Mary Fitch Watkins, ca. 1918. National Archives.
Mary Fitch Watkins (1889–1974) was the daughter of Vermont Episcopal minister Schureman Halsted Watkins (who was the chaplain for the Tombs prison and the prison on Blackwell’s Island at one time) and Helen Randolph Smith Watkins. Her book The Rainbow Bridge (1954) discusses her seven years as assistant to diva Olive Fremstad (1871–1951), who is regarded as a model for Thea Kronborg in Willa Cather’s The Song of the Lark (1915). Watkins regarded the experience as “a better education than I might have found in college and a privilege far greater than I could possibly have deserved” (Rainbow Bridge 7).
Sometimes referred to by Fremstad as “little Miss Watkins” (she was 5 foot 3), she served as a driver for the Motor Corps of the National League for Women’s Service before taking up the same role with Anne Morgan’s American Fund for French Wounded (see Watkins, “Anne Morgan: An Intimate Portrait,” The Woman Citizen, Aug 1927). She sailed for France in April 1918, with an item in the 18 April 1918 Barre [VT] Daily Times listing her prospective duties as driving “motor trucks carrying supplies, clothing, and building materials to the devastated villages” (3). Her 20 April 1921 letter in the New York Times, supporting one by author Owen Wister that advocated for the bodies of US service members to remain buried overseas, provides a glimpse into some of her wartime experiences:
I was one of two women sent ahead of a relief unit into the Chateau Thierry district when it was freshly evacuated by the enemy. I turned my little truck into an ambulance and drove our wounded for ten days. . . . Our unit stayed behind in this territory after the army moved forward and I had ample opportunity to observe at first hand the care which the bodies of our fallen boys received. . . . . Well I remember a shattered little garden in the village of Vaux, where three boys fell. An old man came back to the ruins of his home and found them there. With what reverent joy he considered these graves as his especial charge. . . .[H]e hung about the middle cross his rosary, the only thing he had saved in his flight, and we found him daily kneeling beside “his honored guests,” the tears rolling down his cheeks as he prayed for the boys who had come so far to help restore to him his beloved little corner of the earth. It has broken his heart to take this charge from him. . . . .
Can nothing stop this desecration of the loveliest fruits of that most dreadful harvest? And . . . to those mothers and fathers who want their boys back in the family plot. If you had seen what I have seen, you would not breathe the wish. (11)
She added in Rainbow Bridge, “I survived all the perils and uncertainties of torpedoes, bombs, shells, incendiaries, and Ford cars . . .” (313). Although Watkins’s tone was matter-of-fact, nurse Carrie G. Ellis of Base Hospital No. 24 (aka the “Tulane Unit”) conveyed a more effusive perspective on the driver in a 5 August 1918 letter to her mother printed in the 4 Oct. 1918 Polk County [NC] News:
I met a Miss Watkins of New York, an ambulance driver . . . I know no girl I admire more. This woman is as plucky as they make men or women. She goes right up to the front and brings in the wounded. She was the first woman in Chateau Thierry after the Germans evacuated it. (1)
She returned to the United States in January 1919 and published First Aid to the Opera-Goer (1924) and Behind the Scenes at the Opera (1925). She contributed articles and short stories to publications such as the New Yorker, the Saturday Evening Post, and Vogue; her short story “Stolen Thunder” (1930) was the basis for the Jeanette MacDonald-Nelson Eddy film Oh, for a Man (1930). As Jennifer Dunning discusses in this New York Times article, Watkins became a dance critic for the New York Herald Tribune.
In 1926, Watkins married Brooklyn Eagle music critic and magazine editor, bookstore owner, OSS operative, and mountaineering enthusiast Edward T. F. Cushing (1903–56). Their daughter, Antonia Stone (1930–2002), was a mathematics teacher who established the organization Playing to Win (now CTCnet) that seeks to provide access to computers and technology to disenfranchised populations. Their grandchildren include Nicholas D. Stone, director of Virginia Tech’s National Capital Region Operations, and Rebecca Stone, acting chair of the Brookline [MA] Commission for Women.