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Being jilted and starting to write poetry


Robert Maxwell and Cyrus S Eaton changed their Who's Who entries
Carl Djerassi Scientist
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I have only one grandson. We are a very small family. I have now only one son. My daughter is dead, she committed suicide, and she had no children. So I have only one grandson who also has obviously another grandfather, who is dead. That grandfather was very well known and here in England particularly also a notorious person, namely Robert Maxwell, and many people still remember him although it’s been now a while gone. There’ve been all kinds of biographies and books about him and scandals and so on. Robert Maxwell is a person who, of course, I have known well over the years, because my son married one of his daughters. They got divorced and they got divorced in a very bitter divorce, before he died, so I have no inside knowledge of how he died... his famous death... whether he committed suicide, fell over his yacht or was murdered as some people want to claim, which is a pretty absurd story... murdered by the Israeli secret service, when in fact at that stage he was a major supporter of Israel. But these were various tales and, of course, they can never be answered. But I used to look at Who’s Who in England at the entry under Maxwell when I first met him, in the early 1960s, and I remember looking at it again once more 10 or 15 years later, and noticing such substantial differences that I then really made it sort of a job of looking at it all the way through. And if you look at his Who’s Who entry here, under Robert Maxwell in the 80s... that’s a year before he died, and look at the one in 1960s when he ran for a Member of Parliament, and was in fact a Member of Parliament for one or two terms in the Labour Government, you would not think that it is the same person, including birth, original name... Maxwell is not his name, the fact that his family was wiped out during the Nazi time, and so on. So it was a completely sanitised, very British, Who’s Who in the 1960s, and he was always called Captain Maxwell at that time, and had won the Military Cross and that was made very plain, whereas in the 1980s he flaunted his Jewishness, flaunted it into the face of a British establishment that had not accepted him for either good or bad reasons, that makes no difference, but you can see how you can learn something extraordinarily interesting in the context of Who’s Who.

And since then, I’ve done it in quite a number of cases, and discovered it in another very interesting place, that has some similarities to Maxwell and some differences. And that is a man, also an industrial tycoon... although not one who died under mysterious circumstances or committed apparently fairly flagrant financial misdeeds... Cyrus Eaton who was a huge Canadian industrialist living then partly also in the United States, running one of the railroads and mines, etc, etc, whom I got to know because he really was the first funder of the Pugwash Conferences. And the Pugwash Conferences, which was a major chapter in my novel... in my novel! That’s a good faux pas, because in some respects that’s what an autobiography is. It’s auto-mythology and it’s a form of fiction. I mention that because Pugwash was an important movement... is an... well, was. I don’t think it is that much now. But was a very important movement and I was involved in it for about 20 years. And it was founded here in the UK. He was the first one... it’s called Pugwash because the first two meetings were in his summer home in Pugwash, Nova Scotia, and he funded it. And then they separated from that funder because he carried with him a lot of baggage. He was the favourite capitalist of the Stalinist and post-Stalinist communists. He won... got the Lenin Award. He had honorary degrees from Russian and Eastern European universities and academies and Khrushchev gave him a troika and horses for his ranch in Canada and etc, etc. At the time, during McCarthy days and so on... and the only reason that he was even able to get away with it, he was a Canadian citizen, even though he was living partly in the United States, but practically McCarthy wanted to just ban him from the country and something like that. And if you read his Who’s Who, Cyrus Eaton’s, which I did because I got to know him... he was an interesting man at that time, and he would have like any Who’s Who, his honorary degrees and there were the University of Moscow and Sofia and stuff like this, and, as I said, the Lenin Peace Prize, which of course was a terrible one to get during the McCarthy days, and all this sort of thing. And then you read it 10 years later, and suddenly he didn’t get any honorary degrees... he got honorary degrees, I don’t know, from the Dalhousie University or the University of Toronto and he was the president of the Shorthorn Cattle Association of Canada, which was how I met him because I once also had a shorthorn cattle ranch, both where I lived in California and in Canada, and so we actually met. I think he once bought one of my shorthorn things at an auction. So suddenly he was a Canadian capitalist tycoon who had his ranches and railroads and stuff like this, and there was not a whiff of any connection to the Eastern European socialist countries.

But it’s an interesting... and he had no particular reason I think in my opinion to even massage it that way. But it shows. It’s very interesting to read these nuances of Who’s Who but then you have to be well into looking back... and this has been my advice to biographers, the professional biographers, who... that is one thing that most biographers, in fact, don’t do, never think about it, that it’s worthwhile... they usually check the latest Who’s Who and then they go to the other sources. But the real intimate personal thoughts... because remember the Who’s Who entries are written by the person himself or herself is whether in fact they retroactively change them. And in what way... retroactively. Prospective one you expect them to change it, but not retroactively.

Austrian-American Carl Djerassi (1923-2015) was best known for his work on the synthesis of the steroid cortisone and then of a progesterone derivative that was the basis of the first contraceptive pill. He wrote a number of books, plays and poems, in the process inventing a new genre, 'science-in-fiction', illustrated by the novel 'Cantor's Dilemma' which explores ethics in science.

Listeners: Tamara Tracz

Tamara Tracz is a writer and filmmaker based in London.

Tags: Lenin Peace Prize, Who's Who, Ian Robert Maxwell, Cyrus S Eaton, Nikita Khrushchev, Joseph Raymond McCarthy

Duration: 7 minutes, 23 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008