Dorothy Herrmann
Dorothy Herrmann
Helen Keller:  A Life
ISBN: 0679443541
Helen Keller: A Life

This full-scale biography takes readers beyond the image of Helen Keller as the young girl portrayed in The Miracle Worker and brings to life the complex woman whose private self has, until now, been shrouded in legend. Dorothy Herrmann's book takes us through Helen's long, eventful life, a life that would have crushed a woman less stoic and adaptable—fraud. And one of the most persistent controversies surrounding her had to do with her relationship to the fiercely devoted Annie, through whom she largely expressed herself.

Dorothy Herrmann explores these questions: Was Annie Sullivan a 'miracle worker' or a domineering, emotionally troubled woman who shrewdly realized that making a deaf-blind girl of average intelligence appear extraordinary was her ticket to fame and fortune? Was she merely an instrument through which Helen's 'brilliance' could manifest itself? Or was Annie herself the genius, the exceptionally gifted and sensitive one? Herrmann describes the nature of Helen's strange, sensorily deprived world. (Was it a black and silent tomb?) And she shows how Helen wasso cheerful about her disabilities, often appearing in public as the soul of radiance and altruism. (Was it Helen's real self that emerged at age seven, when she was transformed by language from a savage, animal-like creature into a human being? Or was it a false persona manufactured by the driven Annie Sullivan?).

Dorothy Herrmann tells why, despite her romantic involvements, Helen was never permitted to marry. She shows us the woman who, to communicate with the outside world, relied totally on those who knew the manual finger language. For almost her entire life, these people, some of whom were jealous or dogmatic, were the key to Helen's world.
—from the publisher's website

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TRANSCRIPT
Helen Keller: A Life
Program Air Date: October 25, 1998

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Dorothy Herrmann, the subject of your book, "A Life," is Helen Keller. Who was she?
Ms. DOROTHY HERRMANN (Author, "Helen Keller: A Life"): Helen Keller was the world-famous deaf-blind writer and essayist, and she was a woman that I always found very fascinating. Here was a woman who spent almost her entire life, from the time she was 19 months old, in darkness and in silence, and yet she accomplished many, many a--amazing things. She wrote many books, among them the famous, "The Story of My Life," which was her autobiography. And she graduated from Radcliffe College. She was the first deaf-blind person ever to graduate from college. And she was also an advocate for the blind and the deaf-blind. Yet interestingly, as famous as Helen Keller was, I discovered as I was beginning my research that many people are only familiar with the early part of her life, and this was the part that William Gibson portrayed so compellingly in "The Miracle Worker." And also, ironically, because Helen Keller was so revered in her lifetime, that I found that many people had ceased to regard her as a real person, and that's why I wrote my book, to find the real woman behind the myth.
LAMB: When did she live?
Ms. HERRMANN: Helen Keller was born in 1880 and she lived until 1968. And she lived an incredible 88 years having this condition.
LAMB: And you say she was deaf and blind. Could she speak?
Ms. HERRMANN: At first, no. She suffered at the age of 19 months a disease that at that time was known or--as brain fever. That's what the doctors of the period diagnosed it as being. To this day we don't know what that disease was, whether it was scarlet fever, which was very prevalent at the time, or whether it was spinal be--meningitis or whether it was rubella. But whatever this disease was, it completely wiped out her hearing and her sight. And as a result, she could not speak, although there was certainly nothing wrong with her vocal cords.
LAMB: Now if you go out here to the National Cathedral right here in Washington, you can find the ashes of three people, if I understand you correctly in your book: Helen Keller, Polly Thompson and Annie Sullivan. Why are they all three buried there?
Ms. HERRMANN: They had--first of all, for them it was an honor during their lifetime for them to be--to consider being buried there because of their--of their fame. During her lifetime, I would say that Helen Keller and Eleanor Roosevelt were the two most famous women of their generation.
LAMB: What about Polly Thompson? Who was she and who was Annie Sullivan?
Ms. HERRMANN: Annie Sullivan, of course, was Helen Keller's teacher. She was a--a very, very young woman when she went to Tuscumbia, Alabama, where Helen was born. It's in a rural part of Alabama. Annie Sullivan came from a background that was really as horrendous as Helen Keller. Her parents were illiterate Irish immigrants who came to Massachusetts after the great famine and her mother died of tuberculosis at a very young age. Her brothers and sisters also died at young ages, and then her father abandoned the family, and Annie and her young brother, Jimmy, were placed in an almshouse in Massachusetts where Jimmy subsequently died.

Annie was in a unique position to understand Helen because she was half blind herself, and she suffered from a viral disease of the eye that, until 1937 with the advent of sulfur drugs, was responsible for much of the blindness in the world.
LAMB: Here's a picture in your book in the later years of Helen Keller on the left and Polly Thompson on the right. Now who--how did Polly Thompson figure in this?
Ms. HERRMANN: Polly Thompson was Helen's second companion after the death of Annie Sullivan in 1936, and she was very loyal to Helen. She accompanied her on many of her travels because Helen, in her later years, was a fund-raiser for the American Foundation for the Blind, and she traveled worldwide to raise public awareness of the needs of the blind. She was, however, not the brilliant teacher and companion that Annie Sullivan was to--to Helen Keller. She did not have Annie Sullivan's flair for making the world stimulating, this--this outside world that Helen Keller never saw or heard so interesting to her. But she was--she was certainly--in terms of just being loyal to her and devoted, she was certainly an excellent companion to her.
LAMB: How many books have been written about Helen Keller?
Ms. HERRMANN: I would say perhaps a half a dozen, but most of them I found, in the preparation for my own book, either sentimentalized her life terribly so that we did not re--that we cease to regard her as a real human being, or else they missed the drama of Helen Keller's life. Because Helen Keller's later life was, in my mind, more dramatic than the early part that most people are familiar with through "The Miracle Worker." Here was a woman who became world famous shortly after the--the miracle mainly because of Alexander Graham Bell, who was very interested in her. Bell invented the telephone partially as a hearing aid. He had a--a deaf mother and a deaf wife, and he wanted to use what had happened in Tuscumbia, the so-called miracle at the well, of--of Helen understanding language, to promote awareness of the deaf and his theories of--of teaching them.

The other person who certainly promoted Helen Keller was a director of the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Massachusetts, which, by the way, is the first school for the blind in the United States. And he pronounced Helen to be a prodigy, so when people heard about what had happened at Tuscumbia and then, with the influence of these two important men, especially Alexander Graham Bell, Helen was--was world famous.

But then, shortly after that, she sent Anagnos, as a matter of fact, a little birthday gift, which was supposedly an original story that she had written, and he proclaimed it--and here was a man who was, I must say, given to exaggeration...
LAMB: Let me just stop you to ask you who Anagnos was.
Ms. HERRMANN: He was the director of the Perkins Institution for the Blind.
LAMB: Based in...
Ms. HERRMANN: In Watertown, Massachusetts. And he pronounced this story that was his birthday gift as without parallel in the history of American literature. Unfortunately for Helen Keller, that story was a plagiarism. It was plagiarized from one of Margaret Canby's ch--ch--children's stories, and Margaret Canby was a famous children's book author of the period. A--and after that, I mean, people then began to suspect Helen Keller of being a f--a fraud.
LAMB: And you're talking about--and it--and it c--it pops up more than once in the book, the title of--that she wrote was c--what she wrote was called "The Frost King"?
Ms. HERRMANN: "The Frost King," yes. And...
LAMB: Helen Keller wrote "The Frost King" in what year?
Ms. HERRMANN: In what year? That I'm not sure. I would say probably around 1896.
LAMB: And how long was it before that people thought it was a fraud, that she had plagiarized?
Ms. HERRMANN: Almost immediately. And she, therefore, became suspect in many people's eyes. Of course, as a b--as a biographer, this was one of the--my great challenges, is just in discussing her relationship with Annie Sullivan, and that was namely who was doing what in this relationship. Was Helen Keller really a genius and--through which--and--and Annie was her instrument for expressing that genius? Or was Annie Sullivan the genius and Helen Keller her mindless puppet? And certainly after the--"The Frost King" incident, there were many people who s--accused her of being Anne Sullivan's puppet and that she was mindless.
LAMB: Anne Sullivan--i--if--if Helen Keller lived to--to 1968, Anne Sullivan lived to what year?
Ms. HERRMANN: Till '36--1936.
LAMB: And then Polly Thompson died what year?
Ms. HERRMANN: She died in the late--in the late '50s.
LAMB: You--you got interested in all this how, in the first place?
Ms. HERRMANN: I always found her to be intriguing, as I said before.
LAMB: But where, though--where were you?
Ms. HERRMANN: Where...
LAMB: You started--first time you can remember saying, `I want to do a biography on Helen Keller,' where did you live and what were you doing?
Ms. HERRMANN: I was living, as I am now, in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. I had just finished a biography of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, who lived in nearby Hopewell, New Jersey, and Mrs. Lindbergh's life was certainly very dramatic. And after I'd finished that biography I wanted to do a biography of another person who--of that generation, and another woman--another woman who was considered heroic, an inspirational figure of the '40s and '50s, and naturally Helen Keller came to mind.
LAMB: Why did you want to do another woman?
Ms. HERRMANN: I think that having done a--a--a male subject--my first biography was about S.J. Perelman, and I found that after doing his biography that I w--I wanted to do a female subject and found in--in doing Mrs. Lindbergh's work that--that I felt more at home, that I could understand the psychology better of a woman than I could of a man. Of course, it was S.J. P--Perelman's very complicated psychology that I was dealing with, and I don't know if I can--I can really compare any of my subjects because they've all been so--so different. But I--I do look for somebody who does have a dramatic life, and Helen Keller certainly--certainly had one.
LAMB: What year did you start the Helen Keller research?
Ms. HERRMANN: About four years ago, and when I first began it, I wondered whether I really could attempt such a work as a hearing, sighted person, but fortunately for me, I was introduced by the staff at the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown to some amazing deaf-blind people, and I also lived for a week a--a--at Perkins where I met many deaf-blind people, and then I met Robert Smithus of the Helen Keller National Center for Deaf-Blind Youths and Adults in Sands Point, New York. And Mr. Smithus had lost his sight and hearing at a later age than Helen Keller, but I found that after about three minutes with him--and he had known her, by the way, so he had some very interesting anecdotes to tell about her--I found that after about three minutes with him, I completely f--forgot that he was a deaf-blind person.
LAMB: Now how did he hear you speak?
Ms. HERRMANN: Through an interpreter who knew the manual finger language, and then because he was trained under a different method than Helen Keller, the Tadoma method of speech, which has since gone out of--of favor among certain teachers of the deaf-blind and the deaf-blind themselves, he was able to answer me directly in a very comprehensible speaking voice.
LAMB: How many--and I remember you--a figure in the book, but I don't know how--f--for what period--how many deaf-blind people are there in either the United States or in the world? You had a figure of 50 in the book from some period of time. Is that--we've ever known th--50 people have--in this country who've been deaf and blind?
Ms. HERRMANN: It is estimated that 50 people in the 20th century have completely lost their sight and hearing at a very young age. This doesn't mean that there aren't deaf-blind people, but they're people who may be deaf or hard of hearing and then gradually lose their sight, but not this complete loss. It's an--it's an extremely rare disorder and, fortunately, we have eradicated those diseases. I mean, we don't--no longer--people do not get scarlet fever, so that the--most of these diseases ha--that cause this type of devastating handicap have been eliminated.
LAMB: Now w--how did you get interested in being a writer?
Ms. HERRMANN: I came from an artistic family. My father was Bernard Herrmann, who is the film composer and did the music for "Citizen Kane" and many Hitchcock films, among them "Vertigo" and "Psycho." My mother is a mystery and suspense writer--her name is Lucille Fletcher--who wrote "Sorry, Wrong Number," and my stepfather was a novelist and he wrote the--among other works, "The Year the Yankees Lost the Penant," which was made into "Damn Yankees." So let's say I inherited the fam--I just wanted to grow up being a writer because I was around writers. And I also had the false impression, since they didn't go to jobs, that this was an easy life, that you could just get up when you wanted to and work for a couple of hours and that would be it. Of course, later I was to learn that the muse is a really tough dollar.
LAMB: Where did you go to college?
Ms. HERRMANN: I went to Middlebury College in Vermont and s--studied English there.
LAMB: And to prepare for this, besides going to the Perkins School, did you do other things? Did you ever spend a day where you couldn't hear or see? Did you try to do that?
Ms. HERRMANN: I did. At the beginning I put on a blindfold and put in earplugs and did all of that, and tried to figure out how far or how easily I could get around my house. And I found that it was quite a feat to get from the downstairs to the living room upstairs. I--at--at the beginning I thought about perhaps really going into a t--a flotation tank or really sensorially depriving myself, but I was warned against it by people because they pointed out to me--and this w--these were people who had worked with the deaf-blind--and--that for Helen Keller, this was a totally natural condition, and that one could never duplicate it.

And it was true, that for her this was a really valid alternate reality, and that was one of the surprises to me as I worked on the book, that I thought that she lived in this silent black pit, and that was far from the case. She had a very interesting world that she lived in and it was filled with vibrations, with smells, with taste and, of course, when she--she--after Annie Sullivan broke through to her, in the next few years, she learned Braille. Before Braille was standardized, she learned many other types of raised print. So she had a great deal of information at her disposal.
LAMB: How did she become a socialist and how important was that to the way she was viewed in this country?
Ms. HERRMANN: To--to talk about Helen Keller and socialism is complicated and I--I'd like to backtrack a little bit and talk about Anne Sullivan's husband, John Albert Macy. And this may come as a shock to many people who have seen "The Miracle Worker," but Annie Sullivan did get married. And she married a man by the name of John Macy, who was an instructor of English at Harvard, who was brilliant, handsome. He helped Helen edit her 1903 autobiography, "The Story of My Life." He was much older than An--I mean, actually he was much younger than Annie Sullivan, and about only a couple of years older than Helen. And they married when Annie Sullivan was about 40 years old, and it had to be one of the strangest marriages on record, because...
LAMB: Which one in this picture is John Macy?
Ms. HERRMANN: He is the gentleman who is the second from the right.
LAMB: So he's in the middle.
Ms. HERRMANN: He's in the middle, yes.
LAMB: Who's standing?
Ms. HERRMANN: Who's standing? That is Anne Sullivan Macy, and then the woman who is seated is Helen Keller. And the gentleman on--on my right is John Hitz, who was Alexander Graham Bell's secretary. And, of course, they loved dogs, Helen and Annie did, and so that's one of their--their dogs in the middle.
LAMB: So the relationship between John Macy and Annie Sullivan started where?
Ms. HERRMANN: It started at Radcliffe College. Annie Sullivan was having a--additional problems with her eyesight, and to get Helen through college was quite an ordeal because she had to literally spell everything into her hand, and it was very--it was a very difficult time for both women, and John Albert Macy, as I said before, stepped in. He learned the manual finger language so as to be able to communicate with Helen, and he did help her with her--with her autobiography.

Then he and Annie Sullivan fell in love and they were married a few years later. She was 40, he was about 28 years old, and it was said that he married, in essence, really, two women. For years there's been speculation about which woman he was really in love with.
LAMB: What's this picture right here?
Ms. HERRMANN: This picture is of Ann--of Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan.
LAMB: Annie Sullivan's looking out at us?
Ms. HERRMANN: Yes, and Helen is resting her head on her chest. And I think Helen, by that time, was about 18 and Annie Sullivan was 32.
LAMB: What was their relationship all through the years they were together? Did they live together?
Ms. HERRMANN: Oh, yes, they--they were never parted. Only death parted them. Their relationship was very complex. It was a very strengthening relationship, I felt, but it was also a suffocating relationship. I think that mo--that both women, even though their strange bond meant that they couldn't--could not really l--lead independent lives, because it was Annie Sullivan's devotion to Helen that, in the end, wrecked her marriage to John Macy. But overall, both women would have been diminished without this intense relationship. I mean, there's never been another relationship like the relationship of these two women in history or literature. And Mark Twain, their--their good friend, didn't even consider them two separate beings. He said, `It takes the two of you to make a perfect whole.'

But surely th--people--people have asked me what would have happened to Helen Keller without Annie Sullivan, and my own feeling is, is that she would have been institutionalized or she would have been kept in some lonely shuttered backroom in Alabama, and then Annie Sullivan would not have enjoyed the world fame that she did as Helen Keller's companion and teacher.
LAMB: This is the picture on the back of the book. Do you know where this was taken and what their ages were then?
Ms. HERRMANN: I don't know where this intriguing photograph was taken. It's in the Library of Congress' collection, the Bell collection, and when I saw it, it just took my breath away because you really--the--the photographer really captures the essence of these two women, of Annie Sullivan bringing this woman out of the shadows, which is what she--she did and what she dedicated her life to doing.
LAMB: Socialism, John Macy.
Ms. HERRMANN: Yes, let's get back to him. John Macy was a--a--a socialist, a--quite a violent socialist, and he wrote a book called "Socialism in America." He was a f--ranted and raved against the capitalists of the time, and I think that it is debatable whether Helen Keller would have become such a rabid socialist had she not met John Macy. He was a tremendous influence on her and--but once she was exposed to socialism, it was something that she believed in her entire life. She eventually did tone down her speeches and also her writings about socialism because, among other things, she was a very practical woman. She had to earn a living, and there was a time when, for--for her to have been such a--an outspoken advocate of socialism, would have gotten her into a great deal of trouble, and she was smart enough to know that.
LAMB: Where, besides Tuscumbia, Alabama, did Helen Keller live in her life?
Ms. HERRMANN: She lived for many years in the Boston area. She had--she and John Macy and Annie Sullivan shared a home in Wrentham, Massachusetts, and then she lived in Connecticut. After Annie Sullivan's death, she lived near the Westport area and had a large and very comfortable house that she shared with Polly Thompson. But then in 1946, there was a fire that devastated her home and many key papers were lost. We're not exactly sure what those papers were. Even people who were extremely close to Helen Keller have no idea of what precisely was in that house, but it can be assumed that Anne Sullivan's correspondence to her husband was destroyed in that fire, as was Helen Keller's correspondence with a man named Peter Fagan, who was the love of her life.
LAMB: Was the draft of the--the book, "Teacher," also burned in that?
Ms. HERRMANN: Yes.
LAMB: And "Teacher" was the name that she used for her teacher...
Ms. HERRMANN: A--An--Annie Sullivan.
LAMB: ...Annie Sullivan. And then I remember you writing that she had--she took another seven years to write that book after...
Ms. HERRMANN: Yes, she did.
LAMB: To write it--write it from scratch again.
Ms. HERRMANN: She--she had to write it from--from scratch, and it was very, very difficult for her to write that book. That was long after Teacher's death, and she--for--for Helen, it was an incredibly emotional experience. People who knew her well said that she was not an emotional person, but when it was time for her to write "Teacher," and all during the writing of it, she developed all kinds of psychosomatic ailments and she--she broke down and cried frequently. That was the--the depth of her feeling that so persisted about this woman who had--who had really raised her from the dead.
LAMB: What year did she have her eyes taken out and, I believe, false teeth put in and--and wa--started wearing a wig?
Ms. HERRMANN: Well, the--the false teeth and the wig came at the--at the end of her life when she was a very old woman. Her--the question of her eyes--and this no other biographer has ever pointed out about Helen Keller, and her family also went to great lengths to conceal it--but she did have artificial eyes, and w--you can see, if you study some early photographs of her or--most of her early photographs are photographed in right profile.
LAMB: What about this cover shot? Do you know when that was taken, if that was...
Ms. HERRMANN: That was taken about the time that she was in Radcliffe, but I--I can't tell you the amount of work that I went to to find a photograph that actual--and I wanted to put it on the cover--that actually revealed her blindness. This was an exception because many people, photographers included, took great pains to conceal it for the early part of her life. So she was always photographed in right profile. All those early photographs of her that you will see in this book are all taken from right profile, and there were very elaborate explanations about why she was always photographed in right p--profile. Someone said that she had a large blemish on the left side of her face that she wanted to conceal and--so it wasn't until the early 1900s, when she had to appear on the lecture stage--and again, here was a woman who was world famous, but she needed to earn a living, she needed to go out there, be in front of the public and tell her story, and at that time, her eyes for--were removed for both cosmetic and for medical reasons and replaced with glass ones.
LAMB: This--this picture is in 1946, I believe.
Ms. HERRMANN: Yes, that was just before the f--that's Helen with one of her--her beloved dogs, and that was taken just before her house burned to the--to the ground.
LAMB: And so what year did she actually have glass eyes put in?
Ms. HERRMANN: I would say around 1911, but again, I can't pinpoint the date because the--the closest I've come to really documenting it i--is that at the Helen Keller archives at the American Foundation for the Blind in New York there is a bill to Annie Sullivan from a German manufacturer of glass eyes. An...
LAMB: And that'd never been revealed before your book?
Ms. HERRMANN: No.
LAMB: Why did they--did they try to keep it quiet?
Ms. HERRMANN: I think so, and I think also Helen's family, I've been told, were disturbed by the notion that she had artificial eyes.
LAMB: I--is there anybody living in her family at all?
Ms. HERRMANN: Yes, she has a number of relatives who are in Alabama, and I've--I've met some of them and they are--were very charming and very helpful to me a--during the writing of this biography. And I'd also like to add that if anyone is in that area of Alabama, that you can go to Tuscumbia and see Helen's childhood home, which is open to the public. And that was another thing that was a revelation to me, was to travel there and to see the place where the--the miracle had taken place and also to--to run my hands over this enormous water oak that is in the front of the--of Ivy Green, which is the name of Helen's childhood home. And that was one of Helen's favorite trees, and it's a very interesting tree, so I encourage anybody who goes there to--to do the same and you will learn a little bit more of what Helen's experience was like.
LAMB: Is this the house?
Ms. HERRMANN: Ye--yes, it is. That's--that is Ivy Green, and to my right is the annex where Helen was--was born.
LAMB: Off to the right?
Ms. HERRMANN: Yes.
LAMB: And then right below that is a--a famous picture...
Ms. HERRMANN: Of a...
LAMB: ...or a famous point in this story. What is this?
Ms. HERRMANN: That is the famous pump where Helen Keller--she reached her hand under it and she felt the rushing water and, for the first time, realized that it was--that--that it had a name and that she connected the rushing water with the--with the w--with the word--the feeling of the w--of the rushing water with the word `water.'
LAMB: You say that Annie Sullivan--and how old was she that day?
Ms. HERRMANN: How old was Helen? LAMB: Yeah.
Ms. HERRMANN: Helen was six and a half.
LAMB: And on that day, Annie Sullivan started with teaching her the--the word `water' and went on to teach her 30 other words that day?
Ms. HERRMANN: She--she did that day, but the process had been going on for some time before she made the connection. Helen was just beginning to realize that these intriguing finger actions that Annie Sullivan was making on her hand, that these might have a meaning, and she began to--she began to become dimly aware of their connection with the outside world, but that was the first time that she was able to make the connection. In her book, "The Story of My Life," Helen gave the impression, which she later corrected in other--in another memoir that once she had made this association, that she immediately grasped everything, and that was not the case. That--first, Annie Sullivan taught her nouns, then she taught her adjectives, then she dropped in the verbs. And it wasn't until many months had passed that Helen was able to ask the simplest type of question. But that was certainly--certainly the beginning.
LAMB: Did you look at any film of her, any documentaries to get an idea of what she really was like--what she sounded like?
Ms. HERRMANN: Yes. Yes, I did. I've heard recordings of her voice. Helen appeared in two films. One was a 1980 f--18 film called "Deliverance," which has to be one of the craziest films ever made. It's a--sort of a docudrama combined with symbolist imagery, and it's--it's a completely crazy film, but it does include some very rare footage of Helen, of Annie Sullivan--of Helen, believe it or not, taking a run in a biplane. And she was a very adventuresome woman.
LAMB: How would she listen to music?
Ms. HERRMANN: She--her love of--of music, I think, has been exaggerated, although there is some controversy over this. People who were the closest to her felt that she really could only distinguish a few compositions. She, of course, hated jazz, hated the vibrations of it, and said, `Whenev--and when anybody ever plays jazz, I have a wild impulse to flee.' But as for her knowing specific pieces--a great many specific pieces of music, I don't believe that she did. It was sculpture that was the art that she most appreciated because sculpture is palpable as well as visual. And there were famous sculptures of--sculptors of the period who would watch her touch these famous works of art and they realized that she felt things in them that they had just never--never seen themselves.
LAMB: How would she hear somebody talk?
Ms. HERRMANN: She would--she would never hear anyone talk.
LAMB: I know, but I mean, would--would she put her hand up on--could she put her hand on the lips and--and understand what somebody was saying?
Ms. HERRMANN: Yes, she was an accomplished lip reader. It was very tiring for her to do this, but she--she certainly did this in public, and she could tell a great deal from a person's voice. She could distinguish, she said, a Northern twang from a Southern drawl, and she knew a great deal from vibrations, and also from her sense of smell, she could tell when a storm was coming.
LAMB: Did she ever marry?
Ms. HERRMANN: She never married, and this was, of course, one of the tragedies of her life. She said once that, `If I could see and hear, I would marry first of all.' She had one very tragic love affair and her family broke it up.
LAMB: With?
Ms. HERRMANN: It was with this Peter Fagan, who was her young socialist secretary. Helen was 36 years old at the time, and I'd like to point out that she was an extremely beautiful woman. In her day, people always talked about Helen's spirituality and how she reminded them of some religious figure, but in truth, this was a physically gorgeous woman with a beautiful figure. She had long chestnut hair, gorgeous legs and--but she was not p--her family, especially her mother, did not want her to marry. But Helen managed to defy both her--her family and Annie Sullivan. This was the one time she really did turn against them, and she and Peter Fagan had a love affair, and then they were going to be married, and they went to the City Hall in Boston and applied for a marriage license. And Mrs. Keller, Helen's mother, got wind of it, and she told Helen that she could never see this man again. But Helen was not to be stopped. She and Peter Fagan devised this very elaborate scheme where he would kidnap her and then they would be married by a friend. But this--again, the Keller family thwarted this--their getting married.

And this struck me as terribly sad, that one night, when she was back in Tuscumbia, Alabama, she was--she went out on the porch and met with--with Peter Fagan. How she got these messages to him nobody has ever been able to figure out. And her sister and her husband woke up and they realized that she was communicating with him. And they drove him off the property with a shotgun. And then, sometime later, they woke up--this was--several months had passed--they heard a noise on the porch, and there was Helen with her bags packed and she was waiting for him, and he--he never came. And so then she really didn't have any choice but to resume her very cloistered lifestyle.
LAMB: Did you look at her FBI file?
Ms. HERRMANN: I did.
LAMB: How did you get that?
Ms. HERRMANN: Through the Freedom of Information Act. And--and, by the way, the--the FBI informed me in a typewritten note that the FBI has never--had never conducted a formal investigation of Helen Keller. And I think probably one of the reasons wa--had to do with her handicap, that--I think at the time, that if--that J. Edgar Hoover would have made a--a terrible mistake--I mean, I think he knew it--to have--to have documented anything against such--such a radiant person.
LAMB: What did you find in it?
Ms. HERRMANN: That--during the late '30s and '40s, that she supported a number of organizations that were later assumed to be Communist-front organizations. But she wa--there's no evidence that she was ever a card-carrying Communist.
LAMB: She a member of The Wobblies?
Ms. HERRMANN: She was, yes. She--she supported the Industrial Workers of the--of the World, a--a militant singing union. She was a--very violent in a lot of her political opinions and supported actually rather violent measures. When the fight for women's rights occurred, she supported--I believe there was a--a--a British suffragist named Mrs. Pankhurst, who had--who s--wanted women to smash windows and things like that, and Helen supported her wholeheartedly. Interestingly, though, Annie Sullivan did not support Helen in these beliefs, nor did her family. I think they were aghast at her radicalism.
LAMB: But you say that John Macy was the socialist and married to Annie.
Ms. HERRMANN: He w--he--yes.
LAMB: Now how long were they married?
Ms. HERRMANN: They were married roughly 14 years.
LAMB: Did they divorce?
Ms. HERRMANN: They never divorced because Anne Sullivan Macy would never grant John Macy a divorce, and he had--th--they separated and then he formed a relationship with a woman who was a deaf-mute and they had an illegitimate child. And by this time, John Macy was the editor of The Nation. He succeeded Carl Van Doren as the editor of that publication. I think he was editor from 1923 to 1924. And she would not divorce him. She said that she didn't want the publicity, but the truth was, is that she was still madly in love with him, and she wrote some very, very heartfelt letters about him and to him that I've read. And she was passionate about him, and when he left her, it really broke her heart, and then when he died, I think that that was the beginning of her own end. And by that time, her sight was failing. She went completely blind at the end of her life. And here was this--i--it was a terrible spectacle to--for people to witness because here was this spirited, fiery woman, and at the end, she was completely emaciated and just--als--also, the--the thing that was very difficult for her is that she could not reconcile herself to her--her blindness.
LAMB: And where was Annie when she died?
Ms. HERRMANN: Annie--Annie was in New York.
LAMB: City?
Ms. HERRMANN: In--I believe that she was in Forest Hills.
LAMB: That's where they were living at the time?
Ms. HERRMANN: That's where they were l--they were living. And it was interesting for me to--to study these two women, one of whom had a complete disability almost her entire life and faced it very bravely and said that she never thought about her limitations, and then to read Annie Sullivan's letters towards the end of her life, and to realize that she could not reconcile herself to her disability. But that often happens, that a person who is born a certain way is far better adjusted to--to a disability than a person who acquires it later in life.
LAMB: Here's a picture of--of Annie and Helen from back in 1920 to 1924, where they were a vaudeville act. Explain that.
Ms. HERRMANN: Of all the roles that Helen Keller played in life of a handicapped whiz kid, a lecturer, a writer, an advocate for the blind and the deaf-blind, I think she enjoyed her vaudeville career the most. Vaudeville, of course, was quite a tasteless entertainment at the time that she was in it. She was supposed to be the inspirational act, but she was the--the exception. Besides the usual circus performers and jugglers, there were people that had been in prison, who had been pardoned because they had lovely voices. They were on the vaudeville circuit. There were--there was an acquitted murderer at the same time that Helen performed, who had led a very bizarre double life as a m--as the husband of a woman in one city and the wife of a man in the other. And Anne Sullivan was very mortified by having to go on the vaudeville stage, and they did this because they need--desperately needed the money. Their film, which was made in 1918, "Deliverance," was a box office flop, and they needed money desperately. But Helen felt the opposite. She loved being around ordinary--not ordinary people, but she u--enj--joyed being around what she call--the people she called her fellow citizens and she loved the rush and the g--and the glare and the noise, as she put it, of the vaudeville stage.
LAMB: They were on for 20 minutes...
Ms. HERRMANN: Yes.
LAMB: ...and then on page 226, you have all these Q's and A's, questions and answers. Who asked the questions and who gave the answers during the vaudeville performance?
Ms. HERRMANN: The audience gave the--would ask the questions, but, of course, Annie and Helen anticipated what a number of those questions would be, so the answers were--were rehearsed, and then, when they were asked to Helen, Annie Sullivan would translate them using the manual finger language, and then Helen would--would answer in her broken speech, and Annie Sullivan would translate her answer--answer back to the audience.
LAMB: What are these questions? I mean, I'll--I'll read one: `What is Ms. Keller's age?' `There is no age on the vaudeville stage,' was the answer. `Does Ms. Keller think of marriage?' `Yes. Are you proposing to me?' Were these actual questions and answers that she gave?
Ms. HERRMANN: Yes, in many instances. I don't know how much ad-libbing they did, but I--knowing them, they were probably prepared to think on their--on their feet.
LAMB: Question: `Does talking tire you?' Answer: `Did you ever hear of a woman who tired of talking?' Question: `Do you close your eyes when you sleep?' `I guess I do, but I never stayed awake to see.'
Ms. HERRMANN: That's one of my favorites, that one.
LAMB: `What do you think of President Harding?' `I have a fellow feeling for him. He seems as blind as I am.' `Wh--who is your favorite hero in real life?' `Eugene V. Debs. He dared to do what other men were afraid to do.' And what did she mean by that?
Ms. HERRMANN: Well, he opposed the--opposed Americans' entry into World War I, and Helen totally agreed with him. That was a very unpopular stand to take at that time. But he was one of her heroes.
LAMB: Question: `Who are the three greatest men of our time?' `Lenin, Edison and Charlie Chaplin.' Why did she think that?
Ms. HERRMANN: Well, I think Lenin because of his--because of communism and because she certainly did--did believe--believe in it. And who was the other?
LAMB: Edison and Charlie Chaplin.
Ms. HERRMANN: Edison because she knew him personally. He was one of the many famous people of the day with whom she was acquainted. And Charlie Chaplin because, when she made "Deliverance"--she was out in Hollywood in 1918--he was very kind to her and invited Anne Sullivan and herself backstage, and she read his lips and they evidently had a very charming exchange. He showed her several of his films.
LAMB: One more: `What do you think of Soviet Russia?' `Soviet Russia'--this is the answer--`Soviet Russia is the first organized attempt of the workers to establish an order of society in which human life and happiness shall be of first importance and not the conservation of property for a privileged class.'
Ms. HERRMANN: She certainly believed that, and she supported the Russian Revolution and the Bolsheviks. Ironically, Helen Keller, though, w--had to compromise throughout her life. There is this discrepancy about her political beliefs, if one studies them. On one hand, she denounced many capitalists, and yet she also accepted money from them throughout her life, as did John Macy when he was married to Anne Sullivan Macy. So one might say that because Helen was unable really to provide for herself because of her disability, she was forced to--to accept pensions from people like Andrew Carnegie. And this humiliated her on--on many levels, but yet she couldn't--she couldn't do with--with--without that type of help, not only from Carnegie but from John D. Rockefeller, from Mark Twain, and I think that her--her embrace of socialism and communism was something that--it drew her because she--she would have liked to have been in a position where she did not have to accept these various funds from--from these people.
LAMB: All through the book, there are references about the sexual r--possible sexual relations between all of these people, and you--for instance--and I just want to go through the list--were the--Annie and Polly and Helen Keller lesbians?
Ms. HERRMANN: No, there's absolutely no--no evidence of that, and I have, by this time, read, I would say, 10,000 documents. There's absolutely no evidence to su--support that theory.
LAMB: Were there any relationships, like for instance, between Helen and John Macy and h--I wrote down on the list here, `sexual activity with Alexander Graham Bell?' Did he have a relationship with any of these people? Any--they came u--all this came up in there. Did you find any extra sexual relations among any of these people by the time you got your research finished?
Ms. HERRMANN: No. As for the John Macy-Helen Keller relationship, there is no supporting evidence. The correspondence that exists--and we have to keep in mind that that--the fire that devastated Helen's house in Connecticut also destroyed--probably did destroy tho--that--that correspondence. But the correspondence that exists points to the fact that this was more like a brother-sister relationship. And also, after John Macy left the household, Helen was extremely upset with him. Anybody that would have--sh--she--anybody that would have come or--or hurt her teacher, I think, would have been somebody that Helen would have been--would have upset Helen greatly. So it was--as far as I'm concerned, it was a brother-sister relationship.
LAMB: Here's a picture of her at age, I think, 83 or so. What were her last years like?
Ms. HERRMANN: Her last years were sad. She suffered a stroke when she was about 80. Then she developed a diabetic condition. And she lapsed into senility, a--so that this was a--it was a very slow deterioration for her. But she was n--you know, never afraid of death and she wasn't afraid of aging, and she died a very peaceful death. She just drifted off in her--in her sleep, said people who were close to her at the time.
LAMB: We kinda started out this way, but why did all three of them end up at the National Cathedral, and at what point in their--after they were dead did they find their way to the National Cathedral here in Washington to be buried?
Ms. HERRMANN: Annie Sullivan was the first person to die, and so she was cremated and then buried at the National Cathedral. And I believe that she was the first woman to be buried at the cathedral. Then Polly Thompson died in the '50s, and she was buried at the cathedral. And then Helen Keller was dead in 1968, she was cremated and then she was, following the funeral service, which was at the National Cathedral--it was an enormous service. Many deaf-blind people and blind people with guide dogs attended her funeral, many dignitaries of the time, and then she was buried at the--at the cathedral, which, by the way, I found it--to my interest that here was a woman who had led such a quiet life, and if you--if you visit her--her grave at the cathedral, you find that it's filled with sound because there are many schoolchildren who come through to--to see her grave.
LAMB: What's your next book?
Ms. HERRMANN: My next book might be a memoir about my family.
LAMB: Here is the current book by Dorothy Herrmann, called, "Helen Keller: A Life." We thank you very much for joining us.
Ms. HERRMANN: Thank you so much. It's my pleasure.


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