On November 13 at 7 pm at the Lyceum in Alexandria, I’ll be speaking on “‘The Glorious Undying Spirit of Pluck’: Alexandria Women in World War I.” I also will be signing copies of my book In Their Own Words: American Women in World War I (sold by Alexandria’s bookstore Hooray for Books). Tickets are $10 (including wine/dessert reception), available here.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
“…[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.
In honor of Women’s History Month and the April 6 centenary of the US entry into World War I, I’ll be speaking at 2 pm on March 26 at Jarrettsville Library (Jarrettsville, MD) about my anthology In Their Own Words: American Women in World War I. I’m looking forward to it, as I’m told one of the library’s book groups includes female veterans.
New Haven mayor Toni Harp mentioned Helen Eugenia Hagan—the only black musician sent to play for the AEF in WWI France and 1912 Yale alumnus—in her State of the City address on February 6.
• Read more about Hagan
• Listen to an excerpt from Hagan’s only extant composition, the Concerto in C Minor