I fall easily in love with the women of yesterday – especially those that I discover in my search for what I usually call pulp history.
For instance – Shanghai, 1930s, a party in the Italian consulate, one of the guests is a beautiful woman chaperoning a gibbon wearing a diaper.
I put that in my novel, The Ministry of Thunder, and I was told I was silly.
But it’s a historical fact : the gibbon was called Mr Mills.
The beautiful lady was Emily Hahn.
Born in 1906 in St. Louis, Missouri, Emily Hahn was the first woman in America to get a degree in Mining Engineering – basically because she had been told she would never get it, and it was an unsuitable job for a woman.
And indeed it was – in the sense that she was ostracized, and had to find another way to make a living. So she started writing.
What happened was this…
In the late ’20s, after graduation, with a friend of hers, they dressed up as men and crossed the States on a Ford T (echoes of Aloha Wanderwell).
While she was on the road, she sent letters home regularly – and her brother-in-law sold them to The New Yorker.
Thus started her career.
Emily Hahn’s first proper book, published in 1930, was called Seductio ad Absurdum: The Principles and Practices of Seduction — A Beginner’s Handbook.
It was exactly what it said on the cover – and if you’re interested you can download it for free from the Gutenberg Project.
How not to love such a lady?
But then things got much better.
While her book was being published, Emily dropped everything and moved to Belgian Congo, working for the Red Cross and staying as a guest with the Ituri Forest pigmies, because “I was young and impulsive, because I’d always wanted to.”
She started showing an interest in primates – and kept posting articles to the New Yorker.
For the rest, she loved a good cigar and a stiff drink, and her sex life was the object of much gossip.
Then she dropped out of the Red Cross, and crossed East Africa on foot.
In 1935 she moved to Shanghai – the idea was to visit the city for two weeks, on her way from the USA to West Africa… but she ended up spending eight years in the Paris of the East. She lived in Kiangse Road, in the Red Lights district, and she soon developed an enthusiastic addiction to opium – the result of a lucid choice.
“Though I had always wanted to be an opium addict, I can’t claim that as the reason I went to China.”
In Shanghai, Emily was the toast of the upper class – but she also met a number politically and culturally influential characters.
Among these was Sinmay Zau, poet and publisher – that soon became her lover, and later sort of made the situation officiall – and Emily Hahn became Zau’s legal concubine.
The scandal – a western woman becoming the concubine of a wealthy Chinese – was unheard of1 – rocked the city.
Probably much to Emily’s amusement.
When the Japanese invaded Shanghai, Emily had a number of adventures, as she and Zau set up an openly anti-Japanese magazine.
In 1939, Hahn moved to Hong Kong.
She kicked her opium habit and started feeling a need for “the stabilizing influence of a child.”
Well aware of her status as all-out-scandal, she expressed serious doubts about the possibility of having a child.
“Nonsense! I’ll let you have one!”
… sentenced Colonel Charles Boxer, head of the British Secret Service in Hong Kong.
And he did – Boxer and Hahn had met in Shanghai, and there was a certain chemistry going.
So they had a child – Carola Militia Boxer, born in Hong Kong in 1941.
Then the Japanese Army invaded, Boxer was interned and executed, and Hahn was arrested by the Japanese,
She avoided deportation thanks to her old Chinese marriage license, from back when she was Zau’s concubine. But the Japanese secret police had some questions about her marital arrangements…
“Why … you have baby with Major Boxer? ”
“Because I’m a bad girl.”
During the war she survived three years giving English lessons to Japanese officers in exchange for food.
Then, in 1943, she was sent back home.
In 1945 turned out the news of Charles Boxer execution had been greatly exaggerated – he was freed from a Japanese camp and promptly came home and married Emily.
They had a second daughter.
It was all fine until 1950 – when Emily decided that familiar bliss in the British countryside was all nice and good, but she preferred New York.
So she got an apartment in Manhattan, and spent there nine months a year, rejoining her family only during the summer.
Emily kept writing for The New Yorker- while also continuing her studies on primate biology and ecology, specializing in inter-species communications.
She died in 1997, aged 92.
During her lifetime Emily Hahn published over 50 books on a number of subject – from travel memoirs to a biography of Leonardo da Vinci, to novels, to books of geology (which was, after all, her profession2).
You can find a few titles in the Project Gutenberg and in the Internet Archive.