Monday, May 9, 2022

What's in a Name? Meet the Real Life Inspiration for Patrick Quentin's Iris Pattison and Laura Black of "Mrs. B.'s Black Sheep" (1950)

It was a dreadful sight in the skies which earthbound witnesses would never forget.  

On June 26, 1959, a Trans World Airways Super Constellation, on a flight from Athens to Chicago by way of Rome, Milan and Paris, during a violent thunderstorm outside Milan was struck by lightning, caught fire, shook with explosions, lost a wing and plunged precipitously to the ground, scattering wreckage over a five mile area near the town of Olgiate Olona. 

Horrified witnesses insisted that lightning must have caused the crash, yet some Italian authorities balked at this explanation, one of them proclaiming dramatically that the crash "was an impossible accident!  The evidence we have seems to tell us it happened for reasons that are logically impossible by the laws of physics."  However, a 1960 Italian inquiry board faulted the igniting of gasoline vapors by "static electricity discharges."  For more see the Setttanta Vite Immortali website, devoted to memorializing the victims of the crash.

"Mrs. B.'s Black Sheep" is one of 4
Patrick Quentin novelettes included  
in Death Freight, which Stark House
will publish in July

All of the plane's nine crew and sixty-one passengers, over half of the latter of whom were American, perished; just ten positive identifications could be made from the dismembered and charred remains.  Among the dead was Maria Fermi, a sister of famed nuclear physicist Enrico Fermi, and a sixty-six-year-old American, Olivia Pattison (Heminway) Kammerer, the woman who inspired the surname for Patrick Quentin's series character Iris Pattison, the charming and talented actress wife of Broadway producer Peter Duluth, and the character of Laura Black in the 1950 Patrick Quentin novelette "Mrs. B.'s Black Sheep."  

Here is some more detail on Olivia Pattison Kammerer from my introduction to Death Freight and Other Murderous Excursions, a collection of four Patrick Quentin novelettes published between 1950 and 1953, including "Mrs. B.'s Black Sheep," which will be published by Stark House in July:

"Mrs. B. herself is based on a real-life friend of Rickie and Hugh’s, the socially prominent Olivia Pattison Heminway Kammerer (1892-1959), an indomitable individual who also likely inspired the maiden name of Iris Pattison Duluth, one of Rickie and Hugh’s most important series characters, the beautiful actress wife of Peter Duluth.  At the time Hugh wrote “Mrs. B.’s Black Sheep,” Olivia had been divorced for almost a decade from her former husband, the late Reverend Doctor Percy Gamble Kammerer (1885-1946), a progressive Episcopal minister who had been Dean of Trinity Cathedral in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and later, when Rickie and Hugh had gotten acquainted with him, headmaster of the Old Farm School for Boys in Avon, Connecticut. 

After her 1941 divorce, Olivia, a former educator nearing fifty years of age, threw herself into wartime Red Cross work, taking charge of things at the American naval station at Port Lyautey (today Kenitra), Morocco, for example:

For those who did not want to partake of the meager indigenous pleasures at inflated prices, there was the American Red Cross in the person of Olivia Kammerer….she quickly commandeered a sleazy saloon and turned it into a club, invited the town’s French colonial mothers to tea, and persuaded them to allow their daughters to attend the club’s dances by promising chaperonage and transportation to and from the club in American trucks.

War reminiscences recalled Olivia as “personable” and “one of the best Red Cross workers we had.”  Three years after the war's end, in 1948, Olivia started a new endeavor, chaperoning girls from wealthy American families on educational tours through Europe, incidentally inspiring Hugh’s 1950 novelette. 

Villa Mercede

In 1956 in Florence, Italy, Olivia founded and directed the Villa Mercede, a two-year liberal arts college for girls located in an imposing Renaissance villa on a bluff overlooking the city, which once had been visited by writer Henry James, who used it as a setting in his novel The Portrait of a Lady (1881).  Just three years after she had founded the school at Villa Mercede, Olivia tragically became one of the seventy victims of the infamous Olgiate Olona plane crash, an Italian air disaster “of international relevance.”  Today “Mrs. B.’s Black Sheep” stands as a winsome tribute to this charming and resourceful woman." 


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