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Meet the grandmother of memoir fabricators

Discredited author Margaret Seltzer could learn from her spunky literary predecessor.

March 14, 2008|Anne Colby | Times Staff Writer

She was a tough-talking woman who wrote about being taken from home early in life to be raised in a challenging environment. She was helped by a protective caregiver and worked hard to fit in, learning to abide by strict codes and witnessing violence and death at an impressionable age.

Her memoir describing her childhood attracted media attention and praise. But the acclaim turned to anger when her autobiography was outed as a fiction and it was revealed that she had been raised at her family's home in a middle-class California suburb.

No, we're not talking about Margaret Seltzer, author of the recently debunked autobiography "Love and Consequences."

This is the story of Joan Lowell, whose colorful 1929 childhood memoir, "The Cradle of the Deep," about her experiences growing up on a schooner sailing the Pacific Ocean and South Seas in the early years of the 20th century, was the literary sensation and scandal of its time.

Lowell, an actress in her mid-20s, wrote that when she was just 11 months old, she was taken from her ill mother in Berkeley to live with her sea captain father and his all-male crew on the Minnie A. Caine, a trading ship, until she was 17. Her rollicking coming-of-age tale -- larded with sailor slang and lively yarns about rainsqualls, brawls and sharks -- quickly became a bestseller.

As a baby on the ship, Lowell wrote, she was dressed in a flour-sack nightgown and rocked to sleep in a canvas hammock. Charged with her care was an old sailmaker named Stitches. She learned her first curse words at 2, played games with her pet gull Salt Pork and joined her shipmates in strip poker. She was still a girl when she got painted with tar and dried coconut in a sailor's initiation rite. She traded trinkets with islanders and picked up native dialects. Lowell told of helping with an injured sailor's amputation when she was not yet 16 and seeing a shark eat a man alive.

Above all, she was taught the code of the sea: "Never to squeal on anyone, take punishment without a squawk and be ashamed to show fear."

"The Cradle of the Deep" ends the night her father's ship catches fire in the waters off Australia and Lowell swims miles to a lightship with her pet kittens clinging to her bare back by their claws.

It was an irresistible tale and more than a little incredible. The New York Times reviewer noted skeptically how it seemed that every nautical calamity on record arose in the book: "This is not to question the veracity of the seagoing author. But she does trundle forth the expected with such infallibility that the product seems somewhat machine-made."

The Los Angeles Times wrote, "It can't be reviewed. It must be read. Warning: Start early in the evening, you won't want to stop until you're through."

Though some maritime enthusiasts complained that it smelled fishy ("I have never read a more barefaced piece of nautical sham," one huffed), others defended the book's authenticity.

Readers took the bait. Lowell's memoir, a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, sold more than 100,000 copies. Lowell was profiled in newspapers, photographed on ships and wrote a Saturday Evening Post essay about lessons learned from a life on the sea.

Her publisher, Simon & Schuster, threw a 500-person party in her honor on the Ile de France ocean liner. Film director D.W. Griffith signed the actress (who'd had a bit part in Chaplin's "The Gold Rush") to star in a United Artists talkie based on her memoir.

But then the truth came to light.

A month after "Cradle" was published, neighbors of her family told the San Francisco Chronicle that the author had spent most of her childhood at home in Berkeley. Lowell did have a sea captain father and had traveled on his ship, but only on short sojourns with her mother. Then a reporter found the Minnie A. Caine -- which supposedly had burned and sunk off Australia -- at an Oakland dock.

Praise for the book gave way to parody. Will Rogers spoofed it in the Chronicle, writing: "They are figuring out now where most of Joan's deep seaing was on the ferry from an apartment in Jersey City over to her publishers."

Vanity Fair writer Corey Ford quickly turned out the book "Salt Water Taffy," a burlesqued memoir of the seafaring girl "June Triplett," which itself became a bestseller.

The New York Times wrote that the affair "was part of the too complacent ethics of a good deal of authorship and publishing. The subject was naval, but the tactics were cavalier."

The incident was a major embarrassment for the Book-of-the-Month Club, which offered its 65,000 subscribers refunds on the book but didn't take any action against Lowell.

In an interview at the time, Lowell maintained that a writer's primary obligation was to provide readers with color and entertainment: "Any damn fool can be accurate -- and dull."

She never admitted to the deceit, and, though the scandal followed her, it didn't put a halt to her literary adventures.

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