History

A FLAMBOYANT, FLIRTATIOUS FRAUD

Winnifred Eaton used a fake Japanese identity to become a successful novelist

BRIAN BERGMAN March 3 2003
History

A FLAMBOYANT, FLIRTATIOUS FRAUD

Winnifred Eaton used a fake Japanese identity to become a successful novelist

BRIAN BERGMAN March 3 2003

A FLAMBOYANT, FLIRTATIOUS FRAUD

History

Winnifred Eaton used a fake Japanese identity to become a successful novelist

BRIAN BERGMAN

WINNIFRED EATON was no ordinary ranch wife. In 1924, seven years after arriving in southern Alberta on the arm of her second husband, Frank Reeve, she received a visit from Hollywood movie mogul Elmer Clifton, business partner to the legendary director D.W. Griffith. Clifton had bought the movie rights to Eaton’s recently published novel, Cattle, a blunt account of an innocent farm girl who is molested by a brutal landowner with the unsubtle moniker of Bull. As Clifton approached the ranch Eaton and Reeve owned in the spectacular foothills country west of Calgary, he shouted out: “Stop the car! This is immense! Immense!” Despite

his enthusiasm, Cattle never did get filmed. But shortly after Clifton’s visit, Eaton left her husband to head to New York and then Hollywood for a new career as a screenwriter. The flamboyant, flirtatious Eaton—a trailblazing author whose controversial life and work are attracting renewed interest and scrutiny—had reinvented herself yet again.

As much as anything she ever wrote, Winnifred Eaton’s life was the stuff of fiction. Born in Montreal in 1875, she was the eighth of 14 children in an impoverished family

headed by an English-born painter, Edward Eaton, and his Chinese wife, Grace. At the age of 20, Winnifred left Montreal to be a journalist in Jamaica. She then made her way to Chicago and New York, where she assumed a fake Japanese identity and name— Onoto Watanna—and went on to pen more than 15 books, including several hugely popular romance novels set in Japan. In 1915, Eaton wrote an anonymous autobiographical novel, Me, which created a literary sensation thanks to a very modern publicity campaign. Billboards and subway ads splashed around New York teasingly asked: “Who is the author of Me?” A lengthy arti-

ele in the New York Times attempted to answer that question, concluding that Me was written by Onoto Watanna who, strictly speaking, didn’t really exist.

Eaton’s celebrity faded soon after she published her last novel in 1925. But interest in her work—and, in particular, her colourful life—resumed in the 1980s thanks to academic Amy Ling’s groundbreaking research into early Asian-American writers. Ling, then an English professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey, noted that Eaton’s Japanese heroines were “a far cry from the demure, deferential, totally self-negating, stereotypical Asian woman. They are, like their creator herself, sturdy survivors who use their ingenuity, beauty, resourcefulness to achieve their own ends.”

In 2001, Eaton’s granddaughter, Diana Birchall, published Onoto Watanna: The Story of Winnifred Eaton, a lively biography of the relative she met only fleetingly prior to Eaton’s death at age 78. Last June, Birchall, 57, who lives in Santa Monica, Calif., talked about her grandmother at a University of Calgary conference called, “Unsettled Pasts: Reconceiving the West Through Women’s History.” Eaton would have likely appreciated the irony of using her life as a prism for reconceiving the past. As Birchall’s biography makes clear, Eaton was never one to let the facts stand in the way of a good story.

When Eaton began writing her Japanese stories, she not only adopted the nom de plume of Onoto Watanna, but vigorously promoted her assumed identity to gullible journalists. She posed in a kimono, the New York Herald Tribune said she was born in Nagasaki and the Sunday Telegram described her as “a cunning blend of Japanese graciousness, English repose, and just a dash of American humor.”

Why the Japanese ruse? Japan, at the time, certainly had romantic appeal. Eaton may also have wanted to distance herself from her older sister Edith, a published author in her own right who used the Chinese pseudonym, Sui Sin Far. This much, however, is clear. Winnifred Eaton never visited Japan and, instead, based the details of her novels on exhaustive library research. Moreover, she publicly maintained the deception about her ethnicity right until her death.

Eaton’s personal life was both turbulent and troubled. In 1901, after arriving in New York, she met and married her first husband,

Bertrand Babcock. Between 1903 and 1907, the couple had four children, and all the while Eaton churned out more popular novels. During their 16-year marriage, Babcock developed into a wife-abusing alcoholic whom she left after an ugly incident on the steps of their New York home, in which he kicked and hit her. “I am done with him,” Eaton later wrote in her diary. “He has beaten me for the last time.”

Eaton’s children were also a source of considerable grief. In 1908, her son, Bertie,, died from convulsions and heart failure just before his fourth birthday. Another son, Perry, developed a severe mental illness, likely schizophrenia, at age 23 and was institutionalized most of his adult life. A third son, Paul, a struggling poet, was a hopeless alcoholic who pestered her for financial support. Only daughter Doris enjoyed a relatively stable life, becoming a key financial troubleshooter for Eaton’s second husband.

The vivacious Winnifred was rarely short of romantic suitors. While living in Reno, Nev., in 1917 long enough to qualify for a divorce from Babcock, she met and promptly married Reeve, who was seeking a divorce from his first wife. Reeve, whose parents

The controversial life and work of the trail-blazing author are attracting renewed interest and academic scrutiny

were farmers, was a New York businessman who had decided to start a new life farming and ranching in the Canadian West. While Eaton liked to ride the range and wrote lyrically of the region’s beauty, she found the snowbound winters in the country too isolating and typically moved into Calgary until spring thaw. In 1924, she left Reeve, who had fallen on hard times financially, and pursued a longtime dream: to write for the movies. For the next seven years she lived with her children in New York and Hollywood, where she worked on several films, none of them huge hits.

In 1931, Reeve, who had taken a mistress, headed to Hollywood intent on securing a divorce from Eaton. Instead, Eaton wooed him back and they returned to Calgary. It didn’t hurt that Reeve, by this point, had started to make money as a stockbroker (he would go on to make a fortune in oil and become one of the richest men in Alberta). A child of poverty, Eaton had worked tenaciously to be financially secure. Writing to a sister, Eaton noted that “to prove his love, he made a will, leaving me everything.”

In her last decades, until her 1954 death (Reeve died two years later), Eaton led a quiet life, her writing career far behind her. Daughter Doris moved to Calgary in 1934, along with her eight-year-old son, Tim Rooney, and went to work for Reeve. Rooney, now 77 and a retired University of Toronto mathematics professor, recalls sharing a home with his grandmother for nearly 16 years, first in Hollywood and then in Calgary. “She was somewhat eccentric,” Rooney told Maclean’s, “a trifle egotistical and very much liked to have her own way.” After the bright lights of New York and Los Angeles, Eaton also found life in a prairie city a tad stifling. “She often had aspiring writers asking her how to get ahead,” recalls Rooney. “She almost always told them, ‘the first thing you have to do is get out of this Cowtown.’ ” Eaton’s only other grandchild views her once celebrated relative as both infuriating and inspiring. Birchall, who works for Warner Bros, as a story analyst (she scouts novels that could be made into movies), readily concedes that Eaton could be manipulative, deceitful and self-centred. “But she also had a lot of spunk,” adds Birchall. “She was a very independent woman who invented herself and did what she had to do to succeed.” Not always a wonderful life, but never less than a fascinating one. ['ll