The Story of V-Mail

Photographed Letters on Wings: How Microfilmed V-Mail Helped Win World War II
By Tom Weiner (with Bill Streeter)
Levellers Press, 194 pages.

Until quite recently I had never heard of V-mail. No, I don't mean Email, though V-mail is, in many ways, its predecessor. V-mail was a World War II (1941-45) exigency that shrank the mail.

The "V" in its name stands for "victory," and as author Tom Weiner shows, technology helped boost morale and economize cargo space. Perhaps you can't imagine how downsizing the mail aided the Allied cause in the battle against fascism. That's probably because you're so used to sending Emails that you seldom think about the weight of physical letters. It's just paper, right? In World War II, more than 330 million letters were exchanged between military personnel overseas and their families in the United States. Weiner notes that it took 37 stuffed mailbags weighing a combined 2,575 pounds for every 150,000 letters. Those bags also took up a lot of space. But when those letters were microfilmed, the reels took up just two bags and weighed 45 pounds. It is easy enough to imagine how microfilm eventually spawned new technologies for transmitting information that led to E-mail. More immediately, though, according to the Office of War Information, between 1942-44, V-mail saved five million pounds of airplane cargo space that was used to move everything from rifles and K-rations to blood plasma and surgical dressings.

V-mail had technological limitations, though. Senders had to fill out photographically sensitive forms with room for just 450 words. These were then mailed to centers where they were microfilmed onto reels containing hundreds of other letters. They were then flown to field laboratories overseas that printed them, sliced them into individual dispatches, and printed as "half letters" that measured just 4 ¼ inches by 5 ¼ inches. Some notes sent back home were censored for revealing troop locations too closely, but the system was remarkably efficient; very few letters were lost.

Objectively, Weiner's book is something of a mishmash. It is strongest when focused on V-mail itself. He learned of V-mail from the late Bill Streeter (1930-2017), a Western Massachusetts Renaissance man whose cousin, Henry Ward Streeter, was killed in Germany on April 17, 1945, just weeks before Germany's surrender on May 8. Bill Streeter's preface tells some of Henry's story and is mixed with well-traveled slogans from the period. Likewise, Weiner's introduction is largely a remembrance of his deceased friend. The book is relatively short, but only about 60 percent of it deals directly with V-mail.

The body of the book opens with a chapter on the history of microfilm. It contains fascinating tidbits, though it often feels disconnected from the foundations of V-mail. Chapter two is devoted to airgraphs–used mostly in the Franco-Prussian War and World War I–and it too could be better focused. Chapters three through six are the heart of the book. Weiner rightly gives credit to Kodak and its Recordak technology for making V-mail work. We also learn of how V-mail connected senders and receivers, the campaign to convert them to use V-mail, the military personnel who processed it, and how mail was distributed to those stationed across the globe. Chapter six also details how advertisers promoted and used V-mail. The same chapter gives a nod to the artwork that added to V-mail's allure, even though it reduced the space available for writing.

Weiner's final chapter, "The Voices of V-Mail", was a better idea than reality. Weiner had a limited number of V-mails available to him and we don't learn much from the mundane excerpts. The rare gems are those that really get us into the minds of the writers: family members seeking details of how their loved ones died, observations of Italy from occupying troops, and the shock of learning about President Roosevelt's death.  

There is a lot of repetition in the book, as well as digressive asides and internal references to sources that should have been reduced to footnotes. I heard Weiner speak of his book before I read it. He is so passionate about the subject that I was surprised I didn't learn more from the book. Tonally, Weiner's ardor comes across better in person than on the page. It is unfair to hold a "civilian," if I may, to the standards demanded of a professional historian. Still, I longed for the hand of a developmental editor who could have helped Weiner sharpen his prose, focus, and narrative arc. Weiner's book contains fascinating details about an underappreciated phenomenon. The reader, though, is left to connect the dots and address the lacunae.

Robert E. Weir
University of Massachusetts Amherst


Who Slays the Wicked: Some History Will Help

Who Slays the Wicked  (Releases April 2, 2019)
By C. S. Harris
Berkley/Penguin, 352 pages.

Some books set in the past falter because they get history terribly wrong. Others are confusing because they get it right. The second may be a problem for newer readers of C. S. Harris. Who Slays the Wicked is book 14 in her Sebastian St. Cyr series.

C. S. Harris is the nom de plume of Air Force brat Candice Proctor, who holds a Ph.D. in European history and now lives in Louisiana. Ms Harris writes well and precisely delves into great detail. It’s not a necessity, but it sure would help to know a bit about Hanoverian England to appreciate her St. Cyr novels. Who Slays the Wicked is set in 1814, a time in which the Napoleonic wars are sputtering* to a conclusion. George III is on the throne­–the same sovereign who lost the American colonies. His son, the future George IV, is serving as regent however, as George III went hopelessly insane in 1811.

When Napoleon was defeated for good in 1815, a European-wide peace conference redrew the map of Europe. The same conference planted the seeds for the decline of aristocracy, but they didn’t blossom until the end of World War I in 1918. For another hundred years, nobility lived according to different customs and social codes than their subjects.

If you’ve read other Harris novels, you know that proper breeding sometimes allowed one literally to get away with murder.Not this time. St. Cyr is called upon to unravel the gruesome death of Lord Ashworth and he’s keen to solve it as among the prime suspects is Ashworth’s wife Stephanie, who is also St. Cyr’s niece. Stephanie has recently given birth to twins, but she detested her late husband. As it transpires, so did virtually everyone who ever set eyes on Ashworth except his aged father. As was often the case with children of noble blood, the sadistic Ashworth treated women and the hoi polloi as if they were there for his amusement and abuse. He sexually abused Stephanie, as he did also to a string of mistresses, prostitutes, and gullible innocents. He cheated numerous merchants, one of whom is also a hot suspect, and Ashworth was also abusive to architect Russell Firth. That’s very bad news, as rumors hold that Firth has been stepping out with Stephanie.

The more St. Cyr digs into matters, the longer the suspect list grows. The phrase St. Cyr, his fearless wife Hero, and magistrate Sir Henry Lovejoy repeatedly hear is, “I’m glad he’s dead.” St. Cyr, like much of London, is certain that Ashworth is the culprit behind the deaths of numerous street children.

The wildcard suspects are in London by way of Moscow. All of Europe knows that the Prince Regent and his wife, Caroline of Brunswick, had been separated for more than a decade. They had just one child, Princess Charlotte, which made her a desirable marriage catch. Charlotte is affianced to the heir to the Dutch throne, but the czar of Russia hopes to break that alliance and perhaps even entice the Prince Regent to divorce and marry his sister. Harris introduces a fictional character, Ivanna Gagarin, as the consort to the Russian Grand Duchess. She is beautiful, calculating, amoral, and perhaps deadly, though the entire Russian entourage in London had enough contacts with Ashworth to make all of them suspect. The fact that Buckingham Palace tells St. Cyr to back off elevates St. Cyr’s suspicion level. **

Harris juxtaposes court intrigue with the grit, dirt, and crushing poverty of working-class London. She takes us inside seedy pubs and down dark and dangerous alleyways, and introduces us to the stomach-churning world of the night soil men who clean privies, rag and bone collectors, and “pure” finders, the latter of whom roam the street and collect excrement to sell to tanneries. It’s also a world in which ragamuffin children sweep streets, deliver messages, and run errands for anyone who will throw them a few coppers. You can be excused if you conclude that the residents of squalid London have less dirt on their hands than the upper crust. Harris subtly suggests that better times are ahead for some of the down-market parts of London. Firth is modeled on developer James Burton, who financed the building of Regent’s Park, Bloomsbury Square, and numerous other great Georgian projects.

Harris throws us enough red herrings to make fish stew, but if you're not a historian or already immersed in the St. Cyr universe, you might find parts of the novel rather slow going until you catch on to who’s who. It might help to make a cheat sheet as you read. You will need to know, for example, that Lord Ashworth is Anthony Ledger and that St. Cyr is also the Viscount Devlin. All of the aristocratic characters have both a titled and a christened name, and which one you encounter depends upon with whom that character is interacting. This stuff even confuses Brits–friends of mine in London frequently say “some lord or other”­–and it can be quite a puzzlement for those not used to it. 

I am used to it and ultimately found the central mystery intriguing, but I confess that I am more prone to place nobility into the upper class twit category. This is to say I found the novel much more interesting when Sebastian and Hero St. Cyr were cavorting with marginal folks rather than having tea with toffs. I leave open the possibility that I came into the series too late in the game. I enjoyed Who Slays the Wicked, but I’m not holding my breath for the next St. Cyr installment.

Rob Weir

* I used the term "sputtering" because it took separate campaigns to subdue Napoleon. In 1814, Napoleon abdicated when a European alliance captured Paris. He was exiled to the island of Elba, but escaped less than a year later, raised an army, and invaded Belgium. Shortly after his defeat at Waterloo in June 1815, he surrendered and was sent to the remote island of St. Helena, where he died in 1821.

** In real life, Russian meddling did break Charlotte’s planned marriage, though she eventually married a German prince, not a Russian.



You Can Feel Good about the New Hood Art Museum


It was quite a coup for Dartmouth College's Hood Art Museum to secure John Stomberg as its new director. Stomberg came from Mount Holyoke by way of Williams College. At each of those institutions he established a reputation for doing amazing things with relatively small collections. He knows rhat it's not the number of items that you have on display, it's what you do with them and what you can borrow.

Stomberg signed aboard to help the Hood reimagine itself physically as well as interpretively. It has just reopened after being closed for three years and a $50 million rebuild. If you've been to the old Hood, you'll hardly recognize the new museum with its 16 new galleries that add 16,000 square feet of display space. The museum flows organically into an airy atrium, the college theater, and a cafeteria.

One indication of where the new Hood is headed is that it did not reopen with a splashy special exhibit. It has long been a teaching museum whose educational mission takes priority over public outreach, and over the next several years will focus upon items from its permanent collection. What has changed, though, is pedagogy. What do we see in art? What values are embedded within a sculpture, painting, or object? What audiences are being served? And, in the age of #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, and multiculturalism, which stories should be told in a deeper way?

Fortunately, the Hood has treasures to help navigate these new demands. The core of most college art museums is dominated by donations from alums and philanthropists. This can be a crapshoot, but luckily Dartmouth has lots of Native American, Aboriginal, and African art that gives a head start to its goal of inclusiveness. (It owns about 65,000 pieces over all.) The possession of non-Western art no matter how legitimately acquired inevitably raises questions about colonialism. The Hood's approach is to admit this is a factor and use objects to explore questions about imperialism, acquisition, and interpretation. There is, for example, an entire wall filled with African masks. Instead of arranging them by region, we see at a glance the wondrous diversity within a continent too often stereotyped as if it were one big nation rather than the repository of unique traditions and cultures. We also see one of Ghanaian artist El Anatsui's large scale curtains made of cast-off bottle bands. Point made: past creativity meets contemporary vision. We later see attitudes towards globalization in a mashup painting by Congo's Eddie Kamuanga that is where classics meet kitsch and commercialism.

The Native American material is also poignant. Cowboy and Indian motifs stand alone, but also in association with each other and in juxtaposition to contemporary Native art. It makes many of the points as the African masks about diversity and internal creative traditions. Many of the syncretic pieces are shot through with wry humor and/or activist politics. A simple red bar, for instance, has "Red Man" at one end of its scale and 1/16 blood on the other. It stands within a stairwell and requires minimal commentary to make the point about how cavalierly race is measured and imagined. Another shows a cowboy, his gun drawn but his torso and head riddled with bullets we preseume did not come from another cowboy!

If you've still not gotten the point, Aboriginal material to drive you home. Very little of it is traditional; it consists mostly of recent works that draw inspiration from older styles. It is at once ancient, but new– a marriage of past and present that makes Aboriginal culture a living phenomenon, not a fly-in-amber moment in time.

You have to hunt for the European and American art, something for which Stomberg has taken some heat. I see both ends of that can of worms. I admire attempts to bring interpretation in line with current sensibilities, yet it is objectively true that the Hood's first show shortchanges Western Art and the work of curators. It is also occasionally open to criticism of being both overly politically correct, yet conservative.

The key is what the next Hood show looks like. Will it display more conventional pieces? I'm happy to give a pass this time around, because even with 16 additional galleries you can't display everything. The choice is basically the rock and pond scenario: does one go for maximum splash–a themed display–or skim the surface with small drips of everything? I prefer the first approach, but it will be interesting to see if the Hood leaves itself open to charges of catering to what is acceptable in the moment.

Art and conformity usually don't keep good company with each other. Sometimes shock and anger makes a point. A short corridor of photographs raised a few red flags. One panel consisted of an explanation of why a particular image was not on display. The skinny: it would make too many people uncomfortable. There's another explanation: censorship. What a museum collects is or isn't art; if curators think it's not, sell it. Don't tell me what you can't show me. Photographs are also used as the centerpiece of a debate over who owns the content of the art. Is that even a question? It is the artist, surely, and the public decides either to look or look away. In the case of a photograph, the answer is cut-and-dried; if what the photographer snaps is on public display, the photographer owns the image.

I hope that the museum doesn't opt for comfort and will concentrate on teaching the controversy. A walk across the street to the Baker Library makes a good case for teaching controversy. The basement contains the spectacular José Clemente Orozco mural The Epic of American Civilization. Visitors often think they are going to see a Diego Rivera mural. That's understandable as Orozco's themes echo those in Rivera's famous mural at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Both artists juxtapose savagery, progress, and regress, just as both use life cycle imagery, skewer religious hypocrisy, and expose social class power structures. Both also painted during the Great Depression and both were accused of being leftwing propagandists. (Some of Rivera's works were painted over!) My point is that just because a work disturbs is not a cause for censorship. It boggles my mind that today's self-styled progressives call for the removal of all things objectionable. Do they not know that it has been the political right that has historically censored art? Some thought Orozco's mural was incongruent with Dartmouth's mission and wanted it removed. As you view it today, ponder what would have been lost had the fashion/passion of the moment prevailed. 



Colette Doesn't Do Its Subject Justice

Colette (2018)
Directed by Wash Westmoreland
Bleecker Street, 111 minutes, R (nudity, sexuality)

Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (1873-1954) was a fascinating individual who pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable. Although she often scandalized polite society, she became an important force in both French literature and cultural change. Four books on the adventures, loves, and life of her alter ego "Claudine" appeared between 1900-03 under her husband's name, Henry  ("Willy) Gauthier-Villars' name before their volcanic marriage erupted irreparably. Colette—she tended to use just her last name in public—went on to pen over 30 books under her own byname, the most famous of which is Gigi (1944), which received several film treatments. Colette was also a bisexual adventurer who married and divorced three times, and took numerous lovers, including another fascinating individual, Mathilde de Morny, known as "Missy," who dressed and presented as male. How did get away with that? She was also the Marquise de Balbeuf and Napoleon III's niece.

There's so much material with which to work that Colette has its moments, but for the most part it is a mediocre treatment of fascinating individuals. The best performance by far comes from Dominic West as Willy. We meet him as he sweeps country girl Gabrielle/Colette off her feet and brings her to Paris as his new wife. We see from the beginning that he is a cad, a bully, an egoist, a sexual libertine, and a fraud masquerading as an intellectual. He described himself as a "literary entrepreneur," a nice way of saying that reviews, commentary, articles, and books largely or entirely written by others appeared with his name on them. This included Claudine at School, which was a literary blockbuster, which Colette wrote. West plays Willy with outsized bombast that befits his character. We understand why women are attracted to him, as well as why they weary of him. His male friends see through him, but they tolerate him longer because he is like Ernest Hemingway: a man's man.

Also fine was Eleanor Tomlinson as Georgie Raoul-Duval, an American-born socialite married to a French mine owner. She will become the lover of both Colette and Willy, to the chagrin of each. Tomlinson plays Georgie as outwardly demure, but inwardly ruthless.  Timlinson wears her pale beauty like a thinly dusted mask that falls by the wayside when she bears her fangs. Fiona Shaw is also fine in an extended cameo as Sido, Colette's mother.  

Denise Gough isn't quite convincing as "Missy." She's done up to look a bit like a younger Ellen DeGeneres, which isn't quite the right body type. De Morny was far more manly in presentation and was seldom as forthcoming with the "girl talk" in which she engages in the film. The film does get it right in one important sense; she and Colette lived together after Colette left Willy in 1905, and the two shared a lesbian kiss on at the Moulin Rouge stage in 1907 that led to rioting in the theatre and put the kibosh to their ability to share a domicile. 

Aiysha Hart plays Polaire, the actress that assumed the persona of Colette on the French stage. She is fierce, assertive, and commanding. Would that Keira Knightley had half of her presence in her role as the actual Colette. I am increasingly of the opinion that Knightley is a poor man's Natalie Portman. Unlike Portman, Knightley merely looks like she fits into roles that ought to go to actresses with more gravitas and skill. This to say that Portman would have devoured a role at which Knightley merely nibbles. Her mannerisms are too modern, as is the attitude-laden smirk upon her face when she tries to display sarcasm or contempt. Like this movie, Knightley isn't terrible, just so blandly middle of the road that she's the thing we remember least from the film.

Let's also give a boo hiss to director Westmoreland for his suggestion that post-Willy Colette won the renown and acclaim she deserved. She was indeed a skilled writer, though much of her work would today be classified as soft porn romance literature. It should have at least warranted mention that her third marriage was to a Jewish man sixteen years her junior who fled Paris when it fell to the Nazis in 1940. Colette stayed behind and wrote anti-Semitic articles. No easy heroine she.

Let's also call out Westmoreland for making a film about a complex and controversial figure that is limp and lifeless. It is a film of surfaces without depth, the sort that makes one merely shrug when it's over. A character such as Colette should make you roar.

Rob Weir