Child prodigy, nature writer, princess or fraud?
Who was Opal Whiteley? In 1920 everyone in Oregon seemed to have an opinion about her. Today, her life and her writing remains a mystery.
Opal grew up in the logging towns around Cottage Grove where she was known for her encyclopedic knowledge of nature. But it was the publication of her childhood diary that gained her international fame and spurred her mysterious legend. Tune in to the stations of Oregon Public Broadcasting on Monday, March 1 at 9pm when the next episode in the OREGON EXPERIENCE series explores the life of the woman some say was a literary genius and others, a fraud.
Was Oregon the home of a kidnapped French princess?
At the turn of the century, Opal Whiteley was a child of Oregon’s logging shantytowns. From an early age she stood out from everyone around her. She seemed to be a child prodigy with an incredible knowledge of nature. She collected and labeled thousands of specimens of plants and insects, and as a young teenager, gave lectures to her classmates and the community. By the time she was 17, this engaging and charismatic young woman was touring the state as a religious leader with the Christian Endeavor.
The University of Oregon was so impressed with her and her knowledge of nature that they admitted her before she finished high school. At the time, the University’s Dean of Geology Warren D. Smith said, “This experience happens to a university but once in a generation. She knows more about geology than do many students that have graduated from my department.”
But Opal had trouble fitting in and keeping up with her classes. When her mother died, she dropped out of school and went to California to seek fame as an actress. Success eluded her, so she turned her attention to writing.
She self published a book based on her nature studies called The Fairyland Around Us. Philander P. Claxton, commissioner of education, exclaimed in a letter to Opal, “I have read your book with interest and delight. I should be glad indeed if copies of it could be put in all of the schools of the United States.”
In 1920 the Atlantic Monthly published what she said was her childhood diary written when she was about 6 years old and living in the Oregon lumber camps.
Today the folks are gone away from the house we do live in. They are gone a little way away, to the ranch-house where the grandpa does live. I sit on our steps and I do print. I like it — this house we do live in being at the edge of the near woods.
The diary was written in an unusual style and described the world around her as a childhood fairyland.
I went to look for the fairies. I went to the near woods. I hid behind the trees and made little runs to big logs. I walked along the logs and I went among the ferns. I did tiptoe among the ferns. I looked looks about. I did touch fern-friends and I did have feels of their gentle movements. I came to a big root. I hid in it. I so did to wait waits for the fairies that come among the big trees.
The diary quickly became a best seller and was hailed as a work of genius. But some people called it a fraud. The entire diary seemed to be controversial.
It contained clues that Opal had been kidnapped as a child and was really the daughter of a French prince. National media descended on Cottage Grove to track down the facts. Opal became an international celebrity and seemed to drop out of site. She went to Europe, lived under the name of Françoise Marie de Bourbon D’Orléans, and never returned to Oregon.
Today the diary has been rediscovered and is in print all over the world. But the mystery of Opal remains unsolved.
Oregon Public Broadcasting producer Kami Horton examines the mystery and mystic of Opal Whiteley, her life and writings in OREGON EXPERIENCE: OPAL WHITELEY.
Watch the complete program online anytime after March 1 at opb.org/oregonexperience or at watch.opb.org.
About OREGON EXPERIENCE
OREGON EXPERIENCE is an exciting history series on OPB-TV that brings to life fascinating stories that help us understand who we are and that reinforce our shared identity as Oregonians. The series, co-produced by the Oregon Historical Society and Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB), takes advantage of the extensive film, video and stills from the archives of OHS and OPB, and draws upon the expertise of OHS researchers and historians. Each half-hour show features captivating characters — both familiar and forgotten — who have played key roles in building our state into the unique place we call home. Funding for OREGON EXPERIENCE is provided in part by Ann & Bill Swindells Charitable Trust, James F. and Marion L. Miller Foundation and Oregon Cultural Trust.
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