She was born Neltje Doubleday, yet for years she has used no last name and goes solely by Neltje. Her grandfather started Doubleday Page, which over the years became Doubleday Publishing. Her father Nelson, Doubleday, expanded the company and hoped his son Nelson would follow his father’s passion. At eighteen Neltje married John Sargent, Sr. who would go on to become the President and Chief Executive of Doubleday. Years later her brother Nelson Doubleday took the company helm. The life she recounts in her memoir NORTH OF CRAZY (St. Martin’s Press, October 4, 2016, $25.99) is one of great passion, sadness, determination, and courage.
Neltje was brought up in a moneyed world of cultural prestige with the expectation that she would become a socially-gifted wife and mother. Her childhood was marred by her parent's abandonment and alcoholism; their focus was only on her brother. At age nine the family friend who took her riding sexually abused her. This secret was to haunt Neltje. Marriage to Sargent seemed to offer an escape, and for a while it did. Their life together was filled with travel, parties and martini-fueled evenings entertaining the literati. Theodore Roethke slept in their bathtub and once, during a manic bender, held a knife to Neltje's throat. W. Somerset Maugham offered advice on sex in marriage. Other writers, artists and friends included Daphne du Maurier (who made a pass at Neltje's mother), Raoul Fleishman (co-founder of the New Yorker), Gertrude Lawrence, Oskar Kokoschka (a painter who was a contemporary of Picasso) Bertrand Russell, Georges Simenon, and Bennett Cerf. When her children were aged five and seven, the marriage fell apart. John Sargent’s philandering and her family's power struggles over money had taken their toll.
After two years of soul searching Neltje obtained a divorce, put her life together, met a writer /painter from London whom she eventually married and moved her family to Wyoming where her children went to a two room school house. Years later, Neltje led a long battle to have Doubleday Publishing go public. Her mother, brother and Sargent fought back and won partially, but so did Neltje. The tale of how she established herself with two small children in the middle of nowhere includes a second marriage to a man who eventually swindled her out of money and almost wrested away a beloved Picasso. Her story also showcases her extraordinary attachment to the natural world, “My cabin here at the base of the Bighorn Mountains in Wyoming fronts on the rising sun yet allows me to watch light fall behind the granite peaks each evening from my living room chair.” Neltje is an abstract expressionist painter having exhibited throughout the Rockies to the sands of Florida. Her latest interest has been in painting huge canvases, ten foot high by thirty feet long evoking her emotional response to the natural world. She's now 82 and plans to go on 108.
Neltje lives on the Little North Fork of Crazy Woman Creek in Wyoming. NORTH OF CRAZY is a memoir as unconventional and courageous as its author.