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Come Home Instantly! Part 3

Aug 31, 2014
Pasadenans Abroad: Leonora (Babsie) and Leonora Curtin were stranded in Europe when World War I started one hundred years ago this summer. (Courtesy Pasadena Museum of History Archives, FCP.102.4)

Pasadenans Abroad: Leonora (Babsie) and Leonora Curtin were stranded in Europe when World War I started one hundred years ago this summer. (Courtesy Pasadena Museum of History Archives, FCP.102.4)

In Part 2 of “Come Home Instantly!,” Eva and Adalbert Fenyes, our traveling Pasadenans, sailed home from Europe just days before a succession of political and military threats and ultimatums kindled the world’s Great War. Fortunately for the Fenyeses, they arrived safely in New York on July 29, 1914, the day after Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Unfortunately, their daughter Leonora and ten-year-old granddaughter Babsie were still in Europe. Eva, anxious for their safety, wired “extra funds” with instructions to “come home instantly,” but her efforts were to no avail. Leonora and Babsie Curtin had been caught in an unexpected cascade of historic events, turbulent and pivotal.

Before the war started, Leonora and Babsie were vacationing in Switzerland, in Geneva, Vevey, and Lausanne. In July, they climbed the mountains of Valais and hiked across alpine glaciers. Switzerland held youthful memories for Leonora. She had attended school at Les Fougeres in Lausanne in the 1890s and traveled with her mother as Eva sketched stunningly bright watercolors of the Swiss countryside. Now on July 23, just days before the war began, Leonora wrote to Eva about her excursions with her own daughter and tempted Eva to come to Switzerland to paint. “We are just back from Chamonix, where it poured the whole two days of our visit. In spite of this, we enjoyed ourselves…Have written you long letter on the ‘Dent de Midi course’ & will forward it soon. Hope this card makes your fingers itch to sketch original.”[1]

 

With this postcard Leonora hoped to make Eva’s “fingers itch to sketch the original.” It is reminiscent of Eva Fenyes’ watercolors painted in Switzerland during the 1890s. (Courtesy PMH, FCP.107.4)

With this postcard Leonora hoped to make Eva’s “fingers itch to sketch the original.” It is reminiscent of Eva Fenyes’ watercolors painted in Switzerland during the 1890s. (Courtesy PMH, FCP.107.4)

 

One of many watercolors Eva Fenyes painted during her years abroad in the 1890s. Gryon, Switzerland, August 3, 1892. (Courtesy PMH, ESF.006.1551)

One of many watercolors Eva Fenyes painted during her years abroad in the 1890s. Gryon, Switzerland, August 3, 1892. (Courtesy PMH, ESF.006.1551)

 

The ink line on the right shows the route Leonora climbed on the Dente des Midi as mentioned in her July 23 postcard. (Courtesy PMH, FCP.106.3)

The ink line on the right shows the route Leonora climbed on the Dente des Midi as mentioned in her July 23 postcard. (Courtesy PMH, FCP.106.3)

 

Leonora climbs an ice slope on Aiguille de Tour, July 14, 1914. (Courtesy PMH, FCP.102.4)

Leonora climbs an ice slope on Aiguille de Tour, July 14, 1914. (Courtesy PMH, FCP.102.4)

 

Like many middle and upper class Europeans and Americans, the Curtins were enjoying a sense of security and freedom that belied the very idea of war. Theirs was an era of technological progress, economic globalization, and financial prosperity. Their society was steeped in a sense of personal freedom that made the world feel safe. “You could live anywhere you liked and as you liked. You could go practically anywhere in the world without anyone’s permission. For the most part you needed no passports, and many had none.”[2]   At the same time, a rising sense of nationalism, military expansionism, an arms race fueled by newly developed weaponry, and contingency war plans devised for variously imagined scenarios were relentlessly pushing countries toward war. So the conflict finally came, but with a curious sense of surprise for the summer’s travelers who suddenly wanted to go home.

In Pasadena where Eva and Adalbert waited anxiously to hear from Leonora, the Pasadena Daily News offered little comfort and quickly steeped the city in war news and the plight of its citizens abroad. Two days after Germany declared war on France, the August 5th headlines declared: “STRANDED AMERICANS IN SORRY PLIGHT SUFFER FOR ACTUAL NECESSITIES” “Means of Transportation to Coast are Lacking Even to Those Who Have the Money to Pay” “Many Pasadenans Abroad.” One column began, “Nearly half a hundred prominent Pasadena people are in Europe at present. Friends and relatives are frantic because they have not been able to learn whether they are in the war zones or have reached points of safety. Very few cablegrams have been sent from New York and at the European ports the governments have taken charge of the lines and very few messages have been sent.”

So Leonora sent postcards. Hoping to reassure her mother, she wrote from Martigny on August 1, “Dear M, If we can’t get away, don’t worry, for we are safer in Switzerland than in any other country in Europe. Have packed all afternoon. Mme. Meyrueis phoned that she had again been to Cook to ask about boats. Nothing sails before eighth. Don’t want to leave here for upset France, until I am sure of boat. Mme. M [Meyrueis] says her husband will look after us in Paris.”[3] The postcards Leonora wrote to her mother let us follow her movements as she tried to arrange passage home. We do not know when Eva received these postcards, but we do know Leonora received no correspondence from Eva until after August 20. Still, Leonora continued to write.

 

On August 9, 1914 in Marécottes, Switzerland, Leonora photographed the Swiss Army’s11th Infantry moving toward the border. (Courtesy PMH, FCP.102.4)

On August 9, 1914 in Marécottes, Switzerland, Leonora photographed the Swiss Army’s11th Infantry moving toward the border. (Courtesy PMH, FCP.102.4)

 

August 12, Lausanne, Hotel-Pension Regina Bristol: “Dear M. We came down here two days ago, could not stand it anymore up there [Marécottes]. Will tell you why later. The Swiss are all most kind. We shall not starve. The banks allow us 200 frs. a week & we can live on that. Helped Mme. Meyrueis pack last night – they had to move. She is frantic over family etc. We may join the Behrs, shortly. Latest news from consul says we may return by Italy. Lots of love don’t worry. Leonora”[4]

August 16, Pension de la Forêt au Chalet-a-Gobet sur Lausanne: “Dear M. Have come up here to the pine forests, near Mme. Meyrueis. Too hot in Lausanne. Received cable yesterday sent by Curtins on Aug 1st saying ‘Most anxious about you & baby can you cash cheques wire us if everything is alright love, Curtin’ I answered ‘assez argent, va bien, informez Pasadena.’ This cost me a small fortune. Thos. Cook is treating me as well as he can, much better than most people. I write P.C. because of censor. Love from Leonora S Curtin”[5]

August 20, Pension de la Forêt, au Chalet-a-gobet, sur Lausanne: “Dear M. Nothing in the world would look so good to me now, as a letter addressed in your handwriting. Am so anxious for news of you. Not a word since you sailed except the cable through Cook. Got a letter from my lawers [sic] yesterday – written exactly a month ago. Cook forwarded it from Paris. Then why none from you? Dr. Behr writes, our boat the ‘Ryndam’ sails on Friday. Shall try to get her in about three weeks, on her next sailing. It takes thirty hours from here to Paris at present. L & K, L.S. Curtin”[6]

The historical significance of their plight was not lost on Leonora. She clipped and mailed newspaper articles to her mother. “Am sending you two bunches of n.p. clippings which I think will be of great interest in the future. Could you stick them in a blank book for safe keeping?”[7] This small extant scrapbook also includes an eight point bulletin that details a course of departure for American citizens still in Switzerland. It was authorized by Major C. A. Hedekin, U.S. Cavalry and titled “United States Relief Commission, French Party, Paris, August 27, 1914.” Point one summarizes the purpose of the plan and expresses America’s gratitude to a troubled France. “By special arrangement with the French government, special trains have been provided sufficient to transport to Paris, within the next four days, not only some three thousand Americans now in Switzerland, but also their baggage. In view of the pressing needs of the Government for railway transportation for military purposes, it is evident that these special trains have been provided at a sacrifice, and as a particular mark of favor to the American people.”[8]

Sacrifice and favor indeed, for while Leonora and Babsie planned to escape through France to the English Channel, the German army had already pushed through Belgium and was moving toward Paris. “Like a swinging scythe the five German armies of the right wing and center cut into France from Belgium after the Battle of the Frontiers. A million Germans were in the invading force whose leading columns, shooting and burning, entered French territory on August 24.”[9] The French army was in retreat.

By August 27, the date of Major Hedekin’s relief bulletin, Leonora had secured assistance from the offices of Thomas Cook & Sons in Lausanne. “Dear Sirs, The Bearer of this letter is Mrs. Curtin, well known at this office and now on her way to New York. Any assistance you can render her will be appreciated.”[10] By August 28, the Curtins were in Geneva hoping to reach England by way of Paris and La Havre. Leaving the continent was becoming increasingly urgent.

During those last days of August, as German forces steadily advanced, French, British, and German armies engaged, retreated, and re-engaged in battles and in movements vulnerable to a bewildering confusion of political and military upheaval and indecision. As the German army neared Paris, the fall of the city seemed imminent. Then an ill-advised yet fortuitous change in the German plan succeeded in driving the armies toward the Marne River northeast of Paris.[11] The city was spared, but the First Battle of the Marne, that would halt the German advance, also launched four years of horrific trench warfare and defined the Great War’s Western Front.

By happenstance, as the German 1st Army changed course toward the Marne River, it opened the way for our fleeing refugees. From August 31 to September 3, the German army’s right wing, led by General Alexander von Kluck, confidently abandoned the original plan.[12] Instead of advancing due south to envelop Paris from the west and south, they prematurely veered southeast, sweeping though Senlis thirty miles north of Paris.[13] At the same time, between August 31 and September 3, perhaps on one of those last promised trains from Geneva, the Curtins were pushing west through France toward the English Channel. With the German army no longer moving directly south to envelop Paris, the Curtins were able to reach the city, pass through to Rouen, and finally reach the coast at La Havre. On September 4, after crossing the channel to Southampton, Leonora at last sent the good news, “Dear Mother, Landed at noon after a terrible four day’s journey. Sitting up three nights out of four, in car, out of doors & on deck. Worry enough to turn hair gray. Four trunks lost somewhere in France. Will write letter tomorrow. Cabled you to address c/o Cook main office London. Both well but tired out.”[14]

 

Below this photograph Leonora wrote, “Havre Docks, Sept 3rd ‘Our Bedroom’ Leonora II, Mrs. Perry & Son” (Courtesy PMH, FCP.102.4)

Below this photograph Leonora wrote, “Havre Docks, Sept 3rd ‘Our Bedroom’ Leonora II, Mrs. Perry & Son” (Courtesy PMH, FCP.102.4)

 

Leonora and Babsie had slipped by the raging battles of northern France, and for the moment they were safe in England. Yet their journey was not quite over. All of September would pass before Leonora and Babsie finally reached New York. During that month Leonora continued to write postcards, and even though she chronicled further difficulties, frustrations, and missed boats, she commented with equanimity, “We are learning to take things as they come.”[15] At last on October 8, 1914, after steaming into New York Harbor on the Dutch ship Ryndam, Babsie wrote a note to her grandmother on a postcard picturing the Brooklyn Bridge, “So glad to be nearer you. Saw the bridge coming in. Aunt Mälsie and Enos [Curtin] met us at the dock. Love and kisses from Baby.”[16]

 

In March 1918 the Rijndam was seized by the U.S. Government and was in service to the Navy for military transport until October 1919 when she was decommissioned and returned to her owner. She was scrapped in 1929. Postcard (Courtesy PMH, FCP.107.4)

In March 1918 the Rijndam was seized by the U.S. Government and was in service to the Navy for military transport until October 1919 when she was decommissioned and returned to her owner. She was scrapped in 1929. Postcard (Courtesy PMH, FCP.107.4)

 

Back home in California, Eva and Adalbert finally felt relieved. Leonora and Babsie were coming home at last. Their arrival on the Ryndam was announced October 8 in the Los Angeles Times under the curious headlines “WORK OF LIFE MAY BE LOST” and “Pasadena Author’s Manuscript in Belgium’s Ruins.” Looking back, we remember the beginning of the Fenyes’ and Curtin’s summer vacation abroad. Their days together sightseeing in Paris, Adalbert delivering his manuscript to his Brussels publisher, the Fenyeses touring Germany, Bohemia, and Austria, and the Curtins mountain climbing in Switzerland. And then the war. Small wonder Adalbert dismissed the Times’ concern about his book. “…he declared that no loss was worth worrying about, and that if it is lost, he will just forget it.”[17] But Adalbert and Eva, Leonora and Babsie would not soon forget the days of August in 1914 when they witnessed so personally the start of the Great War.

 

Read the whole series:
Come Home Instantly! Part 1
Come Home Instantly! Part 2

Julie Stires
Pasadena Museum of History
470 W. Walnut St., Pasadena CA 91103
PasadenaHistory.org

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Fenyes Mansion Tours: Friday, Saturday & Sunday, 12:15 p.m. $15

Studio, Fenyes Mansion; photo by Eric Politzer

Studio, Fenyes Mansion; photo by Eric Politzer

 

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[1] Postcard, Leonora Scott Muse Curtin (LSMC) to Eva Scott Fenyes (ESF), 23 July 1914. Fenyes-Curtin-Paloheimo Papers, FCP.106.3, Pasadena Museum of History Archives, Pasadena, California.

[2] David Fromkin, Europe’s Last Summer: Who Started the Great War in 1914? (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004) 13.

[3] Postcard, LSMC to ESF, 1 August 1914. FCP Papers, FCP.106.3, PMH Archives

[4] Postcard, LSMC to ESF, 12 August 1914. FCP Papers, FCP.106.3, PMH Archives

[5] Postcard, LSMC to ESF, 16 August 1914. FCP Papers, FCP.106.3, PMH Archives

[6] Postcard, LSMC to ESF, 20 August 1914. FCP Papers, FCP.106.3, PMH Archives.

[7] Postcard, LSMC to ESF, 6 September 1914. FCP Papers, FCP.106.3, PMH Archives.

[8] Scrapbook “Postcards and clippings Europe 1914 L.S. Curtin.” FCP Papers, FCP.103.2, PMH Archives.

[9]Barbara Tuchman, The Guns of August (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1962; Random House, 2014) 375.

[10] Memorandum, 27 August 1914. FCP Papers, FCP.100.10, PMH Archives.

[11] Barbara Tuchman, “Von Kluck’s Turn,” The Guns of August (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1962; Random House, 2014) 434-53.

[12] Barbara Tuchman, “Map of Schlieffen Plan,” The Guns of August (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1962; Random House, 2014) xxx.

[13] Barbara Tuchman, The Guns of August (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1962; Random House, 2014) 440.

[14] Postcard, LSMC to ESF, 4 September 1914. FCP Papers, FCP.106.3, PMH Archives.

[15] Postcard, LSMC to ESF, 22 September 1914. FCP Papers, FCP.106.3, PMH Archives.

[16] Postcard, LFCP to ESF, 8 October 1914. FCP Papers, FCP.106.4, PMH Archives.

[17] Copies of this work, published in Brussels 1918-1921, are listed in libraries in France, the Netherlands, and Switzerland.




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