For much of her life, Sally Putnam Chapman revered a step-grandmother she never met Amelia Earhart.
She’d heard stories about her all her life. One day, the Fort Pierce, Fla., woman knew, she would write a book about her grandfather, publisher George Putnam, and Earhart.
Then, her real grandmother, Dorothy Binney Putnam, gave Chapman her diaries. Chapman discovered what an extraordinary woman she was, and how much more there was to her grandmother than she had ever known.
Heiress to the Crayola crayon fortune, Putnam was an explorer, mountain climber, naturalist, as well as someone unwilling to go along with society’s strictures on women, particularly regarding their sexual conduct. She kept a diary from college through old age, filling it with intimate details of her life and of the lives of those close to her.
Some of what Chapman learned reading those diaries surprised her. While married to George Putnam, for instance, her grandmother had a long affair with her son’s tutor - 19 years her junior. (George eventually fell in love with Earhart and married her after publishing her first book.) And another of Putnam’s four husbands was a drunken brute who whipped her.
But, mostly, what she found merely added to the image of someone she’d always cherished and been very close to.
“I was basically thrilled to learn she was as passionate a woman as I thought she was,” says Chapman, whose book about her grandmother’s life, “Whistled Like A Bird - The Untold Story of Dorothy Putnam, George Putnam, and Amelia Earhart” (Warner Books, $22) came out July 24 - the 100th anniversary of Earhart’s birth. “That was a wonderful discovery. We never think of our grandmothers as passionate.”
Earhart fans, be warned: This is not a biography of the famous aviator, though she plays a pivotal role in the story. Rather, it’s largely about Dorothy Binney Putnam (1888-1982), a woman who could imitate birdsong so perfectly that people said “she whistled like a bird.”
“Amelia was my heroine,” says Chapman, 59, who lives with her husband Jack at Immokolee, the Fort Pierce estate her grandmother built in the early 1930s. “The first story I wrote as a child was about her, and I originally thought I would write about grandfather and Amelia. But they became characters in my grandmother’s book.”
Dorothy Binney Putnam - “Dofry” to her grandchildren - was born July 20, 1888. Her father, Edwin Binney, invented the Crayola crayon in 1903 - a discovery that enabled Dorothy to be financially independent all her life. A stately woman who stood 5 feet 10 inches tall, Dorothy was an accomplished pianist and athlete who rowed crew at Wellesley College. During her freshman year, she began keeping a diary. She filled one small, leather-bound volume after another with intimate thoughts, photographs and secret symbols.
Dorothy met George Putnam in 1908 at a Sierra Club outing to climb California’s Mount Whitney. A newspaper reporter at the time, George would become an important publisher. Through G.P. Putnam’s Sons, he published Charles A. Lindbergh’s book “We” in 1927 and, later, Earhart’s first book, “20 hrs. 40 min: Our Flight in the Friendship.”
Dorothy and George married in 1911, had two sons and were happy for a time. But Dorothy chafed at the role of society wife and hostess. In those days, wealthy women did not go to work, though Chapman says “she did need a career.”
“Marriage is a stupid idea,” Dorothy wrote in her diary. “It seems to me its main purpose is to keep together people who don’t love each other. For people who do love each other are going to keep together anyway!”
Divorce wasn’t easy to achieve in the 1920s, and Dorothy had to be careful not to be charged with adultery for fear of losing her children. She continued to play the role of Mrs. Putnam while having a secret affair with her son David’s tutor, George Weymouth, 19 years her junior.
George Putnam, who had given financial support to unknown adventurers over the years, became acquainted with Earhart.
“George was infatuated with Amelia and spoke freely to his wife about the young woman’s intelligence and friendly manner,” Chapman writes. “He also noted her graceful hands, her gray eyes, and quick laughter, describing the aviatrix as someone Dorothy would enjoy knowing.”
The women became friends, and Dorothy flew with Earhart in her Avro Avian Moth sport plane. She even helped her choose a wardrobe for speaking engagements. George Putnam encouraged the friendship between Dorothy and Amelia, and the three of them were often seen together.
“George is absorbed in Amelia and admires and likes her,” Dorothy told her diary. “Maybe he’s in love with her.”
He was. While people thought at the time that Earhart stole Dorothy Putnam’s husband, she actually was Dorothy’s ticket out of an unhappy marriage.
Dorothy Putnam would marry three more times. In 1930, she married Frank Upton, a World War I hero who had gone into business with her father who named him president of the St. Lucie County Bank. Upton, she wrote, turned into a drunken brute who physically abused her, once even chasing her through an orange grove with a whip.
“Ill in pain and miserable beyond words. Horsewhipped - 19 lashes,” she told her diary.
On Feb. 4, 1934, Upton set out to spend an evening at a local bar. Someone delivered him home hours later, having been shot and wounded.
“He shot him twice in the head, but too drunk to be aimed right,” Dorothy told her diary. The identity of “he” was a secret she took to her grave.
“It’s still a mystery,” says Chapman. “I hated him. She put up with the abuse for two years.”
Divorced a second time, Putnam went on to marry author and artist Don Blanding. He painted tropical scenes on doors in Putnam’s sons’ bedroom that still look fresh and beautiful.
Putnam’s last husband was Lew Palmer, whom she met in 1947 in Guatemala, where he was managing a coffee plantation. Their marriage - which lasted until his death in 1951 from a heart attack - was a happy one.
Chapman was born in Fort Pierce and spent the early days of her marriage there before moving to Ohio, where she and Jack Chapman raised three sons before settling in Fort Pierce in the home that was once her grandmother’s.
She remembers lovely times spent there with her grandmother.
“Dofry demanded that her grandchildren learn,” says Chapman, who has three grown sons and six grandchildren. “She would say at lunch, ‘Sally, name all the rivers in Africa. You have one minute.’ Then, she would give us little prizes if we got the right answers.”
Chapman says she’d always be asking Dofry about her life and those of her grandfather and Earhart.
In the early 1970s, Chapman, thinking she’d write a book, began interviewing people who knew her grandparents. About the same time, Putnam gave Chapman 10 diaries spanning the years 1907 to 1961. “I think you need these,” she told her.
“It took quite a while to read them,” says Chapman. “She wrote cryptically. A lot of things are between the lines. Then, I wrote a letter to her and asked if I could use them in a book. She wrote back, ‘Yes.”’ Chapman decided that if her book was to be an accurate account of her grandmother’s life, she had to include the bad - such as the humiliating beatings - as well as the good.
“If you left out the bad, the good stuff wouldn’t have credence,” she says. “But the first time I read about the beatings, I cried. She was such a sweet woman, I couldn’t bear it.”
Chapman wrote her book in longhand at an old wooden table she had breakfasted on with her grandmother. She began the 16-month project by photocopying the pages in the diaries because she didn’t want to handle them too much. She hung the copies on her Venetian blinds, checking the pages she would use, and wrote chapter outlines.
All the while she wrote, Chapman wore the silver fish pendant that Earhart had given her grandmother in 1928. (Chapman says her mother Nilla was five months pregnant with her when Earhart departed Miami for her round-the-world trip. Earhart “… reached down, gently placed her hand on Mom’s swollen belly, and whispered, ‘Take care of yourself, little one.”’) Chapman hired a secretary to type her manuscript. Later, Warner Books sent Stephanie Mansfield, who is credited as her co-author, to help organize the book. “I had just seven chapters in the book, and she said shorter chapters were better,” Chapman says.
She didn’t have an agent; she called on Warner Books herself.
Chapman keeps the Amelia Earhart memorabilia she inherited from her grandfather in a bank safe. Her collection includes Earhart’s passport, tiny pocket watch, marriage certificate to George Putnam, poetry she wrote and prenuptial agreement. There was no mention of property in the agreement, which Earhart penned, just ground rules for the marriage: “On our life together, I want you to understand I shall not hold you to any medieval code of faithfulness to me nor shall I consider myself so bound to you … “
“The story of all stories is that these things belonged to my grandfather, and he didn’t sell them, didn’t exploit them,” Chapman says. “Some day, they will go to the Smithsonian and other museums.”
Like her grandmother, Sally Putnam Chapman is good at keeping secrets. She will not reveal the symbol Dofry used in her diaries to indicate an intimate rendezvous.
“I told the publisher I wouldn’t reveal it,” she says, “because my grandmother wouldn’t like it.”
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: EXCERPTS FROM BINNEY PUTNAM’S DIARIES “Love - Why is it there are so many men who consider love outside the bonds of matrimony the privilege of men only?” “If a woman takes a lover, I understand it. If she’s single. Or if she’s married, has abundant vitality and finds her husband immodest, impotent or unsavory. But if she takes a lover lightly, then I loathe her …” “… The most perfect lover is the one (who) even in his most passionate moments is never far from laughter. It distinguishes him from the beasts and endears him to his loved one.” “Even sin is to be made as difficult as possible. And I had imagined it so easy! Will God ever forgive me for not committing the sins intended for me!” “Why, oh why, is kindness always whispered while anger is so loud? And how delightful it would be if people shouted ‘I love you’ as though it were an insult.”