- Pearl S. Buck: The Final Chapter
In the last few pages of her 1983 biography of Pearl Buck, Nora Stirling identifies Beverly Drake as a "close friend, confidante and, later, practical nurse" of the elderly Nobel Prize winner. But Drake's role in Stirling's book is decidedly walk-on: the confidante has no voice. Now Drake, using her new married name of Rizzon, has written her own story and a more detailed "final chapter" of her friend's. Rizzon's volume is, then, both memoir and sympathetic biography. While attempting to present and justify the late-life ways of Pearl Buck to the world, Rizzon seeks also to vindicate herself as much maligned co-administrator of those ways.
When Beverly Rizzon first met Pearl Buck, the novelist had recently moved to Danby, Vermont, to restore buildings in the town, to open an antiques center, and to establish a permanent home. Although Rizzon, who lived nearby, had never read any of Buck's novels (and admits to having "thought her long dead and gone"), she nevertheless sent a welcome note to the celebrated author and received in return an invitation to tea. Soon afterward the delighted new fan, an occasional journalist, became Buck's personal secretary—and the most frustrating and rewarding period of Rizzon's life began. Pearl Buck was a strong-willed woman who used a "velvet sledgehammer" in encouraging her associates to help fulfill her vision. By the end of this narrative, Rizzon has survived the Buck experience but has also had to endure alcoholism and institutionalization that arose, ostensibly, in part, because of it.
For, despite Rizzon's metaphorical references throughout the book to Buck as a "goddess," the biographer demonstrates how her extraordinary dedication to her boss between 1970 and 1973 cost her dearly. During Pearl Buck's final [End Page 756] illness, Rizzon was in steady conflict with her husband, Bill Drake, and two young sons over her time and loyalties. And after Buck's death, members of Buck's family often accused both Rizzon and Ted Harris—the novelist's business manager, first biographer, and constant companion—of manipulating the old woman for her money. Here, Rizzon insists that "no one at any time could possibly ever coerce Pearl Sydenstricker Buck into doing anything she did not want to do for whatever reason." Further, unlike Stirling, Rizzon adamantly defends Harris, whose character and motives had long been impugned by Buck's family, friends, and business partners. Although Rizzon sometimes uses such unfortunate phrases as "financial juggling" and "fooling the family" in her descriptions of what she and Harris did to "protect" Buck, her argument, curiously, does inspire the reader to believe her version. Some of their "lies," certainly, appear more playful than sinister. For example, "Mrs. Naomi Bixby," the alter ego whom Harris invented for Rizzon to use in handling Pearl Buck Book Club complaints, is delightful, a major element of the book's good humor.
Still, much in The Final Chapter seems quaint and sentimental. Lacking an index, the book will undoubtedly frustrate scholars. Although Rizzon quotes liberally from Buck's correspondence and fiction, the biography's literary merits are negligible. And it is poorly edited; one quickly tires of its careless proofreading, errors in grammar, and generally repetitious nature. Finally, however, Beverly Drake Rizzon's work holds value and considerable fascination as an "insider's" view of Pearl S. Buck.