Allison Pataki, daughter of former New York State Gov. George E. Pataki and a former ABCNews.com and FoxNews.com writer, grew up gazing across the Hudson River at West Point Academy and hearing about the life of Benedict Arnold, the most notorious turncoat in American history. But when Pataki uncovered a forgotten romantic triangle and the role of Arnold’s much younger wife in the plot to aid the British, the seed was planted for The Traitor’s Wife (Howard Books, Feb.), her novel based on those events.
“Every school child in my hometown of Garrison, N.Y., learns about the flight of Benedict Arnold, because there’s a walking path in town that traces it,” Pataki says. “I was near that path one day when I came upon a historical marker that had [pictures] of Arnold, his co-conspirator Maj. John André, and his wife, Peggy Shippen Arnold.”
The portrait of a beautiful woman with her hair piled high caught Pataki’s attention. Then she noticed it had been drawn by André, who she knew had been romantically linked to Peggy before she married Arnold. That was enough to get Pataki researching. “I found all these rumors about their relationship and her family’s loyalty to the British,” she says, “and I thought, ‘How did I not know all this?’”
It turned out the romantic triangle wasn’t the only surprising aspect of the story, Pataki says. “I really was shocked to discover all the various layers of complexity in the story of Benedict Arnold and just how much of an American hero he really was.” She points to Arnold’s involvement in key Revolutionary War battles at Fort Ticonderoga and in Quebec, Connecticut, and Saratoga as proof of his service to his new country. The facts pointed to a man who was committed to the Revolutionary effort early on, Pataki notes. Arnold led the offensive at the battle of Saratoga against his senior officer’s orders and was shot multiple times. He paid his men out of his personal fortune when the government couldn’t.
“At one point, he’s said to have thought it very likely that he’d die for the cause, and if he had, he’d have died an American hero,” Pataki says. “But instead, most Americans think of him as synonymous with being a traitor.”
While Pataki admits that sorting out fact from fiction in historical accounts is difficult, exploring the complex story of Arnold’s life and his wife’s influence proved to be more than just a good story. “In his last moments, it’s rumored he begged God to forgive him for ever having worn another uniform,” Pataki says. “Even though he ended up in England, the British didn’t trust him any more than the American patriots did. He really was a man without a country in many ways. I realized his story was much more nuanced than I knew, and I was surprised I felt such pity for him."