Annabella’s doorbell resounded with the strains of Maurice Jarre’s Lawrence of Arabia film music: daaah da, da-da-da-da daaah da! Large and swathed in a Bedouin robe, an imitation Hejaz dagger tucked into her belt, she bade me enter with “a thousand salaams” while her poodle Feisal yapped his own welcome.
“Nice place,” I said, and she responded, “Yes, but it is far from Damascus.” She sat cross-legged on kilim cushions in the dim living room and offered me stale dates and mint tea, a veiled reference to T.E. Lawrence’s memoir, The Mint.
In my life as a biographer, I’d met some mad characters whose romantic fantasies clashed with my quest for new insights, but this was about as wacky as it ever got. As obsessed as I was with Lawrence of Arabia and with getting my hands on as many rare books and unpublished papers as I could find, I was unprepared for the three lady collectors I visited in Los Angeles.
“You may be a tiny bit skeptical,” Annabella said, “but I must tell you a story about dear Ned. Once in India,” she began, “a friend’s horse suddenly bolted and ran away with her. Just then a small man in airman’s uniform, with blond hair, bright blue eyes and a boyish face, seized the fallen reins, brought the animal under control, and disappeared. A year later they happened to take the same ship back to England and she discovered from crowds at the dock that it was T.E. Lawrence who had saved her life.”
Relinquishing the struggle between the need to humor Anabella and the desire to demolish her preposterous tale, I said, “When Lawrence was stationed in India he never left the air base. He went back to England on a troop ship, which carried no civilians, and to avoid publicity disembarked at Plymouth harbor before the boat docked.”
“Well, Jeffrey, you’ve been terribly naughty,” Annabella said. “But I’ll show you my collection anyway.” She owned a few books, but her prize item turned out to be some anonymous poems addressed to Lawrence and obviously written by Annabelle herself.
The second collector, Mabel, had a huge cache of ephemera, and I soon became part of it. She photographed me from all angles, and I joined her bulging files as “T.E. Lawrence, biographer of.” She questioned me about Lawrence’s strange sex life, his masochism and ritualistic flagellations, looking for salacious details but passionately defending him against the faintest criticism. All the while she plied me with greasy lamb in rice until I felt I would burst. This was my torture at Deraa.
The next day I visited the fierce Doris, who received me in her elaborate backyard tent supported by seven pillars. She immediately launched into a savage monologue: “Lawrence was a spy, a saboteur, his fight for Arab freedom a lot of camel dung. He sold the Bedu down the wadi.” I shifted the subject to her collection and discovered that she owned some unpublished letters from biographer Richard Aldington about his literary attack on Lawrence. “Might I see them?” I asked.
“I think not,” she announced. “I know he was a degenerate sadomasochist, but I prefer to keep the proof to myself.”
I couldn’t resist teasing Doris, telling her about the wonderful things I’d seen chez Annabella and Mabel. “I’ll bet she doesn’t even know about this book,” she said, and produced a rare Letters to Harley Granville-Barker.
“Mabel has a signed copy.”
“What about this one?” she challenged, pulling out a Chinese translation of Seven Pillars of Wisdom.
“Annabella has both the Peking and Shanghai editions, and owns the rice-paper copy that Marshal Chen Yi carried with him on the Long March.”
“Well, I know for a fact that neither of them has Richard Meinertzhagen’s Birds of Arabia.”
“True enough. But Mabel has his Kenya Diary,” I replied. “The Birds book is not a Lawrence item.”
“Nonsense. It’s a collateral work. Meinertzhagen is referred to many times in Seven Pillars.” She held the heavy tome above her head and threatened to heave it at me.
“That may be so,” I ventured, flying across the carpet to make my escape, “but Lawrence isn’t even mentioned in Meinertzhagen. He’s not a bird, he’s a man!,” I screamed, and slammed the tent flap behind me.
So much for “Arab” hospitality.