The Brief and Strange Life of H.F. Weckweet

Hortense Francis Weckweet was born in Hartfordshire on the 27th of April, 1895, to Nathaniel and Gretchen, around dawn. Nathaniel Weckweet was a member of the Royal Meteorological Society in good standing, with a small income and a distracted air. His wife Gretchen also wrote. Her single novel The Guest at Mosshall was warmly received, but has since been of interest to scholars only for the light it might shed on her daughter's works—a small tragedy, as the Brontean romance stands firmly on its own merits, and the quiet tale of a young country wife beset by the ghost of her drowned brother has a singular grace.

Hortense grew up in benign neglect, her father staring at the sky, her mother staring at the awful emptiness of a single-volume novelist's failed pages. In a 1930 interview with Vanity Fair, she recalled: "My father always told me that I had the perfect childhood, free to roam the swamps and orchards around his house like an adventurous boy, but the apple trees to me seemed always crooked and secretive, as though full of plumy demons ready to throw pits in my eyes and make a pie of me. The swamps were better; I was always in love with green and slimy things. I kept a frog named Putnam fat and jolly for the better part of a year, and most of my time was not spent gamboling like some pre-(Fall) sheep, but rather collecting crickets, mayflies, and grasshoppers for Putnam and his inheritors, which were rather more numerous than my mother would have preferred. I daresay if I had ever had a brother I would have stuffed him full of bugs as well."

Nathaniel Weckweet disdained formal education for his daughter. Instead he brought her regularly to RMS meetings, prim in a tweed suit of her own, and strictly enforced his household rule: no one was to speak with Tenny in any fashion they would not use with a grown person of sound mind. "I believe my adult heart was entirely constructed from the experience of having a great number of very serious old men talk to me about the nature of the heavens for years on end," said Weckweet during the American lecture tour of 1947.

It is not generally known when "Tenny" began writing on her own, though it was most likely after her mother's death of ovarian cancer in the autumn of 1919. The previous years had been difficult ones in the family. Nathaniel served in the Great War in an intelligence division, and though he did not engage in combat, he never recovered from the guilt of having sent so many men in his place. If he was a reticent and distant father before, Nathaniel all but disappeared from his daughter's life into his own rooms and concerns, and after Gretchen's sudden and painful death, he left the estate, such as it was, entirely in Tenny's hands. She did her best to care for her father in his grief, and overcame her fear of the ancestral plum trees, industriously making jams, pies, tarts, and pickles which she sold surreptitiously in town, to keep her father in shirts and instruments when his inheritance finally guttered to nothing.

And at night, her fingers blistered and her dress sticky with plum syrup, she wrote.

Sometime in 1920, Clarence Scell, a young railroad engineer with no family to speak of but several government contracts which kept him comfortable, made Tenny's acquaintance and pursued her through the summer of that year, until she finally assented to marriage in the fall, with the understanding that they would relocate to America so that Clarence could work on the colossal rail projects in progress there. The match, whether loving or not, allowed her to send enough money home to her father that he need never concern himself with other people again, and the old man died quietly a decade hence, having written exactly one letter to his daughter abroad in all that time.

Clarence and Tenny settled in Omaha, on a pleasant street lined, coincidentally, with ornamental plums. "Those trees seemed to me the essence of America," she said in the Vanity Fair interview, "all flower to dazzle and no fruit to sustain anyone." The house on S.10th St. is the object of many pilgrimages to this day, for it was there that Tenny wrote the first draft of The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland. Shortly after the novel was published in Novemeber 1923, Weckweet suffered her first miscarriage while Clarence was away at his Kansas offices. It was not to be the last.

Tenny was never quite well again. She was deeply depressed over the loss of her child. "I believed, whether foolishly or no, that it was my punishment for abandoning my father, and only Clarence's insistence kept me from fleeing the despair of the whole situation and running back to England immediately."

Instead, she worked. Over the course of the next twenty years she would produce some two dozen books: the September series, but also several standalone novels for adults, including Return to Mosshall, her tribute to her mother. She was, for lack of a better word, consumed. Sometime in late 1928, she became pregnant again, and lost the child at four months. By this time, Clarence was in Omaha for a week or two every few months, and Tenny was alone in her house. "I was used to solitude, but the solitude of Omaha is a creature unto itself, a sallow and lugubrious monster spitting neighbors' tea and pious pity everywhere."

The irony of chronicling a writer's life is that there are long periods where one can only say: she worked. In the thirties, Tenny flirted with local theosophists, but was eventually taken with a fit of laughing in the middle of seance and asked not to return. A third pregnancy ended in miscarriage and Clarence rented an apartment in Chicago for himself. They never divorced, but after 1940, he never visited Omaha again. Meanwhile, the September books remained enormously popular through the Depression, and Tenny disappeared into her home and her work much as her father did. She became known for her extraordinarily varied and lush garden as well as her her home-brewed beer.

Rumor has it that Tenny was not entirely alone in that house, however. A young man by the name of Gregory Kinnell visited her often to bring groceries and take manuscripts to be bound and mailed to New York. Her association with him is suspected to have been sexual, but there is no way to be certain of this. Clarence Scell had brought a young woman to live with him by that time, so there is no reason to think Tenny might not have done the same, but biographers are forever turning over half a lifetime to find one instance of illicit sex. Kinnell was twenty years her junior and gossip around him was intense: he was a handsome man in a bored town, gossip's best friend. Neighbors have assured Weckweet researchers that he was variously: a vagrant, a swindler, an actor, her editor, her son by some English dalliance, her lover, and an unrepentant homosexual. Some claim he was all of these things, which would be quite a lot for one man.

Certainly, after Kinnell began his visits, Tenny laughed more easily and even attended the summer musical tribute to Chopin in 1956. Mrs. Anna Hutchens, who was a new bride that summer, reported that she "was high of spirits and her hair was very long, as though she hadn't cut it in years. She danced with Greg and no one else once the fancy music stopped and the real stuff started. That boy never said a word. He was a bad one, no mistake. What kid takes up with an old lady like Mrs. Scell? And then there was her hand. That just gave me the shivers, and I don't mind saying so. It was like she'd burned it, the whole top of her hand was black, some kind of weird scar or something. I said so then: I bet that Gregory hurt her something fierce."

The later September books are deeply strange, and their popularity dropped sharply. The final manuscript: September in the Country of Desire, was considered obscene and never published. Negotiations between Simon and Schuster and her estate are ongoing to this day. In the final days, Tenny was rarely seen—she was pale and sickly, short of breath, and slept constantly. Mrs. Hutchens firmly believes she was pregnant. At the age of fifty-one, of course, such a pregnancy would have been almost insurmountably risky. However, the truth of the matter will never be known: in early 1958, Hortense Francis Weckweet and Gregory Kinnell disappeared.

"I promise you, he got her in a family way and had her done in," claims Mrs. Hutchens. She wrote a book in 1970 entitled: A Ship of Her Own Making: The Disappearance of H.F. Weckweet. "Everybody knew he was no good. Others will say he was a deviant and it couldn't be so, but even a broken watch is right twice a day, and that's all it takes."

In truth, information about Gregory Kinnell is almost impossible to find. It was once easier to live off the grid than it is now, and beyond his birth in Chicago and the fact of his living in Omaha in his strange service to Hortense Weckweet, only a few scattered facts are known. He was thirty-two when he arrived in Omaha, his mother had been a small-time jazz era singer by the name of Hetty Kinnell, father unknown. He worked on the Union Pacific line for a year in 1952, but never picked up his final paycheck. What there is of his life is little more than flotsam, unremarkable until Omaha.

Some suspect that the connection lies in Chicago, that Clarence Scell sent Gregory as a kind of apologetic gift to his estranged wife when his secretary, Martha Gray—who would live out her life as his spouse in all but name—moved into his city apartment. Certainly this is a kinder theory than Mrs. Hutchens'.

I, personally, don't believe for a moment that Kinnell killed Tenny. I prefer to think they left the judgmental old spinsters of Omaha and simply disappeared into the world, much as Greg had lived his whole life. Maybe I'm just speaking as a fan who wants the best for her hero, but I think they loved each other, and that she lived out an old age full of sex and words and railroad men with blue eyes.

At any rate, no body was ever found, and she was declared legally deceased in 1995, whereupon the Weckweet Estate was formed by the children of Clarence Scell and his erstwhile companion, Martha Gray, both of whom passed on in 1978 and 1983 respectively.