The life of American author Opal Whiteley (1897–1992) was a tragic one, shrouded in mystery. About the reputation of her best-known work, however, there is no mystery at all: her nature diaries, titled The Story of Opal, reached bestseller lists when they were published in 1920, and found appreciative new audiences when they were rediscovered toward the twentieth century's end.
Everything about the literary genesis of The Story of Opal was strange. The manuscript consisted of many thousands of tiny, torn-up pieces when Whiteley first brought them to a magazine editor in a hat box. The writing itself was unusual. Seemingly without literary models, Whiteley had written beautiful observations of nature that seemed to imbue plants and animals with individual souls—and she had purportedly done it at age six. Stranger still was the personal story Whiteley told: she was not, she claimed, Opal Whiteley, the daughter of a Pacific Northwest lumber worker, but the offspring of a member of the French royal family. Sustained efforts by several investigators have failed to produce definitive accounts of Whiteley's life. In the historical saga of Opal Whiteley, truth and fiction have combined to exert a lasting fascination over readers.
Raised in Lumber Community
According to most accounts, Opal Whiteley was born in Colton, Washington, on December 11, 1897. She was raised as the first of five children of Ed and Lizzie Whiteley, who soon moved to Cottage Grove, Oregon, in search of work in the area's growing lumbering industry. Whiteley's parents said that she had been born at home, and no birth certificate for her was ever recorded, one piece of what later became a complex puzzle. Another was Opal's dark skin and black hair, which gave her a somewhat Mediterranean appearance, but pictures of Lizzie Whiteley's ancestors reveal some with the same traits. As a child, Whiteley wandered freely in what was still a heavily forested area, and by all evidence she was a child who had an unusual rapport with wild animals and a deep love for the natural world.
She was also precocious, reading and reportedly reciting Bible passages by age three. According to Steve McQuiddy, writing in "The Fantastic Tale of Opal Whiteley," Opal's maternal grandmother described her as "always a queer girl. When she wasn't chattering or asking questions, or reading or writing, she would be looking at nothing with big eyes, in what some people call a 'brown study,' but what I call inattention and absentmindedness." She was a dreamer, but there was a scientific streak to her mind as well; she collected thousands of specimens of insects, plans, and rocks.
By the time she was a teenager, Opal had become something of a local celebrity. She joined a group called Junior Christian Endeavor, and under its auspices began to give lectures. In some of them, she connected natural processes to the biblical story of Christ's resurrection. She shared her vast knowledge of the area's natural resources, and parents who brought their children to see her came away impressed themselves. Sometimes she would take children to a park and have them pledge friendship to a tree. She became the Oregon state superintendent of Junior Christian Endeavor in 1915, and she was profiled in the Cottage Grove Sentinel by editor Elbert Bede, one of the many writers who later tried to unravel the mysteries of her life. He wrote, according to McQuiddy, that "she is a product of the Oregon outdoors who knows that outdoors almost as well as the One who made it."
In 1916 Opal visited the University of Oregon in Eugene. Although she had not finished high school, she was admitted to the university after faculty members with whom she met were stunned by her knowledge of the natural sciences. Opal was remembered well by students who went to college with her. She was what would later be called a flower child, wearing her hair in long braids and speaking of the necessity of universal love. "She was New Age before New Age ever came along," said Opal investigator and editor Benjamin Hoff, according to McQuiddy. She attended a lecture by paranormal speaker Jean Morris Ellis and afterwards wrote in her notebook, "Our imagination is the instrument of reality."
Publicized Lectures with Posters
Library officials at the university marveled at Whiteley's rapid reading pace, but her academic career was checkered. She had a habit of accumulating large lists of unreturned library books all over Oregon, and after the deaths of her mother and maternal grandfather on successive days in 1917, she became withdrawn and her schoolwork became more erratic. She drifted away from classes and began giving nature lectures with a ten-cent admission charge, living in a small apartment in Eugene. She publicized these lectures with a poster that showed her in a white dress, with butterflies resting on her shoulders and on her long hair.
She posed for other pictures as well, one of them showing her as a Native American girl in a fringed skin, holding a fishing pole and two large fish. That picture was part of a publicity portfolio intended to launch the next phase of Whiteley's career: she headed for Los Angeles, fearlessly walking into the offices of directors and casting agents. This attempt to break into the movies came to nothing, however, and Whiteley returned to giving nature lectures. A woman of strong personal charm, she made friends among wealthy Southern Californians and among creative figures as she traveled in the Southwest.
The years of 1918 and 1919 remain a critical gap in Whiteley's biography. What is known is that she wrote a nature book for children called The Fairyland Around Us, and sold it in an old-fashioned way, by subscription, which would now be called advance order, to admirers and people who attended her lectures. In this way she raised $9,400 in funds, an amount that was sufficient to begin printing of the book but not to finish it. Whitely worked on the remaining copies by hand, pasting in and captioning thousands of illustrations, and she withdrew from contact with her family.
In 1919 she appeared in Boston, Massachusetts, at the offices of the venerable Atlantic Monthly. Her initial stated aim was to find a publisher for The Fairlyland Around Us. The magazine's editor, Ellery Sedgwick, told the story that he coaxed out of Whiteley the information that she had kept a diary as a girl, but Whiteley biographer Kathrine Beck presented a sequence of events in which Sedgwick was aware of a diary before the two ever met. In any event, Whiteley said that when she was seven she had written about her life in Oregon in a diary, often stored in a hollow log, that her sister had later torn up. She produced box of scraps, some of them containing only a single block capital letter written in crayon, and she spent eight months living at the home of Sedgwick's mother-in-law, assembling them like a jigsaw puzzle.
Book Became Bestseller
Whiteley's diary was serialized in the Atlantic and then published as a book in August of 1920 by the Atlantic Monthly Press. It was both compelling and unusual, and it was immediately successful. She named the animals in her life after figures from European literature and art; an example of her charming sense of humor was the pig Peter Paul Rubens, named for the Belgian artist who loved to paint figures of ample frame. Whiteley vividly communicated the emotion of her interactions with the world around her. "When I feel sad, I talk things over with my tree," she wrote. "I call him Michael Raphael. It is such a comfort to nestle up to Michael Raphael. He is a grand tree. He has an understanding soul." Not so understanding was the mother depicted in the diary, who sometimes beat Opal for minor transgressions. In some passages the book's syntax was odd but arresting, seeming as if it had originated in a language other than English.
The Story of Opal: The Journal of an Understanding Heart was a bestseller, by some accounts ranking behind only Sinclair Lewis's Main Street in sales for the year 1920. Almost as soon as the book appeared, however, charges began to appear that no child could have written it. Extensive investigations were launched by Bede, who thought that his smalltown newspaper had a major scoop on how a major East Coast magazine had been duped, and also by Sedgwick, anxious to prove that it had not. The two men cooperated but also worked at cross purposes, and Oregonians who had known Whiteley earlier in her life soon tired of the questioning. The remaining members of Whiteley's family left Oregon and hid their identities, and a Harvard University student newspaper spoofed the entire controversy in a story about a Whiteley-like figure named Isette Likely.
More widely questioned even than the diary's authenticity were Whiteley's claims, expressed in the book's introduction and cryptically in the diary itself, that she had been adopted by the Whiteley family and that her true father was Henri d'Orléans, a naturalist and a relative of France's royal family. She had, she maintained, been born not in Washington, but in Rome, Italy. Her parents, whom she called her Angel Father and Angel Mother, had died (Henri d'Orléans died in India in 1901), and guardians had placed her with the Whiteley family. The first lines of a passage in the diary spelled out the name Henri d'Orléans. Many of the details in Whiteley's story seemed to accord with known facts, and Lizzie Whiteley had apparently occasionally indicated that Opal was adopted. However, University of Oregon psychology professor E. S. Conklin pointed to the frequent appearance of such a "foster-child fantasy" among individuals with difficult family backgrounds.
Whiteley lived for a time in New York and attempted to interest Sedgwick in more of her writings. She published a book of poems, The Flower of Stars, in 1923, and she had lost none of her ability to charm the financially well-off. With help from friends she traveled to England, where a fresh round of publicity and then controversy awaited her after her diary was published there. Members of the d'Orléans family and other European aristocrats at first accepted the story of her noble birth but later doubted it.
Gradually Whiteley fell out of the spotlight, and the story of her later years was a grim one. In the 1930s she turned up in India, in the Udaipur region where Henri d'Orléans had died, and lived as a houseguest of an Indian noble. British colonial authorities, however, forced her to leave the country after she and an Indian guru reportedly committed sexual indiscretions. The next sightings of Whiteley proved more disturbing; in 1948 she was living in London, in a small apartment crammed with books that she had snatched from the rubble of bombed buildings during World War II. Unable to afford basic nutrition, she had difficulty caring for herself. She insisted that her name was Françoise d'Orléans. Committed to Napsbury Hospital in suburban St. Albans, an institution for the mentally ill, she received visitors pleasantly and even poetically but objected vehemently to the use of the name Opal Whiteley. She died on February 16, 1992. During her lifetime she had been diagnosed as schizophrenic; Asperger's Syndrome has also been proposed as a possible cause for many of her behaviors.
Controversies over Whiteley's authorship of her diaries and over her background continued to rage during the later part of her life, and after it ended. Among her detractors was Bede, who summarized his findings in the 1954 book The Fabulous Opal Whiteley. He contended that Whiteley had written the diary shortly before approaching the Atlantic Monthly, and that the book, along with the story of her French parentage, was nothing more than an elaborate hoax. The most detailed investigations into Whiteley's work have been carried out by Benjamin Hoff, also author of The Tao of Pooh. He published Whiteley's diary, along with biography and commentary, as The Singing Creek Where the Willows Grow: The Mystical Nature Diary of Opal Whiteley in 1986. Hoff, arguing that Whiteley could not have forged the hundreds of thousands of diary scraps in the short time available to her before her trip to Boston, argued that it was genuine but that the story of Whiteley's background was a fantasy. Biographer Kathrine Beck, in Opal: A Life of Enchantment, Mystery, and Madness (2003), presented evidence on both sides of the controversy. As the dispute continues, The Story of Opal remains one of the most beloved children's books in American libraries. Her story has been made into a musical, Opal (1995), and the diaries were a basis for a cycle of songs recorded by vocalist Anne Hills.
Beck, Kathrine, Opal: A Life of Enchantment, Mystery, and Madness, Viking, 2003.
Hoff, Benjamin, The Singing Creek Where the Willows Grow: The Rediscovered Diary of Opal Whiteley, Penguin, 1995.
Morning Call (Allentown, PA), June 9, 2006.
Publishers Weekly, January 17, 1994.
Seattle Times, March 3, 1996.
Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2007, reproduced in Biography Resource Center, Thomson Gale, 2007, http://www.galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC (February 19, 2007)
"The Fantastic Tale of Opal Whiteley," http://www.intangible.org/Features/Opal/OpalHome.html (February 19, 2007).
The Opal Whiteley Memorial, http://www.efn.org/∼opal/ (February 19, 2007).