It is an historical irony that General George S. Patton, who perhaps took more risks and lived more dangerously than any other American general during the Second World War, survived the conflict, only to die less than four months after its conclusion as the result of injuries sustained in a traffic accident. It was a cruel ending for his wife Beatrice, who, as author Stefanie van Steelandt reveals in this lavish biography of Patton’s wife of thirty-five years, had long harbored doubts that her husband would survive the war.
Women’s history has come a long way in recent years, with various historians doing much to reveal their frequently untold or underplayed contributions to events. Such stories are frequently shot through with poignant and sometimes tragic re-tellings of the ways in which the efforts of women were marginalized by the men around them, how their achievements were underplayed or even claimed by their male counterparts and competitors, and the ingenious strategies that they devised to circumvent patriarchal imperatives and continue their endeavors. LADY OF THE ARMY is a handsome contribution to women’s history, but it hardly conforms to this pattern. As van Steelandt points out, Beatrice Patton was no Eleanor Roosevelt when it came to championing the rights of women (though she befriended her and wrote approvingly of her ideas). On the contrary: she was devoted to her husband and his conception of himself as one of the “great men” of history that she directed her life’s efforts to helping him achieve his ambitions. It was, as van Steelandt notes, a fascinating life, but it was one lived in Patton’s shadow, and Beatrice was happy for it to be that way, anointing their house in Massachusetts with the trophies of war that Patton so proudly sent back to her–a German helmet riddled with bullet holes; a bust of Hitler, which he instructed should be put in a place where their pet dogs might find it of use.
Van Steelandt’s agenda in this regard extends no further than ensuring that Beatrice receives her due. Dedication to another, she emphasizes, does not require denial of the self, and Beatrice kept a wide circle of friends and acquaintances in Bostonian high society and military circles. She was an accomplished amateur pianist, spoke several languages, and enjoyed the fine arts, but expressed misgivings about life as a socialite: she hated small talk and dressed unpretentiously. What shines through time and again is the genuine closeness of the bond between husband and wife. The Pattons wrote to each other regularly, and the affection and love is plain in their correspondence, from which van Steelandt liberally quotes. Beatrice’s attentions were not merely of a conventional type, though she did attend to her husband’s atrocious spelling (it has been speculated that Patton was dyslexic), but were also concerned with bulwarking his reputation. A case in point is what has been referred to as “the Patton incident”. In late 1943, Patton visited a field hospital in Italy in which he noticed a patient who was apparently uninjured. Patton lost his temper, and, accusing the man of cowardice, slapped him across the face with his glove and ejected him from the hospital. A similar incident occurred a few days later. The matter was hushed up until a newspaperman desperate for a story went public with it; shortly afterward, Beatrice found herself having to field questions from a horde of journalists. She defended her husband stoutly, pointing out the folly of his conduct and that he had shown contrition. It was a measured, impassioned response from a woman whose loyalty and dedication to her spouse never wavered.
Weighing in at a hefty 787 pages, LADY OF THE ARMY is no afternoon read. It is meticulously researched, cogently expressed, and richly detailed portrait of a woman whose contribution to the successes of her husband have never been fully acknowledged. Van Steelandt’s achievement is to elevate them to a position of dignity, and to deny the trappings of marginalization that so often accompany subservience. Beatrice may have been, as it were, the tail of the kite, but as she once suggested to a group of army wives, “How high can a kite fly without its tail?”
A magisterial recounting of the life of George S. Patton’s wife Beatrice, Stefanie van Steelandt’s LADY OF THE ARMY offers a frank and sympathetic portrait of the woman behind the general.
~Craig Jones for IndieReader