Josephine: From Washington Working Girl to Fisherman's Wife
Who hasn’t fantasized going back in time to see our parents, young and uncertain, choosing the paths that led to the Mother and Father who shaped our own lives. Margaret Buchholz has done exactly that with this book. It is a vivid and fascinating journey through her mother’s life, lived in a series of worlds that couldn’t be more different than each other, or the life that she finally embraced.
Beginning with a trip to the attic, Margaret not only travels these worlds through the writings and diaries her Mother left behind, but later retraces her steps through research and her own travel.
Josephine Lehman, later Thomas, was born in 1898 in Ionia, Michigan. Her first job after high school was at the Ionia Sentinel where she ascended to a reporter’s post. Intuitively, she had found the profession that embodied the goals she had set herself at thirteen, to serve her country, to write and travel.
Swept up in the eruption of national patriotism after President Wilson’s call to enter World War One, Josephine was eager to take part, as her two enlisted brothers did. The opportunity came swiftly. Spotting a government advertisement for “Stenographers and Typewriters” needed in Washington D.C., she took the civil service test and was soon embedded in the frenzy of our nation’s capital. Her remarkable eye for detail and her curiosity about every person and challenge she encounters is so engaging that we see her world as if we were colleagues at her side, enjoying her humor and insights. She’s “Jo” to us by now, we know her too well to call her “Josephine.” She gives us her own unique perspective on Washington in wartime. We’re there as she plays hooky from work to watch the Liberty Loan Parade from the Capitol to the White House. We stand on the packed sidewalk, wave and cheer on the fundraising efforts of Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin and hear the complaints of a man shoulder to shoulder with us, “Aw, ‘dat ain’t Charlie Chaplin! Where’s his mustache?”
Jo takes us to dances at the Neighborhood House where she bonds with returning soldiers who tell her their painful stories of being gassed and under constant fire. We meet Jo’s suitors; just as empathetically observed and unforgettable as our own best and most miserable dates.
When the war ends, Jo’s skill as a writer leads her to a job with adventurer and journalist Lowell Thomas, a perfect match. She travels the globe interviewing fascinating military leaders such as U-Boat Commander Georg von Trapp, best known later through Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical “The Sound of Music.” Her travels expose her to yet another world just as alien: the world of silk hats and monocles and Caribbean cruises, a “whirling maze of wild improbabilities – of cliques, scandals, gossip, too much drinking -- as well as of tropic nights so lovely that one hurts, and falls in love with whomever has the nearest deck chair.”
Love leads Jo into another world she would build herself, that of a wife and mother. This chapter explores Jo’s family so vividly that its domestic triumphs and challenges are as compelling as any that came before it, maybe more so. Jo marries Reynold Thomas, who had served in the war, ran a dairy in Chincoteague, Virginia, and worked at his uncle’s eelgrass business in Harvey Cedars. This was a true honeymoon period, with touching love letters, work for both, and a prosperity that ended as unexpectedly as the coming of the Great Depression.
There couldn’t be a greater contrast between Jo’s earlier, elegant life than this life she now lived as frugally as possible. The move from Manhattan to Harvey Cedars, where Reynold made a meager living as a deep-sea fisherman in the boat he once was building as a pleasure craft. Jo, watching the clock, waiting and hoping for him to come home safely. She captured the essence of her daily life in a beautifully written article she sold to Scribner’s magazine for $500 in July 1933. She didn’t use her real name, she didn’t want her New York friends to identify her and learn how her life, often desperate, was so different than theirs. Clear eyed, she chronicled the experience.
“It was a satisfaction to Tom to know he was providing a living for us, even by manual labor, and some answering primitive instinct made me content to cook and tend the hearth and breed … something much finer was welded between us than we found in the first prosperous days of our marriage, when our lives followed two distinct paths and we couldn’t afford a baby.”
Jo’s situation was not to continue in this contented state. First came the deprivations of World War Two, and we experience it first hand as vividly on their small island as we did World War I in Washington. German ships sank tankers near Long Beach Island’s Barnegat Inlet. Bodies were pulled from the ocean. Jo assumed the role of tax collector and Reynold was called away to work in the defense industry. Jo worked hard to keep an atmosphere of normalcy for Margaret and her younger brother Michael. Her equanimity was tested daily. Jo’s acceptance of the fact the Island had no coal and that her children were freezing as she thoughtfully sifted through which of her favorite books she needed to burn to keep her family warm is an example of her spirit.
Life after the war had bitter surprises of its own. A hurricane destroyed twenty percent of Harvey Cedars. Margaret’s fight with polio, and then the return of Jo’s breast cancer. This, too, she confronted with her usual mixture of humor and astute observation, “Even when I’m dying no one will believe me, saying I look so damn healthy.”
Jo’s life as a writer came full circle, linking with her daughter’s, when both worked at the Beachcomber, a seasonal, weekly newspaper that started in 1950. Jo wrote essays, garden and cooking columns, “little bits of this and that.” Margaret sold advertising and wrote copy when needed.
In 1955 Margaret met and married Bill Douglas, editor of he Beach Haven Times, and they bought The Beachcomber. Jo and Margaret continued to work together. Again, we hope for the happy ending.
Margaret’s marriage ended with Bill’s devastating and unexpected suicide two years later. Jo came to the rescue, helping her daughter raise her two children and keeping the newspaper afloat.
"Josephine" is as much a biography as it is an exploration of the bond between mother and daughter. Jo is fascinating and a terrific writer. It is riveting reading, one of the rare and wonderful times when journalism and memoir merge and become compelling literature. In these too brief pages we are given the gift of feeling that we know an extraordinary human being.
Two, actually. I had the privilege to work with Margaret on the Beachcomber as my first writing job, so I know her firsthand. What I didn’t know is how she became the inspiring editor, writer and traveler she is. Now I know. Her mother, Jo. And now you have the opportunity to meet them both.
Mark St. Germain
Author of "Freud's Last Session" and "Dr. Ruth".
On February 21, 1918, Jo went to work at the War Department's massive three-story temporary building on the Mall. It faced B Street, now Constitution Avenue. Until the end of May, when she was transferred to the shell-loading division as a private stenographer, she maintained a hectic schedule and rarely stayed home more than one evening a week. Jo always found time to write in her diary, however, and often typed both entries and letters at the office. She inserted the long letters into her diary, and sometimes apologized to the recipient for the carbon, explaining that she needed a copy for her diary.
A few days later, my mother transcribed her diary into a long letter to her parents, who, unknown to her, passed it on to her former boss at the Sentinel. He wrote a patriotic introduction and gave it page one space: "Thousands of American girls are flocking to Washington to do their part in the winning of the war. Too many of them, the experience of the journey to the nation's capital and the sights of the feverish wartime activities, which are the life of Washington today, are new. The experience of one of these girls is the experience of all, and in the following letter Miss Josephine Lehman has voiced the thoughts that must have come to a great army of those who have gone there with the same aim. ... It is not a letter from just one young woman, but a letter from the composite type of true young American womanhood which finds its expression in the massing of thousands of individuals in the great heart of the Union."
February 24: Heah Ah am, and it appeahs that if Ah stay heah ve'y long A'll jes nach'lly talk like this all the time. I just love it here!
At the station I obtained the address of a rooming house only two blocks from the depot but I didn't want to attempt getting lost so let a taxicab driver soak me for forty cents. The house was overflowing, but the lady of the house was kind enough to rout out a lieutenant and he carried down a small bed so she could bunk me in the parlor, which I considered extremely kind of her. Thanked the Lord I am gifted with an iron constitution so managed to get up for a formal breakfast and report to work by nine o'clock.
I was sworn into the Civil Service and sent over to the ordnance war building for work. A thin, middle-aged man and a big, young man argued over which should get me, both wanting a stenographer with business experience. I watched the fray in silence, mentally rooting for the young man. He won. My job is in the supply division of the ordnance department. The building is a mammoth new one and I have to have a pass to get in and out. This is the hardest department to work in, as they are so busy. The girls don't get many holidays but pay and promotions are good.
The government room registration office sent me to 1415 Massachusetts Avenue and I can't tell you how much I like it. The people who run it are real southerners, something like the old aristocracy one reads about. They have a daughter, Margaret Dudley, as pretty as her name and one of the sweetest girls I ever met. She has a southern accent, in fact, almost everybody does.
We have twenty-three girls living here, two, three, or four to a room, so don't worry about my being lonely. The rooms are large, so we don't mind it. I have two others in my room, Miss Dell Brokaw from Illinois, a tall, stunning blond and awfully dear, and Miss Grace Leonard from New York, also a big girl, with the most beautiful gown you ever saw. They call us the "Big Four Minus One," "Amazons," and other endearing names. All the girls are the finest kind, splendid, and very congenial. They are pretty and have stylish clothes. We take our breakfasts and dinners here and lunch downtown. No one eats supper here. Negro servants serve dinner in courses, clear from soup to dessert and finger bowls. We have a piano and Victrola downstairs which we can use any time and the girls in the next room have a ukulele.
And soldiers! There are about fifteen camps within a short radius of Washington. It seems the soldiers I have seen would make an army big enough to demolish the Kaiser in a day–Sailors, Marines, aviators, cavalry, infantry and artillerymen, plain desk-holder-downs and many IWTGBCs. The initials stand for a certain order, which is going to petition to wear buttons that say "I Want To Go But Can't" ...
March 24: I went to a dance at Camp Laurel last night, a big military camp about twenty-five miles north of Washington, between here and Baltimore. There were six military five-ton trucks filled with girls from Washington, twenty-five going from our house, accompanied by Mrs. Dudley. The soldiers came down from camp and brought us back. The six trucks went right down Pennsylvania Avenue and past the Capitol. It is a common sight to see truckloads of soldiers, but truckloads of girls are rather unusual. Got back at three this morning and didn't have breakfast until eleven. It was a farewell party for the boys who are leaving for France this week. Now I am so sleepy I can't write any more.
The War Department's Committee on Training Camp Activities took enough of an interest in its workers' leisure-time activities to issue a warning in the Evening Star against "pick-up soldier acquaintances." The warning was not intended to reflect on the character of the servicemen, who, it stated, as a whole were "clean and upstanding," but the War Department did not want its girls to converse familiarly with men in uniform unless introduced by a mutual friend or vouched for by a community organization. Nor did Uncle Sam want his boys loose to the temptations of the big city. For many of the young recruits who came from all over a very rural United States, it was not only the first time in the nation's capital, but the first time out of their state. Brothels in the vicinity of military bases were closed, and thousands of prostitutes were interred in federal prisons. "Wholesome" activities–Ping-Pong, pool, track, boxing, baseball, swimming, and dances–were offered. Keeping the boys "fit to fight" became a patriotic duty. YWCA lectures warned young women against the hazards of illicit love; the slogan "Do Your Bit to Keep Him Fit" attempted to foster a "higher standard of personal conduct and civil cleanliness." Posters reminded men and women: "Men must live straight if they would shoot straight."
March 31: Clocks turned ahead today so I lost an hour's sleep somewhere.
April 6: One year ago today the United States entered the war and today the third Liberty Loan campaign was launched. Only by being delinquent did I see the great Liberty Loan parade from the Capitol to the White House.
At four o'clock, although we were not supposed to have leave, we took advantage of Mr. Brady's absence and walked out en masse, leaving Mr. Sachs, the mail distributor, alone and helplessly furious, as he dared not leave his post. By dint of much pushing and shoving, and by judicious use of elbows, I jostled my way to Pennsylvania Avenue through the dense crowd. For about sixteen blocks the Avenue was lined on either side with a mass of people. My height was in my favor in looking over the crowds, and I held a place near the edge of the throng. All affairs of war were pushed from my mind because I was soon to see probably the best-known people in the country. My anxiety to have the parade reach our vantage point was almost as great as the urchins in front of us, who jumped up and down at the thought that at last they would see their hero with the cocky mustache and voluminous trousers–Charlie Chaplin. A forward guard was composed of twelve mounted police with immaculate uniforms, brass buttons glittering in the bright sunlight, a cavalry troupe, and then the famous United States Marine Band. The music was the signal for anticipatory little shivers to start dancing the length of my spinal column. This, however, was but the prologue.
Storms of applause arose when Mary Pickford appeared in the first carriage. She is very tiny and I can now see how she can appear as a child of ten. She looked very sweet and charming, wearing a large droopy hat of two shades of blue with long streamers, a heavy motor coat of grayish blue, brown tie oxfords and a corsage of orchids. Her hair is a bright yellow, much lighter than it appears in pictures. But as she rode along, kissing her hands and dimpling at the crowd, she was the same Mary we have known on the screen.
In the next carriage, rotund, robust Marie Dressler was enveloping the crowd with the same wide smile and good-natured appearance that make her comedies so much fun. When the next carriage appeared my sympathies were entirely with the little chap down in front who exclaimed derisively, "Aw, dat guy ain't Charlie Chaplin. Where's his mustache?" The Charlie of the movies, minus diminutive derby, enormous trousers and shoes and the ever-present mustache appeared as an attractive, dark-haired young man with an unusually likeable smile, unhampered by mustache.
Douglas Fairbanks, in the same car, came up to expectations by looking exactly like I always supposed he did. His famous grin was all wool and a yard wide. He was tanned and jocular and slangy and a hit with the crowd. "Please Mr. Fairbanks will you shake hands with me?" piped up a tiny girl in the crowd. "Gosh darn it, I believe I will," he answered with his big smile.
Following the movie stars were company after company and rank upon rank of infantry, engineers, Marines, artillery and the US Cavalry band. Overhead were the best aviators from the aviation field dipping, curving, whirling and showering thousands of Liberty Bells upon the crowd. It was a fitting beginning for the Liberty Loan drive and a celebration that I shall never forget. I had an hour's worth of work to catch up when I returned to the office.
...In December 1940 Mommy wrote home. “Dear Ma: My arm has been bothering me again, and it’s been hard to typewrite or use a pencil. Mrs. Weiseisen has left for Florida so I have been tired out all the time … I may send a little Christmas box to you, but goodness knows it won’t be much. We are always broke at this time of the year, and now everything we have is going for hospital and doctor bills and notes at the bank. Ever since Labor Day, Reynold has been dredging out a yacht basin up near Barnegat Lighthouse. Today I see him out in the bay towing the dredge to a place about twenty miles south. If the bay doesn’t freeze he has a good job ahead. I think things will be better after the first of the year. Still, I don’t suppose we should complain. Our house is paid for and clear of mortgage. As soon as Michael goes to school next year I should be able to earn some money again. Excuse me for always talking so broke, but I so wish I could send you big Christmas boxes as in the old days.”
I had a happy, idyllic childhood, and the summer before the war started, when I was eight, was a special time. The summer of 1941 was the first time I could wander around town alone, along the bay and on the beach. When I was growing up, no girls my own age lived in town so I was on my own a lot. I learned to read the details of the natural world – the swirling pattern the wind created on the flat bay, the cumulus clouds that billowed over the mainland to the west, the perfect timing of the wind that rose about one in the afternoon. I amused myself for hours playing hopscotch on the squares I chalked onto the macadam road in front of the house, which during the summer softened in the heat so the soles of my feet burned if I walked barefoot. I’d rather use the dirt verge than put on shoes. Until I was twelve, I knew not to go in the ocean unless an adult was with me, but I could wade into the swash and dig my toes into the wet sand, where I turned up armored, thumb-sized, sand crabs. I searched the wrack line for a perfect crenellated scallop shell, or sat on the beach and popped dried kelp, or watched dolphins as they cavorted in the breakers. They reminded me of the inner tubes that I floated on in the bay, only with fins.
Sand played a large part in my childhood; it stuck on my feet or between my toes, blew into my hair, nose and eyes. I rolled in it, built castles with it. I tracked it into the house. It leeched into the bed sheets, got stuck in my underpants. After I swam Mommy would say, “Be sure to get all the sand out of your crack.” When my younger brother Michael and I fought we threw it at each other. My mother announced in a loud voice: “Sand is the bane of my existence!” If it wasn’t sand it was mud – black squishy bay mud. The edge of the shoreline, where no homes had been built, was a sod bank – the sod is hard mud, the “soil” that produces the spiky spartina grass. Fiddler crabs carved little caves into the eroded edge and I loved to poke sticks into their holes and force out a tiny creature, as it ferociously waved one silly-looking fat claw.