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Meet Countess Felicia, 'The Richest Girl in the World'

August 1, 2005
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@ dcn.davis.ca.us

The Southern Humanities Review, a quarterly literary journal that accepts approximately one out of every 300 submissions, recently published a two-chapter excerpt of a novel by Robert Clark Young of Sacramento.

I recommend that anyone interested in excellent writing find a copy of the SHR (Spring 2005) and read “The Richest Girl in the World,” from the unpublished novel of the same name. Young’s work is a joy to read, particularly when compared to the increasingly high number of self-published writers.

Young, 44, a graduate of the Creative Writing Program at UC Davis, is the author of “One of the Guys,” a satirical novel about a man impersonating a U.S. Navy chaplain, which was published by HarperCollins in 1999.

“The Richest Girl in the World” is a historical novel.

“The novel is under submission now with my agent, Carolyn French,” he said in a recent interview. Although French lives in New York City, she was originally from San Francisco and studied at UC Davis.

Young said his novel is about two women, a mother and daughter, and their lifelong conflict. The two women are Cissy Patterson (whose grandfather, Joseph Medill, founded the Chicago Tribune in 1847), and her daughter, the Countess Felicia Gizycka.

“Cissy both neglected and abused Felicia,” said Young. “Whenever they were together there was conflict and competition.

“These people were very important at the time,” he added. “They were the super stars of their era. When Cissy Patterson died in 1948 she left behind $17 million and gave her daughter $25,000 a year.”

Felicia’s father was a European count who married Cissy for her fortune and didn’t get anything. Felicia was kidnapped at age 2 out of her baby carriage in a London suburb. She was held in an Austrian convent for two years. No one knew where she was except for her father who was holding out for a financial settlement.

Finally, in 1908 when William Howard Taft was in the White House, he wrote a letter to his friend the Russian Czar who used his influence to order County Gizycka to release the little countess.

The international newspaper-reading public was fed a constant diet of news and speculation about the most kidnapped girl in American history. When Cissy returned to America with her daughter, Felicia, 4, never saw her father again.

Felicia was put in boarding schools and summer camps while her mother lived in a mansion on DuPont Circle in Washington, D.C. Not surprisingly, when Felicia became a young woman she lived a wild life as a beautiful and glamorous socialite who always used her title. Then alcoholism caught up with her.

“Felicia Gizycka was one of the first female members of Alcoholics Anonymous in New York City,” said Young. That was in 1943 when there were 100 members of AA in the city and only five were women. In AA circles, she was known as Felicia G., not “countess.”

Young said he enjoyed the research so much that what had initially been conceived as a single historical novel -- “The Richest Girl in the World” covering 1903-1924 – has become two volumes with “The Adventures of the Countess Felicia” covering 1924-1948.

“Both volumes center on alcoholic conflict and family dysfunction,” he said. “I’ve read every word that Cissy and later Felicia published,” he added. Both women were novelists, neither very good.

Cissy Patterson was the publisher of The Washington Times-Herald. According to Time magazine, she was the most hated woman in America in the 1940s. Her relatives were only a little more popular. Her brother, Joe Patterson, was the publisher and founder of The New York Daily New and their cousin, Robert McCormick, was the publisher of The Chicago Tribune. The three of them made Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s life miserable as they opposed America’s entry into World War II.

But Felicia was a liberal Democrat who strongly supported FDR.

“Felicia hated her family, she hated her family’s money,” said Young.

At age 18, she ran away from her mother’s family ranch in Wyoming and supported herself as a waitress in San Diego for a few months before marrying an unknown newspaperman named Drew Pearson.

When Felicia finally got sober, her life changed. The success that she had yearned for so desperately came to her in a roundabout way.

She wanted more than anything to be known as a writer. Although she published two semi-autobiographical novels, they were largely ignored by the public. Felicia herself later said that she wrote the books while she was drunk.

After she got sober she wrote her own story, “Stars Don’t Fall,” which was published in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. She was not identified by name in that essay. And yet her anonymous story has been read by 20 million people to date – a number that far exceeds the newspaper circulation of her entire family holdings combined.

She was active in AA for the rest of her life. In 1990, the countess appeared at the International AA Convention in Seattle. She was 84 years old and had 55 years of sobriety.

Young later heard a tape of her convention address.

“She had a patrician voice like Franklin Roosevelt,” he said. “It was the first time I’d heard her voice and I was transfixed.

“Today, you can find all this – the details of her life – on-line,” he added. While AA makes personal anonymity a priority, there’s no anonymity in death, said Young.

-- Reach Elisabeth Sherwin at gizmo@dcn.org and watch for more local writers to be featured biweekly at this web site.

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