Friday, June 26, 2009

The Mysterious Disappearance of Agatha Christie

On December 3, 1926 Agatha Christie disappeared from her home in Sunningdale, in Berkshire. Her car was found at eight o’clock on Saturday morning, abandoned several miles away, with some of her clothes and identification scattered around inside. There were no signs of foul play but newspapers immediately reported that the car was believed to have been deliberately run down Newlands corner with its brakes off. All that weekend, the police searched for her on the North Downs. Agatha had written several confusing letters to her husband, her secretary Charlotte Fisher and others before vanishing. One, to her brother-in-law, said she was simply going for a vacation in Yorkshire; another, to the local chief constable, said she feared for her life. A quarter mile from where her car was found there was a lake called Silent Pool that she had used in one of her books; one of her characters had drowned there. The policy promptly had the lake dredged, without result. Hearing of the husband's infidelities, the police tapped his phones and followed him wherever he went. They also organized 15,000 volunteers to search the surrounding countryside.

Her husband, Colonel Archie Christie told reporters that she was suffering from a nervous breakdown, but suspicion was immediately raised that perhaps the Colonel had done away with his wife, like one of the plots in his wife’s mystery novels. For eleven days the nation was riveted as the newspapers speculated about what had happened to the author of The Mystery of Roger Ackroyd. When she was discovered at a spa in Harrogate; she claimed to been suffering from temporary amnesia. What led Agatha Christie to leave her home that cold December night? Was it a publicity stunt? Revenge against her husband? A simple misunderstanding? Even today, her biographers differ on what exactly happened during those two weeks in December 1926.

Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller (1890-1976) was born in the Victorian resort of Torquay in Devon. Her father Frederick Miller was an American from New York, although he had gone to school in Switzerland. Blessed with an independent income, he lived the life of a Victorian gentleman of leisure. Like Winston Churchill, Agatha was very proud of being half-American. She even insisted on visiting her relatives’ graves in Greenwood cemetery in Brooklyn on a trip to New York, even though she had never known them. The youngest of three children Agatha was raised almost as an only child. Unlike them, she had no formal education, she was taught at home by her mother and father. When she was eleven, her father did suddenly from a heart-attack leaving the family in straightened circumstances. Instead of selling the family home, her mother let servants go, and when money became tight, rented out the house while they moved to France for a year.

At the end of 1912, she met Archie Christie at a party. He was tall, lean and intense. He immediately demanded that Agatha dance as many dances as possible with him, crossing out names on her dance card and filling his in. A whirlwind courtship followed. Archie somehow found out where she lived and showed up unannounced one day. Within days, he had asked her to marry him. Soon they were engaged, but they didn’t marry until Christmas Eve 1914. Her mother Clara was suspicious of Archie. He was too good-looking, and he only had eighty pounds a year. In the army, he had trained to be a pilot, transferring to the Royal Flying Corps. Her main concern however was that Archie and Agatha were too different. While Archie was intense, Agatha was child-like and full of the zest for life. There was also the fact that Agatha was already engaged to someone else, another soldier named Reggie Lucy, although the engagement was not formal. The young couple broke up, made up, and broke up again until their sudden wedding on December 24, 1914.

During the war, Agatha worked as a nurse and then as a pharmacist where she learned all about the poisons that she would use so effectively in her mysteries. She also started her first detective novel The Mysterious Affair at Styles which she finished in 1916. However, like her short stories, the novel was rejected by several publishers. While other marriages floundered after the war was over, the Christies seemed solid. In 1919, Agatha became pregnant with their daughter Rosalind. Archie was happy that the baby was a girl, because he feared a son would be a rival for Agatha’s affections. Encouraged to submit her book to one last publisher, The Mysterious Affair at Styles was finally accepted for publication by Bodley Head in a five book deal. Agatha Christie was now a published author.

Over the next few years, Agatha published several more novels, introducing Miss Marple, and Tuppence and Tommy, and short stories, each more successful than the last. The Christies bought a house in London, and then eventually moved to a house in the suburbs. Archie left the army and went to work in the city. Everything in Agatha’s life seemed to be going perfectly. But in 1926 everything changed. It should have been the greatest year of Agatha’s life, the book that put her on the map as an author; The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was published. However, 1926 was also the year that her mother Clara died. Ignoring her mother’s advice to never leave Archie alone for long, Agatha went down to Torquay to go through her mother’s things, while Archie stayed in London.

Just before they were to leave for a holiday in Italy, Archie told Agatha stunning news. He had fallen in love with a woman of their acquaintance, Nancy Neele, and wanted a divorce. Agatha pleaded with Archie to give their marriage another chance, and he reluctantly agreed, but it was clear that his heart was not in it. After twelve years of marriage, the differences between their two natures had torn them apart instead of closer together. While Agatha was social, emotional, imaginative, with a zest for life and travel, Archie was taciturn, rational, and circumspect. He hated illness or any extreme emotions. Agatha had also let herself go in the looks department, she had gained a great deal of weight, and looked older than her age. Nancy Neele, on the other hand, was young and beautiful.

On that fateful day in December, Archie had told Agatha that he was going to spend the weekend with some friends, The James, and would not be coming home. Agatha realized that the other woman, Nancy Neele, was going to also be spending the weekend. It was then that Agatha put the plan in motion that would cause such a scandal. At 9:45 that Friday night, she told her secretary that she was going out, got into the car and drove to Newland Downs where she left the car. From there, she walked back into town and caught the train to London. In London, she went shopping for a winter coat and posted a letter to Archie’s brother Campbell, telling him that she was going to a spa in Yorkshire. Having set up the clues for Archie, she took a train to Harrogate and checked into the Hydro spa under the name of Theresa Neele. It was there that she planned to wait for Archie to come and find her the way that he had done fourteen years ago when they had first met.

But Archie didn’t come and meanwhile the police were looking for her, suspecting foul play. Everyday, Agatha waited at the spa in Harrogate, reading the newspapers, seeing what was being said about her. The press stories initially had been small, but as her disappearance went on, and the police were convinced that it was foul play, the stories became bigger. Even though Archie’s brother Campbell finally told the police that Agatha had said that she was at a spa in Yorkshire, his story wasn’t believed. He had unfortunately burned the letter that Agatha had sent him although he kept the envelope. Deputy Chief Constable Kenward who was in charge of her case didn’t believe his story. Even the newspapers didn’t believe it, although no one thought that perhaps Agatha was traveling under an alias. Reporters discovered that Archie had spent the weekend in the country with friends and in the company of a mysterious woman. They didn’t out and out name Nancy Neele but the speculation was enough for her family to be alarmed.

At any time, she could have ended the suspense but she didn’t. Instead she placed an advertisement in the London Times saying that Mrs. Theresa Neele was interested in getting in touch with her relatives and they could find her at the Hydro in Harrogate. It wasn’t until several of the patrons noticed the resemblance between the guest named Mrs. Neele and the pictures of Agatha in the paper that the suspense was ended. Archie arrived at the Hydro in Harrogate and issued a statement that Agatha was suffering from amnesia. Agatha was immediately whisked away from the Hydro to her sister’s house which was protected by a large iron fence to keep reporters out.

When the press got wind of the fact that Mrs. Agatha Christie was not dead in a ditch but had been enjoying herself for eleven days at spa in Yorkshire, they were livid. If anyone remembers the outcry after the Runaway Bride in Georgia was found, can imagine what it must have been like in England at the time. The press was immediately suspicious of the Christie’s story that Agatha had amnesia, whether temporary or otherwise. Not even several statements from doctors who apparently examined Agatha swayed the press and the public. The papers were out for blood, insisting that huge amounts of public funds had been wasted on a fruitless search for an author who wasn’t even missing. Even when the police issued a statement that the search had only cost less than a hundred pounds, didn’t change public opinion. Agatha, for her part, couldn't understand why people were so angry. She hadn't asked the police to look for her, in fact she had made it perfectly clear in her letter to her brother-in-law exactly where she was going.

So what really happened? Was it an elaborate publicity stunt to increase sales of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd? A revenge plot to embarrass her husband? Or was it less obvious, that Agatha had simply had an emotional breakdown, and tried a last desperate attempt to save her marriage that backfired? I’m inclined to agree with the latter theory. Christie seems to have been in a fugue state while she was in Harrogate, one part of her mind was aware of what was going on in the newspapers, but another part of her clearly thought she was Mrs. Neele. No one who was thinking rationally could have come up with such a scheme. If Agatha had been plotting one of her novels, she wouldn’t have left so many holes in the plan.

Any chance that Agatha had of repairing her marriage to Archie ended once the press and the police got involved. The embarrassment and humiliation of being considered a suspect was too much for Archie. The Christies were divorced, and Archie married Nancy Neele. They had a son named Archie and lived happily until Christie’s death in 1962. Agatha Christie too remarried to an archeologist named Max Mallowan, who was fifteen years younger than her. They were married until Christie’s death in 1976. She disliked discussing what happened to her that December of 1926.

In 1979, a film called Agatha, starring Vanessa Redgrave as Agatha Christie, and Timothy Dalton as Archie, dealing with Christie’s disappearance was released. Rosalind Christie filed an injunction to try and have the film stopped, claiming emotional distress, but the motion was denied. The film, written by Kathleen Tynan based on her book, suggested that Agatha secretly planned a dark revenge against Archie Christie that could only be averted by Wally Stanton (played by Dustin Hoffman and a completely fictional character), an ambitious American journalist who falls in love with her. The film is only available on VHS.

In 2004, Agatha Christie Her Life in Pictures was shown on the BBC, another retelling of the story of how she managed to disappear for 11 days following her husband's request for a divorce in 1926. Bonnie Wright (Ginny Weasley of the Harry Potter films), Olivia Williams (Rushmore, The Sixth Sense) and Anna Massey (Possession) portray the famed British author at three different stages of her prolific career. This movie is available on Netflix.

In 1996, a book by Jared Cade was published called Agatha Christie and the Eleven Missing Days. It was based on a version of events told to the author by the daughter of one of Agatha's friends. The daughter, Judith, stated that Agatha had been out for revenge against Archie because of the affair. However, the daughter was only 10 at the time of Agatha's disppearance, so the story is all hearsay. Rosalind Christie Hicks vehemently denied this version of events.

Sources include:

Agatha Christie, An English Mystery: Laura Thompson, Headline Review, 2007

11 comments:

Marg said...

I had heard of this during a biography show or something. Can't remember now. It does seem like a very strange incident!

Kerrie said...

You might like to submit this to the Agatha Christie Blog Carnival. See http://acrccarnival.blogspot.com/ for details

Pam Walter said...

She has always been one of my favorite mystery writers but I didn't know much about her personal life. Am sorry to read that it was tainted by so much sadness. www.satisfiedsole.com

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Thanks Kerrie. I will do that. I agree Pam, her early life was had some sadness, but she and her first husband were just not really suited to each other. I think if her marriage had broken up before her mother died, she would have had her mother to lean on.

dave hambidge said...

For the non-american reader of this as ever excellent blog, you might like to jump to;

http://www.tabloidcolumn.com/runaway-bride-hoax.html

to find out more on the 2005 runaway bride of Duluth Georgia. I vaguely recall the tale from then, but little made it into the Brit press.

What a gal, eh?

dave

Aileen said...

There was an episode of the new series of Doctor Who called the Wasp and the Unicorn that dealt with that lost weekend.

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Hi Aileen. I saw that episode. It was quite interesting and the actress who played Agatha did look a lot like her at that stage of her life.

Leanna Renee Hieber said...

OMG I can't wait to get to that Dr. Who episode!!

Wow. How did I somehow miss this great story of old?

Fascinating.

deryik said...

there's something interesting about Agatha. While writing "murder on orient express", she stays in a hotel in istanbul, which is still very popular for that (pera palas is the name: http://www.perapalas.com/).

for those 11 days, another story is that she was in pera palas, in room 411. She was a regular customer, maybe it was made up just for marketing purposes but it's a good place to hide..

what i read several times is this story:

years after the disapperance, Warner Bros wanted to produce a movie about famous writer and they wanted to learn what happened in these 11 days. They hired a psychic, Tamara Rand. She said that the mystery was hidden in that room. In 1979, during a renovation, a worker found a key hid under the doorstep. Warner Bros offered a huge amount of money for the key but the owner of the hotel kept it for himself. So, the mystery is still unsolved. It is believed that it is all written in Christie’s hidden diaries. They are still lost.

i believe, a hotel in istanbul is a great place to leave all your secrets behind and go back home.

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christoph krautgartner said...

Why does there exist no photo of Nancy Neele - the second wife of archibald Christie?