Cuthbertson, Ken 1951-
CUTHBERTSON, Ken 1951-
PERSONAL: Born May 7, 1951, in Kingston, Ontario, Canada; son of James T. (a blacksmith) and Dorothy M. (a homemaker; maiden name, Hubley) Cuthbertson; married Marianne Hunter (a nurse), October 7, 1978; children: three daughters. Education: Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada, B.A., 1974, LL.B., 1983; University of Western Ontario, M.A., 1975. Politics: "Pragmatist." Religion: "Atheist." Hobbies and other interests: Running, reading, baseball.
ADDRESSES: Home—98 Nelson St., Kingston, Ontario K7L 3X1, Canada. Office—Queen's Alumni Review, 99 University Ave., Kingston, Ontario K7L 3N6, Canada; fax: 613-533-6828. Agent—Richard Curtis Associates, 171 E. 74th St., New York, NY 10021. E-mail—[email protected]; [email protected].
CAREER: Writer, journalist, magazine editor, and biographer, 1975–. Barrister, 1984–85; Queen's Alumni Review, editor, 1986–.
AWARDS, HONORS: Ball Brothers Foundation visiting fellowship, University of Indiana, 1993; John J. Heney Award for service to Queen's University.
Inside: The Biography of John Gunther, Bonus Books (New York, NY), 1992.
Nobody Said Not to Go: The Life, Loves, and Adventures of Emily Hahn, Faber (New York, NY), 1998.
Editor of Queen's Goes to War: The Best of Times and the Worst of Times, a book of wartime reminiscences by alumni of Queen's University. Author of introduction to No Hurry to Get Home: The Memoir of the New Yorker Writer Whose Unconventional Life and Adventures Spanned the Twentieth Century, by Emily Hahn, Seal Press (Emeryville, CA), 2000.
WORK IN PROGRESS: Ring of Truth, a historical novel; editing reprint of Congo Solo: Misadventures Two Degrees North, a 1933 travel book by Emily Hahn; and a biography of Pirate Bill Johnson, a nineteenth-century pirate of the St. Lawrence River.
SIDELIGHTS: Canadian journalist and editor Ken Cuthbertson chose two exceptional writers as subjects for biographies—John Gunther and Emily Hahn. While neither was well known at the end of the twentieth century, both were prolific writers and highly regarded journalists in their day. Gunther was on a first-name basis with many world leaders in the late 1930s and 1940s, while Hahn was busy leading her unconventional life all over the world and writing about it. Gunther wrote thirty-eight books and hundreds of articles; Hahn wrote fifty-two books and was for nearly seventy years a staff writer for the New Yorker.
Cuthbertson encountered the work of John Gunther by chance in 1985. A law school student and part-time contributor to the Whig Standard, discovered a book by Gunther called A Fragment of Autobiography. Cuthbertson had a stalled book project in his empty hands and was looking for another: "I was in book mode," he once told CA. "The wind was in my sails." One of his former journalism teachers had spoken highly of Gunther as "professionally sound and commercially solid," and Cuthbertson had already read several of Gunther's works. Inside: The Biography of John Gunther was published seven years after Cuthbertson's chance discovery in the library, the product of early-morning writing sessions and weekends.
Already published in several national magazines, John Gunther graduated from the University of Chicago in 1922 and soon thereafter took his first trip to Europe. Back in the United States, he got a job as correspondent for the Chicago Daily News, which two years later sent him back to Europe as a foreign correspondent. For the next twelve years, he worked in every European country but Portugal, covering special news stories and acting as bureau chief in six capitals. During these years he wrote five novels (and three more, after 1945); none were successful, though all were published. In 1936 he published Inside Europe, a chatty country-by-country survey based on his European experience and on high-level interviews. In researching the book, he had great access because of his celebrity reputation, and as reviewer Douglas Fetherling put it in the Whig-Standard, "people with secrets and ideas fell over one another to spill the beans." Gunther was direct in his assessments and projections of Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini, and evidently on target: Hitler ordered the Gestapo to kill him if caught. Inside Europe was an instant success. Gunther quit his job, became a freelance writer, and maintained his high reputation and lifestyle with books called Inside Asia, Inside Latin America, and Inside U.S.A.; the "Inside" series eventually comprised eight books.
Cuthbertson's biography covers Gunther's personal life, though it ends abruptly—the second Mrs. Gunther declined to talk about her husband's final days and, according to Cuthbertson, "took exception to some of the material covered in the book." On the tragic side, both of Gunther's children died young, his son of brain cancer at age seventeen. Gunther wrote about his son's death for friends and family and was later persuaded to publish it as Death Be Not Proud—the one book of Gunther's that is still widely read. Leon M. Despres, writing for the Chicago Sun-Times, found that Cuthbertson "has done a good job of painting the whole picture of a fascinating life." A Publishers Weekly reviewer described it as a "well-paced, sympathetic, diligently researched biography." A writer for Kirkus Reviews called it "strong biography [and] a big-hearted book."
Two of the people Cuthbertson interviewed for his biography were Emily and Helen Hahn, both of whom had known Gunther for many years. He sent Emily a copy of the book when it was published and asked if he might write a biography of her. "To my surprise—and delight" he wrote in the preface to Nobody Said Not to Go: The Lives, Loves and Adventures of Emily Hahn, she responded quickly with a "yes." At the time they started work, she was eighty-seven years old.
According to Cuthbertson in that preface, "Emily Hahn once told an interviewer that given the choice, she always chose the uncertain path in life." She was born in 1905 and raised in Chicago, the fifth of six children in an iconoclastic family. Her strong-willed mother was determined that her girls would go to college, so at seventeen Emily enrolled in a general arts program at the University of Wisconsin. She learned that a particular science course she wanted to take was limited to engineering students, so she transferred to that school and caused an uproar. Cuthbertson quotes an academic advisor's remarks, from Hahn's memoir: "The female mind … is incapable of grasping … any of the fundamentals of mining taught in this course." After graduating, Hahn said "That remark, tout simple, is why I am a Bachelor of Science in Mining Engineering…. It was enough to make any girl forget a little thing like Art."
Hahn's first book, Seductio Ad Absurdum, published when she was twenty-five, was a tongue-in-cheek guide to the art of seduction. Later that year she went to the Belgian Congo, alone, where she stayed with an American; two years later, disillusioned by the impact of the racism, sexism, and imperialism that she encountered in Africa, she left on an eighteen-day, 300-mile hike with a pygmy guide, a cook, and a dozen porters, and eventually made it out of Africa. At thirty, she and sister Helen visited Shanghai, just as the Chinese-Japanese war was beginning; she stayed eight years, became notorious as the concubine of a Chinese poet, as an opium addict, as the author of a controversial biography of the Soong sisters (one was the wife of Sun Yat-sen, and another the wife of Chang Kai-shek; it was John Gunther who suggested she write the book), survived the siege of Hong Kong, and ultimately became the paramour of a married British intelligence officer named Charles Baxter. She had his child, a daughter; he divorced his wife and, after two years in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp, married Emily Hahn. Later, he settled in England and she in New York. The marriage produced another daughter and lasted fifty-one years, until Emily's death at age ninety-two. In the meantime, she continued to travel around the world, going places in part because "nobody said not to go," and producing novels, biographies, travel books, literature for juveniles, autobiographical works, and hundreds of articles and short stories for the New Yorker.
According to Brigid Hughes in the Chicago Tribune, Cuthbertson "deserves praise for taking note of a woman who has been too-little remembered." Cuthbertson's account of the sometimes notorious life is honest and, according to Katja Pantzar in Quill and Quire, "doesn't glorify his subject or gloss over the times Hahn was broke, drunk, or depressed." Colin Walters of the Washington Times found that Cuthbertson's writing, "lively, is suitable to its vivacious (if also sometimes moody, even explosive) subject." Donna Seaman in Booklist wrote that Cuthbertson "adroitly brings [Hahn] back into the limelight by detailing her achievements…. Thanks to Cuthbertson, Hahn has an encore in front of an audience hungry for just her kind of story."
Cuthbertson once told CA: "My writing began as a hobby; it became a vocation, and now it is my passion. I am at my keyboard weekday mornings at five a.m., and I spend Saturday mornings writing, too. I am constantly learning and striving to become a better writer, and to extend my range. I wrote Inside because I thought Gunther's story was a good one that ought to be told. I wrote Nobody Said Not to Go because I felt the world should be reminded of Emily Hahn's wondrous talents and the story of her incredible life. I'm gratified that there has been revival of interest in Hahn's writings and several of her books have now been reissued."
More recently Cuthbertson added: "Ring of Truth, my first work of fiction, is a tongue-in-cheek historical novel that is set in the time of the Upper Canada Rebellion of 1837. It chronicles the misadventures of a character named Henry MacFutter, who is the ne'er-do-well son of a Montreal distiller. My goal in writing the book is to entertain, and also to prove to the world that Canadian history is not, as one observer once put it, 'as dull as ditch water.'"
"I have also recently finished re-editing Emily Hahn's 1933 travel book, Congo Solo: Misadventures Two Degrees North. Hahn was obliged to make major revisions to the manuscript when the father of one of the men profiled in the book threatened to commit suicide if the book was published as written. I have been making use of Hahn's diaries, letters, and other personal papers to restore the book to its original form. I also wrote an introduction that explains the background and provides the reader with some context. The book is in the hands of my agent in New York, and I am hopeful that he will be able to arrange for its reissue in the near future.
"In addition, I've started work on another book. It is a biography of Pirate Bill Johnston, a notorious nineteenth-century pirate who terrorized the St. Lawrence River, burning ships, looting houses, and chopping off the fingers of his enemies. He was dashing and wonderfully colorful, but he also had a mean streak. In short, Pirate Bill is exactly the sort of character who appeals to young readers."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Cuthbertson, Ken, Nobody Said Not to Go: The Life, Loves, and Adventures of Emily Hahn, Faber (New York, NY), 1998.
Booklist, May 15, 1998, Donna Seaman, review of Nobody Said Not to Go: The Life, Loves, and Adventures of Emily Hahn, p. 1588.
Bookwatch, January, 2000, review of Nobody Said Not to Go, p. 10.
Chicago Sun-Times, July 26, 1992, Leon M. Despres, review of Inside: The Biography of John Gunther, p. 14.
Chicago Tribune, August 23, 1998, Brigid Hughes, review of Nobody Said Not to Go.
Choice, December, 1998, review of Nobody Said Not to Go, p. 685.
Entertainment Weekly, June 19, 1998, review of Nobody Said Not to Go, pp. 68-69.
Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), February 13, 1999, review of Nobody Said Not to Go, p. D15.
Kirkus Reviews, May 15, 1992, review of Inside, p. 646; April 15, 1998, review of Nobody Said Not to Go, p. 547.
New Yorker, September 21, 1998, review of Nobody Said Not to Go, p. 145.
New York Times Book Review, October 11, 1998, Karen Ray, review of Nobody Said Not to Go, p.
Publishers Weekly, April 18, 1992, review of Inside, p. 47; April 6, 1998, review of Nobody Said Not to Go, p. 66.
Quill and Quire, July, 1998, review of Nobody Said Not to Go, p. 31.
Washington Times, May 31, 1998, Colin Walters, review of Nobody Said Not to Go, p. B6.
Whig-Standard, July 4, 1992, Douglas Fetherling, review of Inside, p. 21.
Women's Review of Books, October, 1998, Emily Toth, review of Nobody Said Not to Go, p. 10.