Ivan Sanderson was my father’s best friend when I was a kid. He was a famous naturalist, author, and UFO aficionado. A native Scot, he was tall, elegant, and handsome, with slicked-back ebony hair and a neatly trimmed moustache. He was married to a beautiful Ethiopian woman named Alma, who often had a miniature monkey — a marmoset — sitting on her shoulder, attached to a chain pinned to her blouse.
Ivan had written more than twenty books, one of them a novel called “Mystery Schooner,” and what was even more fantastic, a book about UFOs called “Uninvited Visitors.” Nobody wrote, or even talked about UFOs in those days, as far as we knew, but our Pop’s best friend had written a book about them! This sparked a life-long interest in the phenomenon for me and Bertie.
Another of Ivan’s curious interests was finding people who had the same name as his. He spent a good deal of time on this hobby and claimed to have found and corresponded with at least 17 of them, none of them related to him. He also told us that he should have been born a twin because he had some multiple organs, including three kidneys and a double brain. Now that I think of it, he did have quite a big head.
Ivan and Alma had an apartment in Manhattan and a large animal farm in New Jersey where they kept a motley assortment of animals that included leopards, donkeys, goats, elephants and wild birds that Ivan not only studied but drew sketches of to use in some of the books he wrote. Bertie and I loved to visit Ivan and Alma’s New York apartment. It was dark and cozy and filled with strange, exotic, wondrous things. There were African drums and tropical fish and odd, stripey animals in cages. And there were always several of Alma’s little marmosets jumping around.
From time to time when he and Alma were traveling, Ivan would have us “animal sit” for him at our house. One time he left a small, leopard-like animal called a genet with us in a small cage, and another time a coral snake in a jar. Bertie and I were the envy of our schoolmates, and if we’d had such a thing as “show and tell” in those days, I’m sure we would have nagged Ma to death to let us take those critters to school with us.
In 1955, there was a fire at the Sanderson’s wild animal farm and all the animals were destroyed. My father believed that Ivan and Alma never really recovered from the shock. They both suffered from various serious illnesses over the years until they both finally died of cancer, Alma in 1972 and Ivan the following year. I will never forget them. They were a beacon of light in the sometimes dark world of my childhood.