Peter Morton Coan
Highlights of a Life
Peter Morton Coan was born at Doctor’s Hospital in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1956. The infant was turned over to adoptive parents and raised in New York. Forty years later, Coan would discover his Ohio roots and the sorrowful mother who gave him up.
Coan’s adoptive parents divorced when he was a young child; each went on to marry again twice. They sent their son to boarding schools in Connecticut, where he was educated at Cheshire Academy and the Loomis School. Coan majored in English at the State University of New York at Buffalo and graduated in 1979. He pursued graduate studies at Boston University, and received his master’s in journalism in 1981.
When he was just 18, Coan made the acquaintance of singer Harry Chapin. It was 1975, and Chapin was appearing on Broadway in a musical revue. They became close friends, and Coan, having become a confidant to Chapin, devoted eight years to researching and writing the celebrity’s biography. Coan often toured with Chapin’s band, all the while attending college and graduate school.
Harry Chapin died in a car accident in 1981. His widow tried to block publication of Coan’s book in an effort to write one of her own. Coan sued, and the case was tied up in the Supreme Court for almost a decade. Eventually, the widow settled out of court and Coan won the right to proceed with publication. In 1990, Citadel Press released Taxi: The Harry Chapin Story, named for Chapin’s hugely popular song. The controversial book was reprinted in 2001, marking the 20th anniversary of Chapin’s death.
Coan became editor of several magazines, including Boating Magazine and World Tennis Magazine. The avid tennis player authored a travel book in 1991 titled, World Tennis Magazine’s Guide to the Best Tennis Resorts.
Coan became a best-selling author with the publication of his third book, Ellis Island Interviews: In Their Own Words. The idea for a book on genealogy came to Coan as he scanned the classified ads one morning. Someone was looking for information about his past. Coan had always enjoyed hearing the stories of past generations, and thought “What could be more dramatic that the story of America’s great wave of immigrants?”
Researching and writing the book was a four-year project for Coan, who works full-time in the communications arm of the financial services industry. The text consists of first-hand accounts from more than 130 people – the last surviving immigrants who came through Ellis Island’s mythical “Golden Door” between 1892 and 1924. More than 12 million people were “processed” on Ellis Island, more than at any other time in American history.
Coan’s collection of interviews includes stories of well-known Americans who came through Ellis Island, including Abraham D. Beame, former mayor of New York City, and the late actor Bob Hope, who emigrated from England. But the majority of voices are humble, working class people who share why they left their homelands, what they endured, and what became of them after their arrival at Ellis Island.
As Coan neared completion of his book, an unexpected turn of events led the author to conclude his work with an appeal to readers. Coan’s adopted father surprised his son with the birth certificate that had so long eluded him. The document contained the names of his biological parents, and his place of birth. Coan longed to seek out his birth parents but lacked sufficient information. He cleverly added an “Author’s Appeal” to his book before sending it to print; the letter to readers asked for their help in finding his blood relatives.
Ellis Island Interviews was released in 1998. Two years later, the Cleveland Plain Dealer ran a feature story about the author’s search for his parents. Its publication led to the discovery of Coan’s mother, Martha Musselman Mehafey of Cincinnati. Musselman was 22 years old, divorced and raising her first son alone when she gave birth to Coan, whom she named Joseph. Mother and son were reunited and, despite Coan’s New York residence, have melded their extended families. The native Ohioan was honored in 1999 by the Ohioana Library Association, which awarded Coan its annual book award for non-fiction.