Tag Archives: history

The Year Mandela was Born: South Africa in 1918

A couple of months into this project, I was chatting with my 13-year-old nephew during an outing to Simon’s Town, a coastal village south of Cape Town. He’s a YouTuber, and we were talking about building an audience. He had a bigger following than I did, and I was hoping he could give me some tips.

“What do you write about again?” he asked me.

“Things that happened a hundred years ago,” I said.

“Kids don’t care about that,” he told me.

“I don’t write for kids,” I said.

“Who do you write for?” he asked. “Old people?”

“Yes,” I said.*

“Then you should write about things that old people care about, like Mandela,” he said.

Four months later, on the 100th anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s birth, I’m taking his advice.

Nelson Mandela, ca. 1941 (Nelson Mandela Foundation)

A baby being born in a village in the eastern Cape is not the stuff of international headlines, of course, so I can’t tell you about the birth itself. I can tell you, though, about the South Africa Nelson Mandela was born into and would grow up to transform.

With war raging in Europe, the outside world wasn’t paying much attention to South Africa. There was a fascinating article about the country’s “native problem,” though, in the December 8, 1917, issue of the New Republic. It was written by R.F. Alfred Hoernlé, who, despite his Afrikaans-sounding last name, was a British academic (with a German grandfather) who had taught for three years at what is now the University of Cape Town.**

R.F. Alfred Hoernlé, date unknown

Hoernlé gets to the crux of the problem right away:

The native problem dominates the South African scene. Whatever political issues and movements show in the foreground, it supplies the permanent background. However much the white population of South Africa may be absorbed in the racial*** and economic rivalries of the immediate present, it cannot but be profoundly apprehensive about its future, as long as the native problem remains unsolved.

Hoernlé points out that

Though in name a democracy, South Africa is in fact a small white aristocracy superimposed on a large native substratum.

Not that he’s advocating anything crazy, like making it a real democracy.

It is not a question, mainly, of the natives’ present unfitness for the vote, which everyone must readily grant.**** It is a question of political development. No policy which would ultimately involve that the white should admit the mass of the blacks to political power has any chance of acceptance, on the face of the unalterable numerical superiority of the blacks.

Jan Smuts, Elliott & Fry, 1917 (National Portrait Gallery)

So what to do?

To that question a speech which General [Jan] Smuts delivered in London, in May of this year, furnishes an answer. He rightly characterizes the problem as one of maintaining “white racial unity in the midst of the black environment.” This depends, in part, on avoiding two mistakes, viz., mere exploitation of the natives, and racial intermixture. The white races, Smuts insists, must strictly observe the racial axiom, “No intermixture of blood between the two colors,” and the moral axiom, “Honesty, fair-play, justice, and the ordinary Christian virtues must be the basis of all our relationship with the natives.”*****

And how does Smuts plan to achieve this?  Hoernlé tells us that

Any incorporation of the black into the structure of white society is bound to raise, in the long run, the problem of admitting them to citizenship, giving them the vote, and treating them as the white man’s political equals. There is only one way of avoiding this result, and that way is segregation of the native—the creation of the land in a chequered pattern of white and black areas. This is the policy to which General Smuts pins his hopes…

The idea is, wherever there are large bodies of natives, to assign to them definitive areas within which no white man may own land. The native, on his side, is to be forbidden to own land in white areas, though he is to be free to go and work for the white man. The races having been thus territorially separated, each is to live under its own political institutions…

A beginning has so far been made by the Natives’ Land act of 1913, a purely temporary measure designed chiefly to prevent speculation in land in anticipation of later legislation.

Sol Plaatje, ca. 1900 (From “Native Life in South Africa”)

That’s one take on the Natives Land Act. Another comes from black writer and activist Sol Plaatje, who wrote in the 1914 classic Native Life in South Africa that

Awaking on Friday morning, June 20, 1913, the South African native found himself, not actually a slave, but a pariah in the land of his birth.

Map showing areas allocated to black South Africans under the Natives Land Act of 1913

The Natives Land Act prevented South Africans from buying land in 93% of South Africa. It would also have disenfranchised non-white voters in the Cape, the only place where they had the right to vote (some of them, that is—there were education and property qualifications), but the courts struck that provision down. As far as the law’s “purely temporary” nature goes, its impact continues today: under post-apartheid land restitution legislation, South Africans have the right to claim land taken from their ancestors only after its passage.

Hoernlé calls the partition/self-determination scheme “promising in principle.” The challenge, he says, is to come up with a fairer division of land than the one proposed by a recent commission, which allocates South Africa’s five million black inhabitants a little over 12% of South Africa’s territory and reserves the rest to the 1,250,000 whites. (This was exactly the breakdown when the black “homelands” were created during apartheid.)

If the “natives” are treated justly, Hoernlé said, there is a path to peace. But he’s not hopeful.

At present, the eye that would pierce the future, sees the deepening shadow of the native problem creep slowly but surely over the sunny spaces of South Africa.

Me in Pretoria (in flowery sundress), December 1989

People often ask me if 1918 reminds me of our world today. For the most part it doesn’t, at least as far as the United States is concerned. There are similarities, of course, but a country where lynchings were commonplace and women couldn’t vote and want ads specified Christians only is, thankfully, not one I recognize. The South Africa Hoernlé describes, on the other hand, differs hardly at all from the country I arrived in as a young diplomat in 1988.

It would take over seven decades for the South Africa Mandela was born into to change fundamentally—decades during which he would grow up, become a lawyer, join the liberation struggle, spend 27 years in prison, and emerge to lead his people to freedom.

Earliest known photo of Nelson Mandela (back row, fifth from right), Healdtown Secondary School

*No offense! The baseline here is 13.

**UPDATE 11/09/2019: Hoernlé popped up in Young Eliot, Robert Crawford’s biography of T.S. Eliot. He taught Eliot as a visiting professor at Harvard and later joined the Harvard philosophy faculty. Hoernlé was a (laudatory) reviewer for Eliot’s Ph.D. dissertatation and was chair of the  philosophy department when it considered, but ultimately decided against, offering Eliot a position.

***That is, English vs. Afrikaner.

****“Everyone” meaning whites, of course. Black South Africans don’t have a say in this matter because…well, they don’t have the vote. (Mostly. We’ll get to that.)

*****Jan Smuts was the Woodrow Wilson of South Africa, renowned statesman abroad and racist at home. He was considered a liberal in South Africa, which gives you an idea of why “liberal” remains a swear word among black South Africans today.

What’s Your 1918 Girl Job? Take This Quiz and Find Out!

One of the (few) disappointments about reading in 1918 is that nothing’s interactive. Of course, I understood when I started this project that my days of discovering what secondary Jane Austen character I most resemble were over for a while.* And I knew that crossword puzzles were a few years away from being invented.

But still, there could be quizzes, or personality tests, or…something. But no. The year peaked with the vocabulary-based intelligence test in the Literary Digest in February. After that, nada. Unless you were a kid, in which case you got to enter St. Nicholas magazine contests, and cut out paper dolls from women’s magazines, and make this actually extremely cool diorama that I am definitely going to get to one of these days.

Delineator, June 1918

Being a grownup, I was left to make my own entertainment. Which I did when I came across this article in the June 1918 Ladies’ Home Journal:

What’s a girl to do, LHJ asks, when the war’s over and the boys come home and want their jobs back? Answer: find yourself a girlier one.

But which one’s for you? LHJ helps you figure it out by providing questions where you match your skills and personality traits with each job.

Which, to the modern sensibility, screams QUIZ. So I added a scoring system and turned it into one.

Here’s how it works: Rank yourself on each attribute. If you have no basis for assessing yourself, estimate how you would score. Add up your points.

Okay, here goes! Get your 1918 pencils out.**

Who Will Make a Good Teacher?

Teacher and students standing next to the Lamoine [Washington] School in 1918 (Library of Congress)

THE GIRL WITH—

Steady nerves (1-5 points) and a sound body (1-5 points).

Clear brain (1-5 points), warm heart (1-5 points), and sympathetic imagination (1-5 points).

Power to build the school into the community (1-5 points).

Enthusiasm for boys and girls that will keep her from becoming a machine (1-5 points).

What Makes a Good Office Worker

American Lumberman, 1907

THE GIRL WHO HAS—

Swift, careful fingers (1-5 points) and an agile brain (1-5 points).

Good eyesight (1-5 points), good hearing (1-5 points), and good memory (1-5 points).

Good judgment (1-5 points) and a sense of responsibility (1-5 points).

The Successful Saleswoman

Loras College, Center for Dubuque History

THE SALESWOMAN YOU LIKE IS—

Alert (1-5 points), courteous (1-5 points, then double your score), and energetic (1-5 points).

Interested in her customer’s needs (1-5 points, then double your score).

Thoroughly acquainted with her stocks (1-5 points).

The Dressmaker and The Milliner

Loras College, Center for Dubuque History

TYPES OF ABILITY REQUIRED—

The seamstress must have skill in hand (1-5 points) and machine (1-5 points) sewing.

The dressmaker needs not only technical skill (1-5 points) but creative (1-5 points) and artistic (1-5 points) ability.

The milliner has need of artistic skill (do not score; included under dressmaker) and business sense (1-5 points).

The sewing teacher should combine technical knowledge (do not score; included under dressmaker) and ability to teach others (1-5 points).

 The Broad Field of Domestic Science

Home economics class, Toronto, 1911 (Archives of Ontario)

FOR THE WOMAN WITH—

Skilled hands (1-5 points, then double your score).

A practical turn of mind (1-5 points, then double your score) and the best training (1-5 points).

Ability to command the respect of other people (1-5 points, then double your score).

Got your score? Okay, here’s what, according to LHJ, you can expect from your girl profession. (The assumption being, of course, that you’re white and Christian.)

Teacher

New York Times, July 14, 1918

OPPORTUNITIES FOR TEACHERS—

Teaching is the oldest profession*** for girls outside the home. It offers greater variety of choice to-day than ever before and is especially attractive to the girl with social vision. It is a vocation, not a bread-and-butter job. Salaries are not high, but advancement is certain for the teacher that makes good.

Office Worker

New York Times, July 14, 1918

POSITIONS AND PAY—

Experienced stenographer, $10-25 a week;

Court stenographer, $2000-3000 a year;

Private secretary, $900-1800 a year.****

THE OUTLOOK—

The field is overstocked with half-trained, incompetent stenographers. But for girls with good general education and technical skill there is always room. There are too many $8 a week girls, too few $25 a week ones. For the girl with executive ability, broad education and business experience there are many new openings.

Saleswoman

New York Times, July 14, 1918

KIND OF PERSON IN STORES—

Errand and cash girls;

Cashiers and examiners;

Saleswomen;

Hands of stock and buyers.

WAGES AND CONDITIONS—

The average pay is low, hours long, and the work is not easy, but employment is steady for the competent worker. Hours have been shortened, however, and conditions improved by the activity of the Consumers’ League. Chances for advancement are good, however, for the ambitious girl in the employ of a good firm.

Dressmaker and Milliner

WAGES AND CONDITIONS—

A first-class seamstress or dressmaker is always in demand at $1.50 to $3.50 a day;

The millinery season is short and the hours long. The average milliner needs another trade for the dull season;

The salary for assistant sewing teachers is small, but good for heads of department.

Domestic Science

New York Times, July 14, 1918

SOME OF THE KINDS OF POSITIONS—

Matron or house mother in college dormitory;

Superintendent, purveyor, or dietitian in an institution;

Domestic science teacher in school or Y.W.C.A.;

Manager of a small hotel, summer or all the year;

Visiting housekeeper employed by private families or by the city;

Director of cafeteria, tea, or lunch rooms.

SALARIES—

Teacher, domestic science, $800 and up;

Cafeteria director, $700-1800;

Assistant matron, $200-600, plus board;

Matron, $600-1200, plus living expenses.

FUTURE—

The field of domestic science is not crowded and kinds of positions are multiplying.

I got TEACHER! (30/35.)

Which was a huge relief because, when I took the test before recalibrating it to make the points in each category match up, I got OFFICE WORKER. (27/35 this time around.) Being a court stenographer might be all right, given the interesting crimes I’m always reading about, like painting your pencil a treasonous color and wearing a second lieutenant’s uniform after being discharged for setting your yacht on fire to collect the insurance money. And being a half-trained, incompetent stenographer sounds appealing in a screwball comedy kind of way. But the problem with OFFICE WORKER is that the crucial question is missing: How well would you deal with taking orders all day from a man you’re way smarter than, for a fraction of his pay? I would get a 0 for that.

I got a terrible score in DOMESTIC SCIENCE. (18/35.) Being a matron in a college dormitory might be fun, though. Or director of a tea room. Reading Edna Ferber’s stories rid me of any ambitions I might have had of being a SALESWOMAN (24/35). As for DRESSMAKER (22/35), well, this picture of me in a dress I made in high school says it all:

If I were a middle-class American woman in 1918, I imagine that I would have been a teacher. Probably a pretty happy and capable one.

Or maybe I would have gone for a war job, like this one.

New York Times, July 15, 1918

Or this one—big enough for any intelligent man!

New York Times, July 15, 1918

Or—top choice—one of these.

New York Times, July 15, 1918

(All of these jobs were advertised in the “Help Wanted – Female” section—there were no gender-neutral want ads.)

Judging by what happened to most women, though, I’m not optimistic about my chances of hanging on after the men came home. It’s lucky, then, that I’m living a time when women can be diplomats. And late-in-life creative writing students. And time-traveling bloggers.

So…what’s YOUR 1918 girl job?

* The insipid Captain Benwick from Persuasion. Which is crazy. I’m totally Jane Fairfax.

** Don’t worry, I checked, and pencils weren’t made of lead back then, or ever. The reason we call the graphite in pencils lead is that graphite was mistaken for lead when it was first discovered.

*** “Oldest profession” struck me as an unfortunate choice of words, so I did a Google NGram,

which showed that this phrase has only been around since—about 1918, actually. I did some research (okay, looked on Wikipedia) and found that the phrase began making its way into the language after Kipling referred to “the most ancient profession” in an 1889 short story. This is the kind of discovery that makes all those hours of photo file size reduction worthwhile for the weary blogger.

**** A surprising omission from this list is bookkeeper. A lot of women had this job, including my grandmother (on my mother’s side–it was my grandmother on my father’s side who may have marched with the Czechoslovakians in the July 4 parade).

The Parade of the Century: New York, July 4, 1918

I was all set to get working on the best and worst of June 1918—belatedly, due to my ruminations on reaching the midpoint of this project—when they had a humongous 4th of July parade in New York. Change of plan! June was a slow month for bests and worsts anyway, so I’ll roll it into July.

So! The parade!

New York, July 4, 1918 (International Film Service)

The theme was loyalty—specifically, how loyal all the different nationalities living in our land are to the U.S.A. But a mini-WWI broke out during the planning, with other delegations objecting to the Hungarian historical display, what with Hungary being at war with their nationalities and also with the United States. So a deal was struck: Hungarian historical characters out, Hungarian national costumes in. But the Italian Four-Minute Men* objected to the costumes, and the Hungarians said if they couldn’t wear costumes they weren’t coming, and finally the Grand Marshal brokered another deal whereby no one would wear national costumes. Which seems to defeat the purpose of a parade of nationalities.

In the end, the New York Times said,

the reflection of European antagonisms did not appear in the parade, and nationalist displays which had been found objectionable when the advance program was made known had been censored to fit the demands of the spirit of the day.

Because what expresses the spirit of the Glorious Fourth like censorship?

4th of July parade, New York, 1918, Arnold Genthe (Library of Congress)

There were political machinations as well. William Randolph Hearst invited practically all of congress—members, the New York Times said, of “both the Republican and Democratic faiths”—to come up from Washington for the parade and other amusements, including the Ziegfeld Follies and a gala dinner at the Astor Hotel. Even though no one cared about conflict of interest, this seemed to be beyond the pale for some, because “a great many declinations were given.” In the end, 33 members of congress showed up. Seven railroad cars from Washington to New York were reserved for “Mr. Hearst’s excursionists,” but that’s not as impressive as it sounds because, the Times said, “it was apparent that many of those who accepted Mr. Hearst’s invitation were women.” But don’t feel too bad for WRH—John Francis Hylan, the Tammany Hall mayor, abandoned the reviewing stand that had been built for him, declared Hearst’s stand the official stand, and decamped there to hang out with him and the congressmen.

New York Times, July 5, 1918. (A rare photograph in the daily newspaper–in general they only appeared in the Sunday Rotogravure.)

I was afraid, that, given the size of the parade—75,000 marchers, plus 150 bands, plus 123 floats, plus American, French, British, Italian, and Polish soldiers—there would be no one left to watch it. But no, the streets were thronged with spectators. The Times waxed poetic:

It was more than a pageant, more than a parade; it touched on more than Independence Day; it went further than a mere display of the loyalty of citizens born abroad. It was more than a military display, more than a picturesque pageant, though those who have seen all of New York’s great parades in recent years said that it surpassed them all in the brilliancy of the color and the variety of figures represented.

Farmerettes float, New York, July 4, 1918 (National Archives)

The weather was perfect, and the staging went like clockwork, from the assembly point at the arch in Washington Square Park to the end point at Fifth Avenue and Seventy-Somethingth Street. (There were typsetting issues with the article, and this sentence was cut off.)

There was a squadron of twenty-two airplanes flying over the parade, “a sight never before seen in New York.” The planes

flew up and down over the city, breaking up to amuse the million upturned eyes with flying tricks, while the aviators dropped leaflets bearing the words and music of the “Star-Spangled Banner.”

“The sole Curtiss S-1 mounted on a White truck for the New York Independence Day Parade in 1918” (Bain News Service)

And get this:

Regarded purely as a pageant, the parade was remarkable in bringing out a greater variety of display of national spirit and national costume than the city has perhaps ever seen before.

That’s right, national costumes! Either the organizers backed down or the participants, having worked their fingers to the bone sewing their costumes, just didn’t care what the Hungarians and Italians and Jugoslavs had negotiated among themselves.

The brilliant pageantry of the Slav races had to some extent been anticipated, but what had not been expected by the public**, at least, was the remarkable exhibitions put forth by Armenia, Syria, Switzerland, Spain, Venezuela, and other nations whose floats and marchers were on a plane of artistic effect that is not often found in a street parade.

Camouflaged ship float, New York, July 4, 1918, Underwood & Underwood (National Archives)

Highlights among the floats were

a miniature battleship, perhaps twenty feet long, rolling along on invisible wheels and firing little shots from its toy guns as it went along

and one by the Mayor’s Committee on National Defense with the Statue of Liberty surrounded by armed men and

about twenty-five children of the streets, picked up at the last moment as part of the committee’s Americanization display.

Also, the Salvation Army threw donuts out to the crowd.

July 4 parade, New York, 1918 (National Archives)

The nationalities section of the parade was headed by Joan of Arc, followed by Zoroastrian Parsee Dinsshan F. Chadiali, who was the only Zoroastrian Parsee-American as far as he knew, and his son. After that,

a group of Bulgarians of American origin***—citizens of the blood of the nations of the German were thus indicated instead of simply the name of the nationality, as were Allies and neutrals—came in motor cars.

A huge group of Czechoslovaks “tramped past the reviewing stand for nearly half an hour.”

Italian float, July 4 parade, New York, 1918, Underwood & Underwood (National Archives)

Switzerland had a guy carrying a giant Swiss cheese over his shoulder. Also the best motto: “For Modesty and Against Pretension.”

Syria’s float had Christ and the Apostles, with a banner reading “The First Syrian expedition to conquer the world.”

Daughters of Armenia, July 4 parade, New York, 1918 (International Film Service)

A piece of interesting trivia on the Danish banner: “Bronck, a Dane, founded the Bronx.”

The French delegation wasn’t provided with a military band as promised, and was pissy about it. Huge cheers, though!

Chinese girls marching, New York, July 4, 1918 (National Archives)

“Jewish” was considered a nationality, and there was a float with Judah Maccabee’s army fighting for freedom alongside Jewish soldiers in the American army.

Palestine, somehow, was represented by Miss Sally Bergman.

A Russian banner bore the slogan “We Do Not Accept the Infamous Peace of Brest-Litovsk.”

The Hungarians, after all the hoopla, marched as “ordinary citizens in civilian dress.” IMHO the Hungarians got shafted.

Venezuelan float, July 4 parade, New York, 1918 (International Film Service)

All in all, a remarkable event—although one that may be more fun to read about it would have been to attend. As spectacular as the costumes were, watching Czechoslovaks tramp by for half an hour must have gotten kind of old, no offense to my grandmother, who, if I have my family history right, may have been one of them. And I’m not clear about the bathroom situation.

But—good news!—you can watch the parade from the comfort of your own home. It was filmed so that soldiers overseas could watch it. Here’s a six-minute excerpt, followed by two minutes of footage of the celebration in Washington, D.C., which I wasn’t as into until I realized that it features, in the final seconds, All-Woman Battalion of Death Commander Maria Bochkareva, who was in town to plead with President Wilson for help.

From a 2018 perspective, the idea of having a giant parade around the theme “recent immigrants are not traitors to our country!”—with prizes given for the best loyalty pledge****—sounds a little off. Especially given that, the day after the parade, there was a big roundup of people of German descent who had committed treasonous acts like painting their pencils the wrong color.

On the other hand, living as we are—and as people in 1918 also were—at a time when immigrants are being used as political punching bags, there’s something refreshing about the spectacle of hundreds of thousands of people celebrating all the different ways there are to be American.

Parade passing the New York Public Library, July 4, 1918, Underwood and Underwood (National Archives)

*Four-minute men gave four-minute speeches on topics provided to them by the Committee on Public Information.

**”The public,” in situations like this, generally seems to mean “me, the unbylined New York Times reporter.”

***“Bulgarians of American origin” seems backwards to me, but whatever.

****As of July 6, the judges were still holding out. Smart money is on the Poles. (UPDATE 7/12/18: I was right!!! Poles #1, Syrians #2, Portuguese #3. The awards turn out to be for the floats and marchers as a whole, not just the loyalty pledge. The Hungarians got an honorable mention–I think the organizers just felt guilty.)

My Year in 1918: Some thoughts at the halfway point

I’m halfway through My Year in 1918!

Which seems about right. I feel at home in 1918, and I’m in no hurry to leave. I’ve settled into a routine, with my go-to magazines (The Dial, The Bookman, The Crisis), don’t-miss monthly reads (T.S. Eliot in The Egoist, H.L. Mencken in Smart Set, Randolph Bourne in The Dial, and Dr. Wiley’s Question Box in Good Housekeeping—plus there’s a bright new spark at Vanity Fair named Dorothy Parker I’ll be writing about soon), and guilty pleasures (Murad cigarette ads, children’s puzzles in St. Nicholas magazine).

I’ve probably settled into too much of a routine, in fact. It’s been pointed out that I’ve completely fallen down on the job recipe-wise. I could blame the dispiriting nature of 1918 recipes, which tend to focus on food rationing, but ahundredyearsago.com manages to do a whole blog focused on 1918 (or so) recipes. (This week: Old-Fashioned Sour Banana Ice Cream.) So I’ll get out my apron, and I’ll shake things up in other ways as well. There’s more to life than modernism and Erté covers!

What have I learned in six months? First of all, that it’s harder than I thought to identify any kind of trajectory going through history. I do still believe that we’ve made tremendous progress in the last hundred years. The hardest thing to take in my reading has been the ubiquity of casual sexism and racism. (Judge magazine, for example, has a monthly jokes section called “Darkies.”) We have a long way to go, but I don’t think anyone would want to go back to that time.

On the other hand, none of the progressive battles of 1918 have been unambiguously won. (Other than the right to buy alcohol, if you consider that progressive.) The fights for racial and gender equality, reproductive freedom, and immigrants’ rights are still going on, just in different ways.

I knew all these things before, in a general sense. I hadn’t thought much, though, about all the problems that were invisible in 1918 to all but the most far-seeing observers. Magazines were full of ads for unknown killers—cigarettes and asbestos and radium clock dials and lead-based paint. No one was worried about man-made climate change or the sustainability of the oceans. For me, that’s the biggest lesson—for all the obvious problems of today (as numerous and troubling as they are), there must be other grave dangers, already present or on the horizon, that we’re not even thinking about.

As for the tuning-out-of-2018 aspect of this project, that’s been mostly a good thing, and much easier than I expected. There’s a New Yorker cartoon making its way around Facebook with a doctor telling his patient that his problem is that he’s paying too much attention to the news. I’m definitely not that guy. But neither am I the man in Ohio the New York Times wrote about who decided after the 2016 election to cut himself off from all news.

I didn’t read that article, naturally, I just heard about it. I decided at the beginning of the year that, while a total news blackout wasn’t feasible or desirable, I’d read the bare minimum amount of news required to be a responsible citizen. I get news alerts on my iPad and occasionally glance at an article to get the gist. If something really important happens, I’ll read a whole article about it—just one—in the New York Times. I’ve read a few stories about what’s going on in the State Department, where I worked for many years. And, okay, there was that emergency situation when I had to settle an argument about what rock critics think about Jim Morrison. But I haven’t read a contemporary op-ed or magazine article or book review all year, other than a handful of pieces by friends. No current fiction either, except for exchanges of work with writer friends and a few published pieces, like this and this, by my NYU creative writing classmates. (Congrats, guys!)

I do read blogs, because that’s only fair if I want people to read my blog. And Twitter, although my feed these days is mostly focused on World War I and literary modernism and, for some reason, how horrible it is to be an academic in the UK.* I look at Facebook, but I don’t click on articles. I’ve spent more time than I expected doing research for blog posts (confession: LOTS of Wikipedia), and I’ve had to bone up on the technical aspects of blogging. (Notice how much clearer the pictures have become?) With contemporary resources like this, I follow the rule that Catholics are supposed to follow about impure thoughts: they’re unavoidable, but don’t dwell on them.

A couple of months ago, I was eating dinner in a Cape Town food hall and reading an article from the WTOP Radio website about the D.C. boundary stones as research for a blog post. This was one of the few times this year—maybe the only time—that I printed out a contemporary article and read it from start to finish. As I read, a disoriented sensation came over me. “This article is weird,” I kept thinking. But I couldn’t figure out why. I reread it later, and identified the problem. There’s a quote that starts, “One thing that gets really funky with these things is, the Park Service owns the little piece that’s the fence enclosure and the stone, but then [one of the stones] is on Metro ground…” and continues in this colloquial vein. No one in 1918 talked like that! I was experiencing the same kind of reverse culture shock that I used to have in the Foreign Service when I returned to the United States from overseas.

Has my withdrawal from the news made me a less informed person? Well, yes, by definition. Has it made me a worse citizen? I don’t think so. In fact, I think it’s made me a better one. I analyze what’s happening on my own, rather than through the lens of an op-ed columnist. I focus on what’s going on in the longer term, not on the twists and turns of the daily news cycle. And it’s definitely been good for my well-being. I’ve lost that jittery feeling that comes with compulsively following the news. The troubling things that are happening today make me sad, but I don’t have the sense of lingering depression that many of my friends are experiencing.

When another six months have passed and I reengage with the contemporary world, I think—at least, I hope—that I’ll read more discriminately, more mindfully, and with a better sense of our place on the long arc of history.

* Some favorite blogs and Twitter accounts:

Connie Ruzich on World War I poets (Behind Their Lines,  @wherrypilgrim)

Pamela Toler on fascinating footnotes to history (History in the Margins, @pdtoler)

Leah Budke on modernist anthologies (ModMarkMake, @modmarkmake)

Whatever It Is, I’m Against It (@wiiiai), an indispensable and entertaining source of day-to-day 100-years-ago news.

Daniel Mulhall, who, in addition to his day job as Irish Ambassador to the United States, writes about Irish writers, including Yeats and Joyce (Ambassador’s Blog, @danmulhall)

Frank Hudson, who writes about (mostly) modernist poets and puts their work to music (The Parlando Project)

Sheryl Lazarus, who started out publishing her grandmother’s diaries a hundred years to the day after she wrote them, but since the diary ran out has been publishing recipes and writing about food-related topics at A Hundred Years Ago.

Unmentionable vice, a secret German book, and a camarilla: The (looniest) trial of the century

 As I was catching up on the 1918 news over breakfast at a Cambridge, Massachusetts B&B during my recent vacation, I came across the following headline in the May 31 New York Times, right below a humongous banner headline about the German offensive:

I was confused.

I read the article, and I was still confused. British MP Noel Pemberton-Billing, apparently, was on trial for defaming dancer Maud Allan, who had appeared in a private dance production based on Oscar Wilde’s play Salome, and the play’s producer, Jack Grien of the Independent Theatre. (Grien was also the drama critic for the Sunday Times, because no one cared about conflict of interest in 1918.) According to prosecutor Travers Humphreys, Pemberton-Billing had made an attack on Allan in his right-wing magazine The Vigilante that was “unworthy of any man to make upon any woman.” Humphreys said that

the coupling of the name of Miss Allan, or any woman, with the heading of the paragraph could only mean one thing—that the lady, either in her private or professional capacity, was associated with something that could not be regarded as otherwise than disreputable.

Studio portrait of Noel Pemberton-Billing, 1916

What heading? What paragraph? The Times isn’t telling. Humphreys goes on to say that, if Allan had failed to challenge this mysterious allegation,

some of those persons whose mental food was garbage might be able to say hereafter, ‘You have this said of you, and you took no steps to stop it, and therefore, there must be something in it.’

Have what said? This was getting frustrating.

Portrait of Maud Allan by Alexander Bassano, 1913

Oh, and there was a list. Which the Times does explain. (Well, the British Telegraph does—the Times, as was its habit, quotes large chunks of the Telegraph’s reporting verbatim.) In an earlier article, the Vigilante had reported that

there exists in the cabinet noir of a certain German Prince a book compiled by the secret service from the reports of German agents who have infested this country for the past twenty years, agents so vile and spreading debauchery of such a lasciviousness as only German minds could conceive.*

Okay, so there’s an evil German plot to perversify English society. But what does it have to do with Maud Allan et al.? Humphreys explains that the other Vigilante article, the one with the mysterious headline, made

a cryptic suggestion that if Scotland Yard were to seize a list of the members subscribing to the Independent Theatre there was no doubt they would secure the names of several thousands of the first 47,000.

Captain Harold Spencer (date unknown)

No one had actually managed to produce a copy of this book. But a lot of people had seen it. Or said they had. Including the author of the article, former American navy captain Harold Spencer. Spencer was the aide-de-camp to Prince William of Wied**, who he said had shown him the book in Albania. Another witness, Mrs. Villiers Stewart, said that she had seen former Prime Minister Asquith’s name in the book.*** Spencer said he hadn’t, but he had seen Asquith’s wife’s name.

Guess who else Mrs. Villiers Stewart said she saw in the book? Justice Darling, who was presiding over the case! Sensation in the court. But it apparently didn’t occur to him to stop the trial and recuse himself, because, like I said, conflict of interest.

Noel Pemberton-Billing and Eileen Villiers Stewart arriving at court

Spencer testified that the Vigilante had been tipped off about the Salome production by—I bet you didn’t see this coming!—Marie Corelli, the purple-prose novelist who was last seen here espousing forced sterilization in Good Housekeeping and hoarding sugar. (And who, by the way, was almost certainly a lesbian herself.)

Lord Alfred Douglas, Oscar Wilde’s lover-turned-nemesis, also testified for the defense, although I couldn’t for the life of me make out what he had to do with anything, and was later kicked out of the courtroom for heckling.

And there was a camarilla! A word that, despite my superior-adult score on a 1918 vocabulary-based intelligence test, I had to look up. It turns out to mean a secret group of plotting courtiers. This particular camarilla, allegedly, was aimed at getting Asquith back into power and making peace with Germany. (Which was seen as a bad thing–right-thinking people wanted to beat them.)

Margot Asquith, date unknown

The pieces were starting to fall together, but I still wasn’t clear on the unspeakable vice. Oscar Wilde + vice, I figured, had to = something about homosexuality. But what exactly?

As I sipped my tea and reflected on the situation, I had an inspiration. “You know who will be all over this story?” I said to myself. “My fellow 100-years-ago blogger, Whatever it is, I’m Against It.” And I was right! As WIIIAI explains here and here, the crux of the matter is the title of the Vigilante article, which the Times was too delicate to reprint: “The Cult of the Clitoris.” Aha! The insinuation, then, was that Allan was at the heart of a giant pro-German lesbian cabal.****

Now I was up to speed on why the Times was skirting around the headline. Armed with this information, I was able to track down the full text of the Vigilante article:

The Cult of the Clitoris

To be a member of Maud Allan’s private performances in Oscar Wilde’s ‘Salome,’ one has to apply to a Miss Valetta, of 9, Duke Street, Adelphi W.C. If Scotland Yard were to seize the list of these members I have no doubt they would secure the names of several of the first 47,000.

That’s it!

London’s Palace Theater, where Salome was performed, date unknown

Fast forward a few days, to a June 5 piece in the Times. As Humphreys was making his closing arguments, Pemberton-Billings interrupted him to say that he’d never accused Allan of engaging in vice herself, only of pandering to it. He was acquitted.

In the first draft of this post, I wrote that the good guys lost. And it’s true that I’ll root for scandalous lesbian dancers (Allan was in fact a lesbian, which was the only true allegation in the whole trial as far as I can tell) and cutting-edge theater producers over homophobic right-wing politicians and conspiracy-peddling ex-military officers any time. But, even by the standards of British defamation law, which is much stricter than its American equivalent, the penning of the Vigilante story doesn’t seem like a criminal act. It’s just a piece of vague, sloppy insinuation. Not something that people should go to jail for, however despicable they might be.

The real crime here—twenty-three years after Oscar Wilde was sentenced to two years in jail for homosexual acts, and eighteen years after he died, impoverished and disgraced, in Paris—is that homophobia was still so deeply rooted in British society that it was fodder for ridiculous conspiracy theories (the book of 47,000, of course, never surfaced), scurrilous newspaper reporting, and farcical trials.

Not a very inspiring way to commemorate Pride Month. But there are positive LGBTQ stories as well. (Mostly L, actually.) I’ll get to them in an upcoming post.

Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas, 1893

* Because everyone knows that Germans and hot-bloodedness are virtually synonymous.

**Arguably the best name in a story full of great ones.

***Mrs. Villiers Stewart was subsequently jailed for bigamy, but that’s another story.

****Because, you know, there’s nothing lesbians like so much as living under right-wing militaristic rule.

A pioneering 1918 infographic, worth a thousand words

Words! So. Many. Words. Mine, and the 1918 people’s. I need a break.

The April 1918 issue of The Bookman has just the thing: a graphic about book publication in the United States and Great Britain. And a picture is worth a thousand words, which is the length that my typical post has swollen to these days.

Here are the stats for books published in the U.S. in 1917:

And in Great Britain:

In the accompanying article, Fred E. Woodward, who drew the graphic, points out that

a single glance at the two charts reveals a notable difference between the two figures, the one representing the books of the United States being an almost symmetrical pyramid endued with the appearance of stability and a certain element of vigor and strength, while the one representing Great Britain exhibits an enormous overplus of works of fiction as compared to the remaining classes.

Interesting. Not so interestingly, Woodward goes on to explain the charts at length, which kind of defeats the purpose of a chart. But I can forgive him a lot because, as far as I can tell, he is basically inventing information graphics here. (I did some research and found some earlier examples, going back to a depiction by J.J. Sylvester of chemical bonds and their mathematic properties in Nature magazine in 1878.* So let’s just say Woodward was inventing fun infographics.**)

Chart showing the original boundary milestones of the District of Columbia, Fred E. Woodward, 1906 (Library of Congress)

Fred Woodward really, really liked drawing infographics about books. He did a way more complicated one in the April 1917 issue of The Bookman, and, also in 1917, wrote a graphic pamphlet on book sales for the U.S. Bureau of Education. Woodward also wrote a 1907 book called A Ramble Along the Boundary Stones of the District of Columbia with a Camera. I’m going to D.C. soon and, believe me, I’m going to be rambling along those boundary stones.

Bookplate of Fred E. Woodward, Washington, D.C., 1898 (Library of Congress)

The Library of Congress has this 1898 bookplate of Woodward’s (drawn by someone else, though) in its collection.  “Guardabosque” is a play on his name—it means forest ranger in Spanish, which is apparently the original meaning of Woodward. According to the LOC, there’s an inscription on the back saying that Woodward was the head of the books department at Woodward & Lothrop in Washington. A little more sleuthing revealed that he was the younger brother of the founder of the iconic, and now sadly out of business, department store.*** He’s apparently no relation, though, to graphic artist Fred Woodward, formerly the art director of Rolling Stone and now at GQ.

I was going to hold forth about how few books were published 100 years ago compared to now, but, you know, words. So here’s an infographic:

(Source, 1917: The Bookman magazine, April 1918. Source, 2015: International Publishers Association Annual Report, 2016.)

I realize that this is an apples-and-oranges situation in terms of comparisons. And that I’m no Fred Woodward (either one) infographics-wise.

Still, you get the picture.

*Sylvester, as it turns out, coined the word “graph” in another 1878 Nature article. This is even more amazing than there having been no such word as “surreal” in 1918. If you don’t believe that “graph” is so new, which I didn’t, here’s the Google N-Gram:

**I realize that Woodward probably wasn’t doing this all by himself. Please be in touch if you know of other examples!

***I have wonderful memories of going Christmas shopping in the children’s castle at Woodies (as we D.C. cognoscenti call it) in the 1970s.

A 1918 play about a single mother, too far ahead of its time

Reading the March 1918 issue of The Bookman a couple of weeks ago, I came across a brief review of The Madonna of the Future, which had recently opened on Broadway. As critic Clayton Hamilton tells us,

the heroine of this play is a very rich young woman, unencumbered with relatives, who desires to become a mother but does not desire to be saddled with a husband. In consequence of her convictions, she picks out an apparently eugenic mate and becomes, in due time, the mother of a nameless child.

My reaction: What? This is the least 1918 thing I’ve ever heard of!   

“Madonna of the Future” star Emily Stevens, New York Times, January 27, 1918

The Dramatic Mirror thought so too. “The most pitiful creature of the brothel would scorn such an idea,” the magazine huffed. It was not alone, apparently—New York Chief Magistrate William McAdoo* received a number of complaints. He wrote to the theater’s lawyers telling them that, if the issue arose in court, he would have to declare the play obscene. McAdoo said that

the character of the heroine repeatedly and tiresomely states over and over again that the doctrines advanced by her are unconventional and, in the sense usually accepted by ordinary people, immoral. She says that her highest ideal of maternity is that of the cow, which might suggest that the proper place for this play would be a stable instead of the stage, committing the dialogue to learned veterinarians.

I haven’t been able to find a script of the play, but here’s what I’ve managed to piece together. Iris Fotheringham, a wealthy young woman from Tarrington, New York, hates men, but has what the Dramatic Mirror calls “one redeeming virtue—the dream of all good women—the desire of motherhood.” She decides that her secretary, Rex Letherick, would be a suitable father,** and whisks him off to Europe. After the baby is born, she blithely resumes her New York life. Rex is desperately in love with Iris, and, as the Dramatic Mirror puts it, “still willing to be her husband.” Iris gets wind that there’s another woman in the picture, gets jealous, and marries Rex.

Alan Dale and his daughter Marjorie, 1900 (Library of Congress)

What makes this story even more interesting is that the play’s author, Alan Dale, was America’s most famous theater critic. The British-born Dale (real name Alfred Cohen) had been writing acerbic reviews for the Hearst newspapers since the 1880s. He had made a lot of enemies along the way. “The theatrical world is finding considerable amusement in the situation created by the police complaint,” the Dramatic Mirror gloated, speculating that the cause of the play’s troubles was a morality campaign by the city’s Tammany Hall mayor. For good measure, the magazine threw in some cracks about the play’s bad reviews.

New York Times, January 29, 1918

This was unfair, as far as I can tell. The un-bylined New York Times reviewer called the play “a brilliantly written comedy of ideas,” although he complained that the ending was a copout. He noted similarities to George Bernard Shaw, but said that Shaw, “having real ideas of his own, also has the courage of them.”  Astonishingly, the reviewer got away with saying that the de-stigmatization of single motherhood was important to contemplate,

for women in these coming manless times will be much occupied with the thought that life would be less empty if only there were children. And the world will have need of new citizens.

George Jean Nathan, date unknown

George Jean Nathan, who co-edited Smart Set with H.L. Mencken and is now regarded as the greatest theater critic of his time, really, really hated Dale’s reviews. He complained in Smart Set’s April 1918 issue that Dale displayed

the sort of humour…that proceeds from the comparison of something or other with a Limburger cheese or from some such observation as “‘Way Down Yeast’ ought to get a rise out of everybody.” The sort of humor, in short, whose stock company has been made up largely of bad puns, the spelling of girl as “gell,” the surrounding of every fourth word with quotation marks, such bits as “legs—er, oh I beg your pahdon—I should say ‘limbs’,” a frequent allusion to prunes and to pinochle, and an employment of such terms as “scrumptious” and “bong-tong.”

But Nathan goes on to praise The Madonna of the Future, saying that

its theme is viewed through the glasses of a man possessed of a certain pleasant measure of cultural background and expounded in well thought out and effective vein; its net impression is of a piece of writing designed by a civilized gentleman for a civilized audience.

The New York Times ran this list of adjectives that had been used to describe the play, ranging from puerile to shocking to brilliant:

New York Times, March 10, 1918

After the theater received the letter, the script was revised, there was some back and forth with McAdoo, the play closed on Broadway after less than two months, and the censored version, retitled The Woman of the Future, moved to New York’s “subway circuit.”

In spite of its short run, The Madonna of the Future caused quite a stir. Today’s Iris Fotheringhams may, in part, have Alan Dale to thank for getting people used to the idea that having a baby without a husband isn’t all that big a deal.

Alan Dale lives on in another way as well: his 1889 novel A Marriage Below Zero has been described as the first English-language novel to depict a romantic relationship between two men.

All in all, not a bad legacy for someone who said “scrumptious” and “bong-tong.”

G.W. Dillingham, 1889

*This William McAdoo, a former congressman and New York police commissioner, was born in Ireland and was apparently no relation to Secretary of the Treasury/Railroad Administrator/Woodrow Wilson son-in-law William Gibbs McAdoo.

**Well, he has a great porn star name anyway.

Despina Storch: The sad fate of a woman of intrigue

Remember Despina Storch, the beautiful Turkish woman who was arrested by the Secret Service as the suspected head of a German spy ring and sent to Ellis Island to be deported? (UPDATE 1/2/2019: For readers looking for information on Storch who were directed here by Google, I suggest that you start with my earlier post, which you can find here.)

Despina Storch, 1917 (Underwood & Underwood, N.V.)

She never made it to France. She died on Ellis Island on March 30, 1918, at the age of 23. The cause was pneumonia.

Or was it? Some suspected suicide, especially since two of her three accused co-conspirators, Elizabeth Nix and “Baron”* Robert de Clairmont, had also fallen seriously ill.

An immigration inspector denied the rumors, saying of Mme. Storch, “She made a brave fight for her life and every effort was made to save her. She was physically unable to overcome the ravages of pneumonia. I wish to state positively that she did not commit suicide.”

The suicide theory would have been plausible, though, since Mata Hari’s October 1917 execution by a French firing squad must have been on the group’s mind.

Mata Hari, 1906

Despina Storch’s funeral took place on April 1. Her companion and co-accused, the Count de Beville, was allowed to leave Ellis Island to attend, accompanied by his parents and a Secret Service agent. According to a report in the New York Sun, Beville “bore a plaque of roses and some lilies which he tenderly placed in the folded arms of the dead woman.” He knelt by the casket, praying, for two hours.

He murmured over and over again, and some say the words were “Forgive me,” and others, “Cherie, Cherie, and like French words of endearment.

Willis Music Company, 1918 (Library of Congress)

Outside, a “morbidly inquisitive crowd” milled around the hearse. When the coffin was borne out of the funeral parlor,

the chatter of the crowd hushed, and all that stirred the quiet was the music of “The Girl I Left Behind Me,” which echoed into the street, as the subway band, on an army recruiting bus, rolled through Fifth avenue, close by.

Mount Olivet Cemetery, date unknown

The Count and his parents accompanied the hearse to Mount Olivet Cemetery in Queens, where Mme. Storch’s “exquisitely carved white coffin” was placed in a vault. Beville “wept silently and cast a last look at the vault as he was led back to the car.”

Thus ended the brief life of the woman the Sun called “the most romantic spy suspect America has yet known.”

Despina Storch in Spain, adapted from an illustration in the Washington Times, June 16, 1918

*The New York Times was dubious about his claim to this title.

A forgotten early 20th-century Betty Friedan

Quick: where do these sentences come from?

[The housewife] masters in a year or two years at most details which must nevertheless be repeated, although all the freshness and interest have gone out of them, as long as life lasts.

In a vague and unanalyzed way she feels the inexorable effects of child training and housekeeping upon her own mental life and powers.

She has a sense of injury that she has fallen upon a career so uninteresting and uncongenial.

Betty Friedan, right? The Feminine Mystique. The problem that has no name.

No, not right—as you’ve probably guessed, since this blog isn’t called “My Year in 1963.” (The post title may have been a tip-off as well.) They come from an October 20, 1917,* article in the New Republic called “The Price of a Home,” by Julia Clark Hallam.

Parade staged by the Iowa Woman’s Suffrage Association. Boone, Iowa. October 29, 1908. Photographer: Moxley. (State Historical Society of Iowa, Des Moines)

There were feminists back then, of course. For the most part, though, they were fighting for the vote, not talking about bored housewives. In fact, in order to win men over to the suffragist cause, they were deliberately not rocking the gender equality boat.

Julia Clark Hallam was a suffragist, too—she headed the Iowa Equal Suffrage Society from 1909 to 1910. But she wasn’t having any of this “one battle at a time” business.

Hutchison Hall, University of Chicago, ca. 1910-1920 (Library of Congress)

“The Price of a Home” starts with the tale of a woman (clearly Hallam herself) who applies to graduate school twenty-five years after graduating from college with honors. In the years in between, she has raised four children. The school’s dean agrees to admit her, but he predicts that she won’t succeed. She asks why.

“Because,” replied the dean, after taking a moment or two for reflection, “our experience has compelled us to realize that the occupation of home making, important as it is, does not prepare the mind for its higher activities and attainment.”

Hallam sees the dean’s point.

Lack of intellectual content in experience and constant repetition arrest mental development as certainly as newness, freshness and interestingness make for mental growth.

The way she describes this problem leaves little doubt that she’s experienced it first-hand.

There are days when [the housewife] feels she must throw all the dishes on the scrap heap rather than wash them, and as for breaking an egg, which has to be done so endlessly in cooking, she clenches her teeth lest she jam the whole sack of eggs into the garbage pail.

Frontispiece, Studies in Child Development, Julia Clark Hallam

In a follow-up article the next week, Hallam takes on the argument that, while keeping house might be tedious, raising children is intellectually stimulating.

Doubtless there are elements of truth in this argument, yet I wonder if those who press it realize how often a child has to be bathed? Let us admit that the first ministrations of this kind bring the thrill of the mentally fresh and the emotionally pleasurable. But after the act has been repeated several hundred times the thrill refuses to report for duty.

Again sounding very much like Friedan, she says that technology is not the solution.

I am inclined to believe that mechanical inventions are proving thought-killers rather than thought-producers, and that the time they save is wasted unless it can be given to activities which have a real mental content.

Good Housekeeping, January 1918

It’s too late for the present generation of homemakers, Hallam says. But she’s optimistic about the future.

My most earnest hope and conviction is that through the influence of continued intellectual rebellion on their parts against the present conditions, we shall blaze a trail which for our daughters and granddaughters will lead out to a reconstructed society where all individuals shall have equal share in grasp of mind and freedom of spirit.

In the debate sparked by the article, Hallam comes in for a fair amount of condescension. But not all of her critics are men. Elizabeth Childe of Washington, D.C., says that, after searching through “a mind darkened by twenty years of homemaking,” she has found the flaw in Hallam’s argument: her failure to distinguish between housework and the rewarding—to Childe, at least—occupation of homemaking. Friedan, too, was criticized for saying that no one could possibly enjoy being a housewife. (Another criticism of Friedan, that of class bias, could also be applied to Hallam. Her husband’s work—he was a lawyer—might seem enviable, but would she want to trade places with a male assembly line worker?)

Frontispiece, The Story of a European Tour, Julia Clark Hallam

Hallam did earn her degree, an M.A. from the University of Chicago, in 1910. In addition to her work as a suffragist, she taught high school in the United States and the Philippines. She wrote several books as well. The Story of a European Tour (1900), is, sad to say, even more boring than it sounds.** In Studies in Child Development (1913), we learn about “The Boy’s Greatest Danger,” which is, you guessed it, “onanism, or self-pollution.” You can read what she has to say about this life-threatening problem, and how to solve it, here.*** But most of her advice is more sensible, and she was described as a pioneering advocate for sex education (or social hygiene, as it was then known).

Hallam died in 1927, at the age of 67. Her occupation, as listed on her death certificate: housewife.

*Granted, this blog isn’t called “My Year in 1917” either. But the debate over Hallam’s article continued for months in the letters to the editor, which is how I came across her.

**The height of the action, judging from my quick skim: she and her husband think they’ve lost their train tickets, find them at the last minute, are separated on the platform in the confusion, and are brought together by a nice young man from Princeton.

***If you’re pressed for time, here’s a sample: “Everyone has seen an electric battery which has spent its force. It is a dead thing. So the body, with its splendid life forces wasted—not to speak of the moral and spiritual and degradation that follows. It is one of the great tragedies of life.”

Elizabeth Gardner: A boundary-breaking, cross-dressing painter with a surprising afterlife

In the March 1918 issue of the The Art World, there’s an article called “Some Painters Who Happen to Be Women.” I read it, and it’s true! They all just happened to be women. None of them did it on purpose, just to be annoying.

According to the article’s author, Lida Rose* McCabe, who happened to be a woman herself,

woman as an art producer has ceased to be curio, enigma or trifle. Upon intrinsic merit her achievement now stands or falls. In all that makes for exhibition, Jury award, Academician, museum purchase or public commission, hers is today the modern sexlessness—attributed to angels in painting and sculpture.

Elizabeth Jane Gardner, ca. 1860

The oldest of these modern sexless artists—“her years fourscore!” McCabe marvels—is Elizabeth Jane Gardner. The Art World is a pretty fusty magazine, so I assumed that she was a boring society painter. Well, I was wrong. In 1864, at the age of 23, Gardner left for Paris to study art, but, McCabe tells us,

no school, no master would receive her. The few French or foreign women then known to the Salon or Latin quarter, like the few who had preceded them down the ages, were the wives, sisters, or daughters of artists.

Gardner found an ingenious way to get around this problem. Her hair had been cut short because of a fever before she left for France, so, she tells McCabe,

“I applied to the police to wear boy’s clothes. It was readily granted, and in that guise I entered the Gobelin’s school. My masculine attire which I always changed on heading home, never caused me the slightest annoyance. The students were most courteous, and in the streets I was never inconvenienced.”

Closed Shutters, Elizabeth Gardner

Success came quickly. Two of Gardner’s paintings were selected for the Salon in 1866, and in 1872 she was awarded its gold medal, the first woman to receive that honor.** In the early 1900s, the Musée de Luxembourg bought her painting Closed Shutters for its American wing. In the otherwise admiring profile, McCabe sneers at this painting, saying that

with due deference to its quality, there are few of our museums, private collections or current exhibitions without a picture by a native home-trained woman painter to equal if not surpass Closed Shutters.***

McCabe tells us that Gardner married her teacher, noted artist William Bouguereau. What she doesn’t tell is that Gardner, who was maybe not as sexless as McCabe makes out, carried on a long liaison with Bouguereau after the death of his first wife in 1877. His mother bitterly opposed their marriage, and this was apparently too great an obstacle for this pair of otherwise free spirits to overcome. (Could money have been involved?) His mother finally died in 1896, at the age of ninety-one, and they married shortly afterwards.

Self-portrait, William Bouguereau, 1879

Gardner was heavily influenced by Bouguereau, to the extent that she was quoted as saying, “I know I am censured for not more boldly asserting my individuality, but I would rather be known as the best imitator of Bouguereau than be nobody!”

David the Shepherd, Elizabeth Gardner, ca. 1895

Many of Gardner’s paintings are conventional nineteenth-century tableaux: Greek myths, biblical scenes, and the like. Others, though, raise eyebrows today.

Take, for instance, The Confidence (ca. 1880). The painting, now owned by the Georgia Museum of Art in Athens, Georgia, shows two young women sharing a secret. To a modern eye, it looks sexualized—the intimate position of the heads, the bare feet close together. In a 2013 article about the loan of the painting to (of all places) Bob Jones University, however, a museum staff member said that this wasn’t the case.  “It’s very affectionate, but it’s also very 19th-century sisterly affectionate.”

The Confidence, Elizabeth Gardner, ca. 1880

The Confidence had a second life in—I bet you didn’t see this coming!—an R.E.M. video. As the Athens-based band sings its 1991 song “Low,” the girls in the painting come to life and the action continues. And, take my word for it, it’s anything but sisterly. (Or check it out yourself on R.E.M.’s website.)

I’m not sure what Elizabeth Gardner would have thought, but Lida Rose McCabe must be turning over in her grave.

*So now I can’t get the song from The Music Man out of my head.

**The Art World sees art as a resume-building process. Still—impressive!

***The Art World’s taste in art was so reactionary that even impressionism was a bridge too far. Its take on Monet’s Rouen Cathedral: “Nothing more than a ‘color stunt.’”