The Ransom Center’s exhibition The World at War, 1914–1918 features a panoramic group portrait of the 103rd Aero Squadron (Lafayette Escadrille), the first U.S. aviation pursuit squadron in combat in France during World War I.
The photograph was sent to the Ransom Center’s conservation lab because it was tightly rolled, making it brittle and fragile. Previous attempts to unroll the paper had left one corner almost detached. The only clue as to its contents was a handwritten inscription on the roll’s outermost edge. Learn more about how photo conservators Barbara Brown and Diana Diaz worked to safely unroll the photograph to preserve it and display it in the exhibition.
Image: Eugene O. Goldbeck. Panoramic portrait of the 103rd Aero Squadron (Lafayette Escadrille). ca. 1919.
The University of Texas Press recently announced the undertaking of the publishing project The Texas Bookshelf, a series of 16 books, with an accompanying website, focusing on all things Texan. All books are to be written by faculty and staff at The University of Texas at Austin. The inaugural book, to be released in 2017, will be a history of Texas written by Stephen Harrigan, faculty member at the Michener Center for Writers. The subsequent books will focus on Texas history, business, culture, art, music, film, politics, and more.
Of the contributors, two are affiliated with the Harry Ransom Center.
Greg Curtis, Humanities Coordinator at the Ransom Center and Senior Lecturer at The University of Texas at Austin, plans to write a book on the history of Texas literature, with profiles of the lives of Texas writers and critical responses to their work.
Roy Flukinger, Senior Research Curator at the Ransom Center, will be writing and compiling a volume about the evolution and expansion of twentieth-century photography in Texas, which will feature hundreds of significant images created by important photographers and artists who worked throughout the state during that century.
Image: Photo of contributors to UT Press series The Texas Bookshelf by Michael O’Brien.
In the spring of 1915, John McCrae, a young Canadian surgeon, conducted a burial service for a friend, killed by German artillery during the Second Battle of Ypres, in the First World War. Inspired by the friend’s death, McCrae composed a poem, which he discarded, believing it to be no good. An officer retrieved it and convinced McCrae to keep working on it. The poem was published in December of that year.
The poem, “In Flanders Fields,” is an important work in the literature surrounding the First World War. Written in 1915, it did not describe the horrors and brutality of the conflict in the way authors such as Erich Maria Remarque would after the war ended. Rather, “In Flanders Fields” invokes a Romantic vision of the Great War, with its images of soaring larks and blowing poppies. These poppies have become emblematic of those who died during the war.
In the Harry Ransom Center’s exhibition The World at War, 1914-1918, a 1918 propaganda poster by Frank Nicolet Lucien features a Canadian soldier mourning the dead amid a field of the iconic poppies. One of the poster’s aims is to coerce civilians into buying war bonds. It entreats the viewer, “If ye break faith—we shall not sleep,” a reference to the last stanza of McCrae’s poem.
In the poem, the line is delivered by dead soldiers who ask that the living continue the fight so that the sacrifices of the fallen will not be in vain.
The World at War, 1914-1918 is on view through August 3.
Image: Frank Nicolet Lucien “In Flanders Fields” poster, 1918.
World War I played a crucial part in the transformation of gender roles. As men left for the battlefields, women took on traditionally male occupations at home. Buoyed by this experience and a new sense of confidence, these women started demanding more rights and independence.
These shifting roles were mirrored by new fashions, such as the flapper attire, which was ushered in by the rebellion of the post-war Jazz Age. Style magazines like Vanity Fair captured these trends on its covers.
Gordon Conway, a Texas-born fashion designer and illustrator, was famous for her drawings of these sophisticated and independent “New Women.” Conway launched her career at Vogue and Vanity Fair, and she was so talented that she was soon working for other publications, as well as a host of different advertising clients. Throughout her career, she did costume design, magazine art, and poster art for film, cabaret, and theater, working in New York, London, and Paris. She was remarkable not only for her artistic talent, but also for her ability to influence women’s desires for more cultural, sexual, and legal freedoms.
A Conway cover illustration for Vanity Fair is currently on display in the Ransom Center’s exhibition The World at War, 1914-1918. The illustration features a stylish, svelte nurse with an Afghan hound. Although the illustration was rejected for publication, it was later used by the Red Cross as a recruitment poster.
The Ransom Center’s Conway collection includes original art; photographs of family, friends and productions; and diaries, costumes, personal effects, datebooks, and numerous scrapbooks.
The World at War, 1914-1918 runs through August 3, 2014.
Image: Gordon Conway “Red Cross Girl” illustration for Vanity Fair, 1918.
“I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille,” says Norma Desmond in the famous end scene of Sunset Boulevard. Gloria Swanson, the actress who portrayed Desmond, is ready, as well. Bowdoin Professor Tricia Welsch received fellowships, which were funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Endowment, to conduct research in the Ransom Center’s Gloria Swanson collection. The University Press of Mississippi recently published Welsch’s book, Gloria Swanson: Ready for Her Close-Up. Below, Welsch writes on her time at the Ransom Center.
When I took an exploratory trip to the Ransom Center to see if there was enough material to support a biography of Gloria Swanson (1899-1983), I was floored by the breadth and depth of the collection as well as the exceptional helpfulness and insightfulness of the staff. The Center’s holdings cover Swanson’s personal and professional life, from the first pictures she made in 1915 with Charlie Chaplin in Chicago through her movie stardom and her work in theater, television, radio, publishing, fashion, politics, and health activism. She lived in New York, California, Rome, London, and Paris. She traveled widely, and corresponded with everyone from Carol Burnett and Noel Coward to Eleanor Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. I felt like I hit the biographer’s jackpot every day.
Over the months I spent at the Ransom Center, I saw the records of a fully lived life. I examined Swanson’s grade school report cards, read the fan mail she received, pored over seven decades’ worth of business correspondence, and looked at thousands of photographs. Swanson’s contract specified that she was to receive a complete set of film stills from each of her pictures, and they provide a valuable record of many films considered lost today. Swanson also had a vibrant love life, and there are amazing love letters from her six husbands and her many lovers—including hourly telegrams sent by an enraptured Herbert Marshall. There is even one surviving love note from her producing partner Joe Kennedy, who left few records of his private affair and preferred that his assistants refer to Swanson in code even in their business papers.
Swanson considered writing her autobiography for decades and made some wire recordings of her memories in the 1950s, which the Ransom Center converted to digital format. Hearing Swanson talk about her life in her low, thrilling voice—imperious, wry, yearning, and philosophical by turns—was a special pleasure.
I particularly enjoyed one recording where she and her long-time friend actress Lois Wilson reminisced about their early Hollywood escapades—in particular, Swanson’s reputation for scandal: “If I was in a room fully clothed for five minutes with some men, mayhem! Lois could walk out of a room with a dozen men in a black chiffon nightgown after two hours and they’d say, ‘Oh, somebody must be ill in there. She’s taking care of them.’” The peals of laughter throughout their conversation were infectious.
I also heard Swanson’s voice in her extensive correspondence, in the many drafts she prepared of her memoirs, in published interviews, in her TV talk show appearances, and—unexpectedly—in a series of dispatches she wrote for the United Press from Europe in the mid-1950s. These appeared as twice-weekly syndicated newspaper columns. In them she wrote about whatever grabbed her: Roman fireworks and French perfume manufacturing, bullfighting, her visit to a camp for Iron Curtain refuges, Princess Grace’s wedding in Monaco. Swanson called her 117 articles “the hardest and most disciplined work” she ever did. They chronicle the mid-life adventures of a fascinating woman who was prepared to be fascinated by every new experience.
Swanson called herself a “mental vampire” because she had a voracious appetite for learning of all kinds, and the Swanson collection affirms that. It is the ideal archive.
Although best known for her role as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard (1950), Gloria Swanson was a legendary actress even before then. She starred in countless silent films, working with celebrities Cecil DeMille and Charlie Chaplin. Vivacious and enigmatic, Swanson was known for her extravagant clothing, spending, and love life.
In his new biography Gloria Swanson: The Ultimate Star, Stephen Michael Shearer utilized the Ransom Center’s Gloria Swanson collection, which includes personal correspondence, professional contracts, and ephemera.
Swanson was not known for being revelatory or reflective, and an interesting quotation from one of Swanson’s 1943 diary entries, held in the Ransom Center’s collection, stands out in Shearer’s book. She writes, “God’s wisdom finds no solace, no satisfaction in sin, since God has sentenced sinners to suffer.” This introspective quote is at a discord with her usual attitude of rarely expressing remorse, whether for her inveterate spending and debts or the many hearts she broke.
Swanson also worked hard to gloss over anything negative and to cultivate an image of perpetual stardom. Her dramatic and charismatic persona was always on display, drawing men and women alike to her. “Swanson was drenched in her concept of her own allure and femininity,” said Shearer. Swanson’s carefully crafted autobiography Swanson on Swanson reflects this tendency to conceal the negative aspects of her life and showcase her greatness, but holdings such as this diary entry help paint a portrait of Swanson that goes beyond Norma Desmond and Swanson on Swanson.
2014 will mark the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War, a watershed event that claimed millions of lives and changed the course of the twentieth century. The Ransom Center’s exhibit The World at War, 1914–1918 will illuminate the lived experience of the world’s first global war, and will be supplemented with a trip led by exhibition curators and historians to its key monuments and battlefields throughout Great Britain, France, and Belgium, from June 14 through June 23, 2014. The trip is organized by the Texas Exes Flying Longhorns. Information regarding the trip can be found on the Texas Exes alumni travel website.
Sites in London include the Imperial War Museum, Westminster Abbey, the Douglas Haig Memorial, 10 Downing Street, and the Houses of Parliament. Participants will also travel to Oxford to meet with scholar Dr. Jon Stallworthy, the leading scholar on the works of English soldier-poet Wilfred Owen. The Ransom Center holds a collection of Owen’s letters. While in London, participants will stay in the Grosvenor House, a historic 5-star hotel that is frequented by celebrities and royalty.
From London, the group will visit towns such as Ypres, Somme, Verdun, and Rheims, home to key battlegrounds and memorials along the Western Front. The town of Ypres was the site of three major battles, as well as the first documented use of poison gas. Visitors can still view Ypres’ trenches, underground bunkers, and even a church where Adolf Hitler was treated after being wounded. Trip participants will also visit La Maison Forestière in Ors, a memorial to Wilfred Owen, and the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme. France is also famed for its champagnes, and participants will enjoy a tasting, featuring classics like Veuve Cliquot and Tattinger.
The trip ends in Paris, home to attractions like the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, and Notre-Dame. Participants will stay in the Intercontinental LeGrand Hotel, a luxury hotel with views of the Paris Opera House. There is an optional two-day extension of the trip here, which includes a Seine River cruise and a show at the Moulin Rouge.