Gems from the Internet Archives: Women’s Autobiographies

Not having access to a major library, I often indulge my love of browsing in the Internet Archive. I’ll admit that it often requires much sifting through extraneous material to locate the occasional gem, but even after ten years I’m surprised at what I manage to find. Here, for example, is a selection of some exceptional autobiographical works by women, mostly published between the 1920 and 1960.


Modeling My Life, by Janet Scudder (1926)

Born and raised in Terre Haute, Indiana, Janet Scudder was one of the first American women to make a name and career for herself as a sculptor. Passionate about art from childhood, she studied drawing and sculpture and then moved to Chicago, where she worked carving decorative features on furniture before being hired by Lorado Taft as one of his White Rabbits, a remarkable team of women sculptors who created dozens of statues and decorative friezes for buildings in the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. She then traveled to Paris, where she studied under Frederick MacMonnies. She writes of the experience, “I’m sure, if I had known it when I was studying in MacMonnies’ Paris studio, the only woman among a number of men who were working from nude models, I should have seen the ghosts of the whole congregation of missionaries rising up in their wrath to denounce me.” She found Paris liberating, but hardly the sinpot it was considered in America: “Zulh Taft ([Lorado’s sister] and I were there quite alone, unchaperoned; she was studying painting in a studio, while I worked away at sculpture; we ate about in restaurants, we were thrown with all sorts of people who were responsible only to themselves, we had no one watching us and no one to whom we were accountable, we went to life classes in the evening and tramped home from school late at night and we felt as protected and safe from harm as though we had been living in the heart of a family in the Middle West.” She went on to Florence, where she began to create the classically-inspired fountains that became her specialty. Returning to the U. S., she struggled, but eventually managed to establish a reputation and a steady stream of clients. Modeling My Life ends with an account her return to France as part of a YWCA mission that helped care for and entertain troops with the American Expeditionary Force.

The Stone Wall: An Autobiography, by Mary Casals (1930)

The Stone Wall is something of a landmark in American LGBT history, perhaps the first autobiography in which the author openly acknowledges her attraction to another woman and their long and happy partnership. Born and raised on a New England farm to family with deep Puritan roots, Casal recalls having to defend herself from sexual assault from hired hands and other men while still a teen. She began to realize her feelings towards women early on, and had her first physical contact (kisses and hugs) with another woman while in college. She felt great pressure to conform to conventions, and even married a man, an entirely unsatisfying experience that ended in divorce after she gave birth to a stillborn child and, in her grief, fled to New York City. There, she came to peace with her feelings for the first time: “My city contact had caused me to look at myself less and less as a sexual monstrosity.” She writes candidly of the practical difficulties of finding ways to spend time with another woman in public, given the rigid social customs of the time, let alone taking the risk to express her feelings. It was not until she was in her thirties that she met her long-term lover, Juno, and they set up house together in an apartment in Greenwich Village. Today’s reader will probably cringe at a few aspects that date the book (she refers to homosexuals as “inverts”), but it’s a window into how one gay woman managed to make a life for herself in a time of considerable intolerance.

Louise Baker, playing tennis (press photo from 1955)
Louise Baker, playing tennis (press photo from 1955)
Out on a Limb, by Louise Baker (1946)

Reviewing Out on a Limb in the Saturday Review, Grace Frank quipped that Louise Baker could have easily called her book “The Leg and I,” in imitation of Betty Macdonald’s best-seller of the same period. The two books certainly share the same comic outlook, with every character an eccentric and every episode retold with tongue in cheek. While still a girl, Louise Baker was struck down by a passing automobile and had to have her right leg amputated. “When I regained consciousness ten days later in a white hospital bed, with the blankets propped over me like a canopy, I had one foot in the grave.” Such are the sort of puns with which Baker fills her book. Baker’s parents insisted that she make every effort to get along with her bi-pedal friends, and she soon developed a spirit of independence that led her, in the course of time, to learn to ski, skate, and play tennis (she was encouraged to write the book to provide inspiration to the many disabled veterans just returned from World War Two). She preferred using crutches to wearing an artificial leg, and accumulated a considerable “crutch wardrobe”: “Crutches don’t come in gay colors but any good enamel works the enhancing transformation. I am now just as likely to complain, ‘I haven’t got a crutch I’d wear to a dog fight,’ as I am to say, ‘I haven’t got a decent dress to my name.'” Baker also wrote a comic novel, Party Line, about the 43-year career of switchboard operator Elmira Johnson in the small town of Mayfield, California, and a humorous account of her time working in a boy’s boarding school in Arizona, Snips and Snails, which was made into a gawdawful movie, Her Twelve Men (1954).

Journey Down a Blind Alley, by Mary Borden (1946)

Published the same year as Out on a Limb, Borden’s book is its polar opposite in tone. The book recounts Borden’s experiences in organizing and leading the Hadfield-Spears Ambulance Unit throughout much of the Second World War, beginning in France in February 1940 and then, after evacuating to England and regrouping, in Syria and Egypt, and finally, in France again after D-Day. This was Borden’s second experience of battlefield nursing: she wrote of her time in field hospitals on the Western Front in The Forbidden Zone (1929). Borden, an American heiress and novelist (I featured her ambitious 1927 novel, Flamingo, here in 2009), was married to Brigadier General Edward Spears, who was Churchill’s military liaison with the French government up to its defeat and then with DeGaulle’s Free French forces. Much of Journey Down a Blind Alley is colored by a bitterness towards DeGaulle that stems in part from his at times petty treatment of Spears and in part from the many egos and attitudes among the French military with whom Borden had to deal, since the ambulance unit spent most of its time assigned to support Free French forces. She does admit that much of the difficulties had their roots in the complexity of interests among the French: “Looking back I realized now that the confusion and discord in the hospital reflected what was happening throughout France. Was not France herself in the winter of 1945 a medley of discordant elements with her F.F.I. and F.T.P., her heroic resistance and her bogus resistance, her Petainists and her milice and her armies from overseas who were straining their strength to the utmost limit of endurance so that France should not be said to have been liberated by strangers?” Journey Down a Blind Alley offers a sobering antidote to anyone still harboring an inclination to view the Second World War in simple good-and-bad terms.


The Journey, by Lillian Smith (1956)

“I went on this journey to find an image of the human being that I could feel proud of,” Lillian Smith writes at the start of The Journey. Smith, whose 1944 best-seller, Strange Fruit, was one of the first books to openly deal with segregation and racism in the South, finds herself reconsidering memories from her childhood and decides to travel along the coastal roads of South Carolina and George, “trying to recover the feel of the country where my family once
lived.” Along the way, she encounters people with varying views of life, race, and faith, including a motel owner whose ideas of progress, she realizes, come from a very different place than hers:

The manager of the motor court came to my door to offer a television set. He was of the swamp country, I saw now, as he stood there. He had the look that is left on a face when hookworm and malaria and malnutrition have done their destructive work early in life. And in his speech were the old accents which were natural to the wire grass and swamp people who found schooling as hard to come by in the old days as shelter and food. People who, in my childhood, were almost as remote from books and learning and science and art and comforts as are the peasants of China and India.

Now he operated a motor court, looked at television, drove a Buick, took a trip in a plane each fall (so he told me) to the World Series, and read a newspaper.

As I made use of the conveniences with which our scientific age has filled this motor court, set close to the swamp — old and mysterious and deep-rooted in time as our human past — I kept thinking of this man.

“Everything in the place is modrun,” he proudly told me, as he flung open the door to show me the mauve-colored lavatory and the mauve-colored toilet and mauve-colored toilet paper. And as I stared at the splendor I knew that his sanitary facilities as a child had been limited to a wash pan, a lean-to privy and the ancient corncob. No wonder he was proud of participating in these modern times.

As with many books, the best parts of The Journey are those that deal with the specific, the individual. As Orville Prescott wrote in his New York Times review, when Smith “writes about people she has known — quoting their conversation and telling their stories — she does so with sure skill and considerable emotional power.” However, “When she writes about abstract ideas she occasionally lapses into spasms of embarrassingly lush rhetoric and passages where her generous feeling is obvious, but where her precise meaning is lost….”

Dickey Chapell, 1959
Dickey Chapell, 1959
What’s a Woman Doing Here?, by Dickey Chapelle (1962)

Dickey Chapelle rarely followed a conventional path in her life. At age sixteen, she was studying aeronautical engineering on a scholarship to M. I. T.. Though she flunked out after two years, her love of airplanes and flying remained, and she earned her pilot’s license, paying for lessons with articles she sold to aviation magazines. When her husband was stationed to an Army unit in Panama after Pearl Harbor and she was told that wives could not accompany the men, she figured out that she could follow as an accredited journalist, and her career as a war correspondent began. Chapelle worked as both reporter and photographer. Her first combat assignment took her to Iwo Jima a week after the first landings. There she had a sudden wake-up call when encountering a wounded Marine whose “story probably is one of the reasons I’ve kept on being a chronicler of wars”:

After I took his picture, while the chaplain administered the last rites as the corpsman began transfusing him, he came back to consciousness for a moment. His eyes rested on me. He said, “Hey, who you spyin’ for?”

“The folks back home, Marine.”

“The folks-back home-huh? Well-fuck the folks back home,” he rasped. Then he closed his eyes. I didn’t see where his stretcher was carried.

After we had ceased loading for the day, his voice haunted me. What lay behind that raw reflex answer? What dear-John-I-know-you-understand letter? What other betrayal?

I remembered his wound. A piece of a giant mortar shell had sliced across his stomach. So I went down into the abdominal ward with my notebook in my hand. There were no names in it yet because I wasn’t willing to hold up moving stretchers while I spelled out names. But I had copied the dogtag numbers of each man as I made his picture. The nurses’ clipboard listed the serial numbers of the men being treated. The number I wanted wasn’t there. I thought perhaps I had been mistaken about the kind of wound he had, so I tried to find him in the other wards, the other decks, even those of the officers. I couldn’t find his number.

There was only one more set of papers aboard. This showed the dogtag numbers of the men who had died on deck. The number for which I was looking was near the top of the list.

So I think I was the last person to whom he was able to talk. And I had heard him die cursing what I thought he had died to defend.

It was my first and most terrible encounter with the barrier between men who fight, and those for whom the poets and the powers say they fight.

Chapelle went on to report on the overthrow of Mossadegh in Iran, on the U. S. Marine intervention in Lebanon, on Castro’s war against Batista in Cuba, and on the civil war in Algeria. She was captured by the Russians while accompanying a group of Hungarian resistance fighters along the border with Austria in 1956 and spent seven years in a Budapest jail. She had strong anti-Communist views and, with her husband Tony Chapelle, formed a relief organization, AVISO (American Voluntary Information Services Overseas), that provided food and information support on both sides of the Iron Curtain in the years following the Second World War. She was killed in Vietnam on November 4, 1965 while on patrol with a Marine platoon near Chu Lai. She was the first female American war correspondent killed in action. A selection of Chapelle’s photographs was published on the Washington Post website in December 2015 and over 500 of her pictures are available online at the Wisconsin Historical Society website.

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