Silvia Pettem is a longtime Colorado resident, researcher, newspaper columnist, and author of more than 20 books and has a knack for pulling intriguing women out of the past. She can be reached at her website, silviapettem.com.
SunLit: Tell us this book’s backstory. What inspired you to write it? Where did the story/theme originate?
Silvia Pettem: As a longtime history columnist for the Boulder Daily Camera, I was, and still am, looking for good stories. In 1996, I participated in a “Meet the Spirits” cemetery reenactment in Boulder’s Columbia Cemetery. It was there that I first saw the gravestone of “Jane Doe” — an unidentified young woman who had been murdered in 1954. The actress who portrayed her had no information other than original, skimpy news reports. She pleaded, “Will someone tell me who I am and return my remains to my family?”
I was hooked, then teamed up with members of the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office and with forensic experts. I chronicled our work in “Someone’s Daughter: In Search of Justice for Jane Doe” (Lyons Press, 2009 and updated edition, 2023). Our efforts gave her back her name. During the yearslong quest, I developed a passion for finding missing persons and giving names to the unknown.
During the intervening years, I researched and wrote about cold case research. Then I literally bumped into a list of names of fugitives. They, too, are missing persons. The more I read, the more intrigued I became.
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Eleanor Jarman (involved in crime in the early 1930s in Chicago) was on the FBI’s Wanted List but was never found. When I realized that there were no books about her — only sensationalized newspaper articles — I decided to research primary source materials to find out who she was as a woman. I thought, too, that I would take up the challenge of trying to figure out what happened to her.
SunLit: Place this excerpt in context. How does it fit into the book as a whole? Why did you select it?
Pettem: Actually I’ve provided two excerpts. The first is the opening chapter on Eleanor’s escape. The second excerpt consists of the concluding paragraphs in the final chapter.
Here’s what I inserted between the excerpts:
Above is Chapter 1 of “In Search of the Blonde Tigress.” Eleanor’s claim to fame is that she, most likely, was the longest-running female fugitive in America. Born in 1901, and now obviously deceased, she’s believed to have been buried under the name of an alias. That name —”Marie Millman” — was released by one of Eleanor’s descendants, in 1994.
The book is part biography and part detective story, drawn from long-ignored primary source documents that include police, court, and prison records. More than a half-century after Eleanor’s escape, her family involved the press in its search for the wanted woman. The story’s conclusion picks up where the family left off.
As a Colorado author, what I uncovered came as a complete surprise. I started with genealogical databases and found numerous women named “Marie Millman” who fit into Eleanor’s time span. Then I eliminated all who (according to census records and obituaries) had parents, siblings, and/or children. Only one “Marie Millman” was left — a waitress who worked on East Colfax Avenue from 1951 to 1974. One of the restaurants where she worked was Pete’s Kitchen (formerly The Kitchen), still in business at 1962 East Colfax. Denver probate records reveal that “Marie” died intestate, in 1980, and had no known heirs.
She’s buried in Denver’s Fairmount Cemetery. Perhaps someone remembers her.
SunLit: Tell us about creating this book. What influences and/or experiences informed the project before you sat down to write?
Pettem: I have always loved historical research — it’s like going back in time. And in writing about historical figures, I believe it’s vitally important to depict them within the context of their times. My husband and I watch a lot of old movies. I like period pieces and am a big fan of film noir.
“In Search of the Blonde Tigress”
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Somewhere along the way, I developed a passion for pulling intriguing women out of the past. Certainly my work on “Boulder Jane Doe” contributed, but my interest began in the mid-1990s, when I read every one of the unpublished diaries of the University of Colorado’s first woman professor, Mary Rippon. I wrote her story, too, and it will be republished by Lyons Press in 2024 as “Separate Lives: Uncovering the Hidden Family of Victorian Professor Mary Rippon.”
SunLit: What did the process of writing this book add to your knowledge and understanding of your craft and/or the subject matter?
Pettem: The research was riveting and all-consuming. What made it even more fun was that I had two fellow researchers who helped me. Each of them, in different parts of the country, emailed me almost daily for more than two years as we shared our individual skills and resources in fleshing out Eleanor’s story.
All three of us learned a lot about the Great Depression and the prohibition and gangster eras in early 1930s Chicago. We learned how the police investigated crimes, at the time, the details of high-profile court trials, and prison procedures and reform.
A surprise was the discovery of a previously unknown, but major, character whom we believed helped Eleanor after her escape. The other surprise was the believed location of Eleanor/Marie’s grave.
I found the actual writing to be a rather lonely, but extremely satisfying, process. I focused on the characters, and the storyline took care of itself. Both the research and the writing became a journey that I’m itching to embark on again.
SunLit: What were the biggest challenges you faced in writing this book?
Pettem: My biggest challenge is being unable (at least at this time) to prove that Eleanor’s remains lie in “Marie’s” grave. Since exhumation is unlikely, my hope is that someone will come forward who knew “Marie” and can provide first-hand information and/or a physical description.
SunLit: the most important thing – a theme, lesson, emotion or realization — that readers should take from this book?
Pettem: I hope readers will look beyond the “blonde tigress” sensationalism and journey back in time with me to the primary sources (such as witness testimonies in her court trial) that unearth Eleanor’s true story. She was not “the most dangerous woman in America,” but the hype sold a lot of newspapers. The real Eleanor survived her fugitive years because she blended into society as an ordinary woman.
SunLit: Walk us through your writing process: Where and how do you write?
Pettem: I write at home, usually in my home office. I live in the mountains and thrive in the peace and quiet. I have two cats, though, who are always underfoot. They both are good listeners and have sat through a number of PowerPoint presentations. They’re good at finding sunny spots, so, in the winter, I follow them around with my laptop.
I’m definitely more creative in the mornings, so I like to start writing about 8 a.m. Then, in the afternoons, I edit and/or do research. I’ve found that research actually helps me relax after a long day.
SunLit: Do you think you found Eleanor, and how can we find out for sure?
Pettem: If Eleanor’s family was correct as to Eleanor’s alias, then, yes, I believe I have found her. The only way to make a positive identification, however, is to exhume her remains and analyze her DNA with forensic genealogy. Based on the records of the Denver Probate Court (that state that “Marie” had no known family), I doubt that a judge would issue the warrant needed to exhume.
I’m hopeful, though, that someone will come forward who remembers Marie Millman (aka Eleanor Jarman) from her days as a waitress between 1951 and 1974 on Denver’s Colfax Avenue. Perhaps a friend or co-worker has photos or memories to share.
SunLit: Tell us about your next project.
Pettem: If I learn more about Marie Millman, a book on her would make a great sequel!
Quick hits: A quirky collection of questions
SunLit: Which do you enjoy more as you work on a book – writing or editing?
Pettem: Both. But what I really like is the research.
SunLit: What’s the first piece of writing – at any age – that you remember being proud of?
Pettem: I’ve been writing my whole adult career, but I remember being really proud of my first historical feature article published by the Boulder Daily Camera in 1976. I also found great satisfaction in the book “Separate Lives: The Story of Mary Rippon” that I published myself in 1999.
I’m currently working on an updated edition that Lyons Press will publish in 2024. Histories of women — including Boulder Jane Doe, Eleanor Jarman, and Mary Rippon — satisfy my need to pull intriguing women out of the past.
SunLit: What three writers, from any era, would you invite over for a great discussion about literature and writing?
Pettem: Truman Capote, Colin Fletcher, and Anne Lamott.
SunLit: Do you have a favorite quote about writing?
Pettem: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” Sherlock Holmes (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)
SunLit: What does the current collection of books on your home shelves tell visitors about you?
Pettem: It shows that I have more than a passing interest in women’s history, historical true crime (including missing persons and unidentified remains), and history of Boulder County.
SunLit: Soundtrack or silence? What’s the audio background that helps you write?
SunLit: What music do you listen to for sheer enjoyment?
Pettem: Anything but rap… My interests range from Doo-Wop and Willie Nelson to Beethoven symphonies.
SunLit: What event, and at what age, convinced you that you wanted to be a writer?
Pettem: Many years ago, with a former husband and in a former “life,” I cooked on a wood-burning stove. I told my uncle (a published writer) that I wanted to write a book on my then-rather-primitive lifestyle. He gave me good advice and told me to start with an article. So, I did. After success with freelancing in several newspapers and magazines, I wrote my first book — “Red Rocks to Riches: Gold Mining in Boulder County, Then and Now.”
SunLit: Greatest writing fear?
Pettem: I can’t think of any. I write because that’s what I love to do.
SunLit: Greatest writing satisfaction?
Pettem: My greatest satisfaction is when I’m able to put my gut feelings into words.