Mrs. Nixon

A Novelist Imagines a Life

by Ann Beattie

Mrs. Nixon

Paperback, 282 pages, Scribner, List Price: $16 | purchase

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Book Summary

A literary assessment of the former First Lady from the perspective of a short story master draws on a wealth of sources to reconstruct her worldview, covering her early experiences as a community theater actress and her marriage to the 37th president.

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NPR stories about Mrs. Nixon

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Navigating Portland, Toxic Speech, Depression And Plantation Life

Pat Nixon, the wife of one of the most well-known politicians in recent American history, somehow managed to remain a private public figure throughout crisis and scandal. So who was Mrs. Nixon? That's the question award-winning author Ann Beattie aims to answer in an unconventional novel. Mrs. Nixon isn't quite fact, and it isn't quite fiction. With both humor and gravity, Beattie pieces together letters, conversations, imagined sketches and even literary criticisms to

Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: 'Mrs. Nixon'

The Lady in the Green Dress

In The Selling of the President 1968, Joe McGinniss has described a TV broadcast during which Mr. Nixon faced some hard questions about his stance on Vietnam. After the show ended, "Roger Ailes went looking for Nixon. He wound up in an elevator with Nixon's wife. She was wearing a green dress and she did not smile. One thought of the remark a member of Nixon's staff had made: 'Next to her, RN looks like Mary Poppins.'

" 'Hello, Mrs. Nixon,' Roger Ailes said.

She nodded. She had known him for months.

" 'How did you like the show?' he asked.

"She nodded very slowly; her mouth was drawn in a thin, straight line.

" 'Everyone seems to think it was by far the best,' Ailes said. 'Especially the way he took care of that McKinney.'

"Pat Nixon stared at the elevator door. The car stopped. The door opened. She got off and moved down a hallway with the Secret Service men around her."

Her possible thoughts?

Mr. Ailes is a loyal supporter, but these people can be a bit naïve.

Or: It pleases Mr. Ailes very much to think he's found the way to elicit a positive response from me. Why should I comply just to please him?

Perhaps: "Mr. Ailes, has it ever occurred to you that I'm a serious person, and that the conclusions you have drawn with such certainty are expedient and self-serving?"

"If I were a vain woman I might turn the subject to myself — the same way, by being so outspoken, you turn the subject as much to yourself as to my husband. And so I might ask you whether you didn't think this was the dandiest dress you'd seen in a long time, and whether we shouldn't applaud: for my husband; for the advent of television; for your job; for my dress, which I tailored myself. What do you say, Dr. Pangloss?"

"Mr. Ailes, do you find it possible to think that yes, I am Mrs. Nixon, but I am also a woman on her way somewhere, that I am just passing through in a perfunctory way, and that even if I were to answer, whatever I say does not really matter?"

Better: "Will you remember tomorrow, Mr. Ailes, that when we spoke I was wearing a green dress? I will certainly remember that you were wearing a white shirt, because you don't have as much leeway as I do, or the freedom most any woman does, about how to dress."

"Forgive me for not answering, but the truth is that I am thinking about my own neatly styled hair and clothing. I don't have to say a word, but you more or less have to say something to me, don't you? So why not admire the dress I bought at Lord & Taylor and paid too much for, instead of pretending my husband is the only topic of interest. If you liked it, I might think better of you."

"Oh, excuse me, I would so love to stay and discuss this, but you see, I brought my pet tortoise with me and it has run away, and I must try to find it before it buries itself in the dirt that is our lives."

"Mr. Ailes, I may very well have forgotten to turn off the bathwater."

Stories as Preemptive Strikes

Mrs. Nixon (before she was Mrs. Nixon) had many nicknames, and one of them was Buddy. She liked the nickname because she felt her given name did not suit her. It's hard to imagine that anyone would be thrilled to be named Thelma. Her mother insisted on naming her that for reasons unknown. The baby's father — who maintained she had been born later than the time of her actual birth — called her his St. Patrick's Babe in the Morn (soon shortened simply to Babe). As far as I can tell, she was born somewhere near midnight the day preceding St. Patrick's Day, 1912, though that doesn't really detract from her father's fondly effusive Irish feeling. Babe lasted for quite a while as a nickname, though Buddy intruded in childhood. Buddy suggests a tomboy, and perhaps any girl who grew up on a farm and did chores and took the dusty world as her playground would seem tomboyish, but as with so much about Mrs. Nixon, new and reliable information recedes with time. Upon entering college, Thelma became, at her own behest, Patricia, then was referred to as Pat, carrying her about as far away from someone else's intention about her identity as most people dared go in those days.

A lot of fiction writers I know own a book called What Shall We Name the Baby? because in the heat of writing — or even after cold deliberation — even the simplest name just won't pop into the writer's head. The name Ann is forgotten, Jim unremembered. Sometimes writers want to consider etymology, or to use New Age names to express the mystical quality of the child, or some quality that is hoped for — but I'm thinking of something else: the writer's panicky sense that all names have escaped him or her, and unless the writer can immediately find something ("Jane!"), the character will evaporate before ever being realized. Writers will tell you that when they remembered the name John, suddenly everything became possible. But because they have to look up a name, when no name can be conjured up, they have this book near their desks — unless the writers write on the kitchen counter, say, and then they have it in the fruit bowl. (Think about how many prospective grandmothers have been misled by noticing this book.)

Buddy. Names, nicknames, they're fascinating to writers, but they also cause anxiety because they're so elusive, and because writers have to come up with so many of them. Few people have a gift for the perfect name or nickname, and many such adult monikers are given without the victims' awareness. Henry Kissinger, for example, called Haldeman and Ehrlichman "the Fanatics." (H. R. Haldeman was Nixon's Chief of Staff; John Ehrlichman, Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs.) Children have to accept their names, at least until they can protest. I don't know how Mrs. Nixon felt about being Buddy. Bottom line, most of us only really want nicknames invented by those we love. My husband has so many nicknames for me that it's lucky we don't have pets. When he calls, I answer to most anything: that day's nickname will undoubtedly be something I don't recognize except for the tone. The only time I stop dead is when he calls me Ann. When he addresses me directly, I'm in trouble. Thelma/Buddy/Pat may have answered to even more names, but we'll never know.

I think of her, though, as Mrs. Nixon. Perhaps Richard Nixon thought of her as Pat or as some endearment we don't know, such as Fuzzy Bunny, but when he referred to her, it was usually as Mrs. Nixon. An egoist like Nixon would of course see people as extensions of himself, so that when he was referring to his wife he was implying a certain dignity, insisting upon the respect he felt was inherent in the position she occupied (thanks to him). Since he often spoke of himself as "he," which is much more bizarre, it's understandable that he would refer to his wife formally. He thought aloud and liked to fabricate stories, and if he hadn't been president, many of his fictions would be highly hilarious, but you're stopped from laughing about this dissociation when you realize that he had control of the "red telephone" — its nickname is the only way it's referred to — and that when he was drunkenly wandering the corridors of the White House talking to the portraits hung on the walls (according to Edward, a.k.a. Eddie, Cox, his son-in-law), one of them might have answered and told him to go make mischief by holding down the little button.

From Mrs. Nixon by Ann Beattie. Copyright 2011 by Ann Beattie. Excerpted by permission of Scribner.

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