Once An Eagle

This past Saturday I was running around the city doing some errands and in general just enjoying the day. Part of that included a stop at The Strand bookstore on 12th and Broadway, one of my major haunts when I first moved to the city 20+ years ago but which I seem to visit less often nowadays. While there I bought the copy of Anton Myrer’s Once An Eagle that you see below. I had another copy of this about ten years ago that I never got around to reading due to a number of changes in my life that occurred around the same time. Instead I mailed it to a friend who read it and then passed it on to his father, an Air Force veteran now interred in a military cemetery. Both read and got a lot out of it. I had not thought of Myrer’s work until about a week ago when I heard Jim Webb talking about it on a podcast I listen to frequently. That inspired me to seek it out again. With the holidays about over and winter officially here it seemed an opportune time to read the 775+ page opus.

Published in 1968 during the height of the 1960s social unrest, Anton Myrer’s Once An Eagle, the story of a career military man struggling to do the right thing in his family and calling, resonated with Americans. The author continued exploring topics related to the Second World War, lost time, and the generation gap in his later works.

Myrer published Once An Eagle in 1968, one of the most terrible years in twentieth century history, with the Tet Offensive, Prague Spring, Events of May, assassinations, rioting, and political unrest around the world. Myrer’s tale of a career military man trying to do the right thing as he rose from young enlisted man to senior general over his half-century career spanning World War One to the early years of Vietnam struck a chord with the public. The book sold in the millions in the late 60s and early 70s.

I have spent part of this long holiday weekend reading some old interviews and articles with Myrer, who died in January 1996. Myrer was from Massachusetts and attended Harvard before leaving to join the Marines in World War 2. He returned to Harvard after the war to finish his degree and then settled in Saugerties, Myrer came home from the war determined to make sense of what he had seen and done in the Pacific. He spoke often in his writing and elsewhere of how the people of his cohort, what we would now call somewhat hyperbolically the Greatest Generation, were trying desperately in the years just after the Second World War to make up for lost time, get on with their lives and, to the extent that they could, reclaim the days of their youth that the Depression and war had taken away. Thus the mad rush to finish school, start careers, marry, buy homes, and have children. These offspring of course being the Baby Boomers.

In a small coincidence related to yesterday’s post Anton Myrer married his second wife in Brooklyn’s First Unitarian Church in 1970. This is the same church in which Price Collier, Sara Collier’s father, served as reverend before she was born. Myrer split his time between the city and (mostly) upstate. Saugerties was and remains something of an artists colony. The 1969 Woodstock Music Festival took place nearby. Other famous residents of Saugerties during this time included Bob Dylan and The Band. It was there that they recorded The Basement Tapes and where The Band itself recorded Music From Big Pink. I would love to know if Myrer ever came across Dylan, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, or the others. Saugerties is a small town, so I wouldn’t bet against it. If so, talk about world colliding.

In 1969, the year Woodstock too place not far from his home, Myrer returned to Harvard for his 25th class reunion. He was pained at the cultural divide he experienced and felt compelled to explain his own generation as best he could in his writing. Out of that came The Last Convertible. Written in the where-are-we-now and how-did-we-get-here style of Mary McCarthy’s The Group, The Last Convertible begins at Harvard in 1969 with its five now middle-age protagonists returning for their reunion and encounter the students, some of them their own children. In a series of 1978 interviews discussing his then-new book Myrer explains his sympathy for the Vietnam protesters. The Last Convertible is essentially an argument for the defense; Myrer explains poignantly to one interviewer that “I was sympathetic to the children. I was heavily on their side” before adding that “youth is too quick to judge, and they judged our generation too harshly.” To another interviewer around the same time he explains that he wrote The Last Convertible because “I felt a need to interpret our romantic generation to this embittered generation.”

December 30, 1918: Sara Collier weds Charles Fellowes-Gordon

Franklin Roosevelt carries his young cousin, Sara Collier (the future Sara Fellowes-Gordon), at a family estate in Fairhaven. (Photo by © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

Sara Roosevelt Price Collier married Frederick Charles Fellowes-Gordon, a lieutenant in the British Royal Navy, at St.Thomas’s Church in Washington D.C. on this date in 1918. The two became engaged in mid-November just after the Armistice and were supposed to wed on Saturday December 14 but for reasons that are unclear that did not come to pass. The bride, known as Sallie, was the daughter of Hiram Price Collier, a former minister at First Unitarian Church in Brooklyn and later a writer who died in Copenhagen Denmark in 1913. Sallie’s mother was Katharine Delano Price Collier, Sara Delano Roosevelt’s sister. There to give the bride away was her godfather and cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Sara Fellowes-Gordon, misidentified as Mrs. Gordon Fellowes in a 1940 New York Times caption, as she was volunteering with a motor ambulance unit in London during the Second World War. The cat was the unit mascot. Her cousin and godfather Franklin Roosevelt walked her down the aisle at her December 30, 1918 wedding just before he left for Europe.

The wedding plans were necessarily hasty, as the bridegroom was scheduled to return to England within just a few days. Sallie and Charles, as he was usually called, lived primarily in Great Britain after they married, raising a family while Charles rose in the ranks. The maritime connection between the two sides of the family was strong. Franklin loved the sea and, like his uncle Theodore, had served as assistant secretary of the navy; the Fellowes-Gordon clan was long prominent in the Royal Navy. The families remained close. In June 1934, by which time Franklin was president, Sallie and Charles accompanied Sara Delano Roosevelt aboard the Europa to Europe with two of their sons. Later that year, in September, Sallie and Charles were at Hyde Park to celebrate Aunt Sara’s 80th birthday with the extended family.

Both families were obviously active when the Second World War came, though Franklin of course did not live to see the war’s conclusion. Sara Fellowes-Gordon was present at Westminster Abbey on November 12, 1948, thirty years after her wedding and three years after Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s death, to help unveil a plaque in memory of her cousin and godfather. There that day as well were Clement Attlee and Winston Churchill. Eleanor continued seeing the Fellowes-Gordon family well into the 1950s on her many trips abroad. Sara died in 1969 and Charles in 1972. They are buried in Aberdeenshire, Scotland.

“Our Soldiers in Siberia!”

I hope everyone has been enjoying the day. I wanted to share this extraordinary poster from 1918 urging Americans to purchase was savings stamps. I think it illustrates–quite literally–that peace, if we can even call it that, was a tenuous thing six weeks after the Armistice. Americans and their allies were occupying Germany. Allied troops were also stationed in remote, freezing Siberia. This was in the wake of the assassination of the czar and his family. These were the early stages of the Russian Civil War.

“Our Soldiers in Siberia!”: This 1918 Christmas poster of a doughboy in Russia accompanied by a Czech or Slovak counterpart reminded Americans at the time of how fragile peace was after the Armistice and, intentionally or not, hinted of strains to come at the Versailles negotiating table.

Theodore Roosevelt returned to Sagamore Hill on Christmas Day afternoon after having spend almost two months in a Manhattan hospital. In early December he had been too infirm even to walk; he was also blind in one eye and still feeling the effects of the jungle disease that had nearly killed him four years earlier on his expedition down the River of Doubt. Despite all this, there was nonetheless talk that Christmas week of 1918 of Colonel Roosevelt traveling to Europe to participate in the peace negotiations. Colonel Roosevelt quickly dispelled these rumors. Franklin Roosevelt, still the assistant secretary of the navy, was scheduled to sail for Europe aboard the Leviathan on December 31 to start wrapping up naval contracts and other business. Already in Europe was Woodrow Wilson, who spent December 25 in Chaumont, France with Pershing and the troops before heading to London. American and allied troops were also in Siberia, and General Pershing was talking over Christmas about transferring an entire division from Germany there to further support them.

The reference in the poster to the Čecho-Slováks–peoples formerly under rule of the now-dissolved Austro-Hungarian Empire–hints at the complexity of the task Wilson and other leaders would face when trying to put the world back together. 1919 would be a fraught time.

(image/Library of Congress)

Mrs. Roosevelt’s 1918 Christmas Eve

Eleanor Butler Alexander Roosevelt, Ted Roosevelt’s wife, seen here in center holding knitting, as she was in France during the Great War. On Christmas Eve 1918 she was back in New York City and talking to the media of the work she and others did with the Y.M.C.A. in France.

In December 1918, weeks after the Armistice, Americans were arriving back in the United States, often on such massive transport ships as the Leviathan carrying as many as 9,000 doughboys. It was not just the men however. On December 16, 1918 the Lorraine arrived in New York Harbor carrying Mrs. Anne Harriman Vanderbilt, Mrs. Vincent Astor, a noticeably gaunt Scottish soprano Mary Garden, and Eleanor Butler Alexander Roosevelt, Ted Roosevelt’s wife. It was a difficult time for the Roosevelt family. Quentin had been killed that past July, and the other boys gravely wounded at different times during the war with physical and emotional injuries from which they would never entirely recover. Eleanor’s father-in-law, former president Theodore Roosevelt, had been failing for some time and was quite infirm by this time. He had spent almost all of the past two months in the hospital.

Eight days after her arrival Mrs. Roosevelt was again settled in to her and Ted’s home on East 74th Street. Her husband was still in France with the First Infantry Division. On Christmas Eve 1918 Mrs. Roosevelt gave an interview at the Upper East Side house to expand on, and even defend from some doubters, the work of the Y.M.C.A. that she and so many others had conducted during the war.

(image/New York Times)

Ten million new members by Christmas

I hope everyone’s holiday season is going well.

There was no slowing down in late 1917: that Christmas was the first after the United States officially joined in the fight. Prolific artist L.N. Britton produced this poster for the American Red Cross’s nationwide holiday membership campaign. The drive to reach 10,000,000 new members officially began on December 17th. New York City’s quota in that was set at a cool 500,000. Tammany Hall–still going strong nearly two decades into the twentieth century–boosted Red Cross membership in Manhattan by sending almost 9,000 of its own canvassing door-to-door. The initiative for new members proceeded smoothly enough, though on December 18th Red Cross officials in Washington D.C. called off the request for a Christmas Eve candle in every window; the National Board of Fire Underwriters convinced Red Cross leaders that such displays would be a safety hazard. Service flags, and in many cases electric lights, did go out on many windowsills as planned.

The Red Cross hit its 10,000,000 goal by Christmas, and with a week’s extension doubled that number by year’s end. Ironically, in some predominantly German-American regions such as Brenham, Texas it was vigilantism and threats of violence that put local quotas over the top. History is complicated.

Enjoy the day, everyone.

(image/Pennsylvania State University Libraries)

Eliza Hamilton Schuyler, 1811-1863

Eliza Hamilton Schuyler was a granddaughter of Alexander Hamilton. She died in December 1863 in the middle of the American Civil War. 

Elizabeth Hamilton Schuyler died 155 years ago today. Ms. Schuyler was a granddaughter of Alexander Hamilton, though they never met; she was born in 1811, seven years after the country’s first Treasury Secretary was killed in a dual by Vice President Aaron Burr. I took the photographs you see here in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery a few weeks ago.

The reverse side of Eliza Hamilton Schuyler’s headstone, Sleepy Hollow Cemetery

Ms. Schuyler was a friend and something of a mentor to Charles Loring Brace, whom she encouraged to become involved in philanthropy. She was also a neighbor of Washington Irving at her family’s country estate north of the city in the Hudson Valley. She and husband George also owned a house in Manhattan on 31st Street. Ms. Schuyler and daughter Louisa were active in the creation of the U.S. Sanitary Commission when the Civil War came in 1861. Sadly, she did not live to see Union victory, dying a she did December 1863 with the war still very much in the balance. She was only fifty-two.

J.T. Flexner’s George Washington

James Thomas Flexner’s four-volume biography of George Washington

Late last week I received in the mail a package containing the books your see above. This is James Thomas Flexner’s four-volume biography of George Washington, which the author published from the mid-1960s into the early-1970s. I won’t go too much into the details here and now but reading Flexner’s history of the first president will be part of some projects I have planned for 2019. I am already making a list of various interpretive possibilities. It may seem like a marked digression from my previous endeavors but that would be less accurate than it might seem; one of the major themes of my book manuscript, Incorporating New York, is that the Civil War generation was a bridge from the years of the Early Republic to the modern city and nation. That is one of the reasons I was so keyed up to see the Schuyler family plot in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery last week. Just as one example of such threads: Eliza Hamilton Schuyler was the granddaughter of both Philip Schuyler and Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton, John Jay and Isaac Roosevelt were three of the delegates who voted in favor of the adoption of the United States Constitution in Poughkeepsie in 1788.

I intend to start volume one of Flexner’s series after the holidays. I am a tabula rasa with the Founding Fathers. I started building a foundation by reading James McGregor Burns’s and Susan Dunn’s slim George Washington, part pf the late Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s The American Presidents series, and am continuing now with Harlow Giles Unger’s “Mr. President” George Washington and the Making of the Nation’s Highest Office.” These historians have extensive experience already on the presidents; Burns wrote two authoritative volumes on Franklin D. Roosevelt and Unger penned the authoritative modern biography of John Quincy Adams.

Sunday morning coffee

Louisa Lee Schuyler was a great granddaughter of both Philip Schuyler and Alexander Hamilton. She died in 1926 and is buried an hour north of New York City in Sleepy Hollow.

A friend and I traveled north of the city yesterday to visit Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. Neither of us had been there before and were not sure how it would work out logistically in terms of the distance from the train station, the size of the cemetery itself, how hilly it might be, and that sort of thing. We did not leave super early, as Sleepy Hollow is just an hour away from Grand Central. We caught 10:20, by which time the station was packed with people out enjoying the holiday season. We had a big checklist of potential headstones to visit, but only saw some of them because of the size of the cemetery. The one I was determined to see however is the one above: Louisa Lee Schuyler. Miss Schuyler was one of Theodore Roosevelt Sr.’s best friends; the two worked hand-in-hand on philanthropic endeavors for years until his untimely passing at age 46 in 1878. She carried on for almost another half a century until her own passing in 1926. They are two of the main characters in my book manuscript about Civil War Era New York City.

After trekking through the cemetery for a few hours my friend and I ventured to Philipsburg Manor, where the staff gave us recommendations on where to get lunch in Neighboring Tarrytown and helped us call a cab. They weren’t wrong about good restaurants on Main Street.

I am not going to go into the details today but will say here that, while also enjoying the holiday season, I have been laying the groundwork for some 2019 projects. Next summer I hope to spend a fair amount of time exploring Old New York in the Hudson Valley and making some connections to local and national history. The Colonial and Early American Periods are things I actually know very little about. Though I do explore the early years of European settlement a little bit in Incorporating New York I intend to explore the topic more thoroughly, including how it relates to the Hamiltons, Roosevelts, Schuylers, and other leading families.