Alfred A. Knopf released a new book written by a Shelter Islander last month. “Not surprising,” you might say, “this place is chock full of talented people.”
But you would be missing an unexpected and deeply moving backstory. The author of “The Hangman and his Wife: The Life and Death of Reinhard Heydrich,” is Nancy Dougherty, who, after a decade-long battle with Alzheimer’s disease, passed away in 2013.
Moreover, some critical editing and a brilliant foreword were supplied by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, renowned former New York Times literary critic, now also deceased.
A clue as to how the posthumous publication of a weighty historical biography, can be found in the author’s last name — her husband, Jim Dougherty, took on the mission of bringing his wife’s “magnum opus” to the world and will share his experience at the Shelter Island Library on Friday, July 1 at 7 p.m.
“Friends in the publishing business were skeptical,” Mr. Dougherty says, “but I knew what I had.”
He knew his wife Nancy, a Radcliffe undergraduate with a master’s degree and Ph.D. from UC Berkeley, was a profound thinker, who had poured herself into researching and writing a biography of Heydrich, the notorious head of the Nazi SS, over the course of three decades.
In 1973, Mr. Dougherty had served as her “sort of bodyguard” on a trip to interview Heydrich’s wife, Lina, who had absconded to a remote island in the Baltic Sea after the war.
He didn’t need to speak German, since Nancy did, fluently, to realize that the heated overheard conversations were rife with important historical revelations. Fast forward 40 years to another conversation — this time at a party hosted by Carole and Richard Baron on Shelter Island at which Mr. Dougherty mentioned Nancy’s work to a fellow dinner guest by the name of Christopher Lehmann-Haupt.
Mr. Lehmann-Haupt’s formative experience as a teen in post-war Berlin with his father made him uniquely disposed to learn more about Nancy Dougherty’s manuscript. He signed a contract with Jim in 2014 to do some final editing, as well as a foreword, and largely completed the assignment before his death in 2018. Mr. Dougherty, with the help of Vicky Wilson, a VP at Knopf, carried the project across the finish line.
The “why” of it is what captures the compelling heart of Jim’s journey. Nancy was an independent, young intellectual when they met in San Francisco in 1967. “Never a militant feminist,” Mr. Dougherty says, “she was a quietly persistent woman of substance who led with an almost innocent quality that simply won you over.”
In parallel fashion, her unique approach to Heydrich’s biography hinged on the recognition that the man called the “Butcher of Prague” had a domestic life with a wife whose voice could lend amplitude to the historical record of her husband’s Nazi career.
Stricken with early onset Alzheimer’s in her 50s, Nancy was forced to shelve her work, and Jim began his caregiving odyssey “with never a moment’s regret,” yet the manuscript continued to haunt him.
Because of the rare kind of relationship he and Nancy shared, the reading public now has a new, riveting, 650-page biography to savor, described in Kirkus Reviews as “a masterful account of the quintessential Nazi.”
Please register by visiting the Events calendar on the library’s website at silibrary.org. For further information or assistance, contact Jocelyn Ozolins via email at [email protected] or by phone at 631-749-0042. All library programs are free to the public, however donations are gratefully accepted.
Next Up: Join Shelter Island Library Director, Terry Lucas and Mara Zonderman, Head of Reference and Adult Services at the Westhampton Free Library on Friday, July 8 at 7 p.m. for a discussion on censorship in its many forms.