Listen in, Michigan
Episode 55: Truth is stranger than historical fiction, featuring A. Arbour
Hi, I’m Deborah Holdship, editor of Michigan Today. In this episode of Listen in Michigan, we explore the mysterious life of one-term Michigan governor and former U-M Regent Chase Salmon Osborn, a swashbuckling Horatio Alger type with a bizarre secret that lay unexplored for a hundred years.
Osborn was an iron prospector, newspaper magnate, politician — an “influencer,” in today’s parlance. A native of the Soo, he spent much of his life on Michigan’s Upper Peninsuala in his compound on Sugar Island. Despite its remote location, Osborn’s headquarters was a revolving door of dignitaries, cultural icons, politicians, and titans of business. In the summer of 1937, one of those visitors was the sculptor Carleton Angell (the artist behind the Pumas at the Natural Science Museum). U-M President Marion Burton had commissioned Angell t to create a bust of Osborn to commemorate his contributions as a University regent from 1908-11 and governor from 1911-13. For six weeks, Angell and his wife lived on Sugar Island with Osborn and his adopted daughter, Stellanova, a beautiful poet and U-M graduate in creative writing. In 1931, the Osborns adopted Stellanova when she was 38 years old; and curiously, Mrs. Osborn no longer lived on the property…
Historians through the years were either incredibly respectful or lacked any semblance of curiosity. They accepted the explanation that Stellanova “adopted at 38” served as Osborn’s secretary and co-author on a number of books and publications. The remote location served the arrangement well, but according to alumna and author Mary Crum Scholtens, it’s likely the Angells observed some curious behavior during their six weeks with father and daughter.
Scholtens, who goes by the pen name A. Arbour (with a u) is the author of the novel “Ward, Wife, Widow.” She uses that summer of 1937 as the setting for her novel about Stellanova, a woman who willingly chose to live a secret, sublimating her very existence and talent while dedicating her life to this eccentric older man. But why would anyone do this? The answer started to form at U-M’s Bentley Historical Library when Mary discovered 600 pages of correspondence, 600 pages! — much of it candid, explicit, and ardent, that passed between Osborn and Stellanova prior to her “adoption.”
That trove of letters revealed a truth far stranger than the average “historical fiction.”
Listen in, as Mary, an Ann Arbor native and daughter of a U-M biologist, explains how she felt obligated, driven actually, to let Stellanova tell HER story after all these years of living in the shadows.
Mary Crum Scholtens:
He loved Michigan. He just had such a love for Michigan. He never attended, although Stella Nova did attend and got her master’s degree.
He’s a dreamer and he can make these things come true because he just, he has this tenacious spirit and it’s just he’s like a Horatio Alger. I mean that he’s a character on Horatio Alger book. I mean, he’s sort of a frontiers person at the time. He’s going to Wisconsin and he’s working in lumber camps. And he’s setting up, he was very courageous. He would set up a newspaper office in a mining town, and then he would expose what was going on, you know, with criminals, and then his life would be in danger. I mean, he actually was shot at. And while he was in one of his newspaper offices and so he, he wanted to tell the truth.
Very interesting. He wanted to tell the truth about, you know, politics and things going on, but he couldn’t tell the truth about his own life. And one of the reasons he only wanted to be a one term governor is because he wanted to tell the truth. And he was for prohibition. At one time and and he knew that that would doom a second term. And then he changed his mind later on.
So he was, he was an interesting character that he he had his moments of being a little bit humble at times and changing his mind. Admitting a mistake did not admit a mistake about his relationship with Stella Nova.
He was responsible for the first workers comp legislation in the state, so he really felt for the miners and for the people that work at the Soo. He was responsible for the Mackinac Bridge. That’s huge. And so he was very progressive. But where he wasn’t progressive was that he did not want to damage his reputation by having a girlfriend. And so he came up with this ruse that they lived with for decades that he and his wife, Lillian, whom he was not divorced from at the time… He decides to adopt this graduate student in English at University of Michigan to be his paramour. And he could travel with her and say this is my daughter and he wasn’t lying. He had adopted her. But all the all the documentation and online and in books, biographies, that have been written about Chase Osborn: All of them say Lillian and Chase Osborn adopted Stella Lee Brunt when she was 37. And I’m thinking this does not make any sense. How do you convince a wife that you’re going to do this? This doesn’t make any sense.
And I got in touch with one of the great grandsons and he was rattling this paper on the phone. I’m going to send you a PDF that you’re going to find quite interesting, and it was the separation decree that chase and Lillian signed in 1923. That this was not a platonic relationship. This was a way for them to live in that time period as husband and wife, but not legalize it.
The spark that lit the whole story for her and for him was she was in Graduate School at Michigan, President Burton. He wanted to do something that was groundbreaking at the time. And so President Burton thought, well, I would love to have an artist in residence, but I don’t know how it would fund it. And I wanted to get Robert Frost here on campus at the University of Michigan. So the first person he thinks about contacting for money is former governor Chase Osborn. He says, I’m sorry, I just can’t at this time. And then he realizes, wait a second, that’s when you should give, is when you feel like you can. So we had a very kind of Christian/Humanities kind of sensibility. So he gives $5000 to bring Frost here for the first residency.
So guess who ends up going to seminars that are given by Frost?
FROST READS “STOPPING BY WOODS ON A SNOWY EVENING”
So Stellanova is one of the secret editors. Of the “Whimsies,” there was a five or six women and they never even told people that it was men or who they were. They wanted to be secret. Again, women in that era would they have been taken seriously? So Frost even writes them a poem. They are able to meet with a professor at a professor’s home and see Frost on a number of occasions. He critiques her work He hurts her feelings, but she’s just enamored with him and she wants to thank the person who’s responsible. She has no idea who’s responsible.
And then he is so enamored with her letters. I think he’s mainly enamored with how enamored she is with him. So he saves them. Not only does he save them, but he annotates them and returns them to her. You know, with exclamation points like: you are being ridiculous or you are being, you know, too sensitive or we wjust need to be friends, we’ll be nothing more than friends. And then he’ll draw her back in. But they were pen pals for quite a number of years before they actually met in person, I believe in an alumni event in New York City. She was working for a publisher, and that’s where I think they met and things got physical.
She was always wanting to be more in his life and he was equivocating all the time. He couldn’t make up his mind. He’d say let’s write once a year to one another, this is too much. Be my friend — in caps — and nothing more. And then maybe they would meet in person or he would write a PS to that letter that was sort of telling her the opposite. So I think once they found the solution, the solution worked for him. And I think that he, I think he was constant in her life as her loving partner. And then Stella Nova thought that.
Bing Crosby sings “Sweet Leilani,” (Decca Records, 1937)
She was from Hamilton ON and her mother remarried and she never mentioned her father. She disliked her stepfather. That did not work out well, and I don’t think that her mother was happy either. There’s there’s a lot of correspondence I’ve read between she and her mother. And so she graduates from high school like four years later than most people because she has to raise money to go. And so she’s a she’s a fish out of water when she gets to Michigan; she’s older, and the young men don’t appeal to her. They’re too young for her.
And you know, then she stumbles on to this man that funded the frost residency. And then she writes to him, and he’s kind of a father figure, but she also has seen a picture of him that she puts on her dorm room wall. And she can’t tell people that she’s corresponding with this guy. I think he was 34 years older than she was. But she’s falling in love with the younger picture of him because she read his biography, which is fascinating, The Iron Hunter, and that takes his life up to 1919. So she’s reading about him up until that point in his life. And, you know, he’s got a very attractive picture of himself. He’s ruggedly handsome, you know, and he had these arresting eyes and so she she falls in love with his biography, she falls in love with his image as a younger man and he is very robust and everything.
And then I took her from that girl, that young woman of the the one who’s corresponding for 10 years, I took her to. The point of OK, now this isn’t so fun anymore… What we’re doing, you know, I’m pretty frustrated. Having a child now was passed me by. And I don’t think she would continue to be that doting person. Yes, devoted, but not doting.
And so that’s where I meet her in 1937-38 is she’s no longer doting. She’s a little irritated.
His camp on Sugar Island, I mean, it was a revolving door of “who’s who.” People paid court to him. He was so well-known and people really did they beat a path to his door even though the path was across a ferry on the St. Mary’s River and down corduroy roads, dusty, to get to their very remote Duck Island property on Sugar Island. And so they had many guests and so here she was being able to live privately with him for long periods of time. But also these guests are always coming and so that’s why when I found out that an art professor that worked at the Museum, Carleton Angell, who is responsible for the Pumas. Everybody knows about the Pumas that were in front of the Natural History Museum. He was commissioned by President Burton to go up and spend six weeks on Sugar Island and study for the bust that then was in the Michigan Union for years and years and years. And even though I was a student at Michigan, I never saw it. But now it’s in the basement of the Union and a storage locker.
That gave me the catalyst for: Oh, it’s going to be that summer and I’m going to put everything there. And that’s when the conversations are going to take place. And you know, they’re definitely going to find out how difficult this man is and how fascinating and how worthy of, you know, a tribute, but also that he he’s a strange human being as well.
Carleton Angell wrote up an account of it in the University Record and his wife was with them too. So that so that’s what I decided that that’s when it’s going to happen. This 1938-37 when they were there and for six weeks in the late summer that this is when a particularly his wife would have time to observe and go what? Is going on here? And then I could put myself kind of in that story. Like if I were visiting for six weeks, wouldn’t I see some stuff? Wouldn’t I be kind of questioning like what is going on? And also there’d be tension with Stellanova and Chase having to live under the scrutiny for a long period of time.
COUNT BASIE plays
I fell in love with them as people, even though they were both, I think, kind of difficult people. I fell in love with them as a couple, and I was, I felt compelled to tell their story, absolutely compelled.
I published about 100 pages of those letters at the end of my novel. Is it OK to publish such graphic stuff? Her letters weren’t they’re very ardent. His are ardent and also very specific.
Younger women who read it, they’re very angry with chase. Older women are angry with her. I think she got almost all she wanted out of it. She wanted to be with them. She didn’t get a child she didn’t get. To be his wife, but she she signed on with her eyes wide open, given the times.
She signed on for this arrangement and to never tell anybody.
And, you know, I struggled with it. I really, I really thought about it a long time. And I thought, wait a second, I really think Stella Nova wanted somebody to find this. How do you decide that you’re going to dump this treasure trove of personal correspondence at the University of Michigan and not expect that somebody’s going to come looking one day? I think she wanted to be validated for. Actual position in his life. Nobody would leave this. You would burn this. And it wasn’t that she just left one stray, incredibly ardent graphic letter that Chase wrote to her about their physical relationship. But I I found several. So it’s not like, oh, that was stuck in between and oh, I never meant to. And his were typed.
She begged him in her letters to marry her, and she made a case for him divorcing. He would answer back very curtly and also at length, that he would never divorce. He would never consider that he had four living children. And he would not pass on the name of somebody who would divorce their mother.
I felt very sad for Stella Nova and he renamed her. When he adopts her, he renames her. And I’m thinking, who allows themselves to be renamed and have their life defined by a secret?
You feel sorry for them from our perspective as women in our time. And certainly there are women who who give up things, very fundamental things, to be with a certain person. I think that in some ways she was happy with her choice because I think it was a true love story.
I felt like she was speaking to me and that she wanted to be heard. She was a poet, but she didn’t write about her life. She wrote about nature and she’s her poetry sounds very, very much like Robert Frost.
You know, I’m a few years into the research about this and the creativity and I go to the Bentley and I think what if there’s a scrap, you know, I’ve got, I’ve got the PDF of the separation decree. So I’m on the right track track here. OK.
So I go to the Bentley and I t hought I’m going to look for a scrap of correspondence because the Osborns gave boxes and boxes and however they measure that, you know, yard feet. And I thought, I’m just going to look for one letter, maybe it just can even confirm beyond the separation. Well, like 600 pages of correspondence and it was very. Candid, shall we say?
I can’t even imagine the feeling of finding 600 pages of correspondence.
It was like Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, birthday all rolled into one!
I was shocked. I cannot believe this and the language.
So that the correspondence started in 21 and ended in 31 when he adopted her and then there was no need for this correspondence because they were then going to live together as family — however, they defined it.
I think he got more and more eccentric, still had his faculties. There was no question he was still very erudite man, but I I think his wife, maybe this was not what she envisioned, but Stella Nova was OK with it.
He started corresponding with Stella Lee Brunt in 1921. And I think she got wind of it and by 23 she she realized this is I I can’t live with this
She [Lillian] leaves the scene, she goes to Wisconsin. They lived in the Soo. And then he had his camp, his property, which he donated to the University of Michigan in the 20s, which is still a nature preserve, that University of Michigan Biological Station. Her life was books and research and writing and poetry and nature poetry and helping this man write his books. I think she was. I think she was fine with the isolation.
20s-era MUSIC PLAYS
DH: How much of this is “inspired by…” Is it history, is it fiction?
So much of it is true because I’m not that good a novelist.
I read so much in their letters about how they worded things and that I felt like I could write in both of their voices because like I’ve heard your voices in the letters. I mean it’s there. I can adopt it. And you know, he’s, he’s kind of, he’s so colorful and outrageous and so many of the outrageous things that he says in the novel he actually said. He actually wrote them down, he actually said … or people reported that he actually said these things.
But also in reading all these letters, I realized they really were soulmates. She, she really wanted to be with him and he really wanted to be with her. And she ended up writing many books with him. You know, she put her skills to use that she learned at the University of Michigan and also working for a publisher in New York City. And they published Hiawatha, the big tome.
I thought maybe I could get the adoption records, but they’re sealed I wanted to see: is Lillian’s name on there?
And then Stella Nova thought that after his wife died that there was no reason why they couldn’t get married, but he still didn’t do it.
She spent the rest of her life after he died protecting his legacy. I mean, she still deserves a voice. Sure, she made a choice that made her happy in some respects, but she deserves to be heard that this was not easy. And I thought, I’ve got to tell her story. I’m going to give her a chance to speak. Because I think she really wanted it. She left those letters. I I’m convinced she wanted to speak.
I just love the idea that Stellanova is speaking to Mary from the past – through these letters; Stellanova found just the right person to tell the story she was never able to share during her own life. This is Mary’s debut novel and she’s now working on a piece about a family of lighthouse keepers, also historical fiction, also set in Michigan — More isolation and drama in the wilds of Northern Michigan. All right. That’s it for now. Thanks for listening. And we hope to see you next month. Till then, as always, go Blue.
A ‘daughter’ at 37
Most visitors to the University of Michigan Biological Station return with tales of the lush woods, rustic cabins, and beautiful beaches of Douglas Lake. But for the bookish and artistic daughter of the late-U-M botanist/biology professor Howard Crum, it was the mid-century library in Pellston, Mich., that would capture her imagination.
Mary Crum Scholtens, BMus ’84/MMus ’86, spent each of her childhood summers with her father and family at U-M’s Biological Station. She was always intrigued by the bust of a man who seemed to watch over the camp’s library 24/7. She never knew who he was, but the statue’s constant presence in her life left an indelible impression.
The bust disappeared in the mid-’70s and when Scholtens enrolled at U-M she discovered the subject was Chase Salmon Osborn (1860-1949), a U-M regent from 1908-11 and the state’s governor from 1911-13. She also learned Carleton Angell, the artist behind the pumas standing guard at the Museum of Natural History, was the sculptor.
In researching Osborn, who turned out to be something of a Horatio Alger type, Scholtens learned he was an iron prospector, newspaper magnate, celebrity, and politician known for making several fortunes and giving them away. He successfully lobbied Franklin D. Roosevelt to have the Mackinac Bridge constructed and favored progressive policies like workers’ compensation. But Scholtens kept tripping over a personal fact, seemingly brushed aside, that appeared in every account of his life. Osborn and his wife, Lillian, had adopted a daughter in 1931. She was a University of Michigan alumna named Stella Lee Brunt, who’d earned a master’s degree in English. And she was 37 years old.
“I’m thinking, ‘This does not make any sense,’” Scholtens says. “How do you convince a wife that you’re going to do this?”
Scholtens is an elementary school teacher in South Carolina and had been working on a book of historical fiction inspired by that bust of Osborn when she connected with one of his descendants. He sent her a PDF that intensified her curiosity about that weird adoption. It was a separation agreement signed by Lillian and Chase Osborn in 1923, a secret parting of the ways known only to them, after which Lillian left their property on Sugar Island in the Upper Peninsula and the renamed Stellanova moved in.
“[Osborn] did not want to damage his reputation by having a girlfriend so he came up with this ruse that they lived with for decades,” Scholtens says. “He refused to get a divorce because he had four living children and did not want to pass on the name of a man who would divorce their mother. This way, Stellanovava could be his paramour. She could travel with him and he could say, ‘This is my daughter,’ and he wouldn’t be lying.”
She also was his secretary and co-author on several publications.
“I began to wonder about Stellanova’s silenced voice and how I could give her that mature voice posthumously,” Scholtens says. “She started speaking to me. And she was angry.”
Pen palsStellanova’s voice came through loud and clear once Scholtens explored the Osborn papers at U-M’s Bentley Historical Library. She hoped to find a scrap or two among the former governor’s documents that would fill in the gaps of this curious arrangement and breathe life into her debut novel.
What she discovered was a treasure trove of letters between “father and daughter” beginning in 1921 and spanning a decade. Through some 600 pages of mutual correspondence, preserved by Stellanova and delivered to the Bentley, Scholtens indulged in the untold love story buried in the archives.
“It was the longest foreplay in history,” she says.
The road not taken
The letters began when then-graduate student Stella Lee Brunt wrote to thank the former governor for funding Robert Frost’s first residency at U-M in 1921. It’s clear she read Osborn’s biography The Iron Hunter, and had developed a crush on the much-younger photo of the robust pioneer that appeared on his book jacket.
The flattered Osborn replied to her first missive, and the relationship bloomed. “I think he was enamored with how enamored she was with him,” says Scholtens.
While working for a publisher in New York City, Brunt met Osborn at an alumni event and “things got physical,” Scholtens says. The tone of the letters changed at this point and Scholtens struggled with her conscience: Should she print this private and ardent correspondence that others had never found — or had chosen to ignore out of respect? The copyrights allowed publication, per the Bentley, so she went for it. About a hundred pages of Ward, Wife, Widow (Schuler Books, 2022) are written by the characters themselves.
Voices from the past
Shrouded in isolation, the couple was able to live as husband and wife until Osborn died in 1949.But when that isolation was disturbed for six weeks upon Angell’s arrival to sculpt that bust in the summer of 1937, Scholtens imagined the tension would have been high as the pair struggled to maintain their long-running façade. That encounter sets the stage for some truly compelling historical fiction in Ward, Wife, Widow. As the jacket notes, “This is a saga of public accomplishment and suppressed realities, of burnished reputations becoming art, and broken promises betraying the importance of honor over honesty.”
“I believe that in the current social climate, this is Stellanova Osborn’s moment,” Scholtens says. “She wanted someone to find those letters.”
In a tribute to her hometown, Scholtens adopted the pen name A. Arbour. Her follow-up also will be set in Northern Michigan and chronicles a family of lighthouse keepers on Whitefish Point. She’ll be returning for research at the Bentley, yet another library that has changed her destiny.
“It’s like being a student again,” she says. “Just not in the music school.”
Music featured in this podcast episode:
- “The Yellow and Blue” performed by the Michigan Men’s Glee Club.
- “Sweet Leilani” by Bing Crosby, a 1937 hit for Decca Records (archive.org)
- One O’Clock Jump by the Count Basie Orchestra, also released in 1937 (archive.org)
- Music of the 20s — “The Roaring 20s Era: Music Songs from the Top 40 of 1920”