Q. How did the co-authors come to write a book about Peggy Shippen?
A. Stephen Case, a noted bankruptcy attorney and Revolutionary War aficionado, first encountered Peggy’s story many years ago in James Thomas Flexner’s four-volume biography of George Washington. He then read everything he could find about Peggy and became convinced that her story was a little-known piece of American history that deserved a wider audience. Stephen began talking about the subject with Gary Heidt, a family friend and New York literary agent. In 2009, Heidt recommended that Case consider teaming up with one of his clients, Mark Jacob. Before being contacted with the idea, Mark had never heard of Peggy Shippen. But like Stephen, Mark quickly became fascinated by the story, and the two set about to write her biography.
Q. Is this really the first-ever biography of Peggy Shippen?
A. As best Stephen and Mark can determine, yes. Peggy is an important supporting character in biographies of Benedict Arnold, but no non-fiction book written for adults has ever made Peggy its primary subject. James Thomas Flexner’s The Traitor and the spy: Benedict Arnold and John André (1975) actually centers on three characters: Arnold, André, and Peggy. But with a title like that, it certainly can’t be considered a biography of Peggy. One book that did focus on Peggy was a 1967 work of historical fiction called Beauty and the Traitor: The Story of Mrs. Benedict Arnold by Milton Lomask. That book includes invented dialogue and situations; it is not history.
Q. Was Peggy a villainess or a heroine?
A. Both. Or neither. Hard to say. People should read the book and decide. If she is judged by her own goals – attempting to support her husband and family in uncertain circumstances – she did her best.
Q. Why isn’t Peggy’s story better known?
A. Sexism, for one thing. It was inconceivable at the time that a wife such as Peggy could be an equal partner in her husband’s conspiracies. By the time the truth came out more than a century later, history had already been written. Of course, Peggy’s story is one of many overlooked or misunderstood aspects of the American Revolution.
Q. Would Treacherous Beauty make a good movie?
A. Undoubtedly. In some ways, a movie might be more compelling than the book. In the book, Stephen and Mark have stuck to the facts and avoided guesswork. That means they do not say for sure whether Peggy attended the shamefully extravagant party known as the Meschianza. They also leave open the possibility that the conspiracy was Peggy’s idea, Arnold’s idea or a joint idea. A movie, on the other hand, would have to make clear-cut choices on such aspects of the story that will never be known for sure. One recent attempt to tell the Arnold treason story was a movie for the A&E channel called “A Question of Honor” (2003), starring Aidan Quinn as Arnold, Kelsey Grammer as George Washington, and Northern Irish actress Flora Montgomery as Peggy. Hollywood could do better.