I’m often asked from what source I received my life-long fascination with history—not so much the big themes as the small ones; not human history in the aggregate but in the particular, the individual. There were several sources. For one, I grew up with a mother who loved reading biographies of women. I’ll never forget the time I saved up to get her a copy of a new biography of Abigail Adams for her birthday. She was delighted, carried the book around with her till she finished it (a habit I inherited). I was delighted, too, because I loved and love still discovering how women, in history and now, with the doubly difficult task of making their voices heard in so many sectors of society, somehow broke through the wall and were heard. And I loved seeing how the life of a complex, heroic, human woman from history impacted my mother in our twentieth century present.
Another influence was growing up in an 1862 Greek Revival house, described in the county tax records as a “vernacular cottage”, in a former gold rush town in the California foothills, rich with old houses and buildings, inhabited or in ruins, around every corner, and that our house in particular had been the residence successively of an eccentric newspaper editor, two county sheriffs, and many of the town’s schoolteachers when the place served as a boarding house in the 1920s. One of my great days as an adult researcher was when I tracked down the elderly son of one of the house’s last owners before it was remodeled and the large property divvied up into lots. He drew a floor plan, replete with outbuildings, including the old carriage house, then used, as Mr. Paul put it, “to house Teacher Smith’s Hupmobile”. To see the house in all its original handsomeness lifting snowy gable ends to the sky was a thrill to someone who only knew it as half that size, trees and plantings still intact that were not there when I was a boy.
But the best influence of all was growing up in the local history museum which my grandfather, John Menzies, helped found. The Mariposa Museum and History Center in Mariposa, California (https://www.mariposamuseum.com/) has received a lot of awards and positive reviews, so I won't go into that here. I will say that the place was magic to a boy like me. Grandpa was always there—when not sitting on the board, he was serving as docent, giving up the last fifteen or so years of his life to an organization that was really his second home.
I’ve visited museums around the world—the British Museum in London, the vast museum that is the Forbidden City in Beijing, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Getty in California, to name a handful I’ve had the honor to see. But the museum I love best is that small but powerful institution in my hometown, because it got me started on the road to history as writer and scholar.
Tourists from around the world came to the Museum just to hear Mr. Menzies’s Scottish burr as he illuminated the history of a county and state and, indeed, nation where he had not been born but whose history he intensely revered. (In early 2021, my brother shared with me a recording made of our grandfather on 30 October 1978, at the Museum, in which he was invited to speak about his knowledge of the many nineteenth and early twentieth century items in the reconstructed nineteenth century Gagliardo Store, the first exhibit visitors encounter on entering the building. It is the first time I’d heard my grandfather’s voice in over 40 years and to say I did so with dry eyes would be dishonest in the extreme. He was seventy-nine years old and lived with emphysema, so there is considerable breathlessness. He died two years later. For those interested, here’s the recording, courtesy of Internet Archive: https://archive.org/details/cmarm_000023)
I was able to go into the exhibits area without a ticket (sorry to let the secret out, Grandpa) whenever I wanted, and I often stood before the replica schoolroom, with its ink-stained wooden desks and schoolmarm mannequin in sober dotted black, buttoned-up dress, or the miner’s cabin replete with grub in original boxes of the 1860s, or the parlor vignette with its lead crystal punch bowl that had belonged to Jessie Benton Frémont, wife of Gen. John Charles Frémont, original owner of most of Mariposa (including the plot where our house was built), imagining the minutiae of life a century before my birth. I knew the punch bowl had once been used in the house of Judge Jones, across the street from ours, before I knew my multiplication tables. There were poignant, mysterious and inspiring collections of Native American objects, including magical baskets, with their sober yet striking patterns on the sides, made by members of the tribe who had lived in Yosemite National Park, descendants of whom were friends of my family, whose anguish at the arrival of white settlers would have been obvious to me even had my grandfather and my parents not taught me about their history.
And there were exhibits telling the sad story of the Chinese in California who performed dangerous mining work and were treated as subhuman by white folk. Grandpa was to drive us grandkids into the countryside around Mariposa, where he pointed out rock walls built by the Chinese, adding, “We often find opium pipes out there. They were in pain but they had to keep working.” There you go—from inanimate manmade structures to the vanished individuals who actually put them together, in lives of unending toil and complete lack of recognition. The Museum, and my grandfather, ignited my interest in Chinese history and culture (I was to write three books about aspects thereof). This tall Scotsman, veteran of the Great War, speaking with an Aberdeen lilt and dry Scots humour, was a surprise to visitors, and his vast knowledge of the history of a community thousands of miles from the country where he was born and bred astonished them, and still astonishes me. People came to the museum expressly to meet him and imbibe from his deep well of knowledge and enthusiasm. It is also a testament to how beloved Grandpa was that after his death, tourists still asked to meet the famous Mr. Menzies.
Spending my summers in the history center ignited a fascination with on-the-ground history and how critical it is not simply to read about the past but to experience it through artifacts intelligently and honestly displayed, and through information similarly shared, in an atmosphere free of the moral lecturing so endemic in museums, theaters, lecture halls and just about everywhere else in our twenty-first century world. Without that museum, I might never have become a professional biographer and historian. It made me—inquisitive boy that I was and man that I am still—the writer I became: fascinated by the unexamined lives of ordinary, extraordinary people, the people even the greatest of museums should always be about.
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For over a decade, Grant Hayter-Menzies has specialized in biographies of extraordinary women, publishing the first full length lives of stage and screen stars Charlotte Greenwood and Billie Burke, Chinese-American author Princess Der Ling, diarist Sarah Pike Conger, American friend to the controversial Empress Dowager Cixi of China, Pauline Benton, the American-born master of Chinese shadow theatre, and Lillian Carter, mother of President Jimmy Carter. In 2015, Grant published a biography of Rags, mascot and dispatch dog of the American First Division in WWI France. His biography of Dorothy Brooke, the Englishwoman who saved thousands of elderly, neglected former war horses abandoned in Egypt by British forces at the termination of WWI, was published in the US and UK 2017 and 2018. His life of Woo, the Javanese monkey companion of Canadian artist and writer Emily Carr, was published in 2019, and his biography of Muggins, fundraising dog of WWI Victoria, BC, came out in 2021. He has also published a memoir about discovering his maternal ancestors’ three centuries of complicity in the slave trade. Grant is literary executor of playwright William Luce (1931-2019), the award-winning author of Broadway classic The Belle of Amherst. Grant lives in Sidney, British Columbia, with his partner Rudi.