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The Real Little Lord Fauntleroy
The lady author modelled her famous fictional creation after her own wonder boy —and condemned a generation of “manly little chaps” to velvet pants and curls
February 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 2
In the preface to this biography Vivian stated: To those who knew Mrs. Burnett with any intimacy it was plain that in all her thinking and doing was something not quite to be measured or weighed according to the usual mortal methods. Approached in the right spirit, the whole matter was easy of explanation. One had merely to admit that she was partly a fairy. (This was almost an echo of a passage in the famous book: ”… it must be owned that Lord Fauntleroy was himself rather like a small copy of the fairy prince. …”) Vivian was equally certain that her “sweetest and most complete romance was her children.”
A quarter of a century after leaving Harvard, Vivian felt sufficient rapport with his former classmates to furnish them detailed information on his activities for the “Records of the Class of 1898”: The fall of 1898 found me rustling a newspaper job in Denver, Colo. … I “cubbed” on the Denver Republican for about three and a half years, and had a full, exciting and joyous life of it. I did everything in reporting … from the Court house run to “police” the hotels and railways, even a bit of art and music criticism … I steadily climbed until I was proudly doing occasional service at the Assistant City Editor’s desk, on slow Sunday nights, for example. Denver at the time was one of the nation’s rowdiest schools of journalism, where greenhorns were sometimes hazed with six-guns. The graduates included such immortals as Gene Fowler, Damon Runyon, and Eugene Field.
Returning to Washington because of the illness of his father, Vivian was employed as a casual columnist for the Washington Times . Following the death of his father in 1906 he roved the nation for S. S. McClure, writing a “state of the Union” column. The year after, “I was known about New York, and Brooklyn, as ‘the young bachelor crazy about other men’s children,’ ” he told his Harvard classmates. “You can easily guess therefore that my pet publishing proposition was a magazine for youngsters.”
With his mother’s name on the masthead, Vivian took over the proprietorship of the Children’s Magazine and guided it through the panic year of 1907, later shifting to the more stable trade magazine field.
He was still a bachelor, thirty-eight years old and living with his mother on her Plandome, Long Island, estate, when in 1914 he fell in love with twenty-oneyear-old Constance Clough Buel, the daughter of a recently retired associate editor of The Century . Dearest minimized the difference in their ages, noting that Vivian “always was twenty-one, and now he is more so than ever.” With his attractive wife, Vivian embarked for a honeymoon in Japan on one of the first ships to pass from the Atlantic to the Pacific through the Panama Canal. His late father’s interest in Japanese art provided the inspiration, and Dearest supplied the money.
Recurring neuritis in one arm kept him out of service in World War I, but as associate editor of the pioneering Talking Machine Journal he organized the collection of more than a million records for the entertainment of the men in uniform. “This, such as it is, will have to be considered my ‘war service,’ ” Vivian confided to the class records.
With the candor of a boyish Fauntleroy, Vivian reported on his other activities as follows: Sports! Oh, boy! On the hottest days of summer you will probably find me bouncing about on a tennis court. “Delight” is the name of my little auxiliary yawl which is anchored within a stone’s throw of the little ten room home —with vegetable and flower plots—in which we live the year ‘round and enthusiastically garden. Swimming and skating are also sports close to the heart. But, most of all our sport is music. I sing, play piano, and to horrify Mrs. B—the flute, and compose (see lists of G. Shirmer, Inc.) Mrs. B—— sings beautifully according to my notion, and to that of expert and unprejudiced observers. I am the conductor of the local community chorus, yclept Plandome Singers about twenty five strong (except in the tenors.)
The letter to his classmates also noted his role in helping to organize the Christian Science Society of Great Neck, Long Island, where he served as First Reader. His mother had flirted with the religion as well as with other types of faith healing, but was never enrolled as a member. Vivian’s wife and their two daughters, Verity Constance, born August 11, 1916, and Dorinda Clough, born January 15, 1918, were all Christian Scientists.
Glorying in her role as grandmother, Dearest lived only a twominute walk from Vivian’s house on the Sound. When in 1920 failing health made it necessary for the seventy-one-year-old author to place her business affairs in her son’s hands, she continued to counsel him: “When I slip away you must give all your mind to thinking, ‘How delighted Mammy would be to see us doing the things we want to do, without worrying the least! … You must help me in my little fortune, tucking away and tucking away.” Or again, “Here is a little prayer: ‘Let me be one of those who help !’ ”