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Nina Burleigh

How Nina Burleigh Got
The Smithsonian Story

By Jeanne Sager
COCHECTON — November 21, 2003 – Nina Burleigh is like a modern-day Nancy Drew with kids.
This mother of two and accomplished author does her sleuthing in the public library.
Pouring over firsthand accounts of tales from long ago, surfing the Web for bits and pieces of history, Burleigh culls the information she needs to pen books on some of the nation’s most obscure mysteries.
The Cochecton resident (Burleigh and husband Erik Freeland bought an old schoolhouse near the Delaware River in 2000 and made it their year-round home this summer, enrolling son Felix in Glen’s Spey’s The Homestead School) recently celebrated the publication of her second book, the story of James Smithson, the English scientist who left his fortune to America to create the Smithsonian Institute.
Because of a museum fire in the mid-1860s, little has ever been revealed about the Englishman who had never once visited the United States.
A former journalist who has covered everything from the State Assembly in Illinois to the Clinton White House for Time Magazine and followed Johnnie Cochran for an in-depth feature, Burleigh knows how to tell a tale.
She’s also intimately familiar with researching a topic until the details she wants to spin the story are out there on the table.
Her dreams of writing started in childhood when Burleigh scribbled little tales in her schoolbooks.
Her father, Robert Burleigh, was a children’s author, and she dreamed of being the “great American novelist.”
Instead, her path sent her through the journalism world. After graduating from college, she started working for “slave-like” wages for the AP before moving on to freelance for several different Midwestern newspapers.
She was eventually sent to media central, Washington, D.C., reporting for People magazine on President Bill Clinton, a job that led to stints working for Time and other national magazines.
It was a Monday morning at Time that spurred Burleigh’s first foray into books.
“I always wanted to write books, and I finally convinced someone to pay me to do it,” she said with a laugh.
As many Time reporters do, Burleigh settled down at her desk to read over rival Newsweek and see what they were covering that week.
She came across an excerpt from the memoirs of Ben Bradlee which told a limited amount about his sister-in-law, Mary Pinchot Meyer, reportedly one of JFK’s mistresses murdered in a mysterious plot.
The tale, which actually has a local tie – Pinchot’s family owned Grey Towers in nearby Milford, Pa. – intrigued the reporter with a nose for a story.
“It’s a famous unsolved mystery, but it wasn’t written about because [former First Lady] Jackie [Kennedy Onassis] was still alive,” Burleigh explained.
When Burleigh later sat down with someone from the publishing industry, she began kicking out book ideas, and the story of Meyer was the one that sounded most marketable.
“She said, ‘That’s the the one, I could sell that,’” Burleigh recalled.
So Burleigh got to work. She wrote to the CIA to try to get her hands on a diary written about in Bradley’s memoirs that he’d given to a spook.
No dice. They sent pages with most of the information blacked out. She spent months doing interviews and trying to get someone to tell her something.
The result was “A Very Private Lady: The Life and Unsolved Murder of Presidential Mistress Mary Meyer,” published by Bantam Doubleday in 1998.
It was that book that pushed her onward.
Burleigh’s agent told her an editor was interested in a book on the Smithsonian’s history.
She wasn’t sure at first.
“I knew nothing at all about the 18th century,” Burleigh confessed.
She studied 17th century literature in grad school (“go figure,” she says), but she’d had little experience with the time period in which her latest book is set.
“But I wanted a project that involved sitting in a library,” Burleigh continued. “The first book was so hard – getting people to talk to me was like pulling teeth.
“Then I poked around and realized it was a pretty good story.”
Having just had her son, Felix, now 4, Burleigh was looking for a job that would keep her at home with her child but still support the family.
So with the advance handed out by publisher William Morrow, Burleigh and Freeland moved to Paris to allow her to be closer to London where she would do much of her research.
Freeland, a freelance photographer, knew he could find work there for magazines, and Burleigh wanted to learn the language, a task that would turn out to be essential for her next project – which involved translating French diaries for another tale.
Pulling together the history behind “The Stranger and the Statesman: James Smithson, John Quincy Adams, and the Making of America's Greatest Museum: The Smithsonian,” was “like writing a Ph.D. thesis,” Burleigh said.
“It covers more than 100 years, from the French Revolution to 1830s American politics,” she explained.
From her research, however, Burleigh gained an understanding of a man that few have been able to ascertain.
She found a certain parallel between the bastard son of an English duke who sent all his monies to the United States for the “diffusion of knowledge” and those who look to America today as the place of hope.
“In this era of post-9/11 self-flagellation, I think it’s good to be reminded that in darker times, the idea of this country was very inspiring to people,” she said. “Although people loathe America . . . there are still reasons people have hope and faith in America.”
Besides, she said, the story behind James Smithson and John Quincy Adams, who had the vision to build an institution of knowledge in a city that at that time was considered a swamp with the White House and Capitol building inside, is “just a good yarn.”
“This man lived at the very beginning of what was to be the modern world as we know it,” Burleigh explained.
A scientist, Smithson was caught up in a time when the world’s most laudable inventions were being discovered, when science took a step away from religion and superstition and began looking at the world methodically.
“They were all about classifying things, naming things and discovering new things,” Burleigh explained. “It was a really exciting time for those people.”
And Burleigh hopes that excitement will translate to her readers.
“They had no idea what was around the corner, and yet they plodded forward,” she said. “I hope I’ve managed to put that in the book.”
Burleigh has almost abandoned her childhood dreams of writing novels – she has a thriller penned during her time in Paris that might or might not make it to into a publisher’s hands. But she’s forging ahead with her historical studies.
She’s working on a tale of Napoleon and the scientists who spent years in Egypt in the latter half of the 1800s.
The finders of the Rosetta Stone which broke the hieroglyphic code, they were “the original Indiana Joneses,” Burleigh said.
She’s also still touting her most recent book which was published by William Morrow in October. She recently sat down for an interview on C-SPAN’s “Book TV” segment, which has been replayed several times.
She will also be doing a book signing at Liberty’s Oracle Bookstore on Dec. 6.
Burleigh intends to stay in the area. While living in Paris, she and Freeland missed their house, she said.
“We even kept a picture of it in our apartment,” she revealed.
Originally from the Midwest, Burleigh said she missed living in the country.
“It’s so much different from living in the city,” she said. “You know people – I mean, you know people in the city – but here it’s in a larger area.
“People are having the same experiences, trips to Wal-Mart, the weather . . .”
And Burleigh enjoys what she’s doing. Getting up in the morning to drive Felix to school and spending time with 6-month-old Lulu in between writing and researching is a perfect fit, she said.
“I have to earn a living, and for someone with small children, it’s the perfect thing,” Burleigh explained. “I just feel very lucky.”
For more information on the author, visit

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