A book filled with snippets of little known American History is always a joy to come across. Mary W. Schaller's book about Congressional daughter Nancy Johnson (Schaller's grandmother) shows some parts of that war that I never knew before.
Nancy Johnson was 25 when she decided that she was tired of the Washington D.C. social scene. In May, 1914, she escaped to Europe with a friend, determined to see first-hand the glories of the other side of the pond. Carting along 26 pieces of luggage, she boarded a small, rather dowdy, slow ship with the newly appointed U.S. Consul in Venice and his wife as chaperones. Her overly protective father had finally agreed to allow the planned year-long sojourn as a way to sever the budding romance between Nancy and Roscoe Campbell Crawford, a handsome young redheaded second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. (Hint to the reader, that attempted might not have been successful!)
Times were simpler then; young girls, no matter how determined and willful, did not pay a whole lot of attention to world affairs, or to politics. Armed with several letters of recommendation (including one from President Woodrow Wilson) and letters of credit, Nancy was ready for the romance and ages-old elegance of Europe. Starting in Italy, she and her companion/cohort Ethel Norris were ready to dive into the splendors of the old world.
Yet the true story evolved as travel became more precarious, and the "rattling of sabers" was heard across the Balkans. Europe at that time was flooded with some 30,000 American schoolteachers on vacation, and thousands of other world travelers, and they all barely seemed to notice the events of June 28th, 1914. But Nancy's secure enclave in Venice was soon severely threatened. Even though the hot weather and the siroccos were of more immediate concern, it was becoming evident that this was the last cry of the Gilded Age, for these elitist members of American wealth soon discovered that their letters of credit and introduction were of no use at all.
Pope Pius X tried desperately to call for peace, and to calm the Austrian-Hungarian anger. It was to no avail. On August 3, 1914 the Italian government closed all the banks in the country. Suddenly thousands were without funds. Checks would not be cashed, letters of credit would not be honored, and many were stranded without recourse in a Europe about to implode.
The U.S. State Department was in a hand-wringing state of confusion. A group of wealthy American travelers, including a Vanderbilt (Frederick) decided to charter private ships for their fellow Americans. Meanwhile, at home, gold was being collected to send to the stranded Americans. Frantic family members scurried around to collect the funds, which were put on ships going to Europe. Schaller writes, "In 1914 electronic deposits and wire transfers by computers were inconceivable...money cabled from America had to go through the Bank of England in London before the funds could be forwarded to another European country... Now the war had effectively shut down borders and frozen assets in the banks across Europe."
Those funds in gold steaming across the ocean (8 million appropriated by Congress and private funds) would be too late to help Nancy, Ethel and her friends. Vanderbilt and his cohorts had finally managed to charter the Principe di Udine, and, carrying the elite four hundred passengers of the first ship to leave Genoa, Nancy was on her way home.
Schaller gives a wonderful bird's-eye view of the frights her grandmother experienced, the sounds and sight of countries on the brink of devastating war, and the changes in Nancy Johnson from a pampered southern belle to a forthright and decisive young woman, determined to make it home. An interesting read, it gives much fodder for thought, since Americans at home at this time were not expecting, nor in full understanding of the course of public affairs that lead to this Great War.
Read an excerpt from this book.
Mary Schaller is a native of Washington, D.C. (remaining staunchly non-partisan for survival!) and is an award-winning author and editor of sixteen books and plays. She has worked at the Folger Shakespeare Library as a docent since 1979. Schaller loves to take cruises to the Caribbean, ice skate and read books—though not simultaneously!
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