Discoveries in Jones Hall-- the perspective of Margaret Woodrow Wilson

LaRC Manuscripts Collection 519 holds letters written to Lucy and Mary Smith of New Orleans by close friends who were members of President Woodrow Wilson's family.  The Wilsons met the Smiths at a summer resort in Virginia, early in the twentieth century. Although not biologically related, in these letters they jokingly call each other cousins.  Lucy R. Smith (born around 1864) and her sister Mary R. Smith (around 1868-1943) lived for many years at 1468 Henry Clay Ave. in New Orleans.

 Letter authors represented include Edith Wilson, Jessie Wilson Sayre, Ray Stannard Baker, Francis B. Sayre, and President Wilson's daughter, Margaret Woodrow Wilson (1886-1944).   Most notable are the early 1940s letters written by Margaret from Pondicherry, India, where she lived at the religious community, Sri Aurobindo Ashram.   In one of these letters to Lucy and Mary Smith, she philosophically reflects on memories of New Orleans, racial issues, and World War II, sending love and spiritual inspiration back to America.

                                                                                                Sri Aurobindo Asram Pondicherry

Precious, precious Smithies,
                How could I have let so long a time go by without sending you even a line!  You see, I am the same old procrastinator as ever!  Sometimes I wonder how much it is possible to improve in one life when I see all my faults sticking to me like flies!  For a long time it was indeed excusable on my part to put off my correspondence for I was sick for many months and recuperating for many more but all that is long past and still I let days and months go by without writing to those I love in America.  But, darlings, I do love you and there are still so many vivid memories of you and our life together that float into my mind like beautiful iridescent birds across this tropical blue sky.  The other day I saw a flock of intensely green parakeets fly in formation like aeroplanes across the bluest of blue skies and my heart actually stopped beating for a moment so startling was that flash of beauty.  Well, pictures of you and all of us together in Virginia, in Princeton, in The White House, flash across my “inward eye” in just such a way, making past joy alive again in one breathless moment.  In fact past joy is not ever really past and gone, is it?  Isn’t it there at all times within us, forming part of the richness of our present life, part of the pattern that Nature weaves within our consciousness to please the Spirit within her?

                This town still recalls New Orleans to me often and, of course, you with it.  This combination of old France and India is fascinating—I never tire of it and hate to see the new apartment houses going up.  I look at the bare-footed peasant women, walking so straight with their brass water pots on their heads and feast my eyes, knowing full well that I am gazing on forms of beauty that must pass.   All the Hindu women still insist on wearing their saris, at least here they do, even to do physical labour in and I am told that in Northern India the women play tennis and very well in their long saris!  I wear a sari in the evenings, and a lovely evening dress it makes, but I wear my little short American dresses in the daytime, feeling very awkward in comparison to the graceful Hindu women but a darn sight more comfortable and cooler.  The Hindu women, who are the results of marriage with the French, wear European costumes and lose thereby all their distinctive charm—or is it because they are not one thing or the other that they seem so awkward.  We call them Creoles here but the French resent that name being used for the metisses, as I think they call them, because they say Creole means only someone of another nationality born in a foreign country or born in a family that was originally born on foreign soil.  Is that the distinction made in New Orleans?  I thought there the term was used to describe the mixture between French and Spaniard or French and American in New Orleans.  Perhaps the sensitiveness here on that point is due to the sense of superiority on the part of the whites over the coloured races, even the wonderful Hindu race, just as the New Orleans people resent the term being used in connection with those who have Negro and French blood in them.  I am surprised that is is so here for the French have always intermarried with the natives of their colonies without losing caste.  Here it seems they do if they marry Hindus.  Isn’t it extraordinary that the White people can keep that sense of superiority in the face of such a superior race as is the Hindu race?  Why, in some ways they are much, much superior to us!  I feel in their presence that I and my people are crude, as is something new and half baked in the presence of mellowness and age long refinement.  Their culture goes so much deeper than ours.  In fact in their presence I hesitate to call our America culture, culture at all.  You remember Mother used to say that American culture was skin deep compared with English culture?  Well, it is only as deep as the first thin layer of skin compared to the culture of Asia, especially that of India.  And if you could see a lot of these people you would not find it possible to believe the fiction that they are a decadent nation.  Their present state is certainly not equal to their ancient but the culture and the intelligence that created ancient India is still here, deep in their consciousness, and in those who have half a chance at a decent education it flowers out, as of old.  It is now very evidently a renascent nation and as such will play a very great part in the future of this world that this terrible war is clearing the way for.

                It is horrible, is it not, to see another world war and a far worse one than the last, but if we have faith in a Divine Purpose we must believe that it will be fulfilled and that even war and destruction can prepare the souls of men for a next step upward in our spiritual development.  But what faith it does demand of us to see so much that is beautiful and from our point of view worthy of preservation, even important to the future of mankind such as the gifts of youth extinguished in colossal slaughter and destruction.  If we did not believe in the immortality of man and the Universality and Omnipresence of God we could not bear such a spectacle without despairing of the future of the world, could we?

                Dear, dear ones, I hope and pray that you are both well now and that your faith gives you inner peace in the midst of all this suffering.  I believe it does, for is is so strong and pure, so selfless.  I do not know of anyone about whom I feel more at peace than about you because I know your faith and what an ever present refuge it is for you.  As I love our Presbyterian benediction I shall utter it now as a prayer for you both—“May the Lord cause His Face to shine upon you and give you Peace.”

                I love, love you both with a deep and tender love

                                                                                Devotedly yours,    Margaret

October 23rd 1942.

My favorite memory of you is of the three of you sitting together, Mother and Cousin Lucy sewing, and Cousin Mary reading aloud, in a warm sunny room in winter ….        under this in summer.      M.W.

Caption: three-page 1942 letter by Margaret Wilson to Lucy and Mary Smith,  Manuscripts Collection 519, Box 1, folder 3, Lucy and Mary Smith letters from the Woodrow Wilson family.  Images of items held in the Louisiana Research Collection may not be re-published without permission.

Posted by Susanna Powers


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