Mrs. Mike

Photo: Marko Metzinger/Studio D

For Peggy Orenstein, it was one of those books—the kind you keep forever and read again and again. It taught her about dreams, about love, and—in a remarkable plot twist—about the courage it takes to really live.
I happened across Mrs. Mike when I was in sixth grade; it was buried under a stack of tattered comic books in my older brother's room. I'd snuck in there to snoop for contraband issues of National Lampoon, which my mother insisted he hide from me (already possessed of a journalist's curiosity, I took that as a challenge). But Mrs. Mike, with its cover illustration of a parka-clad girl on a dogsled, stopped me. The manila library pocket, its checkout card intact, was stamped SUSAN B. ANTHONY, the Minneapolis junior high my brother had attended. I didn't stop to wonder why he would have boosted a love story, first published in 1947, about a plucky 16-year-old girl who married a Mountie. Figuring that if he'd swiped it, it must be juicy, I hightailed it to my room, slid under the covers of my canopy bed, and dug in.

That was 35 years ago. Mrs. Mike has sat at my bedside ever since—traveling with me from Minnesota to Ohio to New York and, finally, to California. After all this time, it's held together with rubber bands and Scotch tape, the pages weathered and dog-eared. I pick it up about once a year, intending merely to leaf through, and end up as engrossed as the first time I read it; the themes of resilience, a woman's indomitable spirit, of living a life of purpose, and doing so with gusto and courage, still hook me.

A classic girl's adventure yarn, Mrs. Mike is the real-life tale of Katherine Mary O'Fallon, a turn-of-the-last-century Boston lass who, stricken with pleurisy, (one of those literary wasting diseases about which one no longer hears) is sent to Canada to take in the bracing fresh air at her uncle's cattle ranch. She weds Mountie Mike Flannigan after seeing him a mere handful of times and joins him in the wilds of British Columbia. Yet this is no happily-ever-after trifle: Every tender moment is offset by tragedy, every triumph booby-trapped with loss. Kathy announces she's pregnant, and shortly afterward a fire levels her town, destroying her home, incinerating her neighbor's son. In the absence of doctors, Mike must assist in amputating a man's leg (without anesthesia). Tension simmers among whites, "'breeds," and Indians. Mosquitoes drive men mad.

When the couple's own two children perish from diphtheria—a disease that would have been treatable had they lived closer to civilization—Kathy breaks. She leaves Mike to return to Boston. But the harsh country, as much as her husband's love, has changed her, and eventually she goes back. They adopt the children of friends (who also died in the epidemic) and begin again, knowing they may well lose this family too. By the book's final page, Kathy is barely 19 years old.

As a girl, I was inspired by Kathy's determination. It was the early 1970s, and the feminist movement was crashing headlong into the traditional expectations I'd been raised with. I knew I wanted something different for myself, and even if I wasn't sure what that might be, I suspected that it would involve breaking free of my family and community as Kathy had. She had defied convention and her mother, leaving behind everything she knew, perhaps forever, for a questionable future. True, she was simply following her man (the book isn't called Ms. Kathy, after all). But given the parameters and proprieties of the time—before meeting Mike, she'd never even worn pants—hers was a radical act. I wanted to be that fearless, that confident of my convictions, that willing to create a life on my own terms. It was Kathy I thought of at 21, when my father warned me that I'd never make it as a writer. It was Kathy I thought of when I quit my day job with no money in the bank. It was Kathy I thought of when I moved to San Francisco, where I didn't know a soul.
In my late 20s, with my career blossoming, the appeal the book held for me shifted: Now I was more taken with the passionate, collaborative partnership Kathy and Mike had formed. I was hoping to find my own soul mate, someone who would engage me, heart and mind. When I found that man, just to be sure, I read him Mrs. Mike during late, lazy nights in bed. I noticed that the story was a tad schmaltzy, its portrayal of native people often problematic. But luckily—for him as well as me—he saw past that. He compared the book to his own all-time favorite, Jude the Obscure, another tale of near-inexplicable perseverance.

I'm not saying I wouldn't have married him if he didn't love my favorite book, but that certainly clinched the deal.

Mrs. Mike caused a sensation when it was published 60 years ago, selling more than a million copies in the first year. Since then, it's been continuously in print, though often just barely. I'd assumed its authors, husband-and-wife team Nancy and Benedict Freedman, were long dead. Even if they'd been as young as 30 in 1947...well, you do the math. Still, they'd had such a profound effect on my life, I wondered what theirs had been like. So one afternoon in the fall of 2002, I did the contemporary version of sneaking into someone's bedroom: I Googled them. Immediately, I found a newspaper article about the way that much-loved but obscure books had been given new life via Mrs. Mike was example A. The dozens of reader reviews—mostly from women like me who'd treasured the story in their teens—had prompted a major reissue. Interesting. But there was more: The Freedmans had been interviewed for the story. Interviewed! That meant they were alive. And not only were they alive, but in a miraculous coincidence, their home was just a short drive from mine. It felt like fate. I quickly banged out a fan letter explaining what their book had meant to me—the chance to have a similar impact on even a single reader is, as much as anything, why I became a writer—and asking if I could meet them. Within days I received an invitation to tea.

By then, my husband and I had been married for ten years, the last five of which had been spent—more and more miserably—trying to have a child. We'd been through three miscarriages, months of soulless sex, invasive tests, pills and shots, two cycles of in vitro fertilization using my eggs and a third using a friend's. Nothing had worked. Along the way, I seemed to have lost the ability to feel joy; my husband was angry that his tenderness couldn't restore it. Now, when I reread Mrs. Mike before visiting its authors, it was the tragedies that stood out, the cost of Kathy's willfulness. I recognized myself in the flat grief of her losses, the way pain eroded her capacity for love. I, too, dreamed of starting over somewhere else, making different, perhaps safer, choices. Even my usual refuge—my work—was suffering. How could I trust my instincts as a writer, as an observer of human nature, when I'd so screwed up my own life?

I don't know what I wanted from the Freedmans. A little distraction, perhaps, a reminder of a better time. I was eager to quiz them about what had happened to Kathy and Mike after the book's final page. Had things gone well? Were they happy? After so much sadness, had they found peace? I felt personally invested—maybe too invested—in the answers.
Nancy Freedman, then 82, met me at her apartment door. A tall, slender woman, she carried herself like the actress she'd trained to be. Her hair was a dramatic white, her eyebrows dark above pale blue eyes, her features wide and vibrant. The beauty in the lines of her face was the best argument I'd seen yet against Botox. She greeted me as if we were old friends. Later I'd realize that full-throttle was the Freedmans' approach to everything—during their courtship, which took place almost entirely by mail, Benedict wrote "page 40" at the top of his first letter, as if they were already mid-conversation. "You gotta love a guy like that," Nancy would tell me. At that point they'd been married 61 years.

Benedict was on the couch in the living room, facing a window that overlooked a canal dotted with rowboats and waterfowl. At 83, he had difficulty walking, though you'd never have known it; he made his way across the room by leaning casually on the backs of strategically placed chairs. His mind, however, was still nimble: He had just finished his day's work on a nonfiction book titled Rescuing the Future, which he described as a plea, for the good of humanity, to focus on looking forward rather than bickering over past wrongs.

"What appealed to us about Katherine Flannigan's story," Benedict told me right off, "was how it paralleled our own." He and Nancy had met briefly in Los Angeles in 1939. He was a junior writer on Al Jolson's radio show; she was a 19-year-old ingenue about to move to New York. But after a few months of hoofing around Broadway, she was diagnosed with a lethal heart infection (now treatable with antibiotics) that forced a retreat to her native Chicago, where she was confined to bed. Benedict followed her there and, though he'd seen her a mere five times, proposed marriage. Nancy burst into tears; her father, who was a doctor, explained that she probably wouldn't survive three months. Benedict didn't care. "I just didn't believe she was going to die," he said. "Also, I felt even if it's only three months, we've got three months. Better than lying in bed staring at the ceiling."

Like Mike, who fashioned a bed on a dogsled for Kathy out of boxes and fur blankets, Benedict folded back the seat of his jalopy—a convertible with a beach umbrella for a roof—to make a chaise for his bride before they headed West for their honeymoon. For years, first in Chicago and later in Los Angeles, he would carry Nancy up every flight of stairs. "She couldn't walk," he said. "On the other hand, she was always full of life."

And like Kathy, Nancy never saw another doctor. Benedict took care of her himself. Three months turned to six, turned to a year, turned to eight. Slowly, she improved. The woman who should never have seen 1942 now has four great-grandchildren. She credits her recovery to Benedict's love—"He hauled me back to life," she said, "he really did"—and to Mrs. Mike, which they wrote together from her sickbed. I could have swooned from the romance of it all.
After Mike Flannigan died, in his 40s, from a ruptured appendix (another preventable loss, I thought grimly), Kathy went to L.A. and tried to peddle her story to the movies. No one bit. But an agent introduced her to the Freedmans, who thought her life might be the stuff of literature (Mrs. Mike was eventually adapted for the screen; the film is truly ghastly). They invited her to their tiny apartment, a converted garage on what had once been the actress Mary Pickford's estate, and spent two days listening to her talk. "We were enchanted by her story," Benedict recalled. "Here was this girl, very young, incapacitated—but willing to fall in love, really fall in love, passionately, without any care for anything else. That reinforced our own determination to live the life we wanted to live regardless of the clouds on the horizon."

I knew the feeling. "Did any of their children survive?"

Nancy shook her head. "No. They had adopted an Indian girl. But not the ones that are in the book. I dreamed those."

I must have looked confused. "Mrs. Mike is a novel," Benedict explained.

"A novel?" My stomach clenched. I felt an abrupt, almost physical sense of displacement, the way you would if, say, you found out at age 45 that your mother was actually your aunt. I'd based my life on this book. It was a core part of my identity. As an 11-year-old I'd accepted each word as gospel; it had never occurred to me to question that assumption. Now I looked at my ancient library copy, which I'd brought with me: Sure enough, a red F was taped to the side, indicating it should be shelved in the fiction section.

"But did she really live in that town that burned down?" I asked, my voice rising.

"Yes," said Nancy.

"No," said Benedict.

Yes? No? Which was it? I'm sure I looked as stunned as I felt. "What's true is her spirit," Benedict added, firmly. "She was a person afraid of nothing, willing to take on anything. And the most important scenes—for example, when she leaves Mike and goes back to Boston—we didn't invent that. But we also didn't check her account of things."
Part of me wanted to rush home right then and try to retrace the story, to follow the Flannigans' trail north. I could Google the town of Grouard. Or look up Mike's name in the records of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. But even as I plotted my search, I realized its results would be irrelevant. Mrs. Mike might have played a lesser role in my life had I known it was, at least in part, fabrication. But Kathy—the reality, the invention, the symbol—had been there when I needed her most. And if I still needed proof that real, ordinary people could choose bold, unconventional lives, all I had to do was look at the Freedmans, whose story was as enthralling as Kathy's—maybe more so. They had lived so fully, experienced so much, crossed paths with so many great names of their day. Nancy had played Juliet in a production of Shakespeare's play staged by Fanchon and Marco, the brother-sister dance team who'd launched the careers of Cyd Charisse, Judy Garland, Doris Day, and Bing Crosby. Igor Stravinsky himself had chosen her to dance in Petrushka. She had studied under the director Max Reinhardt.

Meanwhile, Benedict's father, David, had created the character of Baby Snooks for Fanny Brice, written a Broadway hit, and was head writer of Eddie Cantor's radio show. When, at age 13, Benedict needed a date for a school dance, his father tried to fix him up with the burlesque queen Gypsy Rose Lee (who, informed of the boy's predicament, responded, "Well, for Dave's son..." and flipped a breast out of her bra; Benedict did not pursue the opportunity).

David died when Benedict was 16, leaving gambling debts that bankrupted the family. They left their tower apartment in Manhattan's swank Beresford building (the unit is now owned by tennis star John McEnroe), and Benedict, the eldest of three, dropped out of school to help support the family. He worked for an actuary by day, and wrote scripts at night and on weekends. Eventually, he snagged a job as a junior writer on the Marx Brothers' film At the Circus and headed off to Los Angeles. He wrote gags for Mickey Rooney, Bob Hope, Jimmy Durante. He spent 12 years with The Red Skelton Show, moving with it from radio to television, and wrote episodes of My Favorite Martian and The Andy Griffith Show. He and Nancy collaborated on writing eight books. They still spend hours a day working side by side, Benedict on his humanitarian manifesto and Nancy on a novel.

"Tell her about the time you met Howard Hughes," Nancy said during that first visit, and I listened, rapt, to how the famous eccentric instructed Benedict to shower, sponge himself off with rubbing alcohol, then shower again before their meeting. It was a fine anecdote, but I was more impressed that, at 44, with three kids and a wife to support, Benedict had walked away from his Hollywood paycheck—with Nancy's blessing—to pursue an early dream, the one he'd abandoned when his father died: studying advanced mathematics. He enrolled at UCLA, eventually earning a PhD in mathematical logic and teaching for 35 years at Occidental College in Los Angeles. The man had the courage to reinvent himself at midlife, to refuse to be ruled by regret. Maybe, I thought, I could do that, too.
Nancy and Benedict spent their entire Mrs. Mike windfall on a house in the Pacific Palisades designed by the architect Richard Neutra—only to see the house severely damaged in a mud slide. A second home, in Malibu, went up in flames. At times over the years, they were penniless; once when their kids were young, Benedict had to tend bar until a writing job came through. None of it fazed them. As children of the Great Depression, they never much trusted wealth or stability. "One of the things we learned from all of it was to celebrate bad news," Benedict said. "If a book is turned down or something goes very wrong, you go out and have a party."

"Good news, you're happy anyway," Nancy added. "But bad news, you've got to have a great dinner and kick up your heels.

"Benedict and I have had difficult periods," she continued. "And we always faced serious, scary problems. But I have a theory about courage. I don't think it's a moment of bravery when you have a rush of adrenaline. Courage is something level, a kind of force that sustains you. And that's what it takes to face difficult things, to make it through life successfully."

Maybe Nancy was right. It's easy to congratulate yourself on your wisdom, your bravery when things are going well. The challenge is to trust in yourself, your work, your marriage, your gut, when they aren't. I'd thought, as Kathy had, that seizing my destiny and finding true love would protect me from pain, bad luck, mistakes, failure. I'd clearly missed the point of the book. Those things aren't avoidable; they're actually the hallmark of a life richly lived.

One meeting with my favorite authors did not erase years of struggle. There were still plenty of nights in our California home when the atmosphere felt as chilly as the Yukon's. But over time, especially after the birth of our daughter, my husband and I found our way back to each other, just as Kathy and Mike had. Last summer, we celebrated our 15th anniversary, and we marked the occasion by rereading Mrs. Mike. This time, I felt new appreciation for the bittersweet finale—the couple's courage to forgive and their leap of faith in reconciling. I asked my husband what he had taken away from the book. "That's easy," he said, with a half smile. "Life is hard. But love is strong."

I already have plans for my next rereading: It will be in another few years, snuggled up in bed with my daughter. Maybe Mrs. Mike won't be the book that changes her life. But when she hears Kathy's story, and especially how it influenced my own, I hope she'll be inspired to find the book that will.


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