Pearl Buck heirs reach accord After excluding lawyers, they finally reached agreement on sharing the long-lost manuscript of "The Good Earth."

Posted: August 08, 2007

The long-squabbling heirs of Pearl S. Buck's legacy have discovered a way to resolve their complex litigation: Banish the lawyers.

The Nobel laureate's children and Pearl S. Buck International, the charity in Bucks County the writer established before her death in Vermont in 1973, announced an amicable settlement yesterday of their dispute over who owns the recently recovered manuscript of The Good Earth, Buck's masterwork.

Buck's surviving children will retain ownership of the 400-page typescript of the novel, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1932 and which was instrumental in her winning the Nobel Prize six years later. Under the agreement, the hand-edited document, which mysteriously disappeared and was missing for more than four decades before it resurfaced in June at a Philadelphia auction house, will go on public display later this month at Buck's restored home near Perkasie, where the nonprofit is headquartered.

The parties resolved the dispute last month after Edgar S. Walsh, Buck's 70-year-old son and administrator of the family trust, sat down with the foundation's leaders in the Doylestown kitchen of Janet L. Mintzer, the nonprofit's executive director.

First, they locked out the lawyers.

"We were working through lawyers," Mintzer said. "After this happened, we sat down with Edgar one-on-one without attorneys in the room. It was just so much better."

Walsh, Mintzer, and John E. Long Jr., chairman of Pearl S. Buck International, not only came to terms on who would have title to the manuscript. In less than two hours, they settled bitter litigation over other Buck property that had dragged on for more than two years in state courts in Vermont and Bucks County and in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia.

"I don't think it was Pearl Buck's intent to have everybody at each other's throats over this," Long said. "This is the first time in 30-some years that everyone is talking nice, and that's important."

Yesterday's announcement at a news conference at the foundation's headquarters was made just days after another nonprofit organization bearing the author's name - the Pearl S. Buck Birthplace Foundation in Hillsboro, W. Va. - indicated it intended to file a claim in federal court to own the manuscript.

The West Virginia foundation, which maintains the restored house where Buck lived the first three months of her life, already owns most of the writer's manuscripts, which she had donated to it. The Good Earth, the story of a Chinese family before the Communist revolution, was the second of 70 novels Buck wrote.

Walsh said yesterday he was unfamiliar with the West Virginia claim but hoped to talk with representatives there and reach a settlement.

In an interview on Monday, Rose Anderson, chairman of the West Virginia foundation, said she did not object to the manuscript's going on public display in Bucks County while her group pressed its case for ownership. "It doesn't bother us that they would be displaying it," she said.

Buck, who spent her later years promoting international harmony and racial understanding, left a legacy of disharmony among her closest survivors.

In her final years, the widowed writer took up with a dance instructor half her age, disinherited her children, and bequeathed her belongings to various competing interests. It took her heirs seven years in Vermont probate court to sort out ownership, though some issues were unresolved until yesterday.

As turmoil engulfed Buck's household during the 1960s, the Good Earth manuscript disappeared from her Bucks County home. In 1966, Buck lamented the disappearance of the original copy of her greatest work. After her death, her heirs reported it stolen.

The manuscript resurfaced in June when the daughter of Buck's former secretary, who died in 1995, took it to an auction house for appraisal. The auctioneer turned it over to the FBI, but federal prosecutors declined to press criminal charges.

The discovery of the valuable manuscript initially reignited the lingering ill will between the Buck children and the foundation over ownership of some archival material - the heirs had filed suit in Vermont two years ago after learning the foundation had 100 boxes of Buck's papers and belongings stored in archives.

Both claimed ownership of the Good Earth manuscript.

But at some point, the parties came to their senses. Neither the nonprofit, which promotes international adoption and protects children in Asia, nor the family trust, which earns income from Buck's literary estate, would have benefited from an unseemly public fight.

But they shared an interest in promoting Buck's philanthropic and literary works, so they sat on stools last month around Mintzer's kitchen counter and came to terms.

The family will retain ownership of 100 boxes of material, which will remain on permanent loan to the Bucks County foundation, which stores the documents in secure, climate-controlled archives. The heirs will take custody only if the foundation ceases to exist.

The family trust will also maintain ownership of the Good Earth manuscript. The document, along with about 100 letters from world figures to Buck in the 1940s, will be on public display until the end of the year, and perhaps longer.

The agreement also calls for all litigation to cease.

"Abe Lincoln had useful advice - avoid litigation at all costs," Walsh said. "I wished we had been able to, but we couldn't. But now we have."

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

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