A follow-up to the crowdfunding campaign I spearheaded in 2016 to obtain a grave marker for Black composer-pianist and World War I entertainer Helen Eugenia Hagan in New Haven: the New Haven Symphony (with which Hagan performed) honored Hagan with its History Award on February 6. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D–CT) also inserted an item in the Congressional Record saluting Hagan’s achievements.
Born in Terre Haute, IN, Alice Louise Wright (1887–1961) was the granddaughter of Terre Haute grocer E. R. Wright. In 1907, she married electrician Robert Wallace Coffey. She studied commercial art at the Art Institute of Chicago and later taught art. She and her husband divorced in 1916. She became a member of the YMCA-affiliated Over There Theatre League, first singing at Camp Mills in New York and Camp Dix in New Jersey. In October 1918, she traveled to France to entertain the troops with other members of the league. According to the Terre Haute Saturday Spectator of 16 August 1919, her group of five was dubbed the “Yankee Girls,” and the group performed in Belgium; Germany; Lorraine; Switzerland, and the environs of Bordeaux, Dijon, La Rochelle, and Paris in France. She mostly sang ballads at Red Cross huts and larger venues but did give some hospital performances (the flu patients attended wearing masks). One somewhat comical episode occurred when the piano used by her troupe only had four working keys; Coffey managed to cope, and the service members still enjoyed the performance.
An 8 February 1919 article from the Saturday Spectator furnishes a glimpse of her Christmas Day 1918 via quotes from her letters:
We were taken to the big embarkation camp at noon, and had a big dinner. A band of thirty pieces played during our meal. Then I sang a few songs and Miss [Blanche] Savoy danced. The band ate while we entertained. Then the tables were cleared away and we danced for an hour. Then we were driven 25 miles to an artillery camp, and had another dinner with the officers there. . . .
Our evening Christmas dinner was in an unique chateau. Everything was lighted with tall white candles and the holly was everywhere. Big grate fires were burning. Of course, being a French home, the silver, china, and service were lovely, and it was beautifully decorated with holly and mistletoe. At the “Yankee Girls” places were exquisite corsages, boxes of candy, etc. During the meal we were given toys, etc., by Santa Claus, and it was a delightful affair. (16–17)
The 8 February 1919 Saturday Spectator article provides further insight into her experiences:
We are going out to a balloon station this time. We shall have mess with the officers and give our show and return . . .
Yesterday we went to a big naval air station. . . . . Up to the present time it is the biggest theatre we have played in. It was a real theatre, seating between three and four thousand, and it was packed.
Our unit usually dances with the boys awhile after each performance and we talk with them. That is what they like. I met a few Terre Haute men lately. . . . .
Today I sang for a Y. M. C. A. banquet, and was the only one in the unit asked. I sang “The Star” and “A Bowl of Roses” and an officer down in front cried. That is the reason I object to singing the pathetic songs.
A few days ago we were sent to one of the Armour refrigerator camps on request. One of the Chicago Armours is major there and it is one of four camps receiving and storing food for the United States boys in France. A wonderful place! . . . .
We are on a southern circuit now, and shall be here for a month. We shall either go into Germany or to Nice in southeastern France. . . . .We are having a marvelous trip now. Most of our work is in the logging camps. We are also working in Canadian camps, for their entertainment department doesn’t get to them often. These Canadians are wonderful men, and hosts. They have never let anything undone for our comfort while with them. . . . .
We go this afternoon to Ponseux, about twelve miles away, and will be in and out of there for five days. On Jan. 20 and 22 we go to Bayonne and will be near Biarri[t]z. (16–17)
Wright was back in the United States by July 1919. According to the 23 February 1921 New York Clipper, she sailed to Panama in mid-February 1921 to work as an entertainer and a performer in government-sponsored films. Sometime in 1921, she married engineer James Janney Lippincott, who was working in Panama, and the couple returned to the United States in May 1923. According to the 1944 lawsuit Lippincott v. Lippincott, James Lippincott abandoned his wife in 1928. John Oliphant’s Brother Twelve indicated that he had become involved with the Aquarian Foundation, a New Age religion. The 1930 census listed Alice Louise Lippincott as an artist living in Los Angeles.
As early as 1890, Sarah Mildred Willmer (1881–1949) was delivering dramatic monologues, eventually appearing in northeastern, midwestern, and western venues and billing as “the Sarah Bernhardt of the Lyceum.” One of her frequent performances was “The Sign of the Cross” by Wilson Barrett. In 1907, she met physicians William and Lena Sadler (Lena was the niece of cornflakes co-inventor John Harvey Kellogg), and they became friends. This promotional flyer shows that they often appeared together on the Chautauqua circuit. As the 25 Aug. 1912 Chicago Tribune documented, Willmer married minister Edward V. Bond at the Sadler home in Chicago (Bond died in 1915 from a cardiac problem).
In July 1918, the Lyceum Magazine noted that Willmer would be going overseas as a YMCA entertainer, refusing a salary and cancelling a 10-week Chautauqua contract for the opportunity (31). In Aug. 1918, Willmer sailed for France. Her account in the 22 Dec. 1918 Chicago Tribune (4) describes harrowing experiences:
“Are you afraid to go to the front?” [asked the YMCA man]
“That’s where I want to go.”. . . .
I was whirled over a thin white ribbon of a road through the valley of the Meuse and we arrived at a town. There were no inhabitants except American troops. . . . An officer moved out of his room and gave it to me. . . . rats—O, plenty of them, big as cats, that would scamper all over the place and me at night, and snuggle down in my warm blankets. None ever bit me, but one morning, as I woke, eight of them jumped from my bed. . . . .
Aided by friendly officers—entirely outside regulations and unknown to the ‘Y’ man in charge of the base—I would dress in a soldier’s uniform and go up to the front, in total darkness.
I went up one night, in a darkness which was uncanny; with shells bursting about us, with machine guns and all the other death dealing agencies actively at work, with pandemonium literally let loose, to a first aid dressing station.
O, it was horrible. The boys were brought in on litters, all in darkness, and as the surgeons and attendants passed along they would flash a little light on one for a brief instant, then on another, and in this way they had to be cared for. I wondered if it was right for me to be there, and I was frightened, O so frightened, but I did not dare to let that be known, for I was supposed to be a man. I helped with the boys who were brought in, and saw vividly the horror of it all, the lads dying and suffering, and had to remain quiet.
She also related an episode of servicemen hearing about the Armistice:
An officer—a colonel—entered the place. . . . . He flashed a smile, held up his hand, and said:
“Boys, she’s signed.” . . .
Immediately a mighty cheer went up, and then those 2,000 lads sang the Doxology as I never heard it sung before—and never expect to again. And then this officer said to me: “Miss Wilmer [sic], if you have a breath left in you, will you recite the ‘Salute to the Flag’?”
I did. Every hat went off in an instant, and then the men sang “The Star Spangled Banner” and “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” . . . One young fellow said:
“Gee, ain’t it great?”
And then, in a sorrowful tone:
“And my buddy killed only this morning and can’t be here for it.”
Willmer was gassed twice—once at Verdun and once in the Argonne forest. The latter—a dose of chlorine gas “burning in my lungs”—necessitated her return to Chicago in December 1918, where she stayed with the Sadlers. The Chicago Tribune account credits her with receiving a Croix de Guerre, but this is not listed in the YMCA’s 1918–19 Yearbook and Official Roster of the Young Men’s Christian Associations of Canada and the United States of America with the other decorations received by YMCA personnel.
By April 1919, she was back on the performance circuit and continued throughout the 1920s. Her 14 July 1949 obituary in the Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester, NY) indicates that she opened a confectionary in Rochester in 1928, which failed in the depression. She became involved in social work and worked with the deaf on lip-reading and speech.
Her obituary includes a married daughter, Elizabeth Ann Wales, with 1930 and 1940 census records indicating a 1921 or 1922 birthdate. However, as newspaper clippings show that Willmer was maintaining a busy touring schedule in the early 1920s, it is likely the child was adopted. The obituary also lists a granddaughter, Dianna Kathleen Wales.
Soprano Irene Anna Dieterich was born in Washington, DC, in April 1886 and graduated from DC’s Business High School in 1902. She studied with Otto Freytag at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Stuttgart and composed “The Teddy Bear March” (1907) in honor of President Theodore Roosevelt (listen to a recording).
Adopting Rene Dietrich as her stage name, she appeared in operas, musical comedies, and vaudeville. She met British-born Horace Wright when they were singing in “The Bohemian Girl” with the Aborn Opera Company; they married in May 1909. They sometimes appeared together as “The Somewhat Different Singers.” For Victor Records, they recorded songs such as “On the Beach at Waikiki,” “My Luau Girl,” and “Isles of Aloha.”
Along with Billy Gould, Louise Carlyle, and Gilbert Gregory, Dietrich and Wright were members of the “Yankee Doodle Five” that entertained US troops in France as part of the Over There Theatre League under the aegis of the YMCA.
Dietrich and Wright arrived in France in August 1918. A 1 Nov. 1918 letter from Dietrich was excerpted in the December 1918 issue of Variety:
We have just returned to Paris for the first time, after nine weeks’ continuous work in the field. . . . The officers tell us a good show raises the morale of the boys 100 percent. . . .
Miss Carlyle and I always make it a point to shake hands and talk to as many boys as we can after each show, and believe me, I have had fellows actually cry with happiness when I talked to them. . . . [T]his whole experience is one which brings out the best in all of us, and when it is all over, I am sure the realization that we were able in our small way to help these fine boys right here when they needed us most, will be the greatest comfort, satisfaction and joy that we can have.
We are all having experiences such as we never dreamed of before, but the inconveniences and little hardships we always see in a humorous light and the boys’ gratitude is our sweetest reward. The only thing that troubles me is that after playing on wagon tops, under all sorts of circumstances in the open, in tents and huts–sometimes with a bum little old organ or just the ukelele for our “orchestra,” we won’t know how to act under normal conditions again at home. We have played within a few hundred yards of the lines with the Boche flying over us and on several occasions where we had to have our gas masks in the alert position and our “tin hats” on. Once in an old village we gave our show in a church, using the altar for the stage and the candles as footlights. . . . .Aside from our work with the Yankee Doodle Five, Mr. Wright and I often go through the wards of the hospitals, singing for the men who are badly wounded. And sometimes in the railroad stations or while we are traveling, I’ll get out the little old ukelele and we give the boys a few songs to brighten them on their way. (8, 18)
Dietrich and Wright continued performing after the war, especially in the vicinity of their New Jersey home, and occasionally on the radio. Wright became a car salesman and died in March 1939. Dietrich married Victor W. Mori, former rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Madison, NJ.
Other compositions by Rene Dietrich
“An American Girl for Me”
“Because of You”
“Everybody Acts Like Us When They’re Falling in Love”
“I Heard You Singing on My Radio”
“I’m After You” (with Horace Wright)
“The Little White House with the Little Red Roof (Tucked Away in the Heart of the Hills)”
“I Love to Promenade with Madelon”
“Old Fashioned Home on the Hill” (with Horace Wright)
“Tell All Our Friends in America” (with James Donahue)
“That Star-Spangled Baby of Mine” (with James Donahue)
The Over There Theatre League, headed by theater legend George M. Cohan and theater director-producer-playwright Winthrop Ames, formed in April 1918 to mobilize volunteer performers for entertaining US troops in France under the auspices of the YMCA. According to the 24 Apr 1918 New York Times, nearly 2,000 theater professionals attended the first meeting (but a 1 November 1918 issue of Variety signaled discord between the league and those rejected for performances in France).
According to the 3 May 1918 Variety, “No woman under 25 will be eligible as an entertainer overseas” (23). One female league participant was the 25-year-old Amparito Farrar, soprano (1893–1989, no relation to opera star Geraldine Farrar). Promoted from chorus girl to star of the 1914 production of High Jinks, Farrar sang for service members at the new base hospital at Fox Hills, Staten Island, before leaving the United States in Aug 1918 with her mother, who served as her accompanist, for four months in France. She said in the 15 Aug 1918 Musical Leader, “I want to bring them solace and comfort when they come back wounded or for first aid. I consider my work just as much first aid as the medical treatment…” (149).
As the 2 Oct. 1918 New Era noted, Farrar stated:
I have sung in motor camps, ‘Y’ and Knights of Columbus huts, Salvation Army bakeries, Red Cross hospitals and even at the bedsides of the boys, one at a time, everything from grand opera to ‘Tickle Toe’ [probably a song from the 1917 musical Going Up]. I even dance a little” (9).
I have looked over the German line as far as the Rhine. . . . Last week I was in a very beautiful part of the country, singing every night, being forced to ride from fifteen to twenty miles every day to do so. . . . In the afternoon I went with one of the ‘Y’ men to see a track meet for a negro regiment arranged by white officers. After it was over they all gathered around a little bank of grass, over 3,300 of them, and I sang many songs to them amidst cheers and yells of delight. (“Amparito Farrar Writes from France” 521)
In June 1919, Farrar married surgeon Goodrich Truman Smith, who had treated her in France for influenza.
Listen to Farrar sing the World War I song “Madelon.”
The Connecticut Trio was composed of Nutmeg State performers Carolyn Washburn (violinist and an industrial secretary of the YMCA in Hartford, 1880–1967), (Annie) Irene Richards (a dancer who graduated from Oberlin in 1913 and physical training director of the YWCA in Hartford, b. 1891), and Norma Lelia Smith (voice teacher, accompanist, and singer, b. 1893). Signing up as YMCA entertainers, they left for France in January 1919, but their path was not a smooth one. According to a letter from Washburn in the 2 June 1919 Hartford Courant, she was questioned by the British before her departure about her activities over the past four years and about a Baron Koff (possibly Baron Sergei Korff, who became a professor of international law at the University of Georgia). It is possible that the British believed she was related to war correspondent Stanley Washburn (1878–1950), who reported from the Russian front and was connected to US diplomatic missions involving Russia.
In addition, the ship of the Connecticut Trio, the Lapland, sprung a leak due to previous torpedo damage “and let in eight feet of water, more than the machine could possibly pump out, then a three-day storm came up. . . .The old steamer listed on one side constantly, giving us a most unwelcome view of the fifty feet waves tossing over and under and around until all were desperate” (“One of Conn. Trio Mistaken for Spy” 3).
After their arrival in Liverpool, the trio gave a concert in Lincoln and were requested by the British YMCA to perform in Plymouth, Winchester, and other British locations before proceeding to France. Washburn told of a lack of heat and lodgings in French ruins where “if we were fortunate enough to draw the second floor we climbed up a step ladder to enter” (3). She wrote:
Each night at 7 o’clock . . .we are called for by some sort of vehicle—Ford or Red Cross truck. . . At 7:30 o’clock we are several kilo[meter]s away performing in our best clothes in a hut or tent; maybe an American organ, possibly a piano with no ivories, no stage or one made out of a piano box, but always an audience. The attendance averages 900. Often we play for 2,000 in one group. . . . . We have been through 200 miles of battlefronts and shelled roads, trenches, barbed wire; have seen lost families and lonely women everywhere rebuilding their ruins, families moving back in two-wheeled carts with a feather bed and a dog behind their only property. The roads are depressing to travel, crosses all along the sides marking the graves of some ally or enemy, also a lonely cross now and then against the outline of the horizon, with trenches, maddening barbed wire and shell holes, dugouts with deserted ammunition marked in German script, all forming a horrible foreground. (3)
Washburn’s brother Wilford A. Washburn Jr., who had enlisted in the Canadian infantry, had died of wounds in Amiens in August 1918, and Washburn visited his grave. The book Jefferson County in the World War states that the Connecticut Trio also performed in Belgium and Holland. Smith returned to the United States in July 1919, and Washburn and Richards in September 1919. Smith sang in vaudeville under the name Norma Grey. Washburn was listed on the faculty of the Hartford School of Music in 1922–23 and opened her own studio in 1924.
“Then came the morning of Nov the 11th….By two o’clock the streets were swarming with men, women and children, marching aimlessly back and forth, hugging and kissing each other and sometimes trying to sing the Marseillaise.
” With friends of the Marine Corps I drove down to the Place de la Concorde through the Champs Elysee and into the Bois. . . . ephemeral things, such as war, and immortal things, such as love, seemed once again, after four years of nightmare, to slip into their rightful proportions to each other.”
—US playwright Margaret Mayo, who witnessed the Armistice in Paris, 1918.
From Trouping for the Troops 145–47
Today marks the centenary of the U.S. entry into World War I. Here are a few American women’s reactions at the time about this development.
On a visit to England in 1915, Ohio-born actress Elsie Janis had sung for British wounded. She wrote in The Big Show (xi), “I was never really happy again until April 7, 1917, when America stepped in to take her share of the burden and glory of the world.” She headed off to France in 1918 to entertain the AEF for six months.
Wrote Boston native Amy Owen Bradley, an American Fund for French Wounded motor driver, from Quimper, France, on 8 April 1917:
Above the “Mairie” opposite, a huge French flag flung out. Under it were the flags of all the Allies, and in the middle, taller than all the others, our own beloved stars and stripes, floating in the breeze. . . .[We] asked for the Mayor’s secretary . . . we, as Americans, thanked him, for America, for putting our flag with the others, where for so long we had wanted it to be. (Back of the Front in France 26)
New Jersey-born refugee worker Esther Sayles Root wrote similarly from Paris on the same day:
The long-waited-for news of our actually going to war had rejoiced us all yesterday, but it was more thrilling than we ever could have imagined to drive past the big French Administration Buildings and see the Stars and Stripes waving with the other Allies’ flags in the Easter sunshine! To be one of the Allies at last! To have our flag and the French flag flying side by side as they should be, to have our great country wake up and fight its own fight—it is not only Easter but Thanksgiving to-day. (Over Periscope Pond 131)