NEW YORK - Patience Abbe was not quite 10 by the time she had waltzed standing tiptoe on Fred Astaire’s feet, charmed literary critics with her conversation, and been promised in marriage to the son of a handsome couple of her parents’ acquaintance, Hadley and Ernest Hemingway. She and Jack Hemingway, also known as Bumby, were toddlers at the time, living with their expatriate US parents in Paris.
By 12, Patience had co-written a book, “Around the World in Eleven Years,’’ a child’s view of the peripatetic life that she, her mother, and her two younger brothers led between the world wars, crisscrossing Europe with the paterfamilias, James E. Abbe Sr., an adventurer and prominent photojournalist who specialized in pictures of movie stars and dictators.
Published in 1936 to rave reviews - it was praised as “uncannily shrewd’’ and “exceedingly funny’’ - the book became a bestseller translated into a half-dozen languages, made the Abbe children household names and enticed Hollywood executives to summon Patience and her brothers, Richard, 10, and John, 8, for screen tests.
They palled around for months with the likes of Shirley Temple and Freddie Bartholomew, but their globetrotting had left them unprepared for work that required “a lot of standing around,’’ as Richard described it, and they never made a movie.
Ms. Abbe, who died on March 17 in Redding, Calif., at 87, was by all accounts the predominant narrating voice of “Around the World’’ and its sequels, “Of All Places!’’ (1937) and “No Place Like Home’’ (1940). Her death was confirmed by her daughter Shelley Roge.
All the books were collections of observations by the three children, as dictated to their mother, the former Polly Shorrock, of Bronx, N.Y., who was a Ziegfeld girl when she met her future husband in 1921.
But it was the hyperarticulate Patience who defined them, dazzling critics with observations about bus-riding Parisians who surrender their seats to women with children, “no matter how first the others were’’; about her restless father, “a very poor businessman, but he never does anyone any harm’’; about street fighting in Berlin, where “the Communists wore black shirts and were very tough, and the Nazis wore brown shirts and were also very tough.’’
Herschel Brickell, the literary editor of The New York Post, recalled meeting Patience years earlier while visiting her parents in Paris. Her “frank and fresh and naive and consistently delightful’’ observations, he wrote in his review of the book, made one thing obvious to him. Despite their three bylines and their mother’s help, Brickell wrote, “it was she’’ - Patience - “who was the real author.’’
Her surviving brother, John, 85, a retired California state labor official, confirmed it instantly when asked in a phone interview Wednesday. “It was all Patty,’’ he said. “All the books.’’
Besides her brother and her daughter, Ms. Abbe leaves a second daughter, Catherine Abbe Geissler. Her brother Richard, a justice of the California Court of Appeal, died in 2000.
Ms. Abbe spent most of her adult life in California, where, twice divorced, she raised her daughters, became a dedicated environmentalist, worked as a secretary and took up sculpture. She was married to Brendan O’Mahoney, her daughters’ father, from 1949 until 1954. She later married Francois Leydet, a newspaper reporter and conservation writer for the Sierra Club. She never attended college or published another book.
Patience Shorrock Abbe was born in Paris. Her father’s photography work brought her and her brothers into almost daily contact with actors, artists, and the small world of expatriate American writers on the Left Bank, where James Abbe maintained his studio. It was there she met Astaire as well as Hemingway.
After the family’s 11-year trek through France, Germany, Austria, and Russia (where in 1932 her father was the first US photographer to take pictures of Stalin), her parents settled in Larkspur, Colo., where James Abbe had friends. The Abbes’ stormy marriage ended in divorce in the late 1930s, during the height of the success of the children’s first two books, said Jenny Abbe Moyer, a niece.
After their Hollywood adventure fizzled, Patience Abbe’s mother settled with the children in Laguna Beach, Calif., where their fame gradually expired. The last ember seemed to die, according to a story Ms. Abbe loved telling, at a beach party held for her on her 21st birthday. Bette Davis, who owned a place in Laguna, happened by. “Patience Abbe!’’ Davis exclaimed. “I always wondered what happened to you!’’
Ms. Abbe never mourned her lost fame, though she had always thought of herself as a writer, Abbe Moyer said.
Family members traded theories about why Ms. Abbe had been reluctant to pursue writing as an adult. Abbe Moyer’s view was that the coincidence of her early success and her parents’ breakup - and even the start of World War II - had become “all mixed up in her head’’ and soured her on writing. “She called it ‘the great synchronicity’ of disasters,’’ Abbe Moyer said.
For many years, the only writing Ms. Abbe did was for a church bulletin of St. John’s Church in San Anselmo, Calif., where she was the secretary. Then, in the 1990s, she began working on a memoir. Her family was pleased.
“We had never seen her write a word,’’ her daughter Roge said. And what Ms. Abbe showed them, she added, was good. The acuteness, the unexpected turns of phrase and insight, she said, were a grown-up’s version of the “voice of ‘Around the World.’ ’’
Ms. Abbe finished the book three weeks before she died. Her family hopes to have it published.