Tag Archives: Cape Town

The best and worst of November 1918: Fake and real armistices, osculation, and meat we’ll learn to like

With the centenary of the Armistice approaching, I wanted to celebrate, but how? I couldn’t find any planned events for Remembrance Day (as it’s called in the Commonwealth) here in Cape Town.* But I knew that veterans lay a wreath at the war memorial every year, so I figured they’d be doing something special for this one. I arrived at 10:30 and found marching bands marching, bagpipers piping (oddly, “Sarie Marais,” an anti-British song from the Boer War) and a big tent full of people. A young woman gave me a paper poppy.

There were prayers, hymns, and a speech by Deputy Mayor Ian Neilson, my old friend from Pretoria in the late eighties. (South Africa can be small-towny like that.) How to celebrate an event like this, in the presence of both current soldiers and elderly white veterans who won their medals doing who knows what, is always a fraught question in South Africa. Ian hit just the right note, highlighting the contributions of black soldiers in South Africa and the United States for whom the Allied victory didn’t bring freedom.

At 11:00, the hour of the Armistice, there was a two-minute silence, a tradition that, it turns out, originated in Cape Town. Representatives of diplomatic missions and veterans’ groups laid wreaths on the monument, and afterwards the rest of us were given white roses. Here’s where I placed mine, thinking about the soldiers I’ve gotten to know in my year of 1918 reading, many of whom who didn’t make it home.

Now on to the best and worst of November.

Best fake news: Allies win the war!

New York Evening World, November 7, 1918 (Library of Congress)

What’s fake about that, you may be asking. Well, check the date.

In one of the most monumental screw-ups in the history of journalism, the United Press Association (which later became the UPI) reported on November 7 that the war had ended. According to a gloating report in the New York Times, which didn’t run the erroneous story, reporters mistook a ceasefire in an area where French and German officials were meeting for the end of the war. The censors, who were responsible for weeding out secrets, not errors, OK’d the story, and the agency cabled its headquarters. Which didn’t bother to check with officials in Washington, the attitude being “What do they know?” Newspapers rushed out extra editions.

New York Times, November 8, 1918

Secretary of War Baker said this was news to him, and Secretary of State Lansing checked with Paris and issued a denial, but no one cared. New Yorkers poured onto the streets. In Washington, newspapers were dropped from helicopters.(CORRECTION: From an airplane. As an alert reader has pointed out, helicopters weren’t invented yet.) 1,500 women workers from the State and War Departments, who apparently didn’t take their bosses any more seriously than anyone else did, rushed over to the White House, where they waved American flags and cheered President Wilson.**

Later that night, when word spread that the war was in fact still going on, a lot of people were too drunk to care.

New York Times, November 8, 1918

Luckily, only four days passed before the…

Best real news: Allies win the war!

Or, more succinctly and colorfully,

I worried about the fake victory celebration putting a damper on the real victory celebration, but that was just me being a gloom:

New York Times, November 12, 1918

People went wild with joy all over again.

New York Times, November 11, 1918

What persons were these, I wondered. Three-day-old persons? But the premature celebration had vanished from everyone’s heads, apparently.

New York Times, November 11, 1918

Osculation ensued!

New York Times, November 12, 1918

Best cartoon:

I only kind of get this Harry Gant Dart cartoon–something about the Germans not being in control of their own country anymore–but the drawing is amazing and it’s a refreshing change from all the cartoons about people hanging and strangling the Kaiser.

Judge, November 30, 1918

Best illustration:

Amid the celebration, a reminder of the conflict’s cost.

Frank E. Schoonover, Ladies’ Home Journal, November 1918

Worst Thanksgiving celebration:

New York Times, November 29, 1918

According to the New York Times, New Yorkers were eager to entertain the troops, including 750 convalescent and wounded soldiers who had returned from France during the week and were quartered at Debarkation Hospital No. 3 at 18th Street and 6th Avenue. Between them, they had received 1,400 invitations–two each! Lavish dinners and theater tickets had been laid on. But, when their uniforms returned from the sterilization department and the soldiers “prepared to don them to sally forth to the feasts,” it turned out that they had  shrunk beyond recognition. A “big soldier,” presented with his outfit, declared it a “Boy Scout uniform.”

Many unsuccessful efforts were made by others to wear the shrunken military garb, and, of course, regulations barred them from appearing on the streets in any other clothes.

An emergency order went out, and 125 uniforms were procured. What to do with the rest of the soldiers? Waive the regulations in appreciation of the sacrifices they had made in securing the biggest military victory of all time? Don’t make me laugh!

The fortunate wearers of these went forth, while the others, grumbling at their ill-luck, reclothed themselves in pajamas and hospital blankets.

Thank you for your service, boys!

Worst Meats:

The headline had me worried

Ladies’ Home Journal, November 1918

and the illustrations confirmed my worst fears.

Worst ad:

Since you didn’t die in the war…

Judge, November 9, 1918

Worst magazine cover:

Like I said, not a fan of the Kaisercide trope.

Best magazine cover:

I like this George Wolfe Plank Vanity Fair cover a lot,***

and also the crisp, clear lines of this one from Golfers Magazine,

but the best cover award has to have something to do with what happened during this momentous month.

This J. C. Leyendecker Saturday Evening Post cover is wonderful, but I’ve already given it enough love.****

I was just about to bestow the award on Norman Rockwell’s joyful soldiers on the cover of Life

Life, November 28, 1918

when I thought, “Wait, what about Vogue?”, and found the winner, this gorgeous, understated Georges Lepape cover:

Vogue, November 15, 1918

On to—can it be?—December!

*Of course, only reading news from 100 years ago didn’t help.

**This item, which I cribbed from Whatever It Is, I’m Against It, makes me blush on behalf of my fellow women State Department workers.

***If you’re wondering what’s happened to Erté, there aren’t any copies of the October and November 1918 issues of Harper’s Bazar, or even the covers, anywhere on the internet as far as I can tell.

****Fun fact: the soldier is Neil Hamilton, who later played Police Commissioner Gordon on Batman.

An academic interlude: Harvard’s Widener Library

I live in Cape Town, which has a lot of advantages, like this

and this,

but presents certain challenges My Year in 1918-wise. Online resources like Google Books’ Hathitrust and the Modernist Journals Project are a godsend for online researchers–I get all my magazines there–and most of the books I read are available on Kindle, but there’s no substitute for holding an actual, physical book in your hand.*

So when I went to my Harvard reunion last month, I stayed on and spent a couple of days in Widener Library, which (together with the university’s other, smaller libraries) is home to the world’s third-largest collection of books. My ideal vacation destination!

Widener is a great place to channel 1918. The library, which was dedicated on commencement day in 1915,

Dedication of the Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library, Harvard University, 24 June 1915 (Harvard Graduates’ Magazine, Vol. 24)

was donated to the university by Eleanor Elkins Widener in memory of her son, Harry Elkins Widener of the class of 1907, who died on the Titanic. Harry was, despite his youth, an accomplished book collector**, and there’s a room in the library dedicated to his memory.***

That room is roped off, but I did get to browse the stacks (which is just as fun and creepy as it was when I was an undergrad), grab a pile of 1918-era books, and peruse them in this less luxurious but still very cool reading room.

Conclusions: E. Nesbit was kind of boring when she wasn’t writing for children. Winnifred Eaton’s Marion: The Story of an Artist’s Model seems like it’s worth reading (good thing, since it’s on my 1918 bedside bookshelf). So does Clive Bell’s Art.

I also did some literary detective work, continuing my pursuit of the script of Alan Dale’s 1918 play The Madonna of the Future, which, as I wrote in April, shocked audiences with its depiction of a wealthy woman who becomes a single mother by choice. There was no trace of it in the National Union Catalogue, although there were lots of other works by Dale, whose real name was Alfred J. Cohen.

With the help of a research librarian, I did find an article in Puck magazine in which Dale, who was a prominent (but, according to Smart Set’s George Jean Nathan, very, very bad) drama critic, interviewed his play’s star, Emily Stevens. Bottom line: Stevens thinks Dale is kind of a moron.

If anyone has advice on where else I might turn to find the elusive script, please let me know. The Library of Congress pointed me in the direction of a copyright records archive, but no luck there either. I’m starting to think it might not exist.

Just when I was winding up my visit to Widener, thinking that it had been fun but a bit lacking in serendipity, I came upon, in this copy of Edna Ferber’s Buttered Side Down,*****

a real-life copy of a Winward Prescott naked microscope bookplate!

Which, in case the excitement of this is eluding you (although a naked microscope bookplate should be exciting enough in its own right), I discovered a while back in an online scan of a Harvard library book and wrote about here.

Two afternoons well spent! Next stop, when I’m back in D.C. in July: The Library of Congress.

*Yes, I know there are some great South African books from that era, and I will get to them.

**An area of accomplishment that is, of course, available only to very rich people.

***There’s a myth at Harvard that, in memory of her drowned son, Eleanor Elkins Widener demanded that the university require that all students pass a swimming test in order to graduate. During the reunion, several classmates reminisced about dutifully going to the athletic center to take the test–which does (or did) in fact exist, but is not a graduation requirement and has nothing to do with Widener. Luckily, some upperclassmen clued me in before I got all wet for nothing.

****Although not as many as I wanted, since, unlike during my student days, much of Harvard’s collection is now stored offsite, including–who would have thought it!–a high percentage of obscure books from 100 years ago.

*****which I subsequently raved about