Butterfly’s Child — Prologue

I have long been fascinated with the story of Cio-Cio-san, the young Japanese entertainer, and United States Navy Lieutenant Pinkerton, immortalized in Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. I saw the opera first in New York City and was profoundly saddened by the tragic ending. I know something of Japanese history and culture, and I can understand why Cio-Cio-san should wish to die, even by her own hand.

I saw the opera again in London, somewhat reluctantly. Why should one wish to revisit tragedy, especially when it is presented as entertainment? But my friend had never seen it and wanted so much to see it, and I could not refuse her.

At the end, I left the theater in such a dark mood that my companion asked if I were ill. I said that I was not ill, just feeling a bit out of sorts, a silly response actually, and excused myself to return to my hotel.

I sat in the hotel lounge alone before the fireplace, sipping a glass of wine, staring into the embers, trying to understand what had happened at the theater. The answer suddenly became clear. It was like opening the door of a dark room and letting in the light.

The real tragedy of the story is not Cio-Cio-san’s death, but the fate of her child. What happened to the child? What was his life, deprived of his mother’s love and hardly acknowledged by his father.

At that moment, I decided that I had to learn what happened to him. I had recently retired from teaching history and only the previous month submitted my latest manuscript to the publisher. I was mulling a new research topic, but had not begun. It would wait.

Queries to the United States Navy’s Bureau of Personnel revealed that Pinkerton had lived with his American wife in Los Angeles and had retired there at the end of his naval career. I searched public records in the city and found an address, but no Pinkertons. Neighbors said they had moved away years ago, and they had lost touch.

Some remembered the child, a handsome little boy, bright, popular with neighborhood children, sensitive to any notice of his mixed parentage. Those who were willing to talk about it said they had never questioned him or his parents about the identity of his mother.

One chatty neighbor volunteered that his own son had known the boy at college. They were in the same class at University of Southern California. This was after the Pinkertons had moved away. The USC records office was reluctant to give out information on students and ex-students to a stranger, but I have some stature in the academic community and was able to persuade them to give me some leads.

The leads took me on a circuitous path to the destination I sought. I found an address for one Thomas Pinkerton. I wrote to him, with no result. After a long interval, I decided that I had the wrong man, or I had the right man and he did not wish to make himself known.

Then I received a reply. He acknowledged that he was the son of Lieutenant Pinkerton, but wondered why I should be interested in the lieutenant’s offspring.

I told him about my fascination with the story in the opera and that the tragedy of his beginnings was haunting me. I had become obsessed. I needed to know what happened to him. I needed to know the truth.

The truth? You must not look to Puccini’s story for truth, he told me. I could almost feel the intensity, the wrath, in his words. Puccini had no interest in truth, he said. He wanted only to tell a pretty story, to entertain, to titillate. You say you want the truth?

Yes, I said. I need to know the truth.

He said he would meet me.

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