Patience Abbe, best-selling child author, dies at 87

March 26, 2012

Patience Abbe was only 11 when the memoir she wrote with her two brothers, “Around the World in Eleven Years,” climbed onto the bestseller lists for grown-ups in 1936.

As the siblings recounted their nomadic childhood in Europe and subsequent move to America, their exuberance and unaffected observations charmed readers. Patience observed that a woman with children could always get a seat on a Paris bus “no matter how first the others were.”

Her career as an author peaked at age 15, after the young globe-trotters published two more books. They recounted their adventures living in Hollywood in “Of All Places!” and documented a trip to prewar Europe and life on their Colorado ranch in “No Place Like Home.”

Ms. Abbe died March 17 in Redding, Calif., her family announced. She was 87. The cause of death was not disclosed.

She was born July 22, 1924, in Paris to American expatriates, the noted photographer James Abbe and his wife, Polly, a former Ziegfeld girl.

When Patience and her younger brothers, Richard and John, published “Around the World,” the Los Angeles Times predicted the “chronicle of rollicking kids” would “leap into best-sellerdom.”

Readers were assured that the words were the children’s own. But the book had been the idea of their mother, who transcribed the stories her children told, Ms. Abbe’s family later said.

Patience and her brothers didn’t go around the world, but they “had a better view than most of us” as they went to France, Germany, Austria, Russia, England and, finally, the United States, the New York Times said in a 1936 review that called the volume “a gay and amusing travel book.”

Their lifestyle arose from their father’s approach to stretching money — when a country offered a better exchange rate, the family moved there. James Abbe had a history of documenting revolutions, and as World War II approached, he photographed Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler and other dictators.

In Germany, the Abbe children had to salute their teachers and say “Heil, Hitler!” In Russia, they learned a Communist adaptation of “London Bridge Is Falling Down,” they said in their first and most successful book.

When their father ran into trouble taking photographs in Russia, the family left the country. Patience, who spoke Russian, helped them safely cross the border by telling guards that her father and Stalin “were like crossed fingers,” the Los Angeles Times reported in 1937.

Back in America, the children were always meeting celebrities, and for a while her father set up shop in Hollywood. They probably would not return to Europe, Patience wrote in “Around the World,” until they learned arithmetic.

As a child, Patience danced atop Fred Astaire’s shoes during a photo shoot and waltzed with Charlie Chaplin, who “was quite grumpy,” she said in a recent interview filmed by her family.

She played tag with the stars of “Our Gang” at Hal Roach Studios, attended Shirley Temple’s birthday party, and was a guest of William Randolph Hearst at San Simeon, her family said.

After high school, Ms. Abbe served as her father’s assistant when he was on the radio in Portland, Ore. She later was a reporter for a San Francisco newspaper.

When she married in 1949, she gave up her writing career. She had two daughters with her first husband, Brendan “Michael” O’Mahony, before divorcing in 1954. A marriage to writer Francois Leydet also ended in divorce.

For about half a century, she lived in Marin County, Calif., where she was a conservationist. She worked as a church secretary, was a personal assistant to authors and became a sculptor, her family said. In 2010, she moved to Redding to live with a niece and work on a final, yet-to-be published memoir.

In a recent interview, Ms. Abbe said, “Everyone should leave a trail of their being.”

Her brother Richard died at 74 in 2000. Her brother John lives in Sacramento.

Survivors include two daughters, Catherine Abbe Geissler and Shelley Roge; and her sisters, Tilly Abbe and Linda Lennihan.

— Los Angeles Times

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