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World War II

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The Day Saw Advances, None Miraculous: Spelunking in the National Archives

June 30, 2017

I’ll get right to it.  I am almost OCD in my drive to explain every pop culture reference (of which there are hundreds) and solve every puzzle within Our Hearts Were Young and Gay.  During my time in England, this zeal led me to making an appointment at the British National Archives at Kew, where I hoped to cross off a number of items from my laundry list of questions.

Kew is best-known for having some of the finest gardens in all of the UK… but there’s no time to discuss that here.

After arriving at the Archives on the day of my appointment, and following the check-in protocol (which involved stashing everything but my phone, notepad and a pencil in a locker, then placing those remaining items in a see-through bag and passing through a check point where it was all inspected by a guard), I found the research cubby assigned to me, which was supposed to contain all of the materials I had requested.

The only item in the cubby was a book written in the early 1900s about the mail route that ran through southern England.  I had hoped that it might be a starting point for enlightening me on who was at the reins the day the Skinners and Emily rode on top of an old mail coach to Hampton Court.  All that I had to go on was that the man looked like Rudyard Kipling, and was a member of the British peerage.  But the book offered no information about the Royal Mail route to Hampton Court, or the four-in-hand club members who drove the coaches.  It was a bust.  Not a promising start to the day.

The other items I had requested, a staff member informed me, would have to be viewed inside a special room with stricter access.  Wow, classified info!  It would take twenty minutes or so for someone to bring the materials to the room.

I used that time to access a record that I had learned of in earlier research, which would verify the exact dates of Cornelia’s and Emily’s journey.  It was a crisp photo image of a page from an immigration log book, with a header showing that the “Empress of France” had docked in Southampton on June 21, 1922.  Below this header, the list of the ship’s passengers included the names Emily Kimbrough, Cornelia Otis Skinner and Paul Dudley White.

It was a victory tinged with defeat.  I was thrilled to have proof that I had worked out the correct year of the girls’ journey, but this information simultaneously deepened another mystery for me.

It had started with that photo in Margaret Sanger’s papers of the girls with The Great Educationalist in the garden of H.G. Wells’ house.  As far as I could tell, Cornelia and Emily went the rest of their lives never knowing the identity of that man.  I wanted to crack this case, and had enlisted the help of the H.G. Wells Society in my investigation.

I sent them all of the information I had, along with a copy of the Sanger photo.  Within a week, they had gotten back to me with a name:  F.W. Sanderson.  He had been a longtime headmaster at the Oundle School in Northamptonshire, and Mr. Wells had thought so highly of the man that he had written a book about him, The Story of a Great Schoolmaster.  A schoolmaster was certainly an educationalist, and a portrait of Sanderson which I located seemed to resemble the small, blurry image of the man in the photograph.  Jackpot!  It simply had to be him.

There was just one problem.  F. W. Sanderson died six days before Cornelia and Emily arrived in England.  Yeah, I know, I wish I was kidding.  Six days!

It seems that on the evening of June 15th, 1922, F.W. Sanderson had just delivered an address to the National Union of Scientific Workers at University College, London.  Suddenly, right there at the podium, he dropped dead of a heart attack just as – does this surprise you? – H.G. Wells, who was moderating the event, asked him his first question.

Just for good measure, while I had access to the periodical records, I pulled up Sanderson’s obituary, and then some:  all of the London newspapers had carried the story of his shocking, unexpected death.

For weeks I had clung to a crazy, desperate hope that one of those two dates had been recorded wrong, but there was no mistake, and no question about it now.  F. W. Sanderson couldn’t have been the man Cornelia and Emily met.

Unfortunately, he had been the one and only name proposed by the experts who know H.G. Wells the best.  There were no other viable candidates.  If H.G. Wells scholars couldn’t sort out this mystery, then there was no chance I would.

For a good while, I was disheartened by the fact that I would never know the identity of The Great Educationalist.  Truth be told, I’m still a bit bummed about it.  But then again, Cornelia and Emily never knew the answer, so it’s only right that I shouldn’t either.  It’s in keeping with the symmetry between their journey and mine.

After the partial win with the immigration record, I was ready to enter the inner sanctum of the special reading room, and hopefully locate the source of a seemingly unlikely story.

A staff member let me into the small, locked room where a few others were inspecting photos, ancient-looking papers, and other bits of history.  I sat down to a set of large log books labeled “Secret” and “Most Secret”, which contained the correspondence of a man named Hugh Trevor-Roper to his superiors in the British intelligence office during World War II.

This was follow-up research to the visit I had made a few weeks earlier to Bletchley Park, where Hugh Trevor-Roper had been stationed for part of the war.  I had been searching there for the origin of an odd reference I had come across on Wikipedia, claiming that Mr. Trevor-Roper had discovered that Our Hearts Were Young and Gay was used by the Nazis as a codebook for their Enigma machine.

Say what?

In the Spring, I had contacted the editor of the digest cited as the source of the reference, and he had referred me to a college history professor who was the author of the article itself.  I got in touch with the professor, who couldn’t recall, let alone physically locate in his records, the origin of this information.  All we could conclude was that the story had to be true, only because it was a very precise statement, about a specific person and a specific book (which the professor had never heard of).  It was highly implausible that the professor could have invented the story himself, given that it included the title of a book he didn’t know existed.

This proved nothing, though.  And I wanted to be certain of the truth.  The answer, the proof, had to be somewhere in Hugh Trevor-Roper’s papers.   So I scoured the top secret logbooks, but came up empty-handed.  How could that professor have stumbled upon a discovery which I, who had spent months actively looking for that same information, couldn’t locate?  It was wildly frustrating.

But I came away from those logbooks feeling more unsettled by something that I hadn’t known to prepare myself for:  my first experience reading about World War II in the present tense.

It caught me completely off guard.  I felt like I’d been sucker-punched as I read Hugh’s missives about upcoming Nazi military campaigns which, he noted, were being financed with assets stolen from the Jewish community, while they themselves were presently being rounded up and sent to work camps.  Presently?  Work camps?  A passing reference to an unspeakable horror.  And it was happening right there, in that moment as those words were being typed onto the page.

There were notes on spy operations involving Agents ZigZag and Snow, two names I knew from the history books.  But here in these pages, those men were alive, moving in and out of intelligence reports which were tracking their current movements.

Page after page, there were details of events that I had only ever studied in the past tense, with the reassuring knowledge that the Allies had triumphed in the end.  But within these logbooks, those uncertain, frightening days in 1943 were happening in the here and now.  Once again, I found that the edges of time and space were blurring, but this time it was not a welcome experience.

It had been a roller coaster of a day, my first foray into serious research.  I was wrung out by the time I left Kew, thankful to have the strain on my brain over and done with.  It was time to get back to the spirit of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, to the lighthearted pleasure of traveling and seeing the sights with the girls.  Which I would definitely do.  There was just one more thing I needed to check first…

In my next post, I make an ass of myself in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

 

(Fans of the TV series “Deadwood” might recognize the title of this post as a line spoken by the infamous Al Swearingen, owner of The Gem Saloon.)

Top Row:  My work table in the National Archives; illustration of a mail coach, the only useful bit I found in the entire book.

Bottom Row:  Passenger list from “The Empress of France”; a book of reports written by Hugh Trevor-Roper.

People Places

The Tudors and the Troops

June 25, 2017

Hever Castle on a sublime summer day.

It would seem like from my latest posts that I must’ve lost interest in following Cornelia’s and Emily’s story, but that is hardly the case.  Every day I read a bit of the book, and write about the girls, and continue my research on them and their travels.  And any time I am in the West End, especially when I’m going to the theatre, I think of them and imagine them strolling through these same streets (sometimes in those crazy white rabbit fur capes).

Because of the mishap with the Montcalm, and the eight days waiting in Canada for another ship, compounded with Cornelia being bedridden in Southampton with the measles for ten days, the girls were severely delayed in getting to London, so their time in the city was cut rather short.  Whereas I’m spending nearly five weeks here, the girls barely got more than two.  So aside from a few passing references to places they visited, and their stories from Hampton Court and Easton Glebe (more on that in a later post), there is very little for me to search out in London.  Which I don’t mind, as it gives me some free time to have a few new experiences of my own, while also allowing me to revisit parts of my own past travels.

Something I was keen to do, which I had never done before, was tour Hever Castle, the onetime home of Anne Boleyn, Anne of Cleves and, a few centuries later, William Astor.  I have a fascination with Tudor history, and since my early days have always been staunchly in the Boleyn camp, so I was eager for the chance to finally visit their home.

My neighbor and new friend Sabrina and I went out to Hever Castle on June 25th (the wedding anniversary of my parents, John and Janet Crow, by the way).  We were pleased to learn that the castle would be hosting special activities and attractions that day, as part of Armed Services weekend.  All the better, we thought.  I was especially pleased, since Our Hearts Were Young and Gay has its own tie-in to World War II (once again, more on that in a later post).

The train ride through the countryside of Kent couldn’t have been prettier or more pleasant.  At one of those picturesque little stations decked out with hanging baskets, we changed from the big Southeastern Railway train to a smaller, regional train which took us to Hever Station.

It was then just a brief walk through some fields and country lanes, and up past an ancient half-timbered pub and the village church and graveyard, to reach Hever Castle.  Immediately we were struck with the beauty and the layout of the grounds.  Whereas some of the great estates have elaborate, ostentatious grounds, Hever Castle and its surroundings were beautiful in an understated, natural way.

The grounds were buzzing with all sorts of interesting sights. In the center of everything was a World War II spitfire, being watched over by gentlemen dressed as members of the Home Guard.  Further on, in front of the castle was parked a vintage double-decker bus, which had been turned into an interactive experience called “London During the Blitz”.  There were activities for kids, such as the sobering craft project of making their own gas masks.  And I was proud to see some tents and a trio of left-hand drive jeeps representing the American troops who had flooded into England once the US had entered the war.

But first we wanted to step a little further back into history and tour the castle.  Sabrina and I viewed a lot of the rooms together, but soon got separated as we went at our own paces.  I was glad she had been spared my lengthy conversation with one of the docents about Henry VIII, the Boleyns, and who murdered the Princes in the Tower.

After being on Henry’s turf at Hampton Court, it felt good to be here in Boleyn territory, where the king had been just the lovesick suitor of Anne.  Of course, later he would have her beheaded, seizing Hever Castle from her family and then giving it to his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, who of all of Henry’s wives, on balance, probably fared the best of the lot.

Sabrina and I met up at the gift shop and cafe, and after a tasty bite of lunch, we headed over to the gardens and a series of tents.  The largest tent was serving as the grand stand for a trio of female singers in period dress, who were performing big band hits of the war years.

Next to the tents, a pick-up game which appeared to be half-cricket and half-baseball, was being played by people dressed in G.I. uniforms – soldiers and sailors both – as well as a few women who were sporting “A League of Their Own” baseball uniforms.  There were also a few “civilians”, also in period dress, who had joined the game, while a large group of men and women, 1940s from head to toe, merrily cheered them on.

There was something about that game, everyone laughing and delighting in the spectacle – the mood was ebullient and infectious, and Sabrina and I were swept up in the joy and spirit of it all.  The uniforms, the clothes, even the hairstyles, with “Chattanooga Choo Choo” being sung in the background – it all looked and felt so authentic, that this easily could have been the summer of 1942, with everyone taking a brief respite from the worry of the war for a bit of happiness and fun.  Once again I found the edges of time and space blurring, and it was quite a wondrous sensation.

After enjoying the game for a while, we checked out the tents and were particularly struck by the one selling handmade reproductions of 1940s hats.  Oh, there were some heavenly creations!  It made me want to come back next year in vintage apparel.  And to think, not so long ago, I had been haughty about re-enactors.  Now I very much wanted to be part of that homefront ballgame crowd, and slip into their 1940s world for just a moment or two.

Our last stop, albeit an extensive one, was touring the flower gardens and enormous man-made lake.  All of this had been installed by William Astor when he purchased Hever Castle in 1903.  On the lake, folks were out boating, while a mother swan sat at the water’s edge with her offspring – though larger than babies, they still had all of that sweet, soft-looking grey fluff and were quite adorable.

Museum legs had begun to set in a bit for both of us, so we made our way back to the train station, then on to London and the 21st century.  Along the way, we looked through our photos, and talked about the centuries of history we had just taken in, all in a matter of a few short hours.  Sabrina and I agreed that the ballgame had been the best part of an all-around terrific day.  And I had no doubt that Hever Castle day would end up being one of my favorite days of the entire trip.

Top Row:  The charm of a village train station; Hever Castle, the London Blitz double-decker bus, and a glimpse of William Astor’s Tudor Village; Henry VIII, that jerk, slept here.

Middle Row:  … And the crowd is ecstatic; Winston Churchill embraces his American side and bats baseball-style; safe at third, to everyone’s delight.

Bottom Row:  A treasure trove of hats; Sabrina photographing roses; a swan and her little ones head to the water.

Places Things

Declassified: A day at Bletchley Park

June 14, 2017

Last week, I hopped on a train and traveled about an hour northwest of London to Bletchley Park.  Pretty much everyone knows from history class, or the films “Enigma” and “The Imitation Game”, that this is the legendary site where men and women worked tirelessly during World War II to crack the codes and decipher the messages being sent from Axis intelligence.  It is estimated that their success in breaking the enemies’ codes shortened the war by two to four years, and that without Bletchley Park’s intelligence work, the outcome of the war would have been uncertain.  That is how important the efforts of these mathematicians, linguists, chess champions and crosswords experts were, and why their work was a closely-guarded secret even up until the mid-1970s.

It was sunny and warm, utterly perfect, on the day I visited Bletchley Park.  My tour began in a modern building which houses some cool interactive exhibits, such as trying your hand at finding and deciphering radio transmissions.  Visitors are surrounded by photos, films and recordings which place them squarely into the dark, early days of the war, before they venture out to explore the buildings, huts and grounds of Bletchley Park.

(And though it is meant to be the last stop on the way out, well, it couldn’t be helped – I got sucked in.  Bletchley Park has a divine gift shop.  There are candies and cookies in replicas of wartime tins, books, posters, postcards, numerous accessories and apparel, and – my favorite – Bletchley editions of puzzle books like crosswords and Sudoku.)

Before heading out to the grounds, I stopped and picked up a headset along with a nifty audio tour Gameboy-looking device.  Let me just say, audio tours are getting very sophisticated, and fun.  This one gives visitors options at every location, from offering a brief history of a particular spot, to hearing voices of those who worked there, to solving a puzzle or two.  Even with my chronic condition known by Cornelia and Emily as “museum legs”, I was able to take in and enjoy a great deal of the place before I got tired of my headset, went and bought an ice cream, and sat down on a bench by the lake to eat it.

(It should also be mentioned that Bletchley Park houses two cafes, each serving really tasty lunchtime fare made from locally sourced ingredients.  I recommend the one in Hut 4, which was formerly the Naval Intelligence Codebreaking hut.  Bletchley also has afternoon tea in the mansion on the weekends.  Way nice.)

What has any of this got to do with Emily, Cornelia and Our Hearts Were Young and Gay?  After all, the girls traveled to Europe in 1922, long before the hint of war.  Even in 1942, when they wrote the book, Cornelia and Emily certainly wouldn’t have had the slightest notion of the existence of Bletchley Park.

Well, there is in fact a specific and rather astonishing reason for my visit to this historic site, which has to do with Our Hearts Were Young and Gay.  This Spring, while I was doing research, I came across a very surprising claim about the book, and I wanted to find out if the report was true.  It involved –

[NOTE:  The rest of this post has been deemed classified – by me – for the present moment, with hopes that the full story of the strange report I discovered this Spring can be brought to light in the near future.]

Below:  The blissful setting of Bletchley Park must’ve helped with the poor, frayed nerves of those working there; the “maudlin and monstrous pile” of the mansion house; proud swan parents and their fuzzy babies; the Enigma.