Over There Theatre League: Rene Dietrich.

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Rene Dietrich, ca. 1915-20. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

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”
“Honey Lou”
“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)
“Old Vienna”
“Tell All Our Friends in America” (with James Donahue)
“That Star-Spangled Baby of Mine” (with James Donahue)

The Over There Theatre League: Amparito Farrar.

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).

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Amparito Farrar. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

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).

She further reported in the 28 Nov. 1918 Musical Leader:

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: WWI entertainers.

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.

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The Connecticut Trio: Norma L. Smith (seated, left), Carolyn Washburn (seated, right), and Irene Richards

Eleanor Butler Roosevelt, canteen worker.

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Eleanor Butler Roosevelt, ca, 1917

Eleanor Butler Alexander Roosevelt (1889–1960) was educated at Miss Spence’s School in New York and in 1910 married Theodore Roosevelt Jr., oldest son of the former president (the latter considered her a “dear girl” but dubbed her father “a skunk”). In July 1917, she headed to France on the Espagne—as a 1 Jan. 1919 Grand Forks Herald article describes—to establish a YMCA canteen in Paris; work in the YMCA center in Aix-les-Bains that hosted approximately 4000 servicemen on leave; tend to Paris’ Hotel Richmond for U.S. officers; and teach French to soldiers. A 17 Mar. 1919 Richmond Palladium and Sun Telegram article adds the information that she also organized and assigned women workers to all the YMCA leave centers as well as supervised the “bath centers” where servicemen on 24 hours’ leave could have a hot bath and have their clothes cleaned and mended.

In the Grand Forks Herald article, Eleanor states:

Our work at the start was ubiquitous. We waited on table, scrubbed floors, painted walls and shelves—doing, by the way, no more than the gallant French women. We cooked doughnuts and made sandwiches. The men seemed greatly gratified by the “Y” work. Any complaints that have been made are those to be expected from a large number of men. We had to combat the natural tendency of the men—released from the horrors of front line service to the relaxation of vacation hours—to complain about various things. (6)

The Library of Congress has an interesting article on Eleanor’s work as a photographer. As the piece notes that Eleanor was subject to migraines, the fact that she could manage the considerable workload of canteens in light of this ongoing problem must be viewed with respect. In Canteening Overseas, 1917–1919, Marian Baldwin, who worked with Eleanor and emphasized the vital services provided by canteens, describes Eleanor as “working like a horse” (72) without sufficient help.

The following film clips show Eleanor and Ted Jr. touring the ruins of Romagne (note that Ted Jr. has a cane; he had been wounded) and Eleanor attending a Women in War Work congress in Paris. She is wearing the simple uniform that she designed for women in YMCA war service. Eleanor returned to the United States in December 1918.

Last day to RSVP, “DC Women in WWI” talk.

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DC’s own Adelia Chiswell (member, Red Cross Motor Corps)

Today is the last day to RSVP for my talk on “DC Women in World War I” at the March 16 luncheon of the Association of the Oldest Inhabitants of DC (AOI), the oldest civic organization in Washington, DC. I’ll also be signing copies of my book In Their Own Words: American Women in World War I.

The luncheon, which is open to nonmembers, will be held at Capitol Skyline Hotel (Metro stop: Navy Yard) from 12–2 pm and is $35 per person. To RSVP, visit the AOI Web site.

Constance Cunningham, YMCA canteen worker.

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Constance Cunningham, 1917

Massachusetts-born Constance Cunningham (1886–1962) served as a YMCA canteen worker in France (from September 1917 to March 1918) and in Luxembourg (from March to June 1919). She was one of 3198 women recruited for YMCA service with the AEF in France. Her father, Frederic Cunningham, was an attorney specializing in marine law and a cofounder of the Boston Legal Aid Society; her uncle was William Lawrence, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts. Before her war service, she lived in France and England for four years. In The Overseas War Record of the Winsor School, 1914–1919, she recounted some of her experiences in France:

Mr. K., our divisional secretary . . . gathered the four Y secretaries and the three Y canteen workers into a Ford camionette and whirled us away into the dripping black night (no street lights and shuttered windows on account of air raids) and deposited us on the railroad quai. Then with bated breath and dramatic gesture he told us that our troops, the first American artillery, were to entrain here, beginning at noon the next day and continuing on a six hour schedule, a battery at a time, and were to leave for the front. Our job was to build a little shelter, set up stoves to dispense hot coffee and make sandwiches to serve to the departing troops. All preparations must be finished by noon the next day, when the first battery was to arrive.
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Julia Shepley Coolidge, canteen worker.

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Julia Shepley Coolidge, from her 1919 passport application

Winsor School graduate and lab technician Julia Shepley Coolidge was the daughter of Charles Allerton Coolidge, an architect who designed buildings for Harvard and Stanford. Beginning in April 1919, she was one of five staffers for a YMCA canteen in the Orkneys serving some 4000 U.S. servicemen and 500 British sailors who were clearing mines from the North Sea.

Coolidge provided a lively account of her work in The Overseas War Record of the Winsor School, 1914–1919. She wrote:

How in a little town of 5,000 people, with absolutely no resources could you keep men happy—men every last one of whom wanted to go home but stayed out on the mine-fields sometimes thirty days at a stretch. Not thirty quiet days, but days of constant danger, mines exploding on all sides, days which were not the eight hour union days, but often the eighteen hour days of a difficult task to be carried through by strong men. . . . .

. . .[I]t was like pouring water into the desert to try to provide sufficient dances, once or usually twice a week was the rule for the Y, the K. C. [Knights of Columbus] gave some, and the boys had their own parties. I danced very nearly every night, after the canteen was closed at ten till the liberty was up at eleven-thirty. . . . .

On the fourth of July there were 2000 men ashore on liberty and we fed them with only three gas burners to work with. . . .

Often I had it said to me by the English officers, “But we think it is wonderful of you to come all the way from America to look after your men, we have been here four years and nobody has done anything for us”. . . I laughed, and said, “You must not give me so much credit. For every Y girl there is over here there are probably 10,000 who would probably like to be in our places. We thought ourselves lucky to get the chance to serve, and where our boys go we always want to follow.” (34–35)

She returned to the United States in December 1919. In April 1921, she married investment broker Frederick Deane, and they moved to China. Their son, Frederick Deane Jr., worked for the CIA during the Korean War and later became president and CEO of the Bank of Virginia.

Aftermath: Health of U.S. Women in WWI.

“Super-sensitive people should not come here.”

—Margaret Hall, on the suicides of her colleagues Dorothea and Gladys Cornwell after their service in France (see Letters and Photographs from the Battle Country)

Although there has been recent coverage about the health care needs of U.S. female service members, it is not a new matter. In 1923, the American Legion called attention to disabled American women who had served in World War I. In 1931, Rep. Edith Nourse Rogers (R–MA), the first congresswoman elected from New England who had served in France and at Walter Reed, asked President Hoover to open homes and hospitals specifically for female veterans.

Accounts of U.S. women who served in the war and had their lives cut short tend to be deeply sad, not least because often little of their story is known. The following are some examples.

  • Yeoman (F) Genevieve Cox Petrone was murdered by her husband on the Southern Pacific ferry Santa Clara in October 1917. The husband’s suicide note included in the newspaper account suggests that Petrone intended to leave him after a history of marital discord. Another newspaper article stated that they were separated.
  • Canteen workers Dorothea and Gladys Cornwell jumped from the ship taking them to the United States in January 1919 after suffering under bombardment in France (discussed in my book In Their Own Words).
  • Azeele Packwood, a member of the New York chapter of the Women’s Motor Corps (affiliated with the Red Cross), was found dead from chloroform asphyxiation at the Palisades in January 1919. According to newspaper accounts, she was despondent after the October 1918 death in France of her close friend (and rumored boyfriend) Dr. Clarence Fahnestock, son of millionaire banker Harris C. Fahnestock. Packwood, the daughter of businessman and Civil War/Spanish-American War veteran George H. Packwood of Tampa, was not mentioned in Fahnestock’s will. Her nephew, Ernest Packwood MacBryde, asserted that she was murdered. Azeele Street in Tampa is named after her. (The New-York Tribune has side-by-side accounts of the Packwood and Cornwell deaths).
  • Former Yeoman (F) Grace Coombs, 28, committed suicide in her lodgings in Washington, DC, in April 1919. Relatives attributed it to ill health. Her brother, Guy Coombs, was an actor in silent films.
  • Yeoman (F) Flossie May Rosell, who graduated in 1917 from Colorado State Normal School (the precursor to University of Northern Colorado) and enlisted in the Navy in September 1918, drowned at Great Falls, VA, in September 1920. Her body was discovered in Maryland.  The coroner deemed it an accident (without hearing testimony from witnesses who had details about Rosell’s despondency due to erratic employment, which probably influenced the earlier accounts listing the death as suicide).
  • Dr. Caroline Purnell’s 1923 obituary attributes her death to overwork during the war. Purnell received the Médaille de la Reconnaissance Française and honorary French citizenship for her service with the American Women’s Hospitals.
  • The 1925 death of war composer and former senior chief yeoman (F) Daisy May Erd is attributed in her death certificate to the tuberculosis she contracted during her military service.
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Members of the New York chapter of the Women’s Motor Corps, September 1918. Azeele Packwood is in the middle row, far right. National Archives.