Lessons learned from history’s famous widows

Lisa Saunders, author of “After the Loss of a Spouse, Henry VIII to Julia Child,” in Mystic. (Photo submitted)
Lisa Saunders, author of “After the Loss of a Spouse, Henry VIII to Julia Child,” in Mystic. (Photo submitted)

What does Mary Todd Lincoln have in common with George Burns?

Not a whole lot, except that they were also both widowed and are featured in Mystic resident Lisa Saunders’ new book, “After the Loss of a Spouse, Henry VIII to Julia Child.”

A graduate of Cornell University, Saunders has authored several books, hosts a local TV talk show, publishes a Mystic newsletter and works as a history interpreter at Mystic Seaport.

Saunders loves to read and research historical figures. The book gives readers a peek inside the personal lives of famous figures and how they responded to the loss of their spouses. The idea for the book goes back to Saunders’ middle school years, when both of her grandmothers lost their husbands quite surprisingly — one in a tractor accident on a Midwestern farm and one to a heart attack in Manhattan — leaving them both widowed in their 50s.

Even then Saunders understood the significance of how differently each woman responded to loss.

“One stayed put, complained, and acted like her life was over,” she recalls. “And the other, after grieving, moved forward. She sold the farm, left Missouri, where they had moved recently to start a new life, and came back to New York and started a whole new life, met new friends, new people. I still enjoyed visiting her. She was sad about my grandfather, but she always had stories to tell me.”

“Even that young I was thinking, ‘What will I do if I’m widowed?’ It was such a big thing and I was just kind of curious.”

An avid reader of nonfiction, particularly biographies, Saunders says. “I’ve always been interested in what people do, how they became successful, how they press on despite great adversity. These were usually adventure stories about daring people. But you also have to be a courageous person after you’ve lost a spouse, to find a way to move forward.”

And, although Saunders hasn’t been widowed herself — she’s been married to her husband Jim for 30 years — she knows what it’s like to experience tragic loss. Their daughter, Elizabeth, died in 2006 at the age of 16 of a common but little known virus, congenital cytomegalovirus, for which Saunders is a tireless advocate, educating the public about its prevention.

So, when she met Joanne Moore of East Lyme, who had just started the magazine “Pathfinder: The Companion Guide to the Widow/ers Journey” and was looking for writers, Saunders saw it as a perfect venue for stories about famous people throughout history who had been widowed.

“I like to write about dead people because they don’t complain when their story is published,” Saunders jokes, “and I can take an angle that interests me.

Telling their stories

It wasn’t until she started reading their biographies, and particularly their letters, that Saunders says she learned about the strengths and sacrifices and intimate details of her subjects’ marriages.

The majority of the 18 chapters in the book are expanded versions of articles that have appeared in Pathfinder magazine. Moore wrote the questions for discussion at the end of each chapter.

“I think they’re right on,” Saunders says. “She caught the soul of each widow and widower and makes you think.”

The people Saunders selected to write about are an eclectic group, including George Palmer Putnam (Amelia Earhart’s widower), C.S. Lewis, Henry VIII, Martha Washington, Norman Rockwell, George Burns, Julia Child, Mary Todd Lincoln, Grandma Moses, Milton Hershey (of Hershey’s Kisses fame), Coretta Scott King, Captain von Trapp, Hetty Green and Katharine Graham (of The Washington Post).

There are also several famous widow/ers with Connecticut ties, such as Hartford’s Mark Twain, and very local ties, including East Haddam’s William Gillette; Groton’s Abby Day Slocomb, the widow behind Connecticut State flag design, who sent a recently opened time capsule from Europe during WWI; and Mystic’s Frances Sawyer Wolfe, whose husband Captain Thomas E. Wolfe perished in one of Texas’ worst maritime disasters.

A common thread Saunders discovered between all the widowed was that most of them felt a profound sense of loss, even Henry VIII who lost one wife to natural causes.

“I was interested in who stayed in the marriage bed (after their spouse died) and who didn’t,” Saunders says. “I found it was a big decision widow/ers faced. Martha Washington didn’t. George Burns started sleeping in Gracie’s bed — they had twin beds — and that helped him. He was so lost until he made that decision.

“I was interested in anyone who seemed to be able to move forward or wanted to keep working or actively find a meaning or purpose in their lives or continue their spouse’s mission,” she says. “Coretta King was going to press on with her husband’s work, despite that it’s what killed him.”

Saunders says she enjoyed researching all of these prominent figures because she often learned things about them that aren’t generally known.

“Some of Mary Lincoln’s strange behavior could have been a result of undiagnosed diabetes,” she notes, “and Hetty Green, the world’s greatest ‘miser,’ gave several gifts to the poor anonymously — she just didn’t want to the public to know that she helped others.”

One of Saunders’ favorite subjects is Abby Day Slocomb.

“She was so determined for people to read the truth about World War I that she thought one way to get them interested in digging behind the headlines was to create a time capsule — writing a letter of challenge to women who hadn’t even been born yet.

“And I could relate to her work and determination to have a Connecticut state flag,” she adds, “because I had to follow a similar path when getting the truth out about congenital CMV — contacting state legislators to get changes made.”

Saunders says she also was encouraged by Grandma Moses’ tenacity to keep painting, her work finally “discovered” when she was in her 70s.

She admired Katharine Graham, who was widowed at 46 with four children and in 1969 took the reins as publisher of The Washington Post, after her husband, Phillip Graham, committed suicide.

“She was so dedicated to share the truth (about Watergate) in her newspaper despite the threats made against her,” Saunders says.

Saunders believes her book will appeal to everyone, not just those who have experienced the death of a spouse.

“I think people will enjoy seeing someone determined to make a difference,” she says, “because we all need to make a difference in order to get up every day.”

“After the Loss of a Spouse, Henry VIII to Julia Child” (Act II Publications) by Lisa Saunders is $9.95, softcover, illustrated.

Cover image of Lisa Saunders’ new book, “After the Loss of a Spouse, Henry VIII to Julia Child.”
Cover image of Lisa Saunders’ new book, “After the Loss of a Spouse, Henry VIII to Julia Child.”

RELATED EVENTS

On Thursday from 2 to 4 p.m. in honor of International Widow’s Day (www.un.org/en/events/widowsday), the public is invited to celebrate the launch of Saunders’ book at 12 Steamboat Wharf, Mystic. Light refreshments served.

On Friday, Aug. 12, Saunders will present “Tales of Famous Connecticut Widow’s Walks” at 7:45 p.m. at Mystic River Yacht Club, 14 Holmes St.; more info at (860) 536-0066

On Wednesday, Aug. 24, Saunders and Joanne Moore will present “After the Loss” at 6 p.m. at Bank Square Books, 53 W Main St., Mystic. Saunders will tell stories of historic figures with Connecticut connections, while Joanne Moore will present strategies for developing a new philosophy of life after the disappointment of loss; more info at (860) 536-3795

All events are free and open to the public.

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