Play, culled from WWII letters, will be read in Yonkers on July 11
We live in an instant age, when Facebook and Twitter turn what we had for dinner into what passes for news, delivered with the click of a mouse.
But when Catherine Ladnier opened a box at her mother’s home in Easley, S.C., a few years ago, she opened a window into an age when life-and-death news came painfully slow — through military censors from farflung locales like Anzio, North Africa and India — about loved ones in harm’s way in World War II.
Ladnier knew she wanted to tell the stories of the people of the homefront, the recipents of those letters, about what it was like to wait and wait for word, and what those words were when they arrived.
A self-described “theater junkie,” she felt the stage was a perfect home for this material, but she knew she’d need help. When she met Paul Janensch, a former Journal News editor and professor emeritus of journalism at Quinnipiac University whose commentaries she had heard on Connecticut Public Radio, she asked him if he’d like to collaborate.
Highlights from the fruit of that collaboration, a play called “Dear Eva” (named for Ladnier’s mother), will be read at the Hudson River Museum on July 11, at a noon-day brown bag luncheon to kick off a series of workshops connected to the museum’s “Women and War: Portraits” exhibit.
(In 1943, the museum enlisted local artist Francis Vandeveer Kugler to paint portraits of local Women’s Air Corps inductees, with the goal of giving “future generations … a living record of our fighting women who volunteered to serve their country.” The portraits now on display at the museum in Yonkers have not been on public display since the war years.)
Janensch admits to being dubious at first, wondering if the one or two letters Ladnier had shown him were the only good ones in the bunch. Eventually, he was in Ladnier’s Greenwich dining room, looking at 400 letters from 1939 to 1946, and epistolary avalanche, each of them important in its own way.
“It was a time when people could write,” Janensch says. “I don’t think any of the letter writers had any college. I think all or most of them graduated from high school, from this small South Carolina community. These were articulate letters, whose writers weren’t trying to be fancy dancey.”
The professor and journalist in him knew the material needed to be catalogued to make it manageable. The letters were photocopied and entered into a database. Eventually, they were distilled to 150 letters, about 50 of which found their way into “Dear Eva.”
While Janensch appreciates the storytelling ability on display in the letters, he wonders what technology may have cost us.
“People were more patient to get news then, and they were more patient to sit down and write a letter,’ he says. “Ninety percent of these letters were hand-written and they were still legible, in cursive handwriting. It was certainly a different era.
“At readings in the past, invariably someone will ask if people will reach back to our emails and current forms of communications. And even if they were, how interesting would they be, these brief little spurts of communication? It could be that our culture is losing something by getting away from hand-written letters where people have to be patient to write them and read them.”
This became for Janensch and Ladnier a work of journalism, determined as they were to not to add a word, but to merely edit and arrange the trove of emotion and minutiae into a workable play.
“I saw immediately the potential of making this more than a grab bag of letters,” Janensch says.
A man on a troop ship corresponds with his wife, who was in poor health but keeps telling him “I’m fine. I’m fine.” And what happened to him.
A cousin whose mother doesn’t want him to fly ends up in the Army Air Corps and gets shot down over France. (He’s the one who reports that the percentage of beautiful women in France runs higher than in the States.)
A brother upbraids his older brother (Ladnier’s father, Harry) for complaining to their mother about his aching feet and asking her for money.
There is longing among the minutiae of live in “Dear Eva.”
One soldier begins each letter “Just a few lines to let you know I am still alive and kicking.”
Eva wears her green suit, which she is convinced will keep the boys safe overseas.
Letters to Eva, Ladnier’s mother, from boys she just met, including one that reads: “Eva, whoever is going to marry you will be the luckiest guy in the world, and I hope I be it.”
Janensch says the project reminded him of the impact the war had on the homefront.
“I was six and seven at the last part of the war and old enough to comprehend what was going on and to remember that,” he says. “There was a longing to be reunited and resume a normal, unexciting life. Being together, building a family and going to work and cooking dinner. That’s what comes through the letters and I was reminded of that.”
(Photos at top: Catherine Ladnier, Paul Janensch, Eva Lee Brown. Courtesy Hudson River Museum and Janensch.)
Lunch with history
For six Wednesdays starting July 11 — in conjunction with its “Women & War: Portraits” exhibit — the Hudson River Museum will host a series of Brown Bag Lunch and Roundtable discussions with Catherine Ladnier.
Where: Hudson River Museum, 511 Warburton Ave., Yonkers.
When: Noon to 1:30 p.m., Wednesdays from July 11 to Aug. 15.
What to bring: Your lunch, wartime letters, memories and memorabilia. Coffee and cookies will be served.
Details: Learn more at the Hudson River Museum website: www.hrm.org
July 11: Catherine Ladnier and Paul Janensch read highlights from their play, “Dear Eva.”
July 18: The Japanese-American experience as seen through the letters of students of Mills College, who write from their internment camps to President Aurelia Reinhardt. Ladnier will be joined by Nancy Beck, whose parents were in an internment camp and Michi Kobi, who spent four years at the Topaz internment camp.
July 25: Servicewomen profiled in “Westchester Women and War” exhibit tell their stories.
Aug. 1: The Life and Loves of Rosie the Riveter. Peek at romance fueled by the letters between Ladnier’s father, Harry, and his girlfriends, all Rosies on the homefront. Joining Ladnier will be Judy Hart, of the Women’s Rights National Historic Site and the Rosie the Riveter National Historical Site.
Aug. 8: The Girl Singers of 1944 and One Soldier Boy. Bring your Spam sandwich and sing along to the music that got folks through the War.
Aug. 15: The Girls Back Home. Look at the women who carried on while their men were at war and kept the boy’s spirits up through their letters.