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Nashville Scene Personal History

'Diary of Opal Whiteley' opens

By Lisa A. DuBois

AUGUST 31, 1998:  As soon as the curtain rises on The Diary of Opal Whiteley, actress Nan Gurley breaks the fourth wall. "I know why you've come," barks the elderly character. "You've come to see for yourself. Am I a genius? Am I a liar? Is the diary a hoax?"

In fact, people do come to the theater to find answers to these puzzling queries. Opal Whiteley published her childhood diary in 1920, after painstakingly piecing together torn scraps of butcher paper, wrapping paper, and the backs of envelopes on which she had scribbled her thoughts years before. The diary became a national bestseller, and the eccentric young woman was revered as a genius.

Within months, however, she was deemed a charlatan and reviled as a fraud. No child could have written such a brilliant tome, the public decided. She couldn't possibly be the orphan she claimed to be. Who, then, was this person? During the course of Gurley's acclaimed one-woman show, the actress constantly addresses but never resolves this debate. Her implied rebuttal is: Does it even matter?

Gurley is reprising The Diary of Opal Whiteley this weekend at TPAC's Johnson Theater as a benefit for St. Jude Children's Hospital in Memphis and the Yangzhou Welfare Home in China, the orphanage from which she adopted her own child, Erin. (The money for the orphanage will go toward the purchase of a heating and air-conditioning unit where the special-needs children are housed.)

Since 1992, when she first wrote and performed the play, Gurley has toured the production all across the South, including a triumphant run at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, S.C.

"I wanted to tell Opal's story because it said to me, don't miss the beauty of the little things around you," Gurley says. "She felt that everything around her had beauty--the footprint of a crow's feet as it walks through jelly, or the bobbing of the willow branches in a creek, or the leaves as they'd rustle in a breeze. Nothing was too small to be appreciated and enjoyed."

Given her rugged upbringing, it is amazing that this wisp of a little girl had the capacity to appreciate anything. Born around the turn of the century, Opal grew up in the logging camps of the Cascade Mountains in Oregon. Her father was away much of the time, and her family moved 19 times during her childhood, sometimes living in rustic tents pitched in the middle of the woods.

The child took to wandering alone through the wilderness, communing with the animals and plants surrounding her, carrying on discussions with babbling brooks and summer winds. Her best friends were animals--Elizabeth Barrett Browning, her favorite cow; Thomas Chatterton Jupiter Zeus, a "most velvety" woodrat; Peter Paul Reubens, a pig; and Brave Horatius, her dog.

Often punished by her mother for her puckish antics, Opal spent many days lying under her bed recovering from spankings and writing in her diary on whatever form of paper she could secure. She kept the diary hidden in a box in the forest, until her sister Faye discovered it and ripped it to shreds.

At about age 20, Opal traveled to New York City, trying to find someone to publish a children's book she'd written about nature. When she approached Ellery Sedgwick, respected publisher of The Atlantic Monthly, he developed a far greater interest in her background than in her current project and asked to see her diary. She had saved the destroyed memoir and spent the next year arduously piecing the remnants together.

When The Story of Opal was published in 1920, the young woman skyrocketed to fame; she became the darling of the literary set, who hailed her as a child wonder. Then the media took over. Tabloid journalists traveled to Oregon and waylaid her family members, who insisted that Opal had lied about being an orphan--that she'd been born to rather than adopted by the Whiteleys. Her siblings were so harrassed and ashamed that they changed their last names and moved away.

Readers grew outraged. Crying fraud, people turned in their copies of the book and demanded their money back. The diary was pulled from print, and Opal fled to England in disgrace. In 1944, a middle-aged schizophrenic woman was found scavenging among the bombed-out buildings in Britain, looking for books. The once famous Opal Whiteley could fall no further. Kind strangers took her to a mental facility in Napsbury, England, where she lived out the remainder of her years, until her death on Feb. 16, 1992.

"I think her schizophrenia as a child manifested itself in a heightened sense of sight and sound, allowing her to write from a distance," Gurley says. "But her illness closed in on her talent. I've read some of the poems she wrote as an adult, and they're maudlin, sentimental, dull, and boring compared to what she wrote as a child."

In 1986, Opal's diary was reprinted, and the publisher sent a copy to her in the mental institute. Gurley uses that moment of personal verification as the "now" in her play. From there, she floats in time between the days when Opal was piecing together the diary in Sedgwick's offices, and when Opal was an odd little awestruck child celebrating nature.

"She delighted in all of the creation around her," Gurley says. "In the midst of her sad life, she had an indomitable spirit and never lost the joy of being alive."

These many years later, Opal Whiteley is somewhat of a cult figure who's had various accounts, plays, and a musical written about her. Even so, the truth about her life remains obscure. On the other hand, maybe that's better. Maybe this is one instance where the facts would diminish a far more important fantasy.

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