The United States was finally in “the war to end all wars.” France had been ravaged since the summer of 1914. Villages and towns were obliterated. Women and children went hungry and homeless as the armies wrestled in futile combat in mud, blood and indescribable filth and disease. The British lost 20,000 dead in a single day at the Battle of the Somme.
“Somme,” said a grim German officer at the end of the battle. “The whole history of the world cannot contain a more ghastly word.”
But when the American doughboys got to France in the summer of 1917, thousands of Americans were already there, as volunteer soldiers, nurses, ambulance drivers and aviators, including the celebrated Lafayette Escadrille. Among them was a rich socialite, Anne Tracy Morgan, youngest child of the Wall Street baron John Pierpont Morgan. Alan Govenar and Mary Niles Maack recount in their lavishly illustrated biography, “Anne Morgan: Photography, Philanthropy and Advocacy,” that as a little girl Miss Morgan told her father that when she grew up she would be “something better than a rich fool.” Something very much better she turned out to be.
A New Yorker profile in 1927 described her as someone whose “entrance seems to quicken the air of the room … her energetic presence charges the atmosphere like an electrical disturbance … She knows what she wants done and is concerned only with results.” She was tall with a commanding presence and bright dark eyes. She raised money for relief in the ballrooms of New York, and she went to the Western front to taste German shot and shell to make sure the money would be well spent.
Miss Morgan — she never married — is far better known in France than in the United States, though The New York Times included her in a list of the 12 greatest American women in 1922. She credited Elizabeth (“Bessie”) Marbury, a high-society theatrical agent, as nurturing her sense of social obligation. She was a founding member of the Colony Club, the first private social club for women in New York City, which, reflecting the era, admitted no blacks or Jews and few Catholics. But she marched with union workers during the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory strike in 1909, and joined the suffragettes working to win the vote for women.
She sailed to Europe with her parents when she was a four-year-old, and fell in love with France. She later accompanied her father to Europe, and spent summers in France, joining Bessie Marbury and her companion, actress and interior designer Elsie de Wolfe, at their Villa Trianon in Versailles. The three became the “Versailles Triumvirate.”
When the war broke out in 1914, Anne and Elsie de Wolfe offered the villa to the French for a convalescent home for wounded soldiers. She returned to New York to raise money for French war relief and became the treasurer of the American Fund for French Wounded. She eventually visited the battlefields at Verdun and the Somme region to make sure the hospitals got the money she raised.
She sailed to France again when America went to war, together with Anne Murray Dike, a Canadian doctor, and eight women volunteers to care for the wounded and to begin their relief work in earnest. They were sent to the ruined village of Blerancourt northeast of Paris, which had been liberated after three years of German occupation and destruction. They organized a community center for 25 regional villages, planting trees, seeding the land, restoring the battered houses, even opening a dairy. This was the phenomenon of the American volunteer that had so impressed Alexis de Tocqueville when he visited America 85 years earlier.
Following the German offensive in March 1918, the women used their relief trucks to evacuate civilians, feed refugees and care for the wounded. Battlefields were not so organized for relief as they are now. With Dr. Dike, she founded the American Committee for Devastated France to provide housing, food, clothing, and child care, and stayed behind after the armistice in November to establish schools, libraries, public health centers and physical education programs. Once more, she raised the money to pay for it.
A year later she bought the heavily damaged 17th-century Blerancourt chateau as a place to call home, and she and Dr. Dike restored it as a museum of French-American history, to thank France for supporting the American Revolution. She gave the chateau and museum and its beautiful garden to the town. After years of renovations, the National Museum of Franco-American Co-operation, now known as the Franco-American Museum, will reopen next Sunday. The museum has an extensive collection of paintings by French artists working in America and American painters in France.
Anne Morgan continued to raise money for French relief, persuading her rich friends to rent their mansions to movie producers and give half the money to relieve civilian suffering in France, and even persuaded the two boxers fighting for the lightweight championship in 1921 to send part of their purses to France. She bought the ringside seats and auctioned them to the rich and famous and sent the proceeds to French relief.
Volunteer duty called again with the outbreak of World War II, and she was back to France to set up relief stations for refugees. She and a small group of volunteers kept calm and carried on under bombing and before the advancing German army. She barely escaped capture, and subsequently persuaded German authorities that her work evacuating and feeding refugees was in their interests, too. She was eventually forced home for good, and died in New York in 1952 at age 78, at the end of an extraordinary life well lived.
• Corinna Lothar is a Washington writer and critic.
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