Virginie Gautreau, the subject of John Singer Sargent’s most famous painting, and The Collection, which is set in Coco Chanel’s atelier. In Smithsonian’s September issue, she takes on the story of Pearl Curran, a St. Louis housewife, and her spirit writer Patience Worth, who was a national phenomenon in the 1910s and 1920s.
You first came upon Patience Worth’s story 20 years ago. What fascinates you about it?
I just thought that it was amazing that this woman could have achieved something so astounding and then been completely forgotten. I had never heard about her before. Also, it occurred to me that it was the kind of thing that wouldn’t have happened now or even 20 years ago—that she was very much a phenomenon of her time. By tapping into this spirit, she was able to transcend the confines of this very narrow, domestic life that she had and become a writer, which is what she was all along deep inside. Just the whole mystery of it, how was she able to do it? I certainly don’t believe that you can talk to the dead, so it just fascinated me.
As you say, she was so prolific and her works garnered a lot of attention. So why do you think she’s been forgotten?
I think that probably the main reason was that her work didn’t stand the test of time the way most work doesn’t. Everybody still reads The Great Gatsby, which is one of the all-time great books of American literature, and people still read Hemingway to an extent. James Joyce is still regarded as a king of modernism. But, for the most part, the average successful writer, writing in the 1920s or right after World War I when she was writing, has not survived. People don’t read them anymore. That’s the first thing. Alongside it, is the association with spiritualism, which I think makes a lot of people uncomfortable and makes people just dismiss her immediately.
As a writer, what did you admire about her work?
Her work had a force and an originality and a liveliness to it that was real and that you never saw before in other people that wrote in that way, through automatic writing claiming that they were channeling spirits. I thought that it was incredible that when Patience was talking during the Ouija board sessions, she was always speaking in this very archaic language, using archaic constructions. I thought that was astounding, that this just sort of came out with hardly any anachronisms and using these words that hadn’t been used in 300 years. She never faltered. Some writers have used the Ouija board across time as a way of unleashing their creativity, just as some writers have used drugs and of course the whole crowd in the ‘20s who thought that alcohol was fueling their creativity. It’s not unusual for writers to feel that being in an altered state of some kind helps them as writers. I think something of that was happening with the Ouija board and Pearl.
Did your feelings change about her throughout your research?
Yes, I felt that I came closer to solving the mystery of it—part of that was talking to doctors and reading about what advances have been made in neurology since that day. It seems less like a mystery in the sense that it seems like it probably had something to do with her unusual mind and her abilities to memorize. Had she been living today, she might have been any of the mystery or thriller writers who write a book a year. They do automatic writing, almost—they write so quickly.
What do you hope readers take away from the story?
One thing I hope is that they get a visceral sense of the ephemerality of literary fashion, that today's masterpiece is tomorrow's junk. Pearl's writing and celebrity were a function of a very particular and vanished time, when lots of people believed in Spiritualism, when it was enjoying a resurgence after World War I in the wake of so much tragic loss.