“…[T]heir souls shine through their eyes.”
—WWI canteen worker Marian Baldwin on U.S. servicemen she encountered in France (Canteening Overseas 78)
Daughter of Elbert Francis Baldwin (1857–1927), editor of the Outlook (read William H. Rowe Jr.’s ode to Baldwin), and resident of Lakewood, NJ, Marian Baldwin (1895–1972) sailed for France in June 1917 on La Touraine, headed for canteen service in Paris with Anne Morgan’s American Fund for French Wounded. In Canteening Overseas, 1917–1919, she refers to “Frank Sayre” on the ship with her; this may be Francis Bowes Sayre, son-in-law of President Wilson, who was en route to France to serve with the YMCA.
Once in Paris, she helped out at a new YMCA canteen operated by Adele Verley of Providence, RI, and Eleanor Butler Roosevelt, wife of Theodore Roosevelt Jr. A graduate of Miss Porter’s School, Baldwin could speak French and German (although she was not very confident in her French-speaking ability and described herself as “a lady with moods … who has been spoiled all her life” ). She provided reactions from the crew of the Alcedo, who previously had rescued the men of the Finland and the Antilles before a German U-boat torpedoed their ship.
Transferring from the AFFW to the YMCA, she was sent to Bordeaux. Her next assignment was Aix-les-Bains, where her coworkers included the novelist Margaret Deland (1857–1945, who introduces Canteening Overseas) and New York Public Library librarian Alice Keats O’Connor (1886–1928). Baldwin described the devastating effects of “Big Bertha” (a German long-range gun): “Every twenty minutes a shell lands in some part of Paris and spreads death and destruction all about” (93). She also lost two friends during her service—Billy Tailer, a member of the Lafayette Flying Corps, and Lieutenant Chester Plimpton—which may partly explain anti-German sentiments that can be found in Canteening Overseas. Wrote Baldwin (74–75):
Yesterday I went down to the station to see one of our troop trains off. I know practically every lad in it. Several of us stood at the end of the platform and shook hands with each boy as the train moved slowly past. They were all hanging out of the windows with hands outstretched, the setting sun shining full on their eager, boyish faces, and many of them smiling bravely through a mist of tears. We waved and waved as they pulled out and could still see a flutter of handkerchiefs and hear a faint cheer in the distance, when the train turned the bend and was lost to sight. Every one left on that platform was crying, even the officers, and I don’t believe any of us will ever forget it as long as we live.
…. [T]his leave camp work, to my mind, [is] the most important kind that is being done, outside of the trenches. The strain emotionally and physically is greater than anything which I have so far taken up, but I am sure that I have the strength and that I shall find all that I lack in the way of brawn.
She subsequently was sent to Baccarat, where she described performances by actress-singer Elsie Janis; to the Argonne and St. Mihiel regions; to Verdun, where she served hot chocolate to gaunt—and scrupulously polite—former British POWs; and to Coblenz in Germany after the Armistice. Her accounts of air raids and her stubborn resolution to follow the Ohio regiment to which she and her fellow female YMCA canteen workers had been attached (despite military and YMCA opposition as well as difficult travel conditions) refute the typical assumption that American women did not serve near the front lines. She returned to the United States in July 1919.
In 1920, Baldwin married John Jefferson Flowers Steiner (1893–1971), a major in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers who received the Croix de Guerre and the Distinguished Service Cross for “extraordinary heroism” during an October 1918 reconnaissance under fire near Medeah Farm in France (he eventually reached the rank of colonel). The Steiners’ daughter, Jean, was born in 1921. Their grandson, Roland M. Frye Jr., was an attorney with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.