Nora Saltonstall got a chance to visit her brother on the Western Front during World War I. She, for nearly a year had served as a Red Cross volunteer, Leverett Saltonstall as a lieutenant with the 301st Field Artillery Regiment in the 76th Division of the U.S. Army.
As young Boston Brahmins, they belonged to the Lost Generation that flocked to Europe during World War I out of a sense of patriotism and adventure. Their parents, Richard and Eleanor Brooks Saltonstall, reluctantly let their daughter go.
After the war, Nora Saltonstall took a trip to the West Coast with friends. She contracted typhoid fever in Portland, Ore., and died on Aug. 2, 1919 at the age of 24. Leverett would win election as Massachusetts governor and U.S. senator.
On Sept. 15, 1918, Nora Saltonstall wrote a letter to Leverett’s wife Alice from the Hotel de Bordeaux in Bordeaux France:
I don’t know whether it will make you too jealous when I tell you that I have just been seeing Leverett. He looks very well, tremendously tall for some reason, & I should say that his clothes were of the most perfect cut. In other words I was quite proud to be his sister. It is so long since I have seen a lot of Americans, particularly ones whom I know, that it seemed to me like a class day or boat race.
She wrote that they ‘swallowed their Unitarian pride’ and ate fried eggs, white bread and butter at the YMCA. Then they went on a shopping spree, Leverett speaking French. He ‘declaims in a loud & impressive voice, uses many gestures & usually manages to make himself understood. …
Men in Pyjamas
Nora reported to her sister-in-law on the young men she and Leverett visited in the hospital. The 1918 flu epidemic felled them, rather than the enemy. “All the boys seem interested & [brave?] — they most of them are a trifle homesick but that is natural,” she wrote. ” I saw Dunbar & Jimmy Lowell in the hospital — neither seriously sick but down with the local epidemic of Spanish flu which Everyone has over here.”
She thought Dunbar glad to see her. “[B]ut Leverett of course was Embarrassed at having me there & rushed me off as hastily as possible. He made me laugh to myself because he wondered whether I ought to go into the hospital on account of convalescents walking about in pyjamas. I hate to admit that I am not affected by any costume or lack of such that any man can wear. The French hospitals get you accustomed to that & the poor convalescents have to wear pyjamas because no one will give them anything else….
This letter is not nearly as interesting as I meant it to be — I don’t know when I will see Leverett again but probably not for several months.
With thanks to “Out Here at the Front”: The World War I Letters of Nora Saltonstall, edited by Judith S. Graham. This story was updated in 2020.