Letter of Jane LeDeau
by Janice Auth2000-03
Introduction [contemporary notes by the presenter, J. Auth]
Good evening. Happy New Year! Do you like my outfit? It’s the height of fashion - at least it was - 88 years ago! I hope it helps you to imagine the events I am about to relate to you. Tonight I’m going to ask you to come back in time with me to a day that has become very significant for the Baha’is of Pittsburgh. The day is May 7, 1912 (show calendar page)and it’s the day on which one of the most loved and revered figures in our faith visited Pittsburgh.
Abdu'l-Bahá (point to his picture)is considered by Baha’is to be the perfect example of what a human being can and should be. His name means servant of the glory and he devoted his life to serving God, and to serving his fellow human beings, even being knighted by the British government for his relief work in Palestine. But in this year, Abdu’l-Baha embarked on a monumental journey which began in Haifa, and brought him to communities throughout the US and Canada, a journey by steamship and train which lasted 239 days. It was during this journey that He stopped in Pittsburgh for a day and gave a talk right here in this very room. It had been only 20 years since the death of his father, Bahá'u'lláh, the founder of the faith. During the time of Bahá'u'lláh, the faith had been contained primarily in the countries of the middle east. But Abdu'l-Bahá's historic and pioneering journey was to be the first step in the eventual establishment of the Baha’i faith as a world-wide religion.
It’s Nineteen hundred and twelve - the 20th century is fresh and new, not even in its teens yet. What is the world like? George V is the King of England. Now he doesn’t know this yet but YOU do: he will be the great-great grandfather of Princes William and Harry; Tewfik Pasha is the Grand Vizier of Persia, and V.I.Lenin and Josef Stalin are just getting to know one another. The great wars which will split the century are still years away. There is a coal strike in England, and R.F. Scott is leading an expedition to the newly discovered South Pole. Sun Yat Sen is a rising political revolutionary in China but some Chinese women are still binding their feet. In India, the writer Rabindranath Tagore is creating the poetry which will eventually win him the Nobel Prize. Karl Jung is working on his Theory of Psychoanalysis. Picasso is painting in a style known as Cubism, and Richard Strauss has already written the music that will become synonymous with space travel in 2001.
In America, things are good. Portly, jovial William Howard Taft is the 27th President, there is ragtime music in the air, and people are generally optimistic about the future. Henry Ford’s assembly line production system is cranking out Model-T Ford cars by the hundreds and you can have any color you want as long as it is black. Arizona and New Mexico will become the 47th & 48th states this year; in November, Woodrow Wilson will be elected, by men only, the 28th president. Elihu Root, who had been Secretary of State under Teddy Roosevelt, will be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In the arts, Carl Sandburg and Robert Frost are just beginning to become known for their poetry, the best selling novel this year is The Harvester by Indiana writer and nature photographer, Gene Stratton Porter. On the stage, Isadora Duncan is dancing. Speaking of the stage, let me tell you that Pittsburgh has been in the headlines for the past few years. It seems that Pittsburgh millionaire playboy, Harry Thaw married actress/showgirl Evelyn Nesbit. Now Miss Nesbit had a bit of a past and Mr. Thaw was the jealous type. One evening when they were out together in New York City, they ran into Mr. Stanford White, the famous architect. Mr. White had been a previous paramour of Miss Nesbit’s. In a fit of jealous rage, Harry pulled out a gun and shot Mr. White dead. The resulting trial and publicity made Miss Nesbit even more famous and put Mr. Thaw in the looney bin for a few years. Harry’s mother had hired good lawyers and they got him off on an insanity plea. It’s being called the scandal of the decade!
If you pick up one of Pittsburg's six newspapers today, May 7, 1912, you can read about the Titanic disaster just three weeks ago on April 14 & 15. The world is still reeling from the shock that the unsinkable ship went down taking 1522 lives. You can also read about Abdu’l-Baha’s visit and see his picture. (point to poster) Pittsburg in 1912 is a city obsessed with production and industry. There’s a whole country out there and it’s hungry for steel and we have it. The United States Steel Corporation has recently been formed making instant millionaires out of several dozen men. The thriving steel mills are fueled by the sweat of immigrant laborers who are streaming into the city by the thousands. Among them this year will be my Hungarian grandparents who decide to settle west of the city. My grandmother will farm, raise five children and bury three more, and my grandfather, who refuses to work in a steel mill or a coal mine, will stay one step ahead of the rent collectors by selling patent medicine and later, during Prohibition, bootleg whiskey. It won’t be an easy life but it will be better than what they came from.
If you have a nickel in 1912, you can go to the moving picture show; a dime will buy you lunch in a restaurant, perhaps a bowl of nutritious lima bean soup or a poached egg sandwich, two popular dishes of the day; a dollar can get you a really fine shirt and $3.98, the most stylish pair of shoes in town. (or a hat like this). Pittsburg has all the modern conveniences for those who can afford them - telephones, automobiles, electric lights, and indoor plumbing in the plush suburbs of Oakland, Squirrel Hill and Wilkinsburg. For those who can't afford, it has squalid slums across the street from the mills in neighborhoods with inviting names like Skunk Hollow or Yellow Row. It also unfortunately has typhoid fever which claims the lives of many, especially children. We have Forbes Field (right across the street) for baseball, the Carnegie Museum, The Carnegie Institute of Technology, Carnegie Library and Andrew Carnegie himself, 77 years old this year. There’s not much of a middle class. The poor work for the rich. The rich are extremely rich. Carnegie is purported to be worth $500,000,000. And this year he will give away most of his money to charity,leaving himself with a paltry $25,000,000 to live on. Not bad for a poor Scottish immigrant lad who barely had two shillings to rub together when he came to this country over 50 years ago. Pittsburgh has no television, no airport and no "h" at the end of its name. Politically, it is just emerging from the grip of the Magee-Flinn ring, a political iron glove which has controlled this city for the last 2 decades and whose shenanigans and shady dealings would make even some of your modern politicians squirm! In short, it is a rough, corrupt, dirty, industrial city described by Lincoln Steffens as "Hell with the lid off physically, and Hell with the lid on politically." But it’s into this vibrant, working class city of half a million people that Abdu'l-Bahá has decided to bring his gentle spiritual message of unity and peace, equality of all people, and reverence for life.
But rather than take my word about all this, why don’t we listen to the words of someone who claims she was actually there that day? In doing the research for this presentation, I have spent many hours poring over rolls of microfilm, reading the newspapers of the day. I've also used several excellent books - Stefan Lorant's Pittsburgh and Robert Stockman's The Bahá'í Faith in America among them. In my latest searchings, I stumbled across a previously unknown and undiscovered document. In the dusty recesses of the dustiest recess of the basement of Mr. Carnegie’s Library, I found an actual letter * written by a woman who claims to have been present that day and seems to have followed Abdu'l-Bahá around all day long. Nothing is known about this obscure woman apart from what we can read about her in her letter, except that she was descended from French fur traders and that her name was Jane LeDeau. She has however left us with a charmingly detailed and as far as I can ascertain, accurate rendering of the events of the day, May 7, 1912. So let's hear what Jane has to say about it. Without further ado and with all due respect to historians everywhere, I now present to you "The Letter of Jane LeDeau".
The Letter of Jane LeDeau [fictional]May 7, 1912
My Dearest Eleanor,
I'm so exhausted but I wanted to write to you immediately while the events of today are still fresh in my mind although I'm sure this is a day that I will never forget. Oh how I wish you could have been here to see and hear him! What an inspiration he has been to all of us. For a man of 68 years of age, Abdu'l-Bahá has put us to shame with his energy, his enthusiasm and his vitality. But let me start at the beginning. I awoke very early today to rain and grey skies but my spirits were not dampened. I was able to have the day off from my job at the newspaper although old man Flinn, my supervisor, was not too happy about it but when I explained to him that I am a Bahá'í, he agreed. You see, there has been some advance publicity and reporters from all the papers were at the talk tonight to get the scoop. Why even the well-known Rabbi Levy from the Rodef Shalom Jewish temple made an announcement about the visit this past weekend to his congregation. The Leader had a story in on Sunday; the Dispatch, yesterday. I'm planning to write something up to show to Flinn. Perhaps this will be my opportunity to move up to feature reporter. If I do get a by-line, I'll be sure to send you a clipping. I saw Suzanne Beatty and Marion Brunot at the talk tonight and several prominent families, the McClains and the McNeeleys; but I get ahead of my story.
Abdu'l-Bahá, the leader of the Bahá'í Faith has been to Pittsburg. And I got to see him! I walked to the railroad station down by the river this morning from my flat on Mt. Washington and I was there in plenty of time to meet his train. He came in at noon from Cleveland with a whole entourage of translators, friends, and a secretary, Mr. Zarqani. All the Persian gentlemen looked so exotic in their turbans and flowing robes and they did attract a stare or two at the P&LE station, you can be sure. There was a group of us including Mr. & Mrs. Hilbert Dahl; you've heard me speak of them, haven't you? They have had so many pleasant fireside evenings over at their home on Duquesne Avenue on the north side of the Allegheny River where we can all sit and discuss such topics as religion and philosophy. You know how I love to talk. Mr. Dahl is a landscape designer and we have all suggested that he send some ideas to the people in Chicago who are doing the plans for the new Bahá'í house of worship that's to be built right on the shores of Lake Michigan. Abdu'l-Bahá was just there last week and he turned over the first shovel full of dirt and put the first stone into place.
Well, we got Abdu'l-Bahá away from the soot and smoke of the steel mills of the city and out to the Schenley Hotel in Oakland by motorcar,(a nice shiny Model T Ford - not the most luxurious of horseless carriages but clean, serviceable and reliable.) The rain today washed out the Pirates/Dodgers baseball game at Forbes Field and turned Oakland into a sea of mud everywhere but he didn't seem to notice. All that he wanted after having a cup of tea at the hotel was to talk with people. A crowd gathered immediately upon his arrival and he spent most of the afternoon answering questions about himself and his father, Bahá'u'lláh. He talked about the need for unity and peace and he supports our suffragette demonstrations. I wish President Taft and some of our members of Congress could hear him speak about that. After all, we women make up half the population. Why shouldn't we have the right to vote? I hope I live to see it, for our dear leader, our inspiration, Miss Susan B. Anthony, 6 years gone now, may she rest in peace. I certainly hope the women of the future never forget what sacrifices she made for them. But we aren’t giving up. There’s a march planned next week over at the new Margaret Morrison Carnegie School for Women.
The public meeting this evening was quite well attended. And you should have seen the hats! Why I haven't seen so many ostrich and peacock feathers since I visited our beautiful zoo last summer. I would estimate that there were about 400 people in the ballroom of the Schenley. It's Pittsburg's most splendid hotel now, you know. All the right people stay there. Why even the great tenor, Enrico Caruso stayed there when he was in town a few years ago. I heard someone ask Abdu'l-Bahá if his room was comfortable and he reminded us that he has spent 40 years of his life in prison and even lived in the morgue of the prison in Akka for two years. "Now the kind friends wish to know if I like these magnificent rooms!" he said with a sad smile.
I heard something today that absolutely chilled my bones and made my blood run cold. It seems that some wealthy Bahá'ís in New York had sent some money to Abdu'l-Bahá when they heard he was coming to America, urging him to change ships in Italy, take a train and boat to England and sail from there on the maiden voyage of that unsinkable Titanic. Thank God he returned their money and told them to spend it on the poor; then he sailed on the less luxurious but as it turned out more seaworthy SS Cedric. Mr. William Jennings Bryan spoke here the other night at another memorial service. There is hardly a person who hasn't been touched in some way by that terrible disaster of last month.
As Abdu'l-Bahá was speaking, I tried to take a few notes from the translation. I saw Miss Beatty taking notes too so I will try to get a copy to send to you. Even after most of the audience went home, that tireless man continued to talk with some doctors and educators who wanted to discuss the latest ideas in medicine and schooling. He really practices what he preaches because he said that "where there is love, nothing is too much trouble and there is always time." I would like to stitch that on a sampler, if I ever get the time (ha-ha). He finally retired to his room about 11:30 and I hope he is getting some rest because he departs for Washington, DC on the early train tomorrow morning. Do you remember when you and I made that trip last year over the mountains of Maryland and what a wonderful time we had visiting my Aunt Mildred in the Capital city? And to think! All the way to Washington, DC in just twelve hours. Fast trains! Motorcars! We've gone about as far as we can go in transportation I think unless man learns to fly in those aeroplanes that the Wright Brothers have been working on! Wouldn't it be great fun to have a ride in one of those flying machines. What a story I could write about that!
What do you think of the new song by Irving Berlin, “When the Midnight Choo-Choo Leaves for Alabam’?” Mother thinks it’s shocking but I love it.
Well, I will close by telling you the latest joke. A lady appears at the Pearly Gates. She says to St. Peter, "Who are you?" He says, "Why, Ma'm, I'm an angel." Then she says "Well, at last. Thank goodness! You're just the kind of man I've been looking for." I tell you, as a single girl, I know exactly what she means. But I think I may have found my angel. Tomorrow evening Charlie Laughlin and I are going to the Atwood Street Theater to see the Gish sisters in the latest D.W. Griffith picture show. No, he is NOT from the Laughlin steel baron family. Do you really think I would keep company with a man who exploited the poor immigrants so? No, my Charlie is a kind and gentle school teacher and even though we will be poor as church mice, I think I would like to marry him and if he doesn't ask me soon I am just going to be bold and ask him! I plan to wear my new hat, the one that I bought at Kaufmann's for today's events. It cost me $3.98, nearly half my weekly wage, and I'll have to scrimp and save the rest of the month but it was worth every penny because I feel so right wearing it. Of course, I dont use rouge or face powder and paint. I do agree with Judge Caverly who has ruled that “A woman ought to have more pride than to make a signboard out of her face.” I bought a little present for my dear Charlie, a book of poems by a new and very exciting young writer by the name of Carl Sandburg. He is from Illinois and writes in a fresh, original style. I love his poem in which he says "The dust of the traveled road/Shall touch my hands and face." As my Charlie and I both dream of traveling someday, I know he too will like this poem.
So, dear Eleanor, that is my humble account of this most interesting and historic day. I hope that I have given you some small glimpse of what it was like. I do promise to send newspaper articles too. I miss you and I hope that we can visit sometime this year. I send my love and affection to you, my dearest friend and I hope that you and Roger are well. Please give the children a kiss from me and write back soon.
That does sound hopeful, doesn't it?
And there you have it - the letter ends there. Jane never mailed it. And I could find no further evidence that she ever existed. Whatever notes she refers to having taken of Abdu'l- Baha's talk, they seem to have been lost. The only ones we have are those of Miss Suzanne Beatty. And so Miss Jane LeDeau passes back into obscurity from whence she came but not before providing us with a rare first-hand glimpse of that day 88 years ago when Abdu'l-Bahá visited this city and bestowed upon it his blessing and good will. Thank you and good night.