A Portrait of the Artist: Laurel Davis Huber’s “The Velveteen Daughter” | Debut Spotlight

Photo by Danny Sanchez

Following an impulse to investigate Pamela Bianco, an often enjoyed writer/illustrator from her childhood, Laurel Davis Huber learned that Bianco’s mother, Margery Williams, was none other than the creator of the acclaimed children’s book The Velveteen Rabbit. Thus began a ten-year adventure resulting in her captivating debut novel, The Velveteen Daughter (LJ 7/17), which traces Pamela’s life as a young artist growing up in early 20th-century America.

How did you unravel the link between Pamela and Margery?
[At first], my sole interest was in Pamela. I quickly discovered that she had been a child prodigy whose artistic style changed enormously over the years, but there was very little biographical information. Then I found The Junior Book of Authors [edited by Stanley J. Kunitz and Howard Haycraft], in which Pamela’s autobiographical entry mentions illustrating her mother’s book The Little Wooden Doll. She never said who her mother was, but I happened to notice that the essay preceding Pamela’s was by Margery Williams Bianco. In the penultimate paragraph, Margery mentioned Pamela and The Velveteen Rabbit. At that moment, as they say, the scales fell from my eyes.

What led to your decision to start Margery’s narration three days before her death?
There was a lot of cutting and pasting [the text] into different mosaics. I realized it lent immediacy to the story to have it take place over just a few days (although it really covers a lifetime) in order to add drama and create a tighter arc.

Why do you think Margery’s fame endured while Pamela’s didn’t?
The Velveteen Rabbit has been beloved for almost a century. Pamela’s star faded because it was fated to be that way. [Some] child prodigies cannot maintain their celebrity because they cannot hold on to that which makes them so highly prized—their youth. Also, there was a 25-year hiatus when Pamela produced very little art. Her “comeback” in the 1960s was brief and could not compare to the great impact she made in the 1920s.

Gertrude Vanderbilt, a sculptor and artist herself, was Pamela’s patron. Did her niece Gloria help with research? Are there any relatives of Margery or Pamela who provided insight?
No, Gloria Vanderbilt did not help with the research. After I finished the book, I asked if she’d like to read the manuscript to be sure my portrayal of her aunt was not erroneous in any way. She was quite enthusiastic, which led to her wonderful endorsement of the novel. Later, she sent me photographs of several pieces of Pamela’s artwork that she owns, which was very exciting.

I was able to track down the widow of Pamela’s son, Lorenzo. We had two lovely lunches during which she gave me many personal details that went into the book. My favorite was the fact that Pamela and her second husband, Georg, used to climb out of their adjoining studio windows at Colonnade Row [in New York City] and crawl across the roof to visit each other.

What was the greatest surprise you encountered during this process?
The biggest surprise was discovering that Margery was Pamela’s mother. Another was reading about the Biancos’ visits to [pulp fiction writer] Agnes O’Neill’s place in Point Pleasant on the New Jersey shore. So much took place there—[playwright] Eugene O’Neill’s disastrous winter, the family summer visits, particularly the first summer when Diccon (Richard Hughes, author of A High Wind in Jamaica, who is a key figure in my novel) arrived from England, and the fact that Agnes lived there for the last years of her life. Point Pleasant is only a 45-minute drive from my home. All that history just down the road, and I had been oblivious.

What question has not yet been asked of you that you really want to answer?
No one has asked me anything about Diccon, Pamela’s love obsession. Diccon really interested me, in part because A High Wind in Jamaica was required reading when I was in school. In Richard Perceval Graves’s Richard Hughes: A Biography, Pamela is mentioned several times—not in a flattering way. She is portrayed, wrongly, as a pesky adolescent who irritated Diccon. Despite their youthful drama, Pamela and Diccon remained lifelong friends.

Do you have another project in the works?
I have made some progress on a novel that is radically different from The Velveteen Daughter—a contemporary story with elements of magical realism. It features a woman from Florida, a dog, and Little Bo Peep.—Beth Andersen, ­formerly with Ann Arbor Dist. Lib., MI

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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  1. Brenda Molloy says:

    Dear Laurel Davis Huber,
    I am looking forward to reading your new book. If you were delighted to discover that Margery Williams was Pamela’s mother, how will you feel when I tell you that the reason they spent time in West Point Pleasant was because Agnes Boulton O’Neill, 2nd wife of Eugene O’Neill, was Margery’s niece? Pamela Bianco and Agnes O’Neill were first cousins.

    Margery Williams Bianco’s sister was Cecil Maud Williams Boulton, wife of the artist Edward William Boulton. They had left England, their birthplace, first living in Philadelphia and later, full time, in West Point Pleasant. This information is available online and also, probably, from the Point Pleasant Historical Society. Edward Boulton was a reputable painter and must have done well enough financially, as a teacher and by selling his work, to buy the house and keep the family going.

    Our family, the Pearces, were friends of the Boultons. Pamela was a childhood friend of my mother’s. I saw Pamela occasionally when I was a young girl. She was very kind to me. She inspired awe because of her poise and the fact that she wore only black. I met Margery, her mother, once when she visited her sister, Cecil Boulton, who was staying with my grandmother at the Pearce family home on Morris Avenue in Manasquan.

    Pamela’s late work at the Museum of Modern Art is remarkable. It is not on permanent view at the museum but seeing it online is a spine-tingling experience.

    Sincerely yours,

    Brenda Molloy

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