My Grandfather, The Mormon Apostle

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Emerson wrote that “there is properly no history; only biography,” so my brother and sister and I knew that the revered collection of diaries and papers that had once belonged to our grandfather, which during most of our early lives was in a closet in an upstairs bedroom, contained some serious stuff. Our mother was a professional journalist, and it was always assumed that she would write her father’s story. But she intended instead to write a novel based on his life. Her father—our grandfather Rudger Clawson—was president of the Council of the Twelve Apostles of the Mormon Church at the time of his death, in 1943.

As we were growing up, in Washington, D.C., it was a little puzzling to us that this elderly, mild gentleman, who dressed mostly in black and wore black bowlers, top hats, and homburgs and starched white Herbert Hoover-style collars, looking like a bookkeeper (in fact, he was a bookkeeper), should warrant a big, romantic historical novel of the kind my mother planned to write. Despite Grandfather’s exalted position, it was always Grandma who commanded the most attention. She, too, always wore black, and in her seventies she was still a beautiful woman with a striking presence. Grandfather had a puckish wit and would often enter a room with a dramatic gesture and a Shakespearean quote, but then he would seem to fade into the furniture. Grandma entered a room and dominated it.

However, as we grew up, we began to hear the stories about Grandfather that invariably prompted guests to say, “Oh, that would make a great novel.” In 1980 Mother died without having written that novel. In fact, in her later years she had become reconciled to not writing it and often talked with her children about her desire that one of us write her father’s biography.

She also made it clear she did not want his diaries and papers to go to the church, because once they were in its archives, only church-approved scholars would have access to them. Before she died, my brother, David, wrote a detailed proposal for a biography, but he was unable to interest a publisher. The papers were transferred from Mother’s closet to my basement, where they began to gather dust—and attract some queries from interested buyers of historical papers. Then we had an idea: Why not sell the papers and use the proceeds to write the biography?

He faced down the mob that murdered Joseph Standing—a bold act for anyone.

By this time I had written two biographies (of the novelist James M. Cain and the journalist Ralph M. Ingersoll) and David had done graduate work in the American West at Harvard and considerable research on Rudger Clawson. We seemed to make a good team. The papers were sold to the University of Utah, a public institution. David and I split the proceeds and used the money to help support us during the writing of the book. His wife made extensive editorial contributions to the project, my wife proofread galleys, and our sister, Linda, did work on the illustrations. So the publication this spring of our grandfather’s biography (The Making of a Mormon Apostle, Madison Books) will definitely be a family affair, which would have pleased him.

There is probably no greater intellectual excitement than to take a trip into history in pursuit of a life that has some meaning for you. And it is a bonus to know that the life had historical significance.

Despite being the daughter of a president of the Council of the Twelve Apostles of the Mormon Church, my mother was never spiritually close to the church. However, after my immediate family moved to Washington, D.C., in 1926, she kept up relations through the column she wrote for the church paper, the Deseret News, and later for the independent Salt Lake City Tribune. My father, an attorney for the Federal Trade Commission, was not a practicing Mormon and never went to church, even when Grandfather was in town and the rest of the family dutifully heard him preside at services at the old Mormon church on Sixteenth Street in Washington.

At one time or another Linda and David were fairly close to the church, although both have since severed their ties. I was never close and had never been pressured by Mother or Dad to become a Mormon. So what would I find on my travels back through Mormon history into completely alien territory, tracing the life of an apostle in a church I had rejected? Would I rediscover Joseph Smith or find God? Or would I simply confirm what I felt I had known since my university days: that the pursuit of truth usually led away from religion, although for some it eventually led back to it?

One thing we found came as a total surprise. During my journalism career I had written a brief profile of Stewart Udall, a former U.S. representative and the Secretary of the Interior during the Kennedy administration, and had interviewed his brother Morris, also a U.S. representative from Arizona, who later ran for President. Little had I known that I was related to the Udalls, the result of a secret Mormon celestial marriage “through time and eternity.”