Saturday, March 23, 2019

Gemini 3: The Flight of the Unsinkable Molly Brown

At 4:40 a.m. on the morning of March 23, 1965, Deke Slayton, as he would for twenty-four manned space missions, woke the crew of the first manned mission for the new Gemini program, Gus Grissom and John Young, in time for their physical exams. Along with twelve guests the astronauts ate a breakfast consisting of tomato juice, half a cantaloupe, scrambled eggs, two-pound porterhouse steaks, and toast and jelly (Grissom also had a glass of milk).

All images courtesy NASA
At 5:53 a.m. the astronauts left the operations building and entered a waiting automobile for the six-mile trip to the medical trailer parked near Pad 16, where they had biomedical sensors attached to their skin, slipped on their “long john” undergarments, and donned their spacesuits for the flight.

Meanwhile, at Pad 19, the site of the launch for the three-orbit Gemini 3 mission, backups Wally Schirra and Tom Stafford were busy setting switches inside the Molly Brown as the countdown for the mission continued. The backups had also prepared a couple of surprises for the prime crew. The day before, Schirra and Stafford  had stopped at Wolfie’s Deli on North Atlantic Avenue in Cocoa Beach. “We were both irked by the fact that Gus and John weren’t going to have real food on their flight, so Wally had a corned beef sandwich [with pickles] made up,” said Stafford.

As Grissom and Young finished suiting up for their trip in their immaculate white pressure suits, Young had stowed the corned beef sandwich in the leg pocket of his suit. The astronauts were greeted by Schirra clad in his tattered old Mercury training suit and wearing approximately twenty assorted security badges around his neck. “If you’re not feeling up to it,” Schirra told a laughing Grissom, “I’ll be happy to take this one.”

At 7:06 a.m., the astronauts left the medical trailer in an air-conditioned van headed to Pad 19. Once there, they took the elevator for the hundred-foot ride up to the white room, and entered the Molly Brown, Young first, followed by Grissom. “There were plenty of smiles, but not much of the joking that we had on some of the Mercury flights,” said Guenter Wendt, pad leader. “Gus and John were serious about the flight and had little room for levity.”

After his team of technicians completed a test to see if the crew’s spacesuits had any leaks, Wendt removed the seven safety pins on each of the ejection seats, reported his action to the blockhouse, and closed the hatches at 7:34 a.m. Following a check of the spacecraft for any leaks from the cabin, Wendt and his team cleared the area. The countdown ran like clockwork until 8:20 a.m., when mission control called a hold to check on a possible leak in an oxidizer line in the Titan II’s first stage. Pad technicians solved the problem and the countdown proceeded smoothly until liftoff at 9:24 a.m. Grissom reported to Gordon Cooper, serving as capsule communicator at the control center, that the clock had started and the Gemini-Titan configuration had entered its roll program. “There was not a distinct feeling when lift-off occurred,” Grissom reported. “It was a gentle, smooth lift-off with no jolt or disturbance.” As the craft entered its pitch program, Cooper called out: “You’re on your way, Molly Brown.”

For the first fifty seconds of the mission, Grissom had both hands on the ring triggering the ejection seats in case of an emergency. Young also had a ring, but when Grissom glanced over at his partner he noticed his hands resting in his lap. He may have seemed casual, Young later said, but he watched Grissom carefully and if the commander had experienced any problems with his ejection ring he planned on yanking his with dispatch. “During this time we didn’t say a word to each other because there was so much to do so fast,” Young noted, “but once we got into orbit we could relax just a little.” The Titan II booster had exceeded its estimated thrust, placing the astronauts into a higher-than-expected orbit.

As they left the Canary Islands behind on their first orbit, the astronauts experienced a moment of alarm when they noticed the pressure in the oxygen system, supplying air to the cabin and to their suits, suddenly drop, and other instrument readings also registering oddly. Grissom acted quickly, snapping the visor down on his helmet. “If the oxygen pressure is really gone,” he thought to himself, “it won’t make any difference. You’ve had it already.” With the experience he had gained through hours of work in the Gemini simulator, Young, in just forty-five seconds, diagnosed the problem—the primary electrical converter system had malfunctioned—and switched to the backup system.

Another problem arose with the planned sea urchin egg experiment. For the procedure, Grissom had to turn a knob that would activate a device to fertilize the eggs, which would later be studied to see how their cells had been effected by weightlessness. “Maybe, after our oxygen scare, I had too much adrenalin pumping, but I twisted the handle so hard that I broke it,” Grissom said. (After their flight, the astronauts learned that a controller on the ground, duplicating the experiment, had also broken the handle.) Although he discovered that the clearance between the hatch and radiation experiment proved to be “much smaller than on the mission simulator,” Young managed to complete the task.

The evaluation of meals undertaken by Young for future long-duration flights on Gemini proved to be one of the high spots for Grissom during the mission. Sealed in plastic bags, the dehydrated food had to be reconstituted using a water gun. Young reconstituted packages of applesauce and grapefruit juice, and opened a package of chicken bits, which “were not very tasty and were rather difficult to get out of the package while wearing pressure-suit gloves,” he said. The brownies provided for dessert proved to be the “best-tasting thing on the flight,” according to Young.

Young also had another item, not on NASA’s official menu, to sample. As Grissom monitored Molly Brown’s performance, he was surprised to hear Young nonchalantly inquire: “You care for a corned beef sandwich, skipper?” Grissom, who noted that if he could have fallen out of his couch he would have, thanked his crewmate for the treat and took a bite. Crumbs from the rye bread, however, started floating around the cabin, and the overpowering aroma of kosher corned beef proved too much for the spacecraft’s life-support system to handle, so Grissom put the sandwich away. (According to Wendt, Young later told him Grissom had jokingly complained that the sandwich had no mustard.) For an additional taste treat, he also sampled a bit of Young’s applesauce.

Experiments with sea urchin eggs and a chance to eat the first corned beef sandwich in space paled in comparison with the opportunity the astronauts had to investigate the worthiness of America’s new space vehicle. One hour and thirty-three minutes after liftoff, Grissom achieved a space first when he fired the Orbital Attitude and Manuevering System to slow the spacecraft’s speed to fifty feet per second, changing its path into nearly a circular orbit. Over the Indian Ocean on Molly Brown’s second orbit, the commander tested the ship’s translational movement, using the forward and aft thrusters to change its orbital path by one-fiftieth of a degree, paving the way for future Gemini rendezvous and docking missions. Finally, four hours and twenty-one minutes into the flight, Grissom again activated the OAMS in a preretrofire maneuver to ensure reentry in case of a problem with the retro-rockets. “Gus felt so good about all this that he even let me fly the Molly Brown for a few minutes,” said Young. “I thought I’d have to break his arm to take over even for that long.”

The final maneuver proved to be unnecessary as the spacecraft’s retro-rockets fired on schedule and the astronauts were pushed back into their couches by the g forces caused by reentry. Both astronauts reported that the view they had of reentry matched the simulations they had gone through during training, including the color pictures taken from the unmanned Gemini 2 mission. Molly Brown’s onboard computer indicated to the astronauts they would land short of the expected splashdown point near the recovery carrier, the USS Intrepid. Grissom performed two banking maneuvers to correct the error, but discovered that the lift predicted in wind-tunnel tests did not match real-world results. The crew experienced another surprise when the spacecraft’s main parachute deployed. The parachute’s harness was designed to change from a vertical position to a forty-five degree landing attitude. “John and I were both thrown against our windows, and I banged into a knob that punctured my face plate,” Grissom noted. “John’s face plate was scratched.”

At 2:17 p.m., four hours and fifty-three minutes after liftoff, Molly Brown splashed down near Grand Truk Island in the Bahamas about nine-and-a-half miles from the Coast Guard cutter Diligence, stationed fifty miles up range from the Intrepid.

Grissom’s first thought when the spacecraft hit the water flashed back to his experience in Mercury: “Oh my God, here we go again!” Gemini had been designed so that the left window, the one Grissom looked out of, would be above the water after landing. Instead of looking at blue sky, however, the astronaut saw nothing but seawater. Grissom soon realized he had not yet cut loose the main parachute that had been catching the twenty-knot wind, dragging the spacecraft “underneath like a submarine.”

With the memory of his LibertyBell 7 mission still fresh in his mind, Grissom mustered his nerve, reached out, and triggered the parachute-release switch. “But with the parachute gone,” he said, “we bobbed to the surface like a cork in the position we were supposed to take.” As Grissom and Young breathed easier, an Air Rescue Service C-54 aircraft dropped a pararescue team near the spacecraft to render assistance if needed. Five minutes later, a navy helicopter dropped another team that secured a flotation collar around the spacecraft.

An early communication to the astronauts had indicated the Intrepid only five miles away from the spacecraft, prompting Grissom and Young to remain in Molly Brown until the carrier’s arrival. Twenty minutes later, however, they learned of the carrier’s true position, approximately fifty-five miles away, and that the ship would take almost two hours to reach their position. “We were getting extremely uncomfortable in our suits; so we elected to take the suits off, egress, and be picked up by helicopter,” said Grissom, who kept the hatches closed so as to not repeat his Mercury misadventure. (The astronaut said if the Gemini spacecraft had sunk, he would have “jumped right off that carrier.”)

The hot temperatures in the closed cabin, combined with five-foot swells, caused both astronauts to become seasick. Navy veteran Young barely held onto his meal, but Grissom vomited into a plastic bag stowed for just such an emergency. “It’s a wonderful spacecraft, but it’s not much of a boat,” said Young. Navy frogmen assisted Grissom in opening his three-hundred-pound hatch and exiting the capsule. “That’s the first time I ever heard of a skipper leaving the ship first,” Young said. Grissom responded by joking that he made his partner captain when he left the spacecraft. With his new title, Young renamed the spacecraft the USS Molly Brown.

Safe aboard the recovery helicopter, Grissom and Young donned regulation navy bathrobes to cover their space long johns. The outfits gave the duo the “appearance of a couple of guys waking up after a big night at a convention,” Grissom noted as they landed on the carrier and underwent a postflight medical examination and debriefing. The Intrepid hoisted the Gemini capsule onto its deck at 5:01 p.m. The astronauts received a congratulatory ship-to-shore telephone call from President Lyndon B. Johnson, who had watched the mission on a television in his office. After expressing his and the nation’s pride in their accomplishment, Johnson told Grissom, first on the phone, that “apparently the Molly Brown was as unsinkable as her namesake and we are all mighty happy about it.” The only problem with the flight was that it did not last long enough, Young told the president, who responded by telling the astronaut he’d try to work something out in the days ahead. Johnson also invited both men to visit him at the White House—quite an honor for two men whose pay for the day, according to Associated Press figures, totaled just seventy dollars ($37.25 for Grissom and $32.75 for Young).

Upon their return to Cape Kennedy from the Intrepid via a navy S2 aircraft, Grissom and Young were greeted by their family members and an air force band playing the theme song from the musical The Unsinkable Molly Brown before being whisked away to undergo additional physical examinations. After the medical probing, the astronauts were upbeat and talkative during a press conference about their mission. Evert Clark, covering the event for the New York Times, noted that the reticent spacemen “turned out to be two of the funniest on the ground,” joking and feeding each other “straight lines like two comedians.”

Asked about the change in their demeanor, Young explained: “I think Zero-G flight could make an extrovert out of anybody.” He became particularly verbose when talking about the tremendous view from space, drawing applause from the gathered reporters and space officials, prompting Grissom to reply dryly, “Well, to carry on with the flight—.” Grissom made sure to praise the Martin Company, the manufacturer of the Titan II rocket, and had nothing but high marks for the McDonnell Aircraft–produced Gemini.

On March 26, Grissom, Young, and their families journeyed to Washington, D.C., for a ceremony with President Johnson in the East Room of the White House (cloudy weather had forced the proceedings inside from the Rose Garden). Calling the duo “two brave, patriotic, gallant, exceptional young Americans,” Johnson presented each with NASA’s Exceptional Service Award, with Grissom receiving another citation for becoming the first person to fly in space twice. The astronaut accepted the honors as “tokens of affection of this nation” for the entire space effort. Young became so wrapped up in the proceedings that he forgot to shake the president’s hand until prompted to by the crowd. “I didn’t have this kind of heart beat before the launch,” joked Young.

The honors continued in the next few days as Grissom and Young were treated to ticker-tape parades in New York City and Chicago. Grissom attributed the outpouring of goodwill the astronauts received to the public’s relief at having America “back in the manned-space-flight business with probably the most sophisticated spacecraft in the world, or out of it.”

Despite the tributes paid to the astronauts, controversy soon developed after the flight concerning the corned beef sandwich briefly enjoyed by Grissom on Molly Brown. At first, the astronauts had no inkling that the nonregulation food might cause any fuss, as they joked about it while discussing the flight in Life magazine just a week after the mission’s conclusion. Some members of Congress, however, failed to see any humor in the situation, with NASA administrator James Webb being peppered with complaints at an appropriations subcommittee hearing that the space agency “had lost control of its astronauts.” Flight Controller Christopher Kraft noted that some congressmen and doctors had the mistaken idea the astronauts had compromised medical tests by ingesting the sandwich, which they had not. The complaints eventually made their way to Slayton, who had given Young permission to take the sandwich on the flight. Slayton officially informed the astronauts they could not take “unauthorized items, especially food, aboard the spacecraft. I even had to give poor John a formal reprimand . . . not that it affected his career.”

In addition to the textbook flight of Molly Brown, the year 1965 saw NASA launch four more Gemini missions, achieving several triumphs in the process, including Ed White’s space walk on Gemini 4 and the first true rendezvous in space with Gemini 6, crewed by Stafford and Schirra, meeting up and flying with Gemini 7’s crew of Frank Boorman and Jim Lovell.

As the Gemini program continued, Slayton turned his attention to the future Apollo missions, scheduled for earth orbital flights before the end of 1966. With Shepard still out of commission due to his medical condition, Slayton again turned to Grissom to take command of the new space program’s first mission. Because the flight would take place without a lunar module, the remainder of Grissom’s crew included astronauts with little experience, including rookies Donn Eisele and Roger Chaffee. Eisele injured his shoulder in a zero-g flight in a KC-135 aircraft and had to be replaced. “He was going to be behind the training curve right from the start, so I simply swapped him with Ed White, who I’d originally had down as senior pilot of the next crew, Apollo 2,” said Slayton, who called Grissom, Chaffee, and White into his office to inform them privately of their selection for the mission.

Gaining the plum Apollo assignment caused Grissom to begin thinking about the dream of every astronaut—becoming the first man to walk on the moon. Jim Rathmann, the racecar driver and Grissom friend, remembered sharing many flights in his airplane with Grissom where the astronaut often talked about the possibility. “We’d all talk about it quite a bit,” said Rathmann, who along with Grissom and Cooper twice sponsored a car at the Indianapolis 500. “He wanted to be the first man on the moon and I thought he was the logical guy because of his attitude, his motivation and everything.”

In the backs of everyone’s minds, however, lurked the dangers involved with space travel, especially the approximately 239,000-mile trip to the moon. Rathmann and Grissom were returning home one day from Milwaukee aboard Rathmann’s aircraft when the astronaut realized they were not far from Mitchell. “You know,” said Grissom, “they’re going to name that airfield down there after me. Man, I don’t like that. They just name those airports after dead people.” Grissom even confided to his wife that if NASA ever had a serious accident, it would likely involve him because of his long service with America’s space program.

Grissom was proved tragically right—as he and his fellow crewmates lost their lives on January 27, 1967, in the tragic Apollo 1 fire. Grissom had known the risks involved with spaceflight, telling reporters: "If we die, we want people to accept it, and hope it will not delay the space program. The conquest of space is worth the risk of human life."


Wednesday, March 20, 2019

A Woman of the Limberlost: Gene Stratton-Porter


Wandering through the fields on her father’s farm one morning, a young Wabash County girl heard a rifle shot, looked up, and spied a large bird plummeting to earth. Running to the spot where the bird fell, she discovered a chicken hawk with a badly broken wing and her father who was preparing to club the injured animal to death with his rifle. Distraught, the girl, already known by her neighbors as a nature lover, pleaded with her father to give her the hawk to nurse back to health. Her father angrily gave in to her wishes, responding: “God knows I do not understand you. Keep the bird if you think you can!”

Over the next few weeks the girl’s father, a minister, watched in amazement as the bird recovered and devotedly began to follow the child around the farm. Impressed, the preacher gave all of the birds on the family’s property to his daughter as a gift. “Even while he was talking to me,” the girl recalled, “I was making a flashing mental inventory of my property, for now I owned the hummingbirds, dressed in green satin with ruby jewels on their throats; the plucky little brown wren that sang by the hour to his mate from the top of the pump, even in a hard rain; the green warbler nesting in . . . wild sweetbriar beside the back porch; and the song sparrow in the ground cedar beside the fence.”

The affinity for nature shown by the Hoosier child expressed itself in other ways as the girl matured to womanhood. Through such books as Freckles, A Girl of the Limberlost, Laddie, and Michael O’Halloran, Gene Stratton-Porter won popular acclaim and, in time, came to believe that she was a latter-day Moses, leading the women of her day back to nature and away from the strictures imposed on them by society. She had some success; an estimated fifty million people have read her work, and her books have been translated into several foreign languages. By the time she died in a Los Angeles, California, traffic accident on December 6, 1924, she had become, as Yale pundit William Lyon Phelps termed her, “a public institution, like Yellowstone Park.”

Born on Hopewell farm in Wabash County, Indiana, on August 17, 1863, Geneva (later shortened to Gene) Grace Stratton was the youngest of twelve children. Her father, Mark Stratton, was a licensed Methodist minister and prosperous farmer. Her mother, Mary, became ill when Gene was five years old and died in 1875. While Gene had little formal schooling in her early years, she developed a lively interest in nature and wildlife. “By the day I trotted from one object which attracted me to another,” she noted, “singing a little song of made-up phrases about everything I saw while I waded catching fish, chasing butterflies over clover fields, or following a bird with a hair in its beak.” When her family moved to the city of Wabash in 1874, she began to attend school on a regular basis and completed all but the last term of high school.

On April 21, 1886, Gene married Charles D. Porter, a druggist and banker, who was thirteen years her senior. Living for a short time in Decatur, the couple moved to Geneva after the birth of their daughter, Jeannette, in 1887. “I did not write,” Gene Stratton-Porter said of her early days of marriage, “but I continued violin, painting and embroidery lessons, and did all the cooking and housework with the exception of the washing and ironing. I had agreed to love a man, and to keep his house neat and clean.” She did maintain her connection with nature by keeping several different kinds of birds in her household. After oil was discovered on some farmland owned by Porter, Gene Stratton-Porter used the new family wealth to construct in 1895 a fourteen-room, Queen Anne rustic-style home on the outskirts of town near the vast Limberlost swamp.

As Stratton-Porter herself described it, the Limberlost swamp had its head “in what is now Noble and DeKalb Counties, its body in Allen and Wells [Counties] and its feet in southern Adams and northern Jay [Counties]; its extent about one hundred miles in length and its width averaging twenty-five.” The Limberlost had a reputation as a “treacherous swamp and quagmire, filled with every plant, animal and human danger known—in the worst of such locations in the central states.” The swamp received its name from the fate of Limber Jim Corbus, who went hunting in the swamp and became lost for some time. When local residents asked where Jim Corbus had gone, the familiar answer was “Limber’s lost!” The swamp was where Stratton-Porter began to photograph birds and animals in their natural habitat. She sent her photographs, with no explanation, to Recreation magazine. Impressed by her efforts, the periodical asked her to write a camera department and paid her with new photographic equipment. A year later, Outing magazine hired her to do similar work.

Encouraged by these accomplishments, Stratton-Porter turned to writing fiction. Her first novel, The Song of the Cardinal, illustrated with photographs by the author, met with modest success, but her next book, Freckles, established her tremendous popularity with the reading public selling more than 670,000 copies in ten years. Although her sentimental style won favor with the reading public, Stratton-Porter’s work never received much critical acclaim, a fact that puzzled her. Why, she asked, the “life history of the sins and shortcomings of a man should constitute a book of realism, and the life history of a just and incorruptible man should constitute a book of idealism. Is not a moral man as real as an immoral one?”

In 1913, with the Limberlost swamp drained and cleared for farming and commercial ventures, Stratton-Porter and her family moved to northern Indiana, where she built a new home—The Cabin in Wildflower Woods—on the shores of Sylvan Lake at Rome City. She was attracted to the lakefront site by a wood duck she spied near the shore and an acre of blue-eyed grass on the property. “I bought the wood duck and the blue-eyed grass, with a wealth of tall hardwood trees for good measure,” she said. Stratton-Porter took a personal interest in the construction of her new home, noting that she was on the job “from the drawing of the line for the back steps between the twin oaks to the last stroke of polish that finished the floors.” The Hoosier author also worked with Frank Wallace, a tree surgeon and later Indiana State Entomologist, to improve the 150-acre property.

Just seven years after her move to Rome City, Stratton-Porter relocated to California where she took on writing a monthly column for McCall’s magazine, which first appeared in January 1922. In addition to her writing, she also organized her own movie company and based a number of her films on her best-selling books. “As a motion picture producer,” Stratton-Porter told her McCall’s readers, “I shall continue to present idealized pictures of life, pictures of men and women who inspire charity, honor, devotion to God and to family.”

At the age of sixty-one, Stratton-Porter was killed in an automobile accident just a few blocks from her Los Angeles home. She was buried in Hollywood Cemetery in California. For many years, her last wish went unfulfilled. It was: “When I am gone, I hope my family will bury me out in the open, and plant a tree on my grave; I do not want a monument. A refuge for a bird nest is all the marker I want.” In May 1999 Stratton-Porter’s last wish came true as her remains, and those of her daughter Jeannette, were interred at her home on Sylvan Lake near Rome City.


Thursday, March 14, 2019

A Heartbeat Away: Thomas Marshall and Woodrow Wilson’s Illness

J. Fred Essary, the Washington correspondent for the Baltimore Sun, found himself confronted with a delicate assignment in the fall of 1919. Stricken by a massive stroke, President Woodrow Wilson lay deathly ill in the White House. Concerned about the president’s medical condition, doctors and those close to Wilson decided that someone outside of government should inform the vice president about Wilson’s sickness.

Quietly making his way to the vice president’s office, Essary told him that the president might die at any moment. The stunned politician sat at his desk, his head down, staring at his hands. The reporter waited a long time for a reply, received none, and left, noticing that the vice president never once looked up.

Years after the meeting, Essary, on a visit to Indiana, saw the vice president, Thomas R. Marshall, who apologized for the incident. “I did not even have the courtesy to thank you for coming over and telling me. It was the first great shock of my life,” Marshall said.

The clandestine meeting between Marshall and the reporter was one of many bizarre incidents transpiring as a result of Wilson’s stroke. Although he stood just a heartbeat away from the presidency, Marshall, the former Indiana governor best known for his quip about cigar prices and the state of the country, never had the opportunity to see for himself just how incapacitated Wilson had become. Although Marshall tried to visit the president, Wilson’s wife, Edith, blocked all access to the stricken president. As the administration floundered, Marshall faced a difficult choice. Should he do nothing and chance that the national government would grind to a halt, or should he take firmer measures and chance being branded a usurper?

Marshall, the witty, down-to-earth Hoosier politician, and Wilson, the professorial minister’s son, never enjoyed a close relationship. The two men were thrown together not by any shared philosophy, but by political expediency. Forced to take Marshall on as his running mate to win enough delegates to achieve the Democratic presidential nomination in 1912, Wilson showed his low regard for the former Hoosier governor by calling him “a very small calibre man.” With the split in the Republican Party between incumbent President William Howard Taft and the third-party Bull Moose effort of former President Theodore Roosevelt, the Wilson/Marshall team narrowly captured the election.

Upon assuming his limited duties as vice president, chiefly serving as the presiding officer for the U.S. Senate, Marshall discovered that Wilson’s dim view of his running mate carried over from the convention to the new administration. “I soon ascertained,” Marshall wrote in his autobiography, “that I was of no importance to the administration beyond the duty of being loyal to it and ready, at any time, to act as a sort of pinch hitter; that is, when everybody else on the team had failed, I was to be given a chance.”

Marshall attempted to ease his troubles by unleashing his well-known sense of humor. When taking up his duties as the Senate’s presiding officer, for example, he asked for a new chair, since his feet failed to touch the floor when he sat in the old one (the vice president was not a tall man). He even went as far as to attribute his presence in office to an “ignorant electorate.”

The Hoosier vice president was held in such little regard by those inside the Wilson administration that there was even a movement afoot at the 1916 Democratic convention in Saint Louis to dump Marshall from the ticket, perhaps replacing him with Secretary of Agriculture David Houston or Secretary of War Newton D. Baker. Wilson, however, came to Marshall’s defense, noting the vice president “has given me every reason to admire and trust him.” With the president’s support, Marshall hung on to his job, and won a second term in a close race against the Republican ticket of Charles Evans Hughes and Charles W. Fairbanks (also from Indiana).

Marshall’s early difficulties in office were nothing compared to the trials he faced following the war’s end. When Wilson decided to leave the country and join the negotiations for the Treaty of Versailles in Paris (a decision he did not share with his vice president), he called upon Marshall to preside over cabinet meetings during his absence—becoming the first vice president ever to have such an honor. Although he attended only a few meetings, Marshall injected some levity into the usually staid surroundings. Once when Secretary of Commerce William C. Redfield read a letter to other cabinet members from a man complaining about bristle supplies, Marshall interrupted the secretary to offer an answer: “Tell him to shave and get his own raw material.”

A sterner test for Marshall was yet to come. Faced with opposition by Republican senators in his support for the League of Nations, Wilson embarked on a speaking tour in the late summer of 1919 hoping to rally public opinion to his cause. Before he could finish the tour, however, Wilson, whose health had never been good, collapsed, telling his personal physician Rear Admiral Cary T. Grayson that he seemed “to have gone to pieces.” Grayson informed the press that the president had “suffered a complete nervous breakdown” and it was necessary for Wilson to return as soon as possible to the White House. The president agreed to cancel the rest of the tour and he and his party returned to Washington, D.C.

On October 2, 1919, Wilson suffered a massive stroke that paralyzed his left side and left him an invalid both physically and mentally. Grayson, who had been called to the White House upon Edith Wilson’s orders, issued a terse statement to the press that the president “had a fairly good night, but his condition is not at all good this morning.” A second bulletin informed the nation: “The President is a very sick man. His condition is less favorable today and he has remained in bed throughout the day. After consultation with Dr. F. X. Dercum of Philadelphia, Drs. Sterling Ruffin and E. R. Stitt of Washington, in which all agreed as to his condition, it was determined that absolute rest is essential for some time.”

Taking the doctor’s advice, Edith began what she termed her stewardship, studying every paper sent to the president and trying “to digest and present in tabloid form the things that, despite my vigilance, had to go to the President.” Although she claimed that she never made a decision on how a question or issue should be decided, Edith did, as she admitted, have the critical task of deciding “what was important and what was not, and the very important decision of when to present matters to my husband.” Despite her best efforts, the wheels of government soon ground to a halt. She steadfastly refused to allow policy questions to upset her husband’s recovery.

As time went on and Wilson struggled to regain his health, Marshall became deluged with advice from all sides. Foreign governments began sending him official papers, prisoners in federal facilities sent pardon requests to him, and job hunters besieged his office. Some Republican senators even hinted that Marshall would have their support if he decided to assume the presidency. Troubled and needing more information about Wilson’s true condition, Marshall went to the White House in an attempt to see the president. He never had a chance; Edith zealously guarded her husband from any unwanted callers. Marshall did not see the president again until the inaugurations of Wilson’s successor, Republican Warren Harding.

Mark Thistlethwaite, Marshall’s private secretary attempted to convince the vice president that he had to consider the distinct possibility that he would be called upon to take over for Wilson—a situation Marshall was reluctant to talk about. Pressing his boss about the matter, Thistlethwaite asked Marshall if he might assume the presidency if Congress decided Wilson was unable to continue? “No,” Marshall said. “It would not be legal until the President signed it, or until it had a two-thirds vote, and a two-thirds vote is impossible.” Marshall, according to Thomas, decided that the only way he would take over for Wilson was if Congress passed a resolution to that effect and Edith Wilson and Grayson approved it in writing. “I am not going to seize the place and then have Wilson—recovered—come around and say ‘get off, you usurper,’” Marshall told Thistlethwaite. Marshall later confided to his wife: “I could throw this country into civil war, but I won’t.”

Marshall never had the opportunity to find out how he would have reacted as president. Despite his infirmities, Wilson continued in office. Unwilling to accept any compromises with his beloved League of Nations, the president saw his dreams crushed as the Senate could not muster a majority either for the treaty with or without amendments. Wilson hoped he might be nominated for a third term, but Democrats instead turned to James M. Cox, governor of Ohio, as their party’s presidential nominee. Cox went down to defeat in the 1920 election against Republican candidate Harding and his running mate, Calvin Coolidge. For his part, Marshall was only too glad to become a private citizen again. He telegraphed his eventual successor, Coolidge, after the Massachusetts governor received the GOP vice presidential nomination, “Please accept my sincere sympathy.”

The vice president’s dilemma on whether or not he should take over for Wilson spurred some discussion on the question of presidential succession, but a constitutional answer did not come until 1967 with the ratification of the Twenty-Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Under the amendment, sponsored by U.S. Senator Birch Bayh, an Indiana Democrat, if a president could not fulfill his office’s duties, he could certify his disability and have the vice president take over. In a situation where the president could not or would not ask his second in command to take over, the amendment provides that the vice president could take over with the Cabinet’s consent.

Even with the procedures outlined in the Twenty-Fifth amendment, confusion still reigns when disaster strikes. On March 30, 1981, John Hinckley tried to assassinate President Ronald Reagan. As the injured Reagan underwent surgery, and Vice President George Bush hurried back to Washington from a speech in Texas, the question remained: who was in charge? Attempting to calm the country, Secretary of State Alexander Haig made his infamous “I am in control here” remark, which only proved, as Marshall could have told them, that in times of national crisis the only certainty is uncertainty.

Friday, March 8, 2019

A Letter from Paris: Janet Flanner and The New Yorker


As a young girl growing up as part of one of Indianapolis’s leading families, Janet Flanner had a path in life already set for her by her mother, Mary, who wanted her daughter to be what she strived to be—an actress. Janet balked at her mother’s plans, pointing to her prominent nose as a barrier to any career on the stage. “I pointed out that with this nose I’d be playing Juliet’s nurse or Juliet’s nurse’s nurse, and never Juliet,” she later told a reporter from the International Herald Tribune. Instead of a life in the theater, Janet aspired to a different artistic endeavor, that of a writer.

Flanner achieved her ambition, becoming one of the stalwarts of one of America’s finest magazines, TheNew Yorker. From 1925 until her retirement in 1975, she produced—under the pen name Genêt—hundreds of thousands of words as the magazine’s Paris correspondent. In her “Letter from Paris” she sketched profiles for her readers of such notable figures as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Jean Cocteau, Albert Camus, and Charles de Gaulle. Her later editor at The New Yorker, William Shawn, described Flanner as “a poet among journalists.” Flanner, who died at the age of eighty-six in 1978, said of her long career: “I love writing. I’m just nuts on writing. Just give me an inkpot and a paper and a pen, and away I go.”

Born on March 13, 1892, Flanner was the second child of Mary Hockett and Francis Flanner, one of the founders of Indianapolis’s Flanner and Buchanan Mortuaries and a leader in the community regarding business and philanthropic ventures. Although at first educated in public schools, Janet later attended Tudor Hall School for Girls, a private college preparatory institution. After graduation, she spent time with her family visiting Germany.

Financial pressures and personal problems drove Francis to commit suicide in 1912. After her father’s death, Janet attended the University of Chicago, taking several writing classes. “I went there two years,” she noted. “I was requested to leave. Lawless. They [university officials] did object to my coming in so often at 3 a.m. I was mad on dancing.” After leaving the university, she worked for nine months at a reform school in Philadelphia.

In 1916 Flanner returned to her hometown to work on the Indianapolis Star. Under the tutelage of the newspaper’s drama critic, Frank Tarkington Baker, she broke ground as one of the country’s first movie critics. “It was an intelligent decision for Frank Tarkington Baker to treat movies, though newcomers, as important,” Flanner later told Star reporter Lawrence “Bo” Connor. Baker assigned her to review the first movie for the paper—Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid. She wrote three-quarters of a column on the film and was later delighted when her review was used to promote the movie, a common practice today. Flanner also turned her writing skills to covering numerous burlesque shows, but was not allowed to stay by management for the program’s second act. “That’s where you saw the Jewish and Irish comedians,” Flanner recalled. “Behind the chorus girls. That’s really the kind of theater I took to innately, much to my mother’s shock.”

Flanner left Indianapolis shortly after her marriage to William Rehm, a New York City artist she had known at the University of Chicago. The marriage lasted only a few years, however, and Flanner later met Solita Solano, drama editor for the New York Tribune, in Greenwich Village. The two women became partners, staying together for approximately fifty years. While in New York Flanner tried to produce freelance articles for magazines and met and became friends with the writers and critics that made up the Algonquin Round Table. One of them was Jane Grant, a strong feminist and the wife of Harold Ross, later one of the founders of the sophisticated weekly magazine The New Yorker. When Solano went to Greece for an assignment in 1921, Flanner traveled with her and the two eventually settled in Paris. She quickly made connections with the expatriate literary community of the Left Bank that included such figures as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, and Gertrude Stein.

Flanner’s fascinating life with the members of the Lost Generation and the culture and people of France were regular features of letters she wrote to Grant. Impressed by her friend’s writing, Grant urged Ross to include them as a regular department in his struggling magazine. He agreed; Flanner’s first “Letter from Paris” appeared in The New Yorker’s October 10, 1925 issue.

For her work, Flanner received, at first, $35 a column, a “great sum,” she noted, at that time. Ross helped to shape the style of Flanner’s writing, cautioning her: “I’m not paying you to tell me what you think. I want to know what the French are thinking.” Every two weeks, Flanner produced 2,500 words of copy in a conversational style about significant happenings in French politics and culture under the pseudonym Genêt, a name selected by Ross that puzzled Flanner for years. “I looked up the French meanings and found three, none of which mattered,” she said. “Ross never told me what it meant. Frankly, I think he thought it was a nice French way of spelling Janet.”

Living most of the time in a room at the Hotel Continental on the Rue Castigilione, Flanner took her writing seriously, often preparing by reading eight different newspapers a day and pounding out her copy on an small Olivetti typewriter. “I work with a conscientious kind of discipline,” she said. “I work like a beaver, I go over each Letter for clarification, for mining, for a spot of gold.” Flanner noted she reviewed her work again and again, going over a sentence several times. “I nag it, gnaw it, pat and flatter it,” she said. Flanner became a familiar sight on Parisian streets in her tailored suits, bobbed gray hair, and monocle. “I look rather like an 18th century judge off the bench,” she observed.

Driven from Paris by the Nazi invasion during World War II, Flanner returned to the United States, living in New York. She returned to Paris in 1944, following the advancing U.S. Army as it liberated France. In addition to continuing to produce her “Letter from Paris,” she also did several weekly fifteen-minute radio broadcasts for the NBC Blue Network. The work took its toll on Flanner. “I was down to 99 pounds after those 11 months,” she noted, but added that she “liked every minute of it.”

Before her death on November 17, 1978, Flanner received numerous honors for her work. In 1948 the French government made her a knight of the Légion d’honneur. She also received an honorary doctorate by Smith College and in 1966 won a National Book Award for her work Paris Journal: 1944–1965. Asked by a reporter late in her life how she accomplished all she had done through the years, Flanner noted that she was not “one of those journalists with a staff. I don’t even have a secretary. I act as a sponge. I soak it up and squeeze it out in ink every two weeks.”


The Woman in the Hat: Mattie Coney and Citizens Forum


Since leaving office at the end of his second term, former president Dwight D. Eisenhower had been living in retirement at a farm in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Although busy in 1967 with the publication of his final book, At Ease: Stories I Tell to Friends, Eisenhower took the time to write a personal letter to a former Indianapolis schoolteacher, Mattie Coney. From a number of sources, Eisenhower wrote Coney, he had learned of an effort in the Hoosier capitol to clean and better the community’s neighborhoods. “Not only have I been impressed by our common sense philosophy,” he wrote, “but even more by the patriotism, energy, and organizing ability that are so evident in the record you have made.”

Eisenhower was one of many, among them Lady Bird Johnson and Gerald Ford, to lavish accolades on the efforts of Coney and the grassroots organization she helped create: Citizens Forum. Working with her husband, Elmo, and numerous Indianapolis residents and civic leaders, Coney attempted through her “Better Neighbor” program to encourage good citizenship, individual responsibility, and self improvement in inner-city neighborhoods.

From its inception in 1964 to its disbanding twenty years later, Citizens Forum, a racially integrated institution, organized thousands of block clubs throughout the city that embarked on such projects as the “De-RAT-ification” campaign to rid the city of rodents; the “Dogwood Tree” program to plant trees; the “Visit Your Neighbor Month”; a city-wide beautification program to remove trash from streets and yards; and a “Helping Hand” program, inaugurated in 1973 to provide children with safe havens on their way to and from school. Impressed with the group’s results, other cities—Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, New Orleans, New York, and Washington, D.C.—began similar efforts.

The driving force behind the successful neighborhood improvement association was Coney, known throughout central Indiana and the country for her stylish headgear, blunt opinions, and no-nonsense philosophies known as “Mattieisms.” Her outspokenness on the need for African Americans to “quit feeling sorry of ourselves and take advantage of our opportunities” and her belief that “slums are made by people, not by plaster or bricks,” often put her at odds with both white and black leaders struggling to achieve equal rights for African American citizens during the 1960s, who viewed her as a willing tool of the establishment seeking to place the blame for poverty and racism on blacks themselves instead of on unfair laws.

Coney, who died in 1988, utilized a different approach than those used by such nationally prominent civil rights proponents as the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. or more radical groups such as the Black Panthers. “I never believed in the need for marching, cussing, fussing and breaking up stuff,” said Coney. She acknowledged that not everyone agreed with her methods. “Many Negroes don’t like what I’m saying,” she said, noting that some went as far as to call her Aunt Jemima. “They think I’m blaming them. I’m not. I’m talking about all people, and if they happen to live in filth, then they ought to clean it up. I just tell the truth.” To Coney, a registered Republican, those who criticized her, white and black alike, did so because they liked to “talk about what’s wrong, not what’s right and how to make it better.”

Born in Gallatin, Tennessee, on May 30, 1909, Coney was an only child. When she was six weeks old, her family moved to Indianapolis, where her mother and father eventually divorced. Her mother, Delia, a cook, later married Oscar Weathers. The family lived in a two-story house west of Indiana Avenue. At an early age, Coney learned from her family the importance of hard work and self-reliance. “Our family always believed in the free enterprise system,” she said, noting that one uncle owned a milk business, two operated stands in the city market, one ran a successful barbershop, and another had the largest hot tamale business in town.

After graduating from Shortridge High School in 1927, Coney put herself through a two-year teachers training course at Butler University by delivering newspapers and working at the L.S. Ayres and Company’s Tea Room. Embarking on a teaching career that would span more than thirty years, her first assignment was a class of fifty-five supposed incorrigible children that she soon turned into a group of model students with her own brand of education. Throughout her days with the Indianapolis public schools, she stressed solutions to the everyday practical problems facing her students. Students thrived in the atmosphere Coney created because “she expected you to live up to your potential,” said Pat Browne, a former pupil who went on to become a teacher herself. “When you got out of her class, you knew you were one of the best. You stood a little taller.”

Coney’s quest for perfection continued to drive her when she became involved with the creation of Citizens Forum. The inner-city neighborhood group evolved from a July 9, 1964, meeting held to discuss an open-housing ordinance being considered by the Indianapolis City Council. The ordinance prohibited real-estate agents from refusing to show homes or negotiate sales or rentals based on a person’s race, creed, color, or national origin.

According to Coney, two city councilmen stopped by her home one evening to lament that realtors were using the alleged poor conditions of black neighborhoods as a wedge against the ordinance. Coney helped organize a citywide meeting of prominent black and white citizens, held at the Fall Creek Young Men’s Christian Association. “It was my hope,” she said of the meeting, “that we could talk among ourselves and work some of these problems out. It seemed to me that if I were a good citizen there shouldn’t be any reason because of my color, which I didn’t have anything to do with, that I couldn’t move to a neighborhood that was more comfortable.”

Working with her husband, Coney started efforts to improve area neighborhoods by organizing block clubs. By first educating block-club workers on how to become good citizens, Coney reasoned, they could, in turn, pass on those lessons through meetings at their homes. Members also kept an eye out on their areas, reporting health hazards and possible code violations to the proper city department, as well as welcoming new residents to the neighborhood.

In 1966 the 500 block clubs organized under the Citizens Forum banner gathered approximately 40,000 tons of trash from Indianapolis homes, streets, and yards. The next year, the amount of refuse grew to 180,000 tons removed during a twenty-eight-day period. What made the program successful, according to Coney, who retired from teaching to devote herself full-time as Citizens Forum executive secretary, was its simplicity—“anybody can clean up their homes and be good citizens,” she said.

A flood of improvement projects poured from the Citizens Forums’ office. A “Go One Step Farther” campaign urged residents to sweep a foot beyond the curb to help prevent drainage problems; a “De-RAT-ificiation” effort worked to eliminate places where rats bred, nested, and ate; and a “Bloom-In” program encouraged those who had surplus seeds and flowers to donate them for redistribution. The group also served as a liaison between local residents and various agencies of city government. These efforts garnered for the organization, and for Coney, numerous state and national honors, including a Recognition Award from the Keep America Beautiful program. Other cities copied the group’s programs, something Coney called “the sincerest form of flattery.”

After years of dedicated service to the Citizens Forum cause, the Coneys, faced with ill health, both retired from the organization in the early 1980s. Without the Coneys’ leadership, and plagued by financial problems, the group disbanded in 1984. Ironically, the organization’s success may have helped speed its demise. As city government began to take on some aspects of Citizens Forum programs—heavy trash pickup and neighborhood beautification, for example—grants and contributions began to wane.

Mattie Coney’s legacy of self-help and improvement, however, remains intact. As she said when she was asked about her work when she and her husband were presented keys to the city in 1983, her greatest accomplishment came in “getting people to realize you have to do something for yourself. The Declaration of Independence promises the pursuit of happiness. You got to work for it.”