Mary Fitch Watkins Cushing: AFFW driver, opera insider, dance critic.

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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.

Elizabeth Burt: Reporter, Editor, Yeoman (F).

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Elizabeth I. Burt

In September 1918, Editor & Publisher noted that Elizabeth Ingalls Burt (1889–1973), who had been a Boston Sunday Post reporter, had enlisted as a yeoman (F) and was editing The Salvo, the employee newspaper of the Boston Navy Yard. It stated that Burt was the first female newspaper reporter from Boston to serve in the Navy.

Born in Boston, Burt enlisted in May 1918. During her term as editor, many of The Salvo’s pieces ran without bylines, thus complicating the question of who wrote what. But Burt definitely wrote this July 1918 article.

An earlier Editor & Publisher article outlined Burt’s tactics in obtaining stories, including “play[ing] the part of shop girl, chorus ‘lady,’ waitress, etc.”

It appears that, after the war, Burt was involved in public relations and became manager of the Handel and Hayden Society in Boston.

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Women in LOC’s exhibition on WWI American artists.

World War I: American Artists View the Great War,” the Library of Congress’ exhibition on view until 6 May 2017, includes women such as:

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Eugenie De Land works on her Liberty Bond poster. From The Poster. War Souvenir Ed. 1919

Eugenie De Land (Saugstad, 1872–1961). A student of American illustrator Howard Pyle, De Land taught at DC’s Corcoran School of Art and McKinley Technical High School. She married artist Olaf Saugstad, and her works include a portrait of Kate Waller Barrett (on display at William & Mary’s Botetourt Gallery), a mural at the DC headquarters of the Order of the Eastern Star, a portrait of Declaration of Independence signer George Wythe at the Virginia Historical Society, and a painting of Abraham Lincoln at the battle of Fort Stevens donated by the artist to the Lincoln Museum (now under the aegis of Ford’s Theatre). The LOC exhibition features her 1917 Liberty Bond poster.

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Helen Warner Johns Kirtland, from her 1917 passport application

Helen Johns Kirtland (1890–1979). Daughter of the founder of Johns-Manville, Kirtland photographed the war on assignments with Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly, the Red Cross, and the YMCA. The LOC exhibition features a photo of her at the front dated 1917–18.

Mrs. A. Taylor, a nurse with Anne Morgan and Anne Murray Dike’s American Fund for French Wounded.

Edna M. Walker, Red Cross worker and furniture designer.

Further reading:
Profile of Helen Johns Kirtland, Brooklyn Eagle, 18 Sept. 1927

• “A Woman on the Battle Front” [photos by Helen Johns Kirtland], Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper 24 Aug. 1918. Repr. Around the World with a Camera, New York, 1919.

• List of Eugenie De Land Saugstad’s public artworks

• View illustrations by Eugenie De Land (“Bertha and Laura”; “‘This be a case where history repeats itself'”; “‘Naow, when I wuz in Californy,’ said Farmer Squires to Mrs. Simpson”) in Deborah Gray by Frances C. Ingraham (pseud. of Clara Ingraham Bell), New York, 1903.

 

Velona Pilcher: WWI worker, playwright of “female Journey’s End “

Later, when the camp was asleep, I knew I should be able to hear the hammering of the barrage . . .
— Velona Pilcher, 1919

The blog on playwright, author, and screenwriter R. C. Sherriff (best known for his World War I play Journey’s End, 1928) discusses Sherriff’s acquaintance with Velona Bissell Pilcher (1894–1952), including a May 1929 letter from Pilcher to Sherriff that comments on Journey’s End and her play, The Searcher (1929), which has been described as a “female Journey’s End” in its depiction of a Red Cross worker assigned to track missing soldiers. The Searcher was produced at Yale University in March 1930 (with set design by future Tony winner Donald Oenslager) and at London’s Grafton Theatre in May 1930 (the Times of London reviewer called it “a pretentiously empty piece of expressionism”). Edmund Rubbra composed incidental music for the play, and Blair Hughes-Stanton created stark wood engravings for the published version of the play. In 2008 The Searcher was staged at London’s Greenwich Theatre.

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Image of Julia Bissell from the San Francisco Call, 7 Feb. 1892

Pilcher’s mother, Julia Velona Bissell, was born in Ohio, and her lawyer father, William Pilcher, was British; the couple married in San Francisco in November 1892. After her parents died, Pilcher was raised in the United States by her aunt, Elise Robinson Townsend. Her great-uncle, George Ellis Pugh, was a lawyer and US senator from Ohio; her cousin, Ada Chalfant Robinson, was an artist. Pilcher seems to have been a writer of early promise, because this issue of St. Nicholas magazine records her winning a $5 first prize in a writing competition at age 16. During World War I Pilcher was a member of the Stanford Women’s Relief Unit, working at the AEF hospital facility at Bazeilles-sur-Meuse. Following initial studies at Mills College, she graduated from Stanford in 1919 with a degree in English.

Pilcher also wrote frequently about the theater, and this 1927 article reported that she was a co-manager of London’s Gate Theatre with Peter Godfrey. This chapter by Charlotte Purkis covers Pilcher’s relationship with famed actress Ellen Terry. The Theatres Trust notes Pilcher’s involvement in establishing an experimental theater club in London’s Watergate Theatre in 1949 that featured two Marc Chagall paintings on the walls (which he donated to the Tate in Pilcher’s memory in 1953).

Further reading:
Velona Pilcher, “A Regular Day at a Red Cross Hut,Stanford Illustrated Review, Mar 1919

Velona Pilcher, “Men Worship Me” (poem about a pine tree), 1917

Charlotte Purkis, “The Mediation of Constructions of Pacifism in Journey’s End and The Searcher, two Contrasting Dramatic Memorials from the Late 1920s,” Journalism Studies 17 (2016), 502–16.

 

Winifred Black, reporter.

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Winifred Black. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division

“The victory is won, the war is over and he lies dead in Belleau Wood.

And now?”
—Winifred Black, Washington Herald,
4 Feb. 1919: 1–2

In an article about the Washington Post’s move to new quarters, reporter Roxanne Roberts mentions Winifred Sweet Black Bonfils (aka Annie Laurie, 1863–1936), a pioneering Hearst reporter who also wrote about World War I.

The daughter of Union general Benjamin Jeffrey Sweet and a cousin of Texas Siftings editor Alexander Edwin Sweet, Black had a short-lived stint as an actress before joining the San Francisco Examiner. Her first work (under the pseudonym Annie Laurie) resembled Nellie Bly’s stunt journalism, with articles that resulted in health care reforms in San Francisco. The only woman to cover the devastating Galveston hurricane of 1900, she also reported on the San Francisco earthquake of 1906; child labor and juvenile justice issues; the leper colony at Molokai; and the trial of Harry Thaw, who was accused of killing architect Stanford White over “the girl in the red velvet swing” (Evelyn Nesbit).  A familiar columnist on women’s pages, she was one of eight U.S. female correspondents (including novelist Gertrude Atherton and muckraker Ida Tarbell) who covered the peace conference at Versailles. Despite health problems, she continued to write up to her death in 1936.

She married journalist Orlow Black in 1892 (divorced 1897; one son) and Charles Alden Bonfils, brother of the Denver Post publisher, in 1901 (two children).

Some War-Related Articles by Winifred Black
George and His Furlough,” Washington Times 10 Oct. 1917: 11.
Mission of Cheerful Women,” Pittsburgh Gazette Times 3 Nov. 1918: 6.
A Postscript,” Topeka State Journal 30 Nov. 1918: 10.
Sailing for Europe,” South Bend [IN] News-Times 26 Jan. 1919: 5
Wild Flowers Blow Along Belleau Wood,” Washington Herald 4 Feb. 1919: 1–2.
Giving not Losing,” South Bend [IN] News-Times 22 Feb. 1919: 5.
London Adopts U.S. Slang but Wishes All Americans Would Hurry Back Home,” Ogdensburg [NY] News 23 Feb. 1919: 10.
Our Homecoming Boys,” South Bend [IN] News-Times 22 Mar 1919: 5.
Our Girls ‘Over There,’South Bend [IN] News-Times 29 Mar 1919: 5.

America’s WWI female codebreakers: Elizebeth Friedman, Agnes Meyer.

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Elizebeth Smith, from the Hillsdale College Wolverine, 1915

Elizebeth Smith Friedman (1892–1980) was born in Huntington, IN, and earned a degree in English literature from Hillsdale College (MI) in 1915. She married cryptology pioneer Herbert Friedman in 1917. At Riverbank Laboratories in Illinois she deciphered traffic between Germany and Mexico as well as messages regarding a Hindu-German conspiracy (which resulted in defendants shot dead in a San Francisco courtroom); she also helped train individuals in cryptology. Friedman later worked for the Signal Corps; for the Treasury Dept and Coast Guard, she was particularly effective in cracking codes used in drug and alcohol smuggling. In World War II she worked on the Japanese “Purple” code and provided evidence of the pro-Japan spy activities of Velvalee Dickinson (aka “the Doll Woman”).

Audio: Listen to a 1974 interview in which Friedman discusses her World War I work, or read the transcript.

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Agnes Meyer, from the 1909 Otterbein Sybil.

Nicknamed “Madame X,” Geneseo (IL)-born Agnes Meyer (1889–1971) graduated from Ohio State in 1911 and enlisted in the Navy as a Yeoman (F) in June 1918. Versed in French, German, Japanese, and Latin, she worked in the Postal and Cable Censorship Office. Her job was to examine telegrams and letters for indications of espionage or security breaches. Next, she was assigned to the director of naval communications’ Code and Signal Section, which created codes and ciphers for the Navy. After the war, she continued in this office as a civilian employee, had a stint at the “Black Chamber” in New York, and worked on an early version of a cipher machine.

Meyer married Washington, DC, attorney Michael Driscoll and taught cryptanalysis to Navy personnel. During World War II, she worked on Japanese and German codebreaking. Described as “without peer as a cryptoanalyst” by Rear Admiral Edwin Layton, she remained with the NSA until her retirement in 1959. She died in 1971 and is buried in Arlington Cemetery.

Update, 5-8-17. New book on Friedman
A Life in Code: Pioneer Cryptanalyst Elizebeth Smith Friedman