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How many wives does one ex-German-spy need?

Perhaps only two! Horst von der Goltz must have forgotten that he was actually married three times…or was he?

In 1948, when Margaret Cooper Gay was married to Francis Smulders, the nice Dutch national who helped her during Horst’s incarceration in World War Two, Horst took a wife in Wilmington, Pennsylvania. Both bride and groom lived in Philadelphia, both had been divorced. But Horst said this was his second marriage. Was it?

We know he was married to Margaret Cooper Gay’s mother, Stella, because there was a marriage certificate for them in 1923. What happened to Stella after that is anyone’s guess. Did he push her off the boat on their honeymoon?

Stella, calling herself Estelle by this time, reconfigured her age downward in the fashion of the time (she was actually 48 years old) and listed her ex-husband Jackson as her father. Stella’s daughter, Margaret C. Gay, was one of the witnesses.

By 1929 Margaret, as Peggy von der Goltz, was featured in newspapers across the country who were charmed by her story of selling pet turtles from her shop near Washington Square in New York City. From this point until early 1945 she identified her husband as Horst. But if Horst testified that Else Hartman was his second wife, where did that leave poor Peggy/Margaret?

Is there a chance that they weren’t ever married? Or was Horst sworn to secrecy about the marriage to the point where he had to pretend it had never happened?

Or had he forgotten Stella?

Maybe the FBI knows….


The answers to all your questions

Was this what your copy looked like?

Until I got a nice comment from a reader, I forgot that others besides me must have bought this reissue in the early 1960s. My first copy (this is actually my second, just as dog-eared — you should excuse the expression — as the first) cost fifty cents. That was my entire allowance at the time. Living in an apartment, I wasn’t able to own a cat. Margaret Cooper Gay’s book was my surrogate for a real, live kitten.

The deft, funny prose was a bonus. The practical cat-care recommendations prepared me for a future time when I’d need to put them to good use. Some of the medical suggestions were a little suspect to me even then, and are nowadays no longer followed.

You do not, for instance, dose a sick cat with whiskey, mixed with raw egg or otherwise, for any known ailment. Margaret, however, came from a time when veterinarians were not as adept at handling cats as they were dogs. Before the advent of modern pet hospitals and antibiotic care, whiskey might save an injured or sick cat from despair. These days I think good chicken soup can do the same.

“How To Live With A Cat” was released in a revised edition in 1953. The tenth printing came out in January 1961 and the Berkeley Medallion edition in paperback was released in September 1963, the month I bought my copy. The book’s original copyright was 1946 and the second printing was released in 1947. A later edition, with the medical section almost completely revised, was out in the 1970s, omitting the final chapter “A Last Word to the Gentle Reader,” which took out a lot of the book’s bittersweet final poetry, I think.

The 1947 version reads a little differently in sections, not quite as smoothly. Margaret had definite negative ideas about canned food for cats, which she spent more time expounding upon in the earlier version than the later edition, when she appeared to have grudgingly given in a little. “The prepared foods that come in cans or jars or paper containers may be nourishing but cats don’t like them,” she declared unequivocally in 1947. Try suggesting that today!

The 1947 edition contained a biography of both the author and the illustrator (and included more of the Thurber-esque line drawings by New Yorker cartoonist Roberta Macdonald). We’ll focus on our author: “Margaret Cooper Gay has lived with cats most of her life, having brought home her first kitten when she was only two. ‘I also like dogs,’ she writes, ‘and have always had animals, from bears to honey bears, from toucans to titmice, from horses to marmosets.’ Miss Gay owned a pet shop for six years. Her stories and articles, on varied subjects, have been published in American and English magazines.”

By the 1953 edition the biography had vanished. Finding out anything about the author at that time or after proved vexing. She lived in Connecticut with her husband, she was a justice of the peace in her bucolic village…what else was there? Not much of anything.

With hindsight it’s possible to see that Margaret disguised some of the tales she tells in “How To Live With A Cat.” She never explicitly says who owned Spattie the cat, raised by a macaw and a monkey, but we know Mac from Peggy von der Goltz’ 1937 book “Macaw” — Mac was owned by a husband and wife who ran a pet store. Peggy and her first husband Vondy had a pet shop from 1926 to 1932, when the Great Depression put an end to the business.

This animal threesome is also mentioned in Peggy’s October 1933 article “The Adaptable Cat,” syndicated to a variety of newspapers that month. The blind canary figures into the story too, also mentioned by Margaret.

As for the three main cats of Margaret’s tome, Ma and her son Pickle, as well as Pickle’s brother Benny (Ben later on) make their first appearance on Peggy’s February 1939 article “Cat Tales,” published in the Los Angeles Times. Charlie, the Maltese-blue cat, had not yet been found and doesn’t appear in Peggy’s writings.

Reading through “How To Live With A Cat,” you’ll find precious few pointers to Margaret’s former life as Peggy von der Goltz, but it’s clear that the time span of her stories is a broad one. Her narrative vaults from the late nineteen-twenties to the mid-nineteen-forties. She bridged the “Peggy” era without an explicit nod to her former self, though it’s there if you care to dig for it.

Margaret makes a passing mention of her association with birds and fish, but doesn’t give away anything revealing. If we knew, for instance, that Peggy was once called the “bird lady of Manhattan” for her widely-known bird clinic in Greenwich Village in the 1920s, we might learn too much and start nosing around in the past.

She skips lightly over her story of the Aracas which Spattie the cat bedeviled during their breeding time, but Peggy’s most scholarly article was in an aquarium society publication in 1936 (“Guppies and the Facts of Life” in The Journal of Social Hygiene). Peggy and Vondy were active in the New York Aquarium Society all through the 1930s, though admitting to this might have caused her readership to wonder who that other husband might have been.

And that mustn’t ever happen!

Standing in the shadows

Margaret’s mother Stella Cooper Gay (pictured at left about 1914), was absent from all her daughter’s voluminous writings, either those published as Peggy von der Goltz or the more well-known authorial name of Margaret Cooper Gay. There are no warm portrayals of motherhood nor tender reminicences of a maternal embrace.

But the more we get to know Stella from other sources, the more we tend to share Margaret’s feelings on the matter. Writing about animals or fictitious Colonial folk was a lot less revealing.

Relatives were not verboten in her prose. Margaret wrote about her maternal grandfather, Judge John E. Cooper, and her maternal grandmother Margaret S. Turner. She wrote about her uncle Clay (who proudly kept a scrapbook about his literary niece, though its whereabouts are unknown). A plethora of relatives going back several generations (all on her mother’s side, it’s worth noting) trot in and out of Margaret’s several memoirs about halcyon days at holiday time in her old Kentucky home.

But not Stella, who was a force to be reckoned with, if the press clippings about her are any indication. She was the only surviving daughter of Judge and Mrs. Cooper, one of seven children. She was theatrical and known for her voice. Even after her brief marriage to Stonewall Jackson Gay (who left town after the death of an infant son when Margaret was four years old), Stella appears in the society columns for local newspapers, singing at recitals, organizing amateur dramatics, reading poetry.

In 1909 Stella spent six weeks in Cincinnati, Ohio to study music. She returned suffering from heat prostration, so reported the Mt. Sterling Advocate. Most genteely, the newspaper declined to report the quiet divorce she’d obtained after Stonewall’s desertion.

Perhaps something else took place in Cincinnati too, or perhaps Washington DC, or maybe even New York City…or did it?

Around 1914 several regional papers (not the Mr. Sterling Advocate, which must have been a relief to some) began to report on the odd story of a Mrs. Estelle Cooper Gay of Mt. Sterling, Kentucky, and her involvement with one John C.C. Mayo, a wealthy lumber magnate. The story was complex, with more facets than an old-mine-cut diamond.

According to the Washington Post, Judge Cooper and Mr. Mayo had had some business dealings together involving land. Mr. Mayo remembered Stella as a charming child, it was reported, and took pity on the pretty “widow” whose name was now Estelle, wishing to do something charitable for her. For her part, Estelle thought she had a chance to make a career in vaudeville or light opera. Mr. Mayo thought so too and promised to provide for her as long as she liked.

But there were some complications. Again, the accounts vary depending on the newspaper in question. Estelle was brought to Washington DC to study music. Or she was brought to Cincinnati to be Mr. Mayo’s mistress. Mr. Mayo died in 1914, inexplicably without having amended his will to include Mrs. Gay. There was a child, a boy in one account, a girl of eight years old in another. The child, whichever gender, had been kidnapped, or was threatened with a kidnapping, or simply disappeared.

Estelle had fallen ill and was in a hospital in New York City. A mysterious fellow called Jack had threatened her and told her to claim that no baby had ever been born. If she refused, he would see to it that she was held against her will in an asylum. Letters vital to her case were stolen. A United States senator (unnamed, naturally) who had befriended her had been compelled to withhold assistance from her. Her attorney, for reasons unstated, declined to represent her after her initial testimony was contradictory. Never mind, she’d negotiate herself with the Mayo estate!

The story played out for almost a year from coast to coast…though never, it seems, in Stella’s hometown papers. Perhaps the widow of Judge Cooper had something to stay about this. Gradually the story found its happy ending. Estelle never realized her inheritance from Mr. Mayo’s estate, but she claimed to have found her fifteen year old daughter by Mayo, a girl whose future was now brightened by four elderly and wealthy men who had taken pity on the schoolgirl and vowed to fund her further education.

Margaret Cooper Gay, it’s worth noting, was fifteen years old at the conclusion of the tale. It’s impossible to say who funded her schooling.

A couple of interesting articles on Stella/Estelle are available in the August 31, 1915 Washington Post or the October 2, 1915 Oregonian.

Still trying to figure out…

…whether Margaret Cooper Gay is interesting enough to write a book about. Or whether anyone else would want to read it.

How interesting can her story be, considering her proud Kentucky heritage, granddaughter of the famous Judge John E. Cooper of Mt. Sterling, her first career as a popular writer which was completely suppressed in the 1940s, her absent father, her wacky mother, and the fact that both wacky mother and Margaret were married to the same man?

Not at the same time, thankfully.

The husband situation is one I’m still trying to figure out. No question that a marriage took place between Stella Cooper Gay and Horst von der Goltz in 1923 in New Jersey because a marriage certificate is on file, which you can have for the asking (and a small fee). Yet two years later, so we are told by American Women 1935-1940, page 954, Peggy was married to Horst. Where Stella had gone is anyone’s guess, or why. The 1930 census reveals that a Stella Gay was in Pittsburg, working as a laundress and listed as widowed. Is this our Stella? Or did she disappear somewhere else?

As for Horst, that’s him at left about 1917 in Mexico where he was working as a spy. You can read his story (believe what you will about it) in his book, My Adventures as a German Secret Agent. By 1940, when Peggy’s biography was reported in American Women 1935-1940, Horst was an “author and newspaperman.” His past was about to become an issue again as World War II approached.

Peggy was ferocious in her devotion to Horst all during his detention from 1942 through 1945. She kept a voluminous diary or epistolary journal during that time, detailing her attempts to visit Horst in the New Jersey detention center where the government — unable to figure out whether he was a threat or not — kept him sequestered. The Federal Bureau of Investigation very kindly kept a copy of Peggy’s journal, which at times veered toward the delusional as well as the paranoid side of reality, but it’s perpetually entertaining. Part documentarian, part investigative reporter, Peggy detailed her attempts to prove her husband’s innocence and claimed throughout not to understand why he might be suspicious during wartime to the U.S. government.

Something seems to have snapped in early 1945. Horst was transferred to a different detention camp just outside New Orleans. At the same time one Francis Smulders, himself an importer from Holland now working in New York, ran a sort of charity to help the families of detained German nationals. He took a particular interest in making sure that Peggy could call upon him for circumstantial or financial needs. One thing led to another, as it usually does, and once she was Mrs. Smulders, Peggy quickly transformed herself into Margaret Cooper Gay. Peggy von der Goltz was almost forgotten.


Uncle Arch’s Thanksgiving

Peggy was probably still married to her first husband Horst von der Goltz when she sold this savory article, “Uncle Arch’s Thanksgiving” to Gourmet Magazine in late 1944. But there were reasons why she decided to use her birth name, Margaret Cooper Gay, instead of the name by which she’d made her earlier reputation as a writer. Peggy von der Goltz was no more, at least literarily.

The six page memoir was rich in details of a kind of feast enjoyed by her maternal grandfather’s family in Kentucky around 1906 or so. Her grandfather John Everett Cooper, who figures prominently in the article, died in 1907 and was her most indelible father figure, her actual father Stonewall Jackson Gay having left the family about 1904.

“Uncle Arch’s Thanksgiving” is worth a read for its historical portrayal of Kentuckian holiday traditions. Margaret remembers how pumpkin pie was made in the days of her youth.

“You take a pumpkin, wash it thoroughly, and cut it in half crosswise. Take out the seeds, and if you wish, dry, salt and toast them — they’re good. Scoop out the meat of the pumpkin, leaving a good solid shell in the lower half.. Steam the scooped-out pumpkin until it is tender, and press it through a fine sieve. Measure the sieved pumpkin into a very large bowl and measure and add an equal amount of rich milk and half as much maple sugar. Put in a whole egg and a tablespoonful of butter for each cup of pumpkin. Season to taste with cinnamon, cloves, ginger, nutmeg, and salt. Add a glass of sherry. Beat it until you’re about to drop, and the whole thing is an exquisite cream, light as a cloud, divinely aromatic. Pile this gustatory thistledown into the lower half of the pumpkin shell, and pop it into the extact center of a hot oven for ten minutes. Lower the heat to very slow and bake until the top is brown and shiny as a buckeye in a boy’s pocket, and the aroma is heavenly tormenting. Then slide a silver knife into the center, don’t poke through the shell, and if the knife comes out clean the pie is done. You slice it from the center out, in golden spokes like Ezekiel’s wheel, and nobody has to eat pie crust he doesn’t want or apologize for leaving it.”

With a little tweaking it could be a good recipe today.

Mutual admiration society

peggyandparrotThis is the only known photo of Peggy Cooper Gay von der Goltz, holding her macaw, Mac, later the subject of her first book. In September 1929 Peggy received a little press over an inadvertent discovery.

She and her first husband Horst ran a pet shop in Greenwich Village. According to an article in the Montana Standard, two years earlier the shop was accidentally sent some baby turtles with a shipment of tropical fish. Put on display, the turtle was snapped up as a novel pet. Word spread, demand grew. Soon the shop was selling a thousand turtles a month, each with its own special name.

It’s a cute story. It may have been true. But it made good enough copy for newspaper syndicates to send it around the country to regional newspapers who were hungry for novel stories themselves.

The pet shop was real, situated at 58 West 8th Street in New York. If we can rely on Peggy’s future articles, she and Horst had a thriving business dealing in all kinds of animals but specializing in birds and fish. Horst claimed later to have introduced the common guppy as a viable alternative to the goldfish. Peggy operated what she said was the first free bird clinic in New York City.

There’s no real reason to doubt this story. The New York Times confirmed it when reporting the closure of their pet store in 1932. The Depression had robbed New Yorkers of their mania for exotic pets. It was around this time that Peggy began the first phase of her writing career, and her earliest articles revolve around the pets she once sold or bred. Cats, dogs, parrots, monkeys, toads, guppies, horses — she focused on an endless variety of non-human companions with an overriding message involving humane treatment of same.

Her compassion was somewhat novel itself during a time when the pet industry was only a glimmer in some entrepreneur’s eye, almost thirty years before the founding of the Humane Society. One gathers that proper follow-up animal care was a hit or miss affair in those days. In her barely-fictitious “Macaw” (Simon & Schuster, 1937), the book recounts the tragedy of birds trafficked for profit rather than companionship. It has a happy ending, though, when the young husband-and-wife pet shop owners rescue the feathered protagonist from great travail and provide him with a life of ease.

Peggy’s literary output — a solid career writing about animals and (later in the 1930s) patriotism — provided her with a unique platform for pitching a second and third book to Simon & Schuster. One would be a cat-care tome, another a historical novel set in the pre-Revolutionary-War American colonies. But as World War Two approached, a certain change had to be made to her recognizable name. It had something to do with Peggy’s husband Horst, who had brought a little baggage from World War One along with him.

Dueling bios

Margaret Cooper Gay had a perfectly respectable literary life, said Ish Richey in his book “Kentucky Literature 1784-1963”. His three and a half page biography of the author cites her Kentucky heritage, the influence of her grandfather Judge John Everett Cooper, her education, experience with animals, her management of a free clinic for animals in Greenwich Village, her marriage to Francis Smulders, and her literary works in Collier’s, Gourmet Magazine, plus her two books.

But something is missing. As Richey put it, he was unable to verify details of Margaret Cooper Gay’s life in the 1920s and 1930s. That’s a fairly significant gap. Even an interview with Margaret’s uncle, James Clay Cooper, didn’t reveal what might have been going on during that time.

As it turns out, quite a lot was going on: about forty or so articles in magazines like The Atlantic and American Mercury, one book about a parrot, and an O. Henry award-winning short story, plus a scientific paper on the intelligence of guppies. Margaret was also active in local and national politics, folk music groups, the New York Aquarium Society, and was married to someone entirely different:


This bio is from Durward Howes’ “American Women 1935-1940”. The novel “Inana, the Story of a Monkey” seems not to have made it into print, but “Macaw” was definitely published. Until now none of Margaret’s biographers caught the fact that there was one woman, one career, but two very distinct names…and an attempt on someone’s part (Margaret’s?) to delete the details of nearly two decades of her life.

That hardly seems fair.