The late writer and peace activist, Jim Forest, was a good friend and regular correspondent with the notable Catholic spiritual and political leader, the Trappist monk Thomas Merton. Merton, in fact, dedicated his 1968 book, Faith and Violence, to the Jesuit priest and anti-Vietnam War activist, Phil Berrigan, and to his fellow activist, Forest.
Forest’s 2008 book, Living with Wisdom: A Life of Thomas Merton, is, for the most part, an excellent introduction to the life and works of Merton. It is a revised and expanded version of the book with the same title published in 1991, which was itself an expansion upon the much smaller Thomas Merton: A Pictorial Biography published in 1979. The 2008 incarnation continues to be a pictorial biography, its numerous poignant illustrations being one of the big things to recommend it.
For one who might not have the time to read Merton’s famous 1948 autobiography The Seven Story Mountain, which takes us just up to Merton’s entry into the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky in 1941 when Merton was still less than a year out of the graduate school of Columbia University, or Michael Mott’s voluminous 1984 authorized biography, The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton, Forest’s very readable work makes a very good substitute.
The blurb by Paul Wilkes on the back of the paperback version, “If you have to read one book about Thomas Merton, this is the one to read,” certainly comes very close to the truth. The big obvious problem with the book, though, is related to the title of this essay. By repeatedly stating it as though it were an accepted fact that Merton had fathered an illegitimate child during his one year at Cambridge University, Forest gives a big opening for the observations of one “M. James,” whose customer review Amazon has placed at the very top:
I don’t understand why many people are STILL so ga-ga over Thomas Merton. Aside from his pithy sayings, his writings are almost incomprehensible. The man had a daughter out of wedlock that he abandoned, he had an affair with a 19-year-old girl when he was in his 50’s and a Trappist monk vowed to chastity for decades. He was a friendly guy with a knack for self-advertisement – that’s about it. He was totally self-centered and even his photos show a very self-satisfied man. “Living With Wisdom” – a trait Merton totally lacked. For what it is this book is well-written. But didn’t make me like him anymore. Blah.
If Merton’s writings are hard for the reviewer to understand, it says a lot more about the reviewer than it does about Merton’s very compelling prose. The fact that Merton in a vulnerable time in his life fell in love with his young, attractive nurse while being treated for a back ailment at a hospital in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1966, two years before his tragic death, is well documented in Merton’s own journals, although he didn’t admit to a violation of his vow of chastity. Forest, to his credit, makes no suggestion that he did. Merton, for his part, let go of the romance when the nurse’s career took her away from Louisville.
Since anyone with a nodding familiarity with the story of Thomas Merton has heard about that supposed love child, Forest, and by extension, M. James, would appear to be upon as firm ground with that assertion as they are with the story about the romance with the nurse. If the story is true, there would also appear to be at least a grain of truth in James’s big put-down of Merton.
Forget about the silly blanket charge that Merton, whose very serious writings were heavily concerned with the fate of the entire human race, was “self-centered” and “self-satisfied.” But how could this deeply Christian humanitarian, one must wonder, be so callous about his own flesh and blood? “Charity begins at home,” as the old saying goes. How could Merton, who seems to have written down almost every serious thought he ever had, have cared so little about this child of his that he apparently never wrote a word about it in his voluminous journals?
Forest’s First Mention of the Love Child
Since the evidence for the illegitimate child, who is never given a name and whose sex varies according to the account, is not to be found in Merton’s apparently all-encompassing journals, we must wonder where Forest got the story. Notice the slippery language in his first telling of it on page 36:
The details remain hidden, but, whether by Sylvia or someone else, he had fathered a child. Later on he told a few close friends that lawyers had been brought in and a legal settlement made with the baby’s mother. (In later years there were rumors that mother and child were killed in the Blitz, but at least as late as early 1944, Merton believed they were alive. A will he wrote that February directs that half his estate should go to Tom Bennett, to be passed on “to the person mentioned to him in my letter, if that person can be contacted.”). (Emphasis added)
See how definite Forest is about this event, which he admits is lacking in details. So, we have to go to his sources, which are in an endnote that states, “Merton will on taking on simple vows at the Abbey of Gethsemani, Abbey Archives; also see Mott, 90.”
Notice that, even as Forest describes it, there’s nothing in that will about any child, whether it be by Merton or by some other father. The fact that no child is named, or even mentioned, as a beneficiary, would seem to argue more against the love child theory than for it. It only suggests that at that point in his life Merton continued to have strong feelings for some person he once knew, presumably in England. If he had a dependent child, wouldn’t the time to provide for it have been right then, rather than some far off future date when Merton had passed on? We don’t even know from the words here if the person mentioned in the letter was a woman or even that he had a romantic attachment to the person or just a long-term friendship. We are left with the impression that the former was the case because of the way in which Forest interpreted it and positioned it alongside those rumors. That leaves us with the Mott reference.
Page 90 of Mott’s Merton biography has the same wording about the will, but before that it has this:
If Merton had been rejected, he had also rejected.
There is a rumor that the woman (and her child, presumably Merton’s) were killed in the blitz. It is hard to know where such a rumor came from. It is clear Merton either never knew of it, or did not believe it.
After the sentence ending in “blitz,” there’s an endnote. That endnote states simply, “Rice, 22-23. Furlong, 60. Padavano, 9.” Let’s look at the last one first.
What we have on page 9 of Anthony T. Padavano’s 1982 book, The Human Journey: Thomas Merton: Symbol of a Century, is the following: “There seems to be good evidence he abandoned a son and the child’s mother in England when he came to New York. They were killed in World War II.” That’s it.
Is it good evidence or is it not, in the author’s estimation? How can it merely seem to be good evidence? For that seemingly good evidence we are directed by a note #3, which takes us to the same pp. 22-23 in Rice, the first of Mott’s three references, so it is superfluous.
Mott’s second reference is to Monica Furlong’s 1980 book, Merton: A Biography. He refers only to page 60, but the whole key passage begins on page 59:
The second experience concerned a girl, one of the girls “not of our class.” One day Merton came to [old Oakham School pal] Andrew Winser and told him that he had “got a girl into trouble”, he was deeply distressed by this. Later he was to mention this to friends at Columbia. The girl eventually bore his son, but both mother and son were killed, according to Rice, during the London air raids.
At the bottom of page 60, we have this passage, which continues onto page 61:
In a letter written to the Baroness de Hueck (Catherine Doherty) in 1961 [sic] Merton referred obliquely to the incident, andsaid that “lawyers were involved.” Cambridge legal records reveal no mention of any legal action concerning Merton or his guardian, so unless an affiliation order was filed in some other part of England, the probable outcome was that the girl’s family and Bennett settled out of court, making financial settlements for mother and child.
Furlong’s reference for that is, “Thomas Merton. Letter to Catherine Doherty (Baroness de Hueck), October 6, 1941.
Merton’s letters to Doherty became available to the general public in 1985, which was five years after the publication of Furlong’s book, when William H. Shannon produced his edited The Hidden Ground of Love: The Letters of Thomas Merton on Religious Experience and Social Concerns. We see there that there was an October 6 letter, but the oblique reference to which Furlong refers is not there but in a November 10 letter. So, we see that Furlong is sloppy not just with the year in which the letter was written, but the day within the year, as well. The key passage is as follows:
In all this, I depend on a miracle: but His grace is always a miracle. Apart from that miracle, however, there is the present fact that I am not only not a Saint but just a weak, proud, self-centered little guy, interested in writing, who wants to belong to God, and who, incidentally, was once in a scandal* that can be called public, since it involved lawyers. So that’s the dirt. Never forget me in your prayers!
The asterisk takes us to Shannon’s interpretation of the “scandal”: “It is now generally known that the ‘scandal’ referred to was the fact that, while at Cambridge University, Merton fathered a child. Merton’s guardian, Tom Bennett, made arrangements to care for the mother and child.”
Shannon, writing later than Furlong, is clearly taking her interpretation of Merton’s mention of a scandal in which lawyers were involved at face value. But what is there in Merton’s words, besides the mention of lawyers, for us to conclude that it is an oblique reference to an illegitimate child? College freshmen, even from very respectable families, are capable of all manner of destructive mischief that might require legal defense.
“Before the end of the year,” Merton wrote in The Seven Storey Mountain, “the landlord was much more disgusted with me than with any lodger he had ever had before or, probably, since.” (page 132 of the paperback 50th anniversary edition)
That passage, alone, suggests a host of misdeeds, more likely involving disturbance of the peace or some property offense rather than sex. Knowing no more than what Merton tells us about his generally wasted year at Cambridge in The Seven Storey Mountain, there’s no reason to jump to the conclusion that this passage refers to financial arrangements over an illegitimate child, and Furlong admits that there is no record of it.
Even though she puts it in quotes as though it comes directly from Merton, Furlong has no specific reference for Merton’s supposed admission to his friend, Winser, that he had “got a girl into trouble.” It’s nowhere in The Seven Storey Mountain, and her only other reference for that section of her book where it might be found is to the one first referenced by Mott and, by extension, Podavano, which is the one by Merton’s friend and Columbia classmate, Edward Rice, The Man in the Sycamore Tree, published in 1972.
If that admission to Winser were in Rice’s book, we should expect to find it on pp. 22-23, which is Mott’s reference for the love-child story, but it’s not there. We can’t find it anywhere else in his book, either. Perhaps it came from the hearsay of another of Merton’s friends at Columbia, which, considering how young men tend to stretch the truth concerning their sexual exploits, amounts to a very poor source. Speaking of stretching the truth, here’s how Rice’s section on the subject begins on page 22:
He was in love often, with all kinds of girls, English, American, Middle European. He mentions a number of them, vaguely, and his own “selfish” treatment of them in the autobiography.
No, he doesn’t. Merton’s section on his Cambridge experience begins on page 130 and ends with the end of chapter 4 on page 144, and there’s no mention of any women in his life at that time, either named or unnamed. We can’t detect even the vaguest suggestion that his generally dissolute living involved sexual misdeeds. Rice continues:
There was one he talked about a lot later at Columbia, a girl he knew while at Cambridge. His relationship with her resulted in a confrontation with his guardian in London.
The story of the confrontation is, indeed, in The Seven Storey Mountain, but you’ll have to take Rice’s word for it that it involved a girl in any way. In the book it’s because of Merton’s immature, irresponsible behavior in general. Skipping over the tongue-lashing that he received from the guardian, we get to this in Rice:
When the summer recess came, Merton took the boat to New York, and here he received a letter from his guardian suggesting that he give up Cambridge and that it would be very sensible to stay in America. But the girl was very much on Merton’s mind. From time to time he talked about returning to see her, but he was never able to go back to England, and the girl and her son were killed in the Blitz. No one can recall all the details today, and there is no need to speculate on them, except to say that it was a serious, complicated situation and in retrospect clearly one that had a lot to do with his eventual conversion and vocation.
That’s all there is on the referenced pp. 22-23 concerning this supposed love child. Notice, first, that Rice does not say “their son.” He says, “her son.” One has to jump to a conclusion that Rice only vaguely suggests to think that he was talking about a son that Merton had fathered. Rice also has nothing about the guardian paying off the girl and her family. If it was “her child” and not “their child,” there is no reason to think that Merton had any obligation to provide for them, which is one possible reason for Rice’s failure to address that question. Please note, as well, that the authorized biographer, Mott, who was an Englishman of long residence in the United States, was more circumspect about the presumed death of this anonymous mother and child, characterizing it as no more than a rumor, while Rice states it as a fact.
Being aware of what Rice had written, since he referenced it, Mott was saying in so many words that Rice was passing along as fact something that was no more than a rumor, at least with respect to the death of the two in the Blitz. Mott would appear to be on much firmer ground that Rice on this question. How could Rice have known that these deaths happened as he said, when he knew virtually nothing about them, not even their names? It’s difficult to escape the conclusion that this story about mother and child being casualties of wartime bombing was just a convenient explanation for the non-existence of these key characters in the love-child story. This explanation becomes more plausible when we consider the fact that this girl as Rice describes her lived in Cambridge, and the German bombing blitz never extended to Cambridge. Perhaps that’s why Furlong said that they were killed during the London air raids “according to Rice,” but that’s not exactly what Rice said.
So, with this first mention of the supposed illegitimate child by the Merton friend and biographer Jim Forest, in tracking down the sources the best support we can find for the story is about a girl and “her son,” who is not described as “Merton’s son” or “their son,” followed by the statement that, “No one can recall all the details today…”, when it would be more accurate for Ed Rice to have written, “No one can recall any of the details today,” because no one, even to this day, has produced any.
Could it be that there are better sources for the story than those used by Merton’s friend, Jim Forest, and the authorized biographer, Michael Mott? Well, as it turns out, there is at least one other source. Merton was a gregarious guy, even a fraternity man, at Columbia, and another of his many friends who has told the love-child story is Jim Knight. We are fortunate to have that version online in his short article, “The Thomas Merton We Knew”:
I arrived at the college in 1936, from Atlanta; Rice, from Brooklyn. Merton had transferred from Cambridge University in England, from which he was being expelled for lack of work. He had fathered an illegitimate child, a little girl (who later was killed, I’m told, during the German air raids on London), and because of the scandal his British guardian advised him with hardened logic to go to America.
Is this corroboration for Rice’s story? One might speculate that, since it was most likely written many years after Rice’s book had been published, Knight had had his memory refreshed by reading Rice’s book, but, unlike Rice, he is explicit about the illegitimate child. He also says, though, that it was a girl, not a boy. With that contradiction it’s hard to say that Knight has strengthened the case for the love child. If these two college friends of Merton got the story straight from Merton, how can they not even agree on the sex of this supposed child, much less on whether it was Merton’s?
Knight also manages to get other things wrong in that short passage. As we have seen, Merton’s planned trip back to be with his grandparents in the States at the end of the school year was routine. There is no indication in the written record that it had anything to do with that confrontation with the guardian, whose full name was Tom Izod Bennett. And it was Bennett who told him not to come back on account of his poor performance, not Cambridge University. We learn from a letter that Merton wrote in 1967 that Cambridge, rather than expelling him, had taken away his scholarship. We shall have more to say about that letter later.
What might be most valuable in Knight’s profile of the young Merton is the following short passage, because it could well hold the key to the origin of the love-child story:
In terms of sophistication, he was miles ahead of most of us. He dazzled the country boy from the South, as well as the starry-eyed kid from Brooklyn. He did all the things we thought about but didn’t do — at least, not yet. He drank a lot, partied, chased (and caught) women. He impressed the hell out of both of us by saying he had learned Hungarian in bed. Beyond these classical youthful, gallant boasts, he was also a very serious man. Looking back, it seems to me he was always right from the very start on the big issues of yesterday (most of which remain the big issues of today) — on racism in America, on social justice, war and peace, the trials of democracy that require us to work hard at it or lose it; the bomb; fairness; the value of the arts and the meaning of his own life and the lives of his fellow human beings, all of them.
When we see that side of Merton at Columbia, it becomes difficult to escape the conclusion that a casually told story of Merton having left a girl with his illegitimate child back in his English playground was another of his “classical youthful, gallant boasts,” right up there with his story of having “learned Hungarian in bed.” After all, Knight tells us that both he and Rice believed that one, as well.
Forest’s Other References to the Love Child
In the next passage from Forest that mentions Merton’s supposed great indiscretion, on pages 83-84, Merton is fresh out of Columbia University in his teaching position at St. Bonaventure in Olean, New York, inquiring about joining the Trappist monastic order after having been rejected by the Franciscans:
After praying at the campus shrine to St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Merton at last had the courage to talk with Father Philotheus, one of the friars, and ask his burning question: whether having fathered a child had created a canonical impediment to becoming a monk or, later on, being ordained a priest. Father Philotheus said that, in his opinion, there was no insurmountable obstacle and suggested that Merton’s next step would be to go to Gethsemani during Christmas vacation to talk about the problem with the abbot.
“I rushed out of [Father Philotheus’s] room,” Merton wrote the Baroness on December 6, saying all I could remember of the Te Deum and went and fell on my face in the chapel and began to pray and beg and implore Almighty God to let me be admitted to the Trappists.”
The “Baroness” referred to is Catherine Doherty, the Baroness de Hueck, whose December 6 letter from Merton is also in The Hidden Ground of Love. Forest’s reference for the passage is to page 10 of the book, where the key part of the letter can be found. Forest’s quote of Merton is accurate, but the letter is all about Merton’s excitement at being told by Father Philotheus that he didn’t see anything in Merton’s background that should serve as an impediment to his being accepted into the Trappist order or being ordained as a priest. Merton did not say in his letter to Doherty that he had asked the priest if his unwed fatherhood would prevent him from entering the order. He simply implies that he had laid all his autobiographical cards on the table, including all his past riotous behavior, whatever that might have been, and the priest saw nothing there that would bar him from being accepted according to canon law.
Forest’s final allusion to the love child is on pages 182-183:
In the hermitage the night of January 30, 1965, the eve of his fiftieth birthday, Merton took fresh stock of himself. He was disturbed to recall the selfishness, glibness, and lack of love that had been typical of his relations with women throughout adolescence and adulthood. He had been “a damned fool” while at Clare College, Cambridge, “very selfish and unkind to Joan.” He recalled late nights with Sylvia on the steps of the Clare boathouse. Was one of these women the mother of his child? He doesn’t say, only remarking that profound shyness repeatedly had hidden “an urgent need for love.”
Forest’s reference there is to page 140 of Thomas Merton: A Vow of Conversation: Journals, 1964-1965, edited by Naomi Burton Stone. The passage is also on page 198 of Dancing in the Water of Life (The Journals of Thomas Merton). If you just take the passage at face value, it reflects the feelings of a man who seems to be a good deal more sensitive than average over how he had related to women in his youth. Forest’s speculation is entirely gratuitous. One would expect someone who had recently lost his father and had lost his mother at an early age to have had “an urgent need for love.”
Confirmation by Repetition
What Forest does in his book looks very much like a recapitulation in one place of what has gone on generally with writers about Thomas Merton’s life with respect to the story of this supposed love child. None of them have a solid source for it, no names, official records, or anything in writing from Merton, but by the fact that it has been repeated so much it has become accepted fact. Forest is just the best illustration of the phenomenon in that he is most definite about it, and he repeats it three times in three different contexts, pounding it into the reader’s mind. We can’t help but notice the similarity of the love-child story to the accidental-electrocution explanation for Merton’s death in this regard, and, as we shall discuss in more detail later, Forest repeated that one, as well.
The latest Merton scholar, to our knowledge, to repeat the tale of Merton’s illegitimate child is Professor Gregory Hillis of Bellarmine University in Louisville (soon to be the executive director of the Aquinas Center of Theology at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta). On the second page of his 2021 book, Man of Dialogue: Thomas Merton’s Catholic Vision, Hillis has this passage: “After what he later described as a ‘year of riotous living’ during which he was rumored to have fathered a child, Merton lost his scholarship from Cambridge University and resumed his studies at Columbia University in New York.”
Hillis gives his source at that point as a letter that Merton wrote in 1967 to Jonathan Williams. What’s particularly notable about the passage is that in this last word on the love-child story by a Merton scholar, it is downgraded to the level of a mere rumor. If that, in Hillis’s judgment, is all that it was, one must wonder why he would besmirch Merton’s reputation by mentioning it at all. But in case the reader missed it the first time, Hillis throws it in again on page 209: “His relationships with women as a teenager and as a college student appeared not to be on a deep level. Somewhat famously, Merton had a reputation as a womanizer during his one and only year at Cambridge University, and the rumor persists that he fathered a child that year.” As for the dogged persistence of the “rumor,” we can hardly fail to notice Professor Hillis’s contribution to it.
Since a rumor, by definition, has no clear source, we didn’t expect to find much in Hillis’s reference, that May 1967 letter by Merton to Jonathan Williams. It’s in the 1994 compendium of Merton’s letters, The Courage for Truth: The Letters of Thomas Merton to Writers, edited by Christine M. Bochen. Sure enough, as part of a brief life trajectory, he says there: “…to Clare College Cambridge where my scholarship was taken away after a year of riotous living….” That’s it. It’s a good source for explaining why Merton’s guardian would tell him not to bother returning from his summer in New York but obviously not for the love-child story.
As they say, you can’t prove a negative. How would any of us respond to being falsely accused of having an illegitimate child? We would demand that the accuser produce the evidence for it. It is interesting that, to our knowledge, no one made any such public allegation while Merton was alive and could answer to it.
As it happens, though, there is some apparently hard evidence that Merton had no such child, and it’s even in Jim Forest’s book, though hidden away. It’s in his endnote 89 on page 248: “On his ‘Declaration of Intention’ from 1938, Merton put his occupation as ‘cartoonist and writer’. In this ‘subscribed and sworn’ statement, Merton also said that he had ‘no children.’”
Forest has no further explanation, making no attempt to reconcile that sworn statement by Merton under penalty of law with his own repeated assertions that Merton did, in fact, have a child. Forest always represented himself as Merton’s great friend, but here he is, in effect, telling us that Merton was a big-time liar about a matter of great importance. And Forest didn’t have to do it because he had to get off the point of the endnote to do so.
Forest’s statement about the document is accurate. It’s a U.S. immigration document in which Merton uses his actual first name of “Tom,” which had been chosen by his parents, not the more serious sounding “Thomas,” to which he would later change it. He also tells the government that he immigrated to the United States originally on December 11, 1934, although this document was inscribed “at Jamaica NY on this 4th day of Feb. anno Domini 1938” (a date convention which one can be certain has since been abandoned).
As long as Forest was noting legal documents in which Merton declared that he had no children, he could also have mentioned the Petition for Naturalization, made in Louisville, Kentucky, on January 5, 1948. On the first line he gives his “full, true, and correct name” as “Thomas James Merton (Fr. M. Louis).” The “M” stands for “Mary,” which was the assigned first name of all the monks at Our Lady of Gethsemani, but within the Trappist Order, he was known simply as “Father Louis.” On line 11 he states that he entered the United States on December 11, 1934, under the name of “Tom Merton.” His assertion that he has no children is on line 8.
The Jokers in the Deck
So, what are we to believe, what looks very much like another of Merton’s “classical youthful, gallant boasts” made to his college mates, reinforced by endless repetition after his death, or all the evidence that we have presented against the existence of any illegitimate child, either a son or a daughter?
But there’s more. In a 1993 edition of The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton Michael Mott appended an afterword in which he addressed two points. The first concerned a criticism related to the love-child matter made by Ed Rice in a review of the book that appeared in the Merton Seasonal. First, we have the passage from Rice’s review that Mott felt the need to respond to:
The long-rumored affair with the woman at Cambridge and the resulting offspring—Merton’s son—is aired in some detail. There was a “paternity case” in an English court and a legal settlement, and Merton, when he was professed in 1944 (the boy would have been seven or eight at the time), drew up a will which left part of his estate to his guardian, Tom Bennett, to be passed on “to the person mentioned to him in my letters, if that person (apparently the woman) can be contacted.” Mott waffles the situation, and infers that perhaps it was all something out of Merton’s imagination, a most unfair insinuation. That the woman and child were the “impediment” that kept Merton out of the Franciscans is quite likely, though they were not so to the Trappists. They were, I am sure, very much a concern to Merton, and were a mark and a symbol of the general feelings of sinfulness, malaise and unworthiness that persisted to the end of his life. This crucial, tragic episode in Merton’s life deserves more from Mott than the suspicion that perhaps it never happened.
At this point, we remind readers that no one has ever presented any tangible evidence that there ever was any such “paternity case.” Everything else in Rice’s paragraph he admits is just speculation. It’s also quite curious that Rice should take issue with Mott on this matter, because, as we have pointed out, Rice, in his own book, did not say that the child in question was Merton’s. Nevertheless, Mott responded as follows:
In 1984-85, with much praise of the biography there was also some criticism. I can respond briefly to only one or two points here. Edward Rice and others felt that I was too skeptical over the vexed question of whether or not Merton fathered an illegitimate child in Cambridge in 1934. Where they sense that I was unwilling to believe Merton, they were right. My confidence in this witness on this point finally foundered when I read in the restricted journals the account Merton gave of a much later incident. At the height of the crisis of his affair with S. in the summer of 1966, Merton wrote he told Dom James, “When the baby is born you can be its godfather!” (page 448 here). Whatever his motives, Merton started a rumor knowing it to be false.
That was 1966. For 1934, a year on which I find many of Merton’s retrospective comments suspect, there is nothing to go on but conjecture. My conjecture is based on the near certainty that there was a settlement, on my observations in and out of the Law Courts in London when I was an articled clerk to a lawyer there for three years in the 1950s, and on my knowledge of the darker side of social mores in the generation before my own. I hope it will be remembered that this applies in England in the 1930s, not to America at any time. It is a sad, bad story.
Merton, a university undergraduate “of a certain class,” tells his guardian in the spring of 1934 that he has made a woman “of a certain class” pregnant. Dr. Tom Izod Bennett calls upon lawyers to make a settlement. Ostensibly, the settlement is to protect both parties, in fact, the woman is to be “paid off.” If the woman accepts the money, she is bound under legal contract to drop all further claims and charges. But if he signs, Merton is also under a legal obligation. Everything now has to go through the lawyers who have been employed to see that nothing further passes from one party to the other. Merton cannot contact the woman; he cannot even seek information to find out whether or not she has given birth to a child. I stress this. Although abortion was illegal at the time, it was hardly rare in such circumstances. At any rate, Merton would not have known. He could have had no contact. When he made his will at Gethsemani in 1944, he was pretty sure that even his guardian had lost contact with the woman completely. Yet Merton was convinced, or convinced himself, that he was the father of an illegitimate child, specifically a son.
This subject comes up dramatically only a few weeks before his death. He and Harold Talbott were together in Talbott’s hut in Dharamsala when Merton was visiting the Dalai Lama in 1968. In “The Jesus Lama: Thomas Merton in the Himalayas: An Interview with Harold Talbott” (Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, Summer 1992), Talbott says:
“Merton helped me by telling me that when he was at an English university he had an affair with the girl who made the beds in his dormitory, and she had a baby, and he said to me, ‘You know my son would be such and such an age right now and I don’t know whether he survived the blitz or not.’ And he carried that with him. That was on his mind. And he let me know that this was the key to his life.”
There were no dormitories at Cambridge, but that discrepancy is hardly significant. The information about the woman is still helpful. One would like to know who made the beds for the undergraduates at 71 Bridge Street in 1933-34 and what happened to her. Without this knowledge and without the lost letter of December 4, 1957, to the Bennetts in which Merton later says he went over all his old regrets (see page 87), I admit I cannot determine what is myth (“the ‘myths’ are the ‘realities’ that men and women live by”) and what is fact.
One can see the problems with this statement on its face. If that’s the way things worked legally in England, it is very difficult to believe that Merton somehow convinced himself, not only that the pregnancy was carried to term, but that the child that was born was a son. Mott either believes it, or he wants us to believe it, because that’s what Harold Talbott declared that Merton had told him in India before his fatal trip to Thailand, but Talbott waited until almost 24 years after Merton’s death to tell the story.
Should we believe Talbott? We learn from his 2019 obituary that he claimed to have had a long-term relationship with Merton, having twice traveled to the Gethsemani Abbey to meet with him, so he would be the fitting person to squire Merton around India and set him up with the Dalai Lama, with whom Talbott was relatively close. From that obituary we also learn that Talbott was the son of a former U.S. Secretary of the Air Force and a product of New York City high society.
The Thomas Merton Center of Bellarmine University is the repository for Merton’s voluminous correspondence. One would think that if the two had a long-term relationship, they would have exchanged at least a few letters, but Talbott’s name doesn’t show up among Merton’s many correspondents. The story of Merton’s supposed love child was well known by the time Talbott gave his interview, so it would have been easy enough for him to juice up his story by telling his interviewer that Merton had confessed it to him. If, as Hugh Turley and I argue in The Martyrdom of Thomas Merton, Merton was a victim of U.S. clandestine services, it’s quite easy to believe that a likely U.S. government covert operative would seize upon the opportunity to besmirch Merton’s reputation. We might wonder about Mott, as well, as he takes Talbott at face value. That Merton would have opened up to Talbott in that way after all the years that had passed hardly has the ring of truth.
We should also note that in an interview of Merton’s literary agent and long-term friend, Naomi Burton Stone, by Paul Wilkes, the native Englishwoman Stone describes the likely legal arrangements had Merton impregnated a girl in similar terms as given by Mott. Although they were quite close and she had heard the love-child rumors, Merton had never said anything to her about it and she didn’t believe it. She felt that it was possible that there had been some payoff by the guardian, but if so, the most likely outcome would have been that the girl would have had an illegal abortion.
We might also wonder why if, as we are given to believe, Merton was so concerned about that love child that he wrote his or her mother into his will in 1944, he should leave her out completely with the creation of the Merton Legacy Trust in 1967 when his accumulated resources then and in the future had become such a bonanza. To be sure, the guardian in England would have likely been dead by then, which would have made it the time to name the woman if there ever were such a mother of his child. The aforementioned Naomi Burton Stone was one of of the trustees, but, as we have noted, she discounted the love-child rumor and, as noted in her interview, she never broached the subject with Merton.
A similar revelation to that by Talbott showed up even later, in 1997, in what is described as a letter from Merton to a college student who was apparently considering entering a monastery. It was sent to the Thomas Merton Center by a professor of motion pictures from California. The professor said that the letter recipient had been a student of his and that he had had it in his possession for about 15 years, only recently stumbling upon it while going through his papers. The letter bearing what is supposedly Merton’s signature lacks a date at the top, but from its context the people at the Merton Center estimate that it was written in 1967. In that letter Merton confesses rather cavalierly not only to having sired an illegitimate child from one of his “casual, careless affairs,” but also to shocking, generally libertine behavior that included a relationship with a married woman, one which he described as “dark and ravaging.”
There are a number of reasons to question the letter’s authenticity. The professor said that he got it from a former student 15 years before 1997, which would have been in 1982. That would have been another 15 years after the student had received it, in 1967. Both time gaps are quite odd. The student in question was already dead by the time the letter was passed on to the Merton Center, so he couldn’t vouch for it. That absence of a date on the letter could also be telling. The folks at the Merton Center speculate that it was inadvertently cut off at the top from the copy that was made. That seems unlikely. If, as we suspect, the letter was fabricated, the fabricator would likely have had a concern that the date that he chose to put on it might have been from a day in Merton’s life when he would have had no chance to type a letter, and the ruse would have been revealed. The sentiment, or shall we say, the lack of sentiment shown for both the mother and the illegitimate child is also completely inconsistent with what we are told by Talbott. The poor quality of the typed product also seems very odd, coming from a man who did so much typing, as does the relative crudeness of the manner of expression from such a serious person as Merton at that stage of his life.
And what about that tempestuous affair with the married woman which, curiously, has not made it into popular Merton lore? How likely is it that he would have volunteered such a thing to a complete stranger? What possible reason could there have been for him to do so?
Disingenuous Michael Mott
At this point I might anticipate the response that, whether or not Merton might reveal it to a stranger in a letter, such behavior by Merton was not completely out of character, as revealed by Mott on page 162 of his Merton biography. The year is 1941, after Merton’s conversion to Catholicism and not all that long before his becoming a monk in early December of that year, “In his other accounts of the summer Merton mentions the names of several women and admits he was attracted, but none can have been his companion on this occasion. In 1965, he is very specific–what he had committed was adultery.”
His reference for that is Merton’s “restricted journal” entry for January 30, 1965. Those particular restricted journals have since been published in Dancing in the Water of Life (The Journals of Thomas Merton), and upon reading what Merton wrote on page 198, it appears to this reader that Mott has quite irresponsibly taken literally Merton’s use of the word “adultery” when Merton did not mean it that way. Here is the full relevant quote:
So one thing on my mind is sex, as something I did not use maturely and well, something I gave up without having come to terms with it. That is hardly worth thinking about now—twenty-five years nearly since my last adultery, in the blinding, demoralizing summer heat of Virginia. And that heat, that confusion and moral helplessness of those summer days made me know what is in the weather of the south: what madness and what futility. I remember walking on the beach with her the next day and not wanting to talk to her, talking only with difficulty, and not wanting to share ideas, or things I really loved. Yet being attacked with something in my solar plexus.
As an unmarried man, indeed, the only way Merton could have literally committed adultery would have been to have made love with a married woman, but in this context, “…since my last adultery,” it is fairly obvious that he is using the word loosely, meaning the last time that he had had casual sex with a woman.
More than anything, we learn from this passage that Merton was comprehensive in what he recorded in his journals, making his failure to write anything about that supposed love child, if, indeed there was one that he knew about, all the more remarkable. Mott’s use of the passage to declare that Merton had committed adultery is also an example of the sort of thing that caused Ed Rice to be an exception from the norm in giving Mott’s Merton biography a generally negative review. Rice describes the book as being dense with facts, many of which are useless or simply wrong. As he describes the prodigious work that Mott produced it sounds very much like the work of a committee.
Mott and Forest on Merton’s Death
And that brings us to the other subject of the 1993 edition of Mott’s Merton biography. This is the concluding paragraph of his afterword:
There was some criticism, too, of my account of Merton’s death. The rumor that Merton was murdered dates very soon after the news of his death on December 10, 1968. I reviewed all the evidence and the eyewitness accounts of the discovery of Merton’s body. From certain discrepancies it became clear to me that everything had been tampered with very early. Merton’s body was cleaned up long before the arrival of the Thai police. Hours later, the whole building and even the grounds outside were scoured by Thai servants. As I have said, however difficult this tampering made matters, I can find nothing suspicious in the motives of those who did it. In 1984 I was ninety-nine percent sure that Merton’s death was an accident. My conclusion was challenged by some. No new evidence has come forward. I am still ninety-nine percent sure his death was an accident.
There are very important falsehoods there, and Mott knew full well that they were falsehoods. As we point out on pp. 166-167 of The Martyrdom of Thomas Merton and near the end of the paper, “What We Know about Thomas Merton’s Death,” delivered to a symposium in Rome sponsored by the same Benedictine Order that had organized the conference at which Merton died, the two photographs that Fr. Celestine Say took of the dead Merton’s body lying on his back with his arms by his side, clad in shorts with a stand fan lying diagonally across him at the pelvic to low abdominal area were taken just as Fr. Say, Fr. Egbert Donovan, and Fr. OdoHaas found the body upon entering Merton’s room. Nothing had been tampered with prior to the taking of those photographs and Mott knew it, because he had seen the same letter to the abbey by Fr. Say that we cite. As we point out in our article, Mott had to have known that the suggestion that Merton might have been murdered was more than just a rumor, because he admits in so many words in his book that the Thai police conducted a cover-up.
Mott also wrote in his account of the discovery scene that Haas was “jerked sideways and held to the fan” until Say could unplug it. In his endnote for that claim, Mott references a March 18, 1969, letter to Abbot Flavian Burns from Fr. Say. But in that letter, which we found in Mott’s papers at Northwestern University, Say writes that Haas recoiled from the fan. The only possible source for the story that Haas was stuck to the fan could only be the strange undated and unsigned “statement” by Odo Haas, which had to be fabricated, which we explain in the entire chapter 4 of The Martyrdom of Thomas Merton, but Mott makes no reference to that document.
In our recent article, “The Thomas Merton Autopsy that Wasn’t,” we reveal one of the most dishonest things about Mott’s treatment of the death in his book. He completely omits the fact that the U.S. military came for the body shortly after midnight—just a few hours after the body’s discovery around 4 p.m.—and took it away to the U.S. military hospital near Bangkok. His end-note speculation concerning the “vexed question of why there was no autopsy,” which relies upon the assumption that the Thais remained in possession of the body, is therefore every bit as dishonest as what he says about the “tampered with” death scene.
Perhaps worst of all, right at the beginning of his account of what transpired that afternoon, Mott has this declarative sentence, “At some time before three o’clock Father [François] de Grunne heard what he thought was a cry and the sound of something falling.” (p. 564). Thus, he fixes in the mind of the reader the notion that this was the moment of Merton being shocked to death by the fan. You would never guess from Mott that there could hardly have been a worse witness than de Grunne, who is the sole source for the death-cry story and who couldn’t seem to keep his story straight about anything. De Grunne’s last word on the subject, in fact, was in a letter to John Moffitt in the summer of 1969 in which he concluded that he was mistaken to believe that that sound he had heard even came from within the cottage, rather, it was from a nearby neighborhood. We treat the subject in some detail in The Martyrdom of Thomas Merton. A good summary is in “Thomas Merton’s ‘Death Shout.’”
In spite of the manifest shortcomings of Mott’s treatment of the subject of Merton’s death, it became the definitive word on the subject up until the time we published The Martyrdom of Thomas Merton in 2018. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that that was Michael Mott’s primary mission. Why was he chosen for the task after the first designated biographer, John Howard Griffin, produced little before his deteriorating health caused him to be removed from the project? Mott, an academic poet and a journalist, had never written a biography or even anything about Merton. Considering Ed Rice’s and our own assessment of his book, the widespread praise for it seems to have been substantially ginned up, which is what we argue in Thomas Merton’s Betrayers was the case for the books written by Griffin. We also argue in that book that Griffin was “assigned” to befriend Merton after his writings turned political and critical of the government. If Merton was murdered, the very first thing in the job description for Merton’s authorized biographer would have to have been that he have no independence of mind when it came to the question of Merton’s death.
That brings us back to Jim Forest and his Merton biography. It’s bad enough that he should hammer upon the love-child story, but his treatment of Merton’s death is even worse. Because it’s a much more concise book than Mott’s, the section on the death is also necessarily much shorter. But his focus is telling. As he tells us with his one endnote on the subject, everything he has comes from Mott. But virtually everything he snips out of Mott’s account is the sort of thing that might raise doubts. He doesn’t even tell readers that there was no autopsy, for instance, and his only mention of Fr. Celestine Say is when he repeats Mott’s false story that the witness Haas was stuck to the lethal fan until Say rushed and pulled the plug. Of course, since Mott didn’t tell us about the U.S. military taking the body away shortly after midnight, Forest doesn’t either, but he actually does Mott one better on that one. He says that there was an all-night vigil over the body, which he must have just made up, because there could have been no legitimate source for that false information.
So, do we think that Jim Forest was also “assigned” to Merton? In our chapter entitled “Lesser Betrayers” in Thomas Merton’s Betrayers: The Case against Abbot James Fox and Author John Howard Griffin, Forest is given lead position for a reason. Because we posited that a major reason for Merton’s assassination was his opposition to the Vietnam War and the main thing that, ostensibly, drew Merton and Forest together was their antiwar activism, we got in touch with Forest early in our investigation to see what assistance he might be able to lend us. Far from failing to help us, his attitude was completely hostile. When The Catholic Worker published a generally favorable review of The Martyrdom of Thomas Merton in 2020, Forest sent a letter to the editor attacking it, while offering no substantive criticism.
Like John Howard Griffin, Forest was a journalist who lacked a college education, but they were both facile writers. Both had military backgrounds, Griffin in the Army Air Force and Forest in the Navy. Forest is one of the few people who seems to have been able to make a career out of antiwar activism. His description of the beginning of his career as an activist on page x of Living with Wisdom is intriguing:
Partly thanks to the influence of Merton and Dorothy Day, I applied for and received an early discharge from the Navy and, in the early summer of 1961, joined the Catholic Worker community in New York City. At the time, I thought it might be a stopping point on the way to a monastery.
Just like that. Who knew that one could do that?