Bad blood, 'Good Earth'

With her stolen manuscript found, a feud is igniting anew over Pearl S. Buck’s legacy

Posted: July 05, 2007

Thirty-four years after Pearl S. Buck's death, rivals still are fighting for control of the Nobel laureate's substantial legacy.

The stakes were raised last week after the FBI announced it had recovered the lost original manuscript of Buck's masterpiece, The Good Earth, which won the 1932 Pulitzer Prize. Buck's heirs hoped that the discovery would renew interest in her work. It also seems likely to reignite a bitter ownership fight between the heirs and the Bucks County foundation that bears her name.

"It's a family tragedy," said Edgar S. Walsh, one of Buck's sons, who administers the family trust that provides income for the writer's seven surviving children.

The real-life story of Buck's legacy resembles a tangled novel, mixing long-standing enmity among her children, whom she adopted after her only natural child was diagnosed as being developmentally disabled. In her final years, Buck disinherited her children when a man half her age - her dance instructor - won the novelist's affections and claimed her wealth.

After years of litigation, Buck's family and the charitable institution she founded managed to secure control of her assets. But the heirs and the foundation locked in their own battle over Buck's property, which remains unsettled.

"Everything now seems to have bubbled up to the surface," said John E. Long Jr., the chairman of Pearl S. Buck International, which promotes international adoption and children's issues from offices on the writer's farm near Perkasie.

As recently as January, PSBI, as the charity is known, sued to secure title to about 100 boxes of archival material that Buck's children say belongs to them.

Now the FBI has The Good Earth manuscript, along with about 100 letters to Buck from world figures - documents that mysteriously disappeared from her house more than 40 years ago. The manuscript fell into the FBI's hands after the family of Buck's former secretary attempted to sell it through a Philadelphia auction house.

PSBI and the Pearl S. Buck Family Trust have filed competing claims for the recovered material.

"I cannot understand how PSBI can assert any ownership claim to the manuscript," said Walsh, 70, who lives in Greenwich, Conn., and manages the trust that controls Buck's literary estate. "It boggles the mind."

The foundation says it owns everything that was in Buck's house, "and those documents would have been in the house had they not been taken," Long said.

Both parties say they want to preserve the documents for future study. Each accuses the other of greed.

"They want to sell everything," said Janet L. Mintzer, the chief executive of the foundation. "To us, that's just a crime."

The parties say they would like a peaceful resolution, and if greed were all there were to the dispute, it might be easy to settle. But there are decades of distrust to overcome.

"There are problems among the siblings," Mintzer said. "The way the will was handled was probably not the best way to go about it. There are probably hard feelings all the way around."

The significance of Buck's work and her popularity may be lost on current generations. The Good Earth was the second-best-selling novel of the 20th century, outsold only by Gone With the Wind.

The novel, published in 1931, tells the story of a family in rural China. It established Buck, the child of missionaries who spent the first half of her life in China, as one of the few Westerners with intimate insights into the nation before the communist revolution.

The book, Buck's second of 70 novels, was made into an Oscar-winning movie in 1937, and Buck was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938, becoming the first American woman to win the honor.

Though critics shunned her later work, Buck remained hugely popular, and her stature grew as she committed her public life to advancing civil rights, women's rights and international adoption.

After her death, she faded.

The breakdown of Buck's relationship with her family and friends is traced to her acquaintance with Theodore F. Harris, a 32-year-old dance instructor who waltzed into her Bucks County home in 1963. Buck was 70 and widowed after her second husband and publishing partner, Richard Walsh, had died in 1960.

"She virtually disappeared inside Ted's omnipresent attendance," author Peter Conn, a University of Pennsylvania professor, wrote in a 1996 Buck cultural biography.

She tried to appoint Harris to a charity she founded to assist in the adoption of mixed-raced children in Asia. When the board refused to accept Harris, she created the Pearl S. Buck Foundation in 1964 and named Harris its chief executive.

Housed in elegant headquarters on Delancey Street near Rittenhouse Square, Harris lavishly spent the foundation's money on clothes, jewels and luxury cars. He surrounded himself with a retinue of male friends.

In 1969, Philadelphia Magazine published a story about the foundation's profligacy, as well as Harris' alleged sexual contact with Asian boys while overseas on foundation business.

An uproar ensued. The Pennsylvania Commission of Charitable Foundations suspended the foundation's operations. Harris was forced out.

"It was a devastating event for my mother because it made her look like a fool," Walsh said.

Buck blamed enemies for the bad publicity and moved to cut off support to the Asian orphans who made allegations against Harris. She remained loyal to her companion.

Buck and Harris later moved to Vermont. She signed a new will, leaving most of her belongings, including her literary rights, to Harris.

Buck already had signed over most of her real estate to the foundation. After Harris' dismissal, a reconstituted foundation board sold all but 60 acres of Buck's 500-acre farm to raise money for its operations. It also sold the land in Vermont, including the house Buck occupied.

"They threw her out of her home in Vermont," Walsh said.

At the time of her death in 1973 at age 80 from lung cancer, Buck was estranged from her children and the foundation she had created.

A Vermont probate court found that Harris had exerted "undue influence" on Buck and threw out his claim. As part of the settlement, Walsh said, Harris still receives a small percentage of Buck's royalties.

The foundation, which later merged with Buck's other charitable organizations to become PSBI, also tried to cut the children out - a source of resentment to this day.

The Vermont court settlement allowed the children to retain ownership of Buck's literary works. The foundation kept her farm, which contains her restored stone house and her grave site.

The children are divided.

The eldest of Buck's adopted children, Janice Walsh, 82, has declared her loyalty to the foundation. She fears her siblings want to sell their mother's property for profit.

"If you sold everything, then there wouldn't be anything to remember," she said.

Edgar Walsh says he is interested in selling Buck's collection only to a credible university library. He says the decision is not his to make, but the entire family's.

"I think the family is the most personally interested in sustaining the legacy," he said. "Not the foundation."


Contact staff writer Andrew Maykuth at 215-854-2947 or amaykuth@phillynews.com.

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