Boston-born Isabel Weld Perkins (1876–1948) was the daughter of Navy Commodore George H. Perkins and his wife Anna Weld Perkins. (Another war worker, Hope Gray, was a cousin of hers). At age five, she inherited $5 million from the estate of her grandfather, William Fletcher Weld. She was educated at the Winsor School in Boston. In 1897, she married US diplomat Larz Anderson, who was related to the Longworth family of Ohio and later served as US minister to Belgium and ambassador to Japan.
During the Spanish American War, Anderson served on committees of the Colonial Dames and Daughters of the Revolution to assist military families in the Washington, DC, area. After the United States entered World War I in spring 1917, she headed the Washington Refreshment Corps for the Red Cross—an emergency canteen with a mobile kitchen that could serve a high volume of service members at army camps and train stations at all hours of the day and night.
The Red Cross asked for volunteers to serve overseas. As Anderson wrote in Presidents and Pies (1920), “Since few women in our corps were free to go, many of them being officers’ wives, I decided to offer my services” (214). She asked in her 1918 memoir, Zigzagging, “After all, hasn’t a woman just as much right to die for her country as a man?” (xi). She sailed for France on the Espagne in September 1917, noting humorously that the people assigned to her designated lifeboat “were far from pleasing. I did not feel like drowning with them” (Zigzagging 5).
She was first assigned to the canteen at Épernay where she worked with Emma Sterling Lansing, the sister of Secretary of State Robert Lansing. In December 1917, she transferred to Auto-Chir (meaning mobile hospital) No. 7, a Red Cross unit caring for surgical cases that was attached to the Third French Army. This was supervised by Mae Noe Daly, a “screamingly funny person,” according to Daly’s assistant Nora Saltonstall (Out Here at the Front 107). Anderson worked at the hospital at Cugny, which was approximately seven miles from the trenches. She wrote:
My first day, a handsome poilu [French serviceman] with thick black hair and big black eyes was brought in right from the trenches. He had both legs cut off, but fortunately, he did not know it. I stayed by his bedside most of the time after he came out of the ether, but he died at ten that night.
I became especially interested the next day in a little blond man who had been wounded three times and given every kind of decoration. He died that evening. After this I was so exhausted and sad that I hardly slept, and cried most of the night. . . . Indeed, I was discouraged, but kept going and didn’t lose an hour’s work. (Zigzagging 58–59)
During a vacation break from the Auto-Chir, Anderson dined with the king and queen of Belgium and met twice with General Pershing (as she had previously known him in the Philippines). She visited a friend, American-born Frances Belt Wickersham Hadfield (Lady Hadfield), who operated a hospital in Wimereux at her own expense. Amid these adventures, Anderson learned that the Germans had shot four of the Cugny physicians.
Anderson went next with her Auto-Chir colleagues to Royalieu, which featured a “cook, a returned refugee, [who] was drunk most of the time, and one night poured kerosene on the meat” (Zigzagging 183). In addition to caring for the wounded “terribly shot to pieces” (185), Anderson experienced the German bombing within a few miles of the town and visited facilities for refugee children.
Anderson headed back to the United States in May 1918. In June, she became the first woman to receive an honorary degree from George Washington University. She returned to mobile canteen work and visited wounded service members at Walter Reed. For her service, she received the Croix de Guerre, Medal of Queen Elisabeth of Belgium with Red Cross, and the Commemorative War Medal of France.
In addition to her war memoir (called by the 22 Dec. 1918 Washington, DC, Evening Star “bright, straightforward, and unpretentious” ), she published children’s books, drama, fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and travel accounts. Two years after her husband’s death in 1937, she donated the home they built in Washington, DC—a social, political, and cultural nexus of the time—to the Society of the Cincinnati, which has remained there to this day. After her death in 1948, she was interred in Washington National Cathedral.
Bibliography of works by Isabel Anderson
Stephen T. Moskey, Larz and Isabel Anderson: Wealth and Celebrity in the Gilded Age (2016)