The Great Dane - The (Un)published Life of M.L. Andreasen
Updated: Jan 3
Part 1: Unwanted (1876-1891)
NOTE: This biography is taken from Andreasen's own private notes and is not intended to be comprehensive—nor have I attempted to verify the details. This post is simply a summary of his life from several published and unpublished sources (see below). The only published biography of M.L. Andreasen is available here. I did not consult this biography when writing this post.
To the great disgust of my mother, and indeed of the whole family, I arrived in this world on the fourth day of June, 1876, in the city of Copenhagen, Denmark.
It's unclear when Milean Lauritz Andreasen sat down to write his memoirs, but it was most likely in the 1950s or early 1960s. If the memoirs were written at the end of his life, they bear no sign of the bitterness he often felt toward church leaders in those days. This opening line shows Andreasen's excellent command of writing—a command which earned him an Honorary Membership in the Eugene Field Society in 1944. This opening line also shows Andreasen's flair for drama.
Andreasen likely meant this line to be interpreted wryly, but it reveals more than it conceals. The fifth of June is Denmark's Constitution Day and the Andreasen family had planned "a great celebration on that day with an excursion to the near-by beautiful birch woods." "And then," Andreasen explains, "I came along and spoiled the whole party." He insists that his family threw a party to celebrate his birth but that "it left no impression on me."
In later years when I realized the great mistake I had made [in being born], I was duly repentant; but it was too late, and I could not undo it.
Andreasen's arrival was probably unplanned and perhaps unwanted. He often notes how much shorter he was than his friends, suggesting he may have been born premature (hence, his birth ruined his parents' party). His older brothers were so much older than him that he says "I did not get very well acquainted with them." The only exception was Carl, eight years his senior, who ran away at age 12. (Everyone presumed him dead until Andreasen discovered him living in California sixty years later.) A sister died from appendicitis when she was 10 and at least some of his other brothers died so that Andreasen lived most of his life thinking he was the only surviving child.
His mother called the newborn "Lauritz" and deputized eight (or nine) year-old Carl, to look after him. Carl managed to dump "Lauritz" in the gutter when he crashed the stroller—something he reported to Andreasen with "a twinkle in his eye" while in his late 90s. But Carl, as we know, didn't hang around for long. Andreasen writes that his mother "was the boss," as his dad "was slow with little initiative."
They lived at Sortedamsgade 13, a beautiful block of apartments on on "The Lakes"—a set of three artificial lakes that then separated "the old city" from Andreasen's neighborhood, which he called "the suburbs." (As Copenhagen has grown, Andreasen's home is now firmly in the center of the city.) Looking out his front door, he would have been able to see the University of Copenhagen across the lake.
The Royal Nuisance
Andreasen's parents were both tailors and their work enabled them to live in this Middle Class "suburb" by the lake. Andreasen remembers that he and his friends got so used to seeing Europe's royalty walking around Copenhagen that they went out of their way to avoid getting too close, lest they be forced to stop playing and remove their hats out of a sign of respect.
With well-to-do clients visiting their home for measurements and fittings, Andreasen took to entertaining. Once, he played the piano and then stood on his head. Growing bolder, he mimicked one of his mother's customers by stroking his neck and cooing: "What a wonderful swan neck I have." After that, he recollects, "my stage career was ended." From that point, Andreasen was kicked out of the house while his mother was working clients. She would hang a flag in the window to signal when it was safe for him to return.
The Andreasen family wasn't very close. Given that both parents worked, a "hired girl" was employed to cook and clean. They didn't eat together. Often, Andreasen's parents ordered takeout from local restaurants and everyone would sit down to eat when they felt like it. His father kept a box with petty cash that the children could draw from whenever they felt like it and take a trip to a restaurant or candy store.
Andreasen summed up his childhood: "Lack of parental authority, money, more than is good for children; no hours for going to bed or getting up; uneven discipline; no adult guidance; all combined to wreck young lives. . . . and it did." Andreasen didn't join a gang like other urban youth, equally unsupervised, but he later lamented that his band of friends wasted too much time monkeying around pretending to be in the circus.
The Circus + Theater
They got their chance one summer when a circus came to town. In those days, Andreasen reminds his readers, the circus was usually performed by a family from Southern Europe who would each do tricks. On one occasion, a boy fell and broke his arm. One of the performers asked Andreasen if he had a friend who might be able to finish the act. Andreasen, though not particularly athletic, was the ringleader of his gang and recommended a friend for the job. The friend donned the costume and rushed into the arena to find out what his "great act" would entail. The performers were holding two sixteen foot ladders, connected at the top by another performer forming a bridge between them with his body. Andreasen's friend was to scale the ladder and stand on that performer who was forming the bridge. (It's not hard to see how the previous boy might have broken his arm.) The friend was nervous—an careful: "He was careful, very careful, painfully careful" Andreasen wrote. The friend finished the act and it was declared to be "the supreme moment of his life." Andreasen found himself wishing he might one day perform before people.
In the Winter, the boys skated on the frozen lakes in front of the house and visited the Royal Theater, running errands for the performers there. Andreasen also got to work as a stage boy on a play—"Around the World in 80 Days"— where he got his chance on stage pretending to be a wave. Lacking the ability to make a ship blow up as the script dictated, the director had settled for turning the lights off, having fifty boys rush the stage and, covered by a green canvas, they lay on their backs kicking and punching the canvas (thus, "waves") and screaming like drowning passengers.
Meanwhile, eight year-old Lauritz was plagued by his cousin, Charles. The older Charles would goad Andreasen into a fight, which the latter would inevitably lose. Andreasen tried not to cry, but he couldn't stop the tears. "It seemed that I was doomed to go through life taking a daily beating. The future was dark."
Then suddenly and unexpectedly things changed. Charles took sick, 'glory be.' If now he would only stay sick long enough so I could catch up with him the sun would shine again.
Andreasen, small for his age, was desperate to get bigger in order to get revenge. Charles' illness slowed him down, but Andreasen still couldn't beat him. Each day, Charles grew a little weaker and Andreasen, with his eyes on the prize, grew more hopeful at getting the best of his cousin. One day, Charles didn't come outside. Before many more days, he was dead. Andreasen felt cheated of justice.
The funeral was held in a small chapel and Andreasen remembers falling asleep. He woke up to hear the priest mention that Charles was in heaven. "He evidently did not know Charles at all," Andreasen fumed. "I knew Charles and I knew where he belonged. Priests didn't know all."
The priest went on about how it was only Charles' spirit in heaven, not his body. Andreasen quipped: "This confused me....Charles had no spirit that I knew of. The priest was mistaken again." The priest then hinted that Charles' spirit might be in the chapel among the mourners. Andreasen had a remark for that, too: "If he was present and spied me, I knew what he would be doing: he would thumb his nose at me and make faces. And he would have the advantage of me for he could see me and I could not see him. That wasn't fair. But then, Charles never had been fair. He should have had a good licking before he died."
Absolutely determined to get the upper hand, Andreasen began making faces in every direction, hoping to let Ghost Charles know that he was on to him. "Unfortunately Mother had not followed my thoughts and hence did not appreciate what I was doing. I had covered only half the room when she discovered my occupation. Horror stricken, she gave me a pinch that was really harder than it should have been. Mothers are not always understanding. I should have been permitted to finish my round."
The funeral got Andreasen thinking about heaven and how miserable it must be there. Like church, he saw it as a place for old people. "When his funeral was over I was going out to play ball but Charles would have to go back to heaven with the old people. Thinking it over, I decided this served him right. It was a fitting punishment."
A man visited Andreasen's school looking for boys who could sing in a local church choir. Since the man was paying (to be collected once the child reached puberty), Andreasen found himself going to church. The boys would sing some opening songs from the rear balcony and then quietly leave to play outside until the sermon was done. One boy would remain behind to keep track of the preacher's progress and then notify the other boys when they needed to return for the final song. Andreasen reassures us that it wasn't difficult to determine when the preachers were wrapping up, "for preachers in those days read their sermons and began with 'firstly, secondly, thirdly, etc.' Some had six of these, others seven. But they never varied, and we depended on them. The preachers never failed us."
Andreasen would know, because he often found himself staying behind in the choir loft as the "lookout" for the other kids. He soon found himself serving as an altar boy. In relating this story, Andreasen is carefully to subvert the reader's expectation that this church involvement somehow lead to Andreasen's conversion. He is adamant that it didn't. When the choir went to sing at a local prison, he tells us, they were paid in cash—cash which was then used to buy alcohol on the way back to the church. Several boys would always be drunk by the time they arrived.
None of Andreasen's friends seemed to think anything was wrong with smoking or drinking at their age. Andreasen's own mother taught him to smoke, handing him a cigar when he was three. The rationale was that cigar smoke killed the lice found on the houseplants, and so Andreasen's chore was to walk around with the cigar and smoke out the bugs. (It seems no one considered whether the smoke killing the bugs might also be killing the boy.) Andreasen graduated to smoking packs of "Duke" cigarettes from America, which included a collectable picture in each pack.
When Andreasen was a pre-teen, he found himself at one of his parents' parties where many of the guests were drunk. He, too, had been drinking. Someone found a crucifix and handed to him, asking him to sing mass. The experience so bothered Andreasen that he vowed never to sing mass again. He realized, somehow, that his life wasn't going anywhere and he needed a change.
He and his choir friends rented a room at the YMCA, where beer was served them. They weren't a religious bunch, but "we were young men desperately in earnest and deeply concerned about our parents." Deciding that running away wasn't an option for him, Andreasen worked up the courage to tell his parents how he felt. He told them what he saw and how he felt about their "bacchanalian orgies" and, in his words, "they were humiliated and ashamed. I felt sorry for them."
I was not a Christian, but it was clear to me that the way we were going would not end well.
"I think," Andreasen wrote, "that for the first time they realized that this was not a wholesome atmosphere for a boy to grow in. Smoking, drinking, and changing wives was not a wholesome example for a boy."
The Andreasens discussed their next move as a family over the next several nights. This alone seemed to be a miracle. For Andreasen remembered that "up to that time I had never really talked to my parents. I lived with them but I did not know them, nor did they know me. I do not remember that either father or mother ever took me aside and had a talk with me. We were strangers."
His parents realized that their social network in Copenhagen was too strong and that if they remained in the city they could never escape their previous lifestyle. Their only option was to leave. Shocking Lauritz, his parents asked his opinion about the move. They considered Norway, where his father was from, but decided that they had to go to America, despite not speaking any English or having any family there. The reason? "America was a good country, and all the people there were rich."
They ended up in Winnipeg, Canada. Andreasen's mother went first and set up a dressmaking business. Once she began making enough money, she called for her husband and son to join her in the New World.
SOURCES & NOTES
Andreasen, Milean Lauritz. "A Brief History of Certain Denominational History not before Recorded" (Unpublished).
Andreasen, Milean Lauritz. "Life" (Unpublished).
Andreasen, Vesta "My Dad" (Unpublished)
Note 1: Vesta annotated her father's "Life" manuscript and this seems to have formed a large part of the literary foundation for Virgina Steinweg's Without Fear or Favor biography of MLA.
Note 2: I've read Steinweg's closing chapters in writing the QOD episodes, but did not consult her first chapter before authoring this post. Naturally, we share many of the same stories, especially when she's published long passages from the unpublished memoirs. I expect that subsequent entries in this series will diverge from Steinweg's more sympathetic approach to Andreasen. Even if I'm not adding anything new, per se, I hope that this reframing of the material for a new generation might accomplish my goal of bringing a greater awareness of MLA's colorful life.
- Matthew J. Lucio