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She left behind a to-do list reminding herself to get in touch with Cecil B. DeMille and took with her a portfolio of publicity photos taken at the Tolman Studios in Eugene, Oregon, for which she had served as her own art director. She was pretty, striking, and small—under five feet—with high cheekbones, a wide smile, and strong-looking, slightly prominent teeth. Her thick black hair hung down past her waist, and her eyes were described as black.
Opal had been photographed in several costumes and poses—as a barefoot, violin- playing Gypsy with autumn leaves strewn around the studio floor; as a waif in a little Dutch girl hat; in profile, barefoot again, as a dancer in a gauzy Isadora Duncan–style tunic with flowers in her hair; and as a crazed-looking ballerina in toe shoes.
The most startling image preserved from this series is Opal with dreamy eyes, her mouth in a Mona Lisa smile, her thick hair brushed back from her oval face and cascading down over a white dress and out of the frame. Her hands are extended and half open. Three huge butterflies appear to have landed there, and there is another on her shoulder and one more on her hair. But Opal isn’t looking at the butterflies or at anything at all. Her eyes are unfocused. She appears to be in a trance or in communion with something unattainable by the viewer. (This may be because the butterflies were added to the photograph later.)
A lot of young Americans Opal’s age were on the move in 1918. Woodrow Wilson had declared war on Germany the previous April. Doughboys and Red Cross nurses were leaving cities, farms, and small towns like Cottage Grove to take part in the bloody conflict overseas that was to determine the trajectory for the rest of the eventful twentieth century.
The trenches of France, however, never loomed large in Opal’s consciousness. Her journey would be one in search of fame and glamour via a child’s shimmering fairyland and half-remembered princes and princesses. No one knows for sure to what extent the magical place she found for herself was real and how much of it sprang from her own mysterious inner world. Opal never came back to Oregon after her train left town in 1918. She never saw any other Whiteleys again. Nor did she become a movie star. But she did become, very briefly, very famous.
Today those who know about Opal Whiteley are few in number, but many of them are intensely attached to her work and her memory. They do not necessarily agree among themselves about the details of her life or indeed about who she really was. Here are some biographical “facts” about Opal Whiteley that have become accepted into the official canon. Some of them are true.
She was born sometime in 1897 and grew up in and around Cottage Grove, a logging town in Oregon, where she had arrived in 1902, when she was about four years old. She was raised by Ed and Lizzie Whiteley. The other four Whiteley children—Pearl, Faye, Cloe, and baby Elwin—were all younger.
As a child of nine or ten Opal began collecting nature specimens, chiefly butterflies and minerals, and taught younger children about them. At seventeen she was named state superintendent of an ecumenical Christian youth group and traveled throughout Oregon successfully recruiting many new members.
She also gained regional recognition as a lecturer on the natural world. She combined nature studies with the uplifting religious message that children could be brought to God through the beauty of His handiwork.
She was accepted into the University of Oregon at Eugene because of her extensive knowledge of geology, botany, and zoology, although she hadn’t completed all the entrance requirements.
Opal left college during her sophomore year and went to southern California, where she taught nature classes to the children of rich families.
She took the material from her classes and put them into a self-published nature book for children, The Fairyland Around Us, a venture financed in part by collecting deposits from people who wanted to buy the book before it was published. Opal always had charm. Opal had a dispute with the printer, who wanted extra money to pay for changes in the book and who finally destroyed the plates, leaving her with a partially produced book. She gathered up what had been printed, had copies bound, hand-pasted hundreds of color plates of birds and plants into them, and added handwritten captions.
In July 1919, when she was twenty-one, she went east to seek a literary career and ended up in Boston in the office of Ellery Sedgwick, editor of The Atlantic Monthly. She showed him a copy of The Fairyland Around Us, and he asked her if she had kept a childhood diary. She told him that she had but that it had been torn up by the middle Whiteley child, Faye. The pieces, Opal said, were in a hatbox in California. The pieces were sent for. Early portions of the diary were written in crayon on old paper bags and scrap paper.
Opal spent months as a houseguest of Sedgwick’s mother-in-law, pasting the diary back together, and it was published in installments in The Atlantic Monthly. Fan mail poured in. When it was published as a book in 1920, under the title The Story of Opal: The Journal of an Understanding Heart, it sold briskly, and more editions were planned. By one account its sales were second only to the number one bestseller of the year, Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street.
In the diary, which she said she had written when she was seven, readers met Opal’s pets. The pig Peter Paul Rubens; Brave Horatius, the sheep herding dog; bats Pliny and Plato; Geoffroi Chaucer, the squirrel; Lars Porsenum of Clusium, a crow; Mathilde Plantagenet, a calf; Lucian Horace Ovid Virgil, a toad; Nannerl Mozart, “a very shy mouse”; and Thomas Chatterton Jupiter Zeus, “a most dear wood rat,” are but a small sample.
Many of these animals were carried around in special pockets Opal said she had secretly sewn onto her petticoats. Others, including the pig, trotted after her along the road. The crow rode on the dog’s back. When they were ill, she nursed them back to health, applying large doses of Mentholatum to their injuries.
Opal’s friends were not confined to the animal kingdom. Readers also met a lot of fir trees, including Queen Elinor of Castile; Good King Edward the First; Godefroi of Bouillon; Lionel, Duke of Clarence; Étienne of Blois; and Michael Angelo Sanzio Raphael, “a grand fir tree with an understanding soul.” Keats was an oak.
Opal and her animal friends went on “explores,” and she conducted religious services for them, based on the Roman Catholic mass in a forest “cathedral.” The diary records the birth and death dates of the famous, information that she shared with plants and animals. “I so have been going to tell the plant-folks and the flower-folks about this day being the going-away day of one William Shakespeare in 1616,” for example, or, “I did have thinks as how this was the going-away day of Saint François of Assisi and the borning day of Jean François Millet.”
A cruel caretaker known as the mamma often foiled her plans, switching her with a hickory stick for well-intentioned deeds that went awry and assigning her daunting domestic chores, including taking care of “the mamma’s baby,” presumably Faye Whiteley. At one point the cruel mamma tied her up and left her out in the hot sun until she passed out and got a nosebleed. There were some kind humans, such as Sadie McKibben, a motherly woman with freckles, a blue gingham apron, and a full cookie jar, and “the man who wears gray neckties and is kind to mice.” He found the notes Opal had left for the fairies in a mossy log asking for crayons and supplied her with them and with replies from the fairies. The reader knows this man was her secret benefactor but Opal herself believed in fairies. There are similar examples of the innocent Opal’s inadvertently revealing the truth to the more sophisticated reader.
The diary is written in very idiosyncratic English, which some find enchanting and others cloying: “Then I did have joy feels all over”; “I have thinks these potatoes growing here did have knowings of star-songs.” Like her nature lectures to children, the book displays a strong vein of religiosity and mystical union with God through nature.
Opal also wrote of her Angel Mother and Angel Father. These ghostly figures were completely unlike the coldhearted “mamma” and the barely mentioned “papa.” She tells us they taught her to love nature, gave her the knowledge she had of the greats of art, literature, and history, and watched her from afar. She wrote notes to them on gray leaves, and when she recollected what they told her before she was parted from them, she says they addressed her as “petite Françoise.”
The introduction to the diary says that it was not known where Opal was born or who her parents were, but that they died when she was four, leaving behind two notebooks with their photographs. It goes on to explain that clues in the diary pointed to her father’s being a naturalist “by profession or native taste” and that one of her parents was presumably French “by birth or education,” because French appears in the diary. Readers were also informed that while piecing the diary, Opal had to be told the French phrases were indeed French, and she was quoted as replying, “But they can’t be French! I never studied French!” Opal said she didn’t know how the references got there or what they meant. Putting all the French clues together, including some in code, would lead the reader to conclude that Opal was a member of the d’Orléans family, pretenders to the throne of France, and a princess.
Some irate readers asked for their money back, saying that this was ridiculous and that the diary must have been written when she was an adult and larded with clues to allow her to call herself a princess and then passed off as the work of a precocious child. Others believed Opal’s story, and still others didn’t know what to believe but were fascinated. Some found the book a moving and enchanting picture of childhood and a child’s relationship to God and nature. Some wept at the suffering of little Opal at the hands of the cruel “mamma.” Others found it pretentious and arch.
Amid a huge storm of publicity, the Whiteley family, portrayed badly in the book, changed their names and disappeared. Plans for further installments of the diary from unpublished portions of the manuscript were abandoned under mysterious circumstances. More than eighty years since the diary appeared, questions about Opal and her diary remain. If Opal’s diary was a fraud, cooked up when she was a young adult, no one, even the most skeptical, has ever been able to prove it or explain exactly how she pulled it off. Opal vanished from the scene, and the world lost track of her until the 1930s when she was spotted by an American woman in Udaipur, India, traveling in a royal procession. The woman asked about Opal and was told she was a princess, the granddaughter of a maharaja. Opal had many friends in high places, and she was said to have traveled to India on a special diplomatic passport, provided for her by former British Foreign Minister Lord Grey of Fallodon and American Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes, and that she had been accepted by the duchess of Orléans as her granddaughter, and had been sent by the duchess to India.
Despite the accusations of fraud in her own time, today her diary is taken more seriously than ever. It is in print in several versions. It is taught in schools, and a teacher’s guide to go with it says she was probably indeed a French princess. It has been anthologized in an ecofeminist collection and is available online. It has also attracted some attention from academia; the shredded and pasted-together diary is literally a deconstructed and reconstructed text.
Opal has inspired an Off Broadway musical, one-woman shows, and other musical compositions and plays, including one for children called Les Opales, in which a whole bevy of Opals appear. One fan designed an Opal Whiteley dress with silk origami butterflies attached to it, in homage to Opal’s famous photograph. Benjamin Hoff, bestselling author of The Tao of Pooh has written about her in The Singing Creek Where the Willows Grow.
There are those who believe that Opal was a genius and that if her diary were read more widely, the world could become a better place. They remember the moment they first came across Opal’s diary as if it were an epiphany. For them, Opal seems to provide a mystical, even religious experience. Of course, like all religions, the cult of Opal is riddled with schisms.
Robert Nassif, who wrote Opal, the musical based on her diary that was produced Off Broadway, told me, “I have been under the spell of this diary for twenty-one years. It never ceases. It’s a happy spell. She enchants our lives. Opalites are people who have been touched by her.”