- Associated Press - Sunday, October 23, 2016

DECATUR, Ill. (AP) - Lynn and Duane Potter like to hunt for any treasure that might be hidden in the succession of grand old Decatur houses they have renovated over the past half century.

But what they found entombed in the attic of the prestigious home at 3 Millikin Place was an emotional time bomb.

Lynn Potter, writing under the name Mary Lynn, has just published a novel based on the discovery called “The Forgotten Life of Sarah Grady.” It has naughty sexual liaisons, deep passion, domestic violence, mystery and death energizing the plot like high-voltage cables.

“The story is really sad, but it’s also true,” Lynn Potter says.

So back to that discovery in the attic, which started it all. The Potters had moved into the house in 1968, and several seasons after confronting heating bills that looked like telephone numbers with dollar signs in front of them, decided to get the attic of the 5,400-square-foot, Arts & Crafts-style mansion insulated.

Duane Potter had been dispatched to the attic to check the job was done right when he noticed an insulation-covered lump sticking out from behind a chimney. His heart leaping to the conclusion this must be the long-lost treasure they had always dreamed of finding, he uncovered a 2-foot-by-2-foot cardboard box and hauled it downstairs.

Instead of a hoard of gold coins, he found stacks of letters, more than 400 of them, along with tickets, receipts and other ephemera dated between 1915 and 1920. Some of the letters used Morse code and other forms of code to try and render their contents secret to prying eyes.

Cautious at first about prying into other people’s lives, the Potters were quickly seduced by the allure of their find and dug in, Lynn Potter teaching herself Morse and working diligently to crack the other codes used.

What the Potters had found were love letters written to the lady of the house, Sarah Grady, from one Ed Rockafellow, a prominent businessman from out East whose family name is related to that much more famous variation of it, Rockefeller

Grady was married to the original owner of the home, Decatur businessman William Grady of the Faries Manufacturing Co. The house was a gilded palace for her to throw lavish parties as her husband social-climbed his way to the top.

But it soon became clear she wanted more than to be his social secretary. She longed for intellectual and other forms of stimulation, and the obliging and smart Rockafellow served it up in a torrid four-year affair.

Lynn Potter knew she had enough for a gripping read and had long planned to novelize the results by working off the letters. But the former teacher, who spent 25 years as office manager for her dentist son, never did quite find the time until she retired from her day job and, two years ago and 30 years after moving out of the Millikin Place house, sat down to writing like her life depended on it.

“We just carried those letters around with us for 40 years before my wife got going on the writing,” said Duane Potter, who has been married to her for 63 years. “And those letters tell an extremely sad story.”

One that sometimes had his wife in tears while she was writing it. The author only has the smoking letters Rockafellow wrote to Grady, not the hot correspondence going the other way. So, like in “Jurassic Park” where the scientists have to patch the dinosaur DNA, she uses her imagination, and clues about what Grady said to her lover by what he writes back to her, to flesh out their lives. Slice by slice, a detailed picture emerges of Grady’s rich and wretched existence in her luxurious isolation.

“Sarah was a woman who lived a good life; she had three bathrooms in 1915 when only 18 percent of homes had one,” Lynn Potter says. “But she was sad, and she suffered.”

Without giving too much of the game away, as Potter would like to sell some books, Grady loses a son in 1918 to a worldwide flu epidemic estimated to have claimed more than 50 million souls. On top of that, her husband was repeatedly arguing with her using his fists, and Rockafellow, the love of her life, made elaborate pledges of devotion but hesitated to leave his wife and his comfortable life, despite promises to the contrary.

That sets the stage for a mysterious fate that is darker than all that precedes it, but you’ll have to read the book and decide for yourself if Potter’s potent alchemy of mystery and imagination has got it right. Whatever the verdict, it’s all good and explosive stuff, well told.

“Getting that novel written was on my bucket list,” Lynn Potter says.

She’s had rave reviews from the few folks lucky enough to have been given advance copies, but you can never please everybody. One of Potter’s young granddaughters had particular trouble reconciling pages tainted by the darker strains of the human condition with the sweet, ever-smiling blue-eyed grandma who wrote them after dipping her pen in pain.

“She said ‘Why would grandma write anything like this?’” recalls Potter with a smile turned impish. “Oh well.”


Source: (Decatur) Herald & Review, https://bit.ly/2e4E03B


Information from: Herald & Review, https://www.herald-review.com

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