The Donald Vining Diaries – A Fifty Year Chronicle of a Gay Man’s Life

June is Pride Month, an opportune time to highlight the unique diaries of Donald Vining.

Vining was a diarist from the very beginning. At the age of eight, he began documenting his day-to-day activities. He wrote one line, largely practical entries about playing with friends, shoveling snow, taking violin lessons, and getting a dog – and with the dog, the attendant chores. Vining’s diary entry on Wednesday, January 6, 1926, reads “Went to school and cleaned up six dog messes.”

First page of the “Condensed transcript of The Diary of Donald Vining 1926-1958.”
Box 1, Donald Vining papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

While Vining’s adolescent attempts at keeping a diary sometimes fizzled out as the months progressed, a Christmas gift of a diary in 1931 “led to another attempt at faithful diarizing”. By that time, his diary entries had grown longer and sometimes included references to world events, like the 1932 kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby, which, to Vining’s chagrin, interrupted his favorite regularly scheduled Sherlock Holmes radio program.

By 1933, Vining was dreaming big, musing “As actor, author, playwright, investor, I’ll make huge sums. Of course, love means a great deal to me but I’m afraid money will always come first if it is a choice between the two.” He so identified with being a diarist, that it sometimes gave him nightmares. He wrote, “had a very disturbing dream last night when I dreamed that I wrote my diary on the rug and on my shirt cuffs – then somebody cleaned the rug and washed my shirts and the printing disappeared. I was on the point of weeping at the thought of blank pages in my diary.”

A page of the transcription of Donald Vining’s diary, January 15, 1934. Box 1, Donald Vining papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

On December 31, 1934, Vining wrote, “Sixteen and seventeen is a good early age at which to finish one’s first diary. I believe it is such a habit now and I shall never get out of it.” It was a prescient observation. By January 1, 1936, Vining had dropped out of college, where he had been studying drama. “Finances were complicated” he wrote, but he was still determined to keep up with his diary writing. His first resolution for the new year – “to keep a more literate diary.”

In May of 1936, Vining, still a teenager and inspired by a sermon on the topic of love, wrote, “I at once decided never to feel furtive in my love affairs hereafter. Perhaps my lust for those of my own sex is something to be ashamed of, perhaps not. But at any rate my love for them is not. It’s only to be regretted that everyone can’t love everyone else and no love should be considered as other than the finest thing in the world.” It was the beginning of Vining’s many observations on attraction, love, and sex that would pepper his diaries in the years to come.

Vining spent his early twenties attending Westchester University in Pennsylvania, working odd jobs and writing and putting on plays for an amateur theatrical society. Much to his delight, he was eventually accepted for graduate studies at Yale’s drama school, where he was “thrown into ecstasy by the beauty of some of the buildings and the aristocratic appearance of it all.” He harbored fantasies of having his own repertory theatre and was eager to learn “a stage hand’s duties as well as an actor’s, director’s and author’s.” Those weren’t the only fantasies on his mind. On September 26, 1939, he wrote “Am I smitten now! As I came out from Drama 6 I saw him…His hair was wavy with just the slightest tint of red in its blondness. He has very prominent cheekbones and a long angular face. He looks intelligent and as tho he meant business. All this raving after only a glance or two…At last I have someone to pretend I’m in love with.” Dedicated to his diary as always, Vining wrapped up the year by writing, “No days of the year can be counted on to give me such joy as a diarist as do the first and last. I relish the summary.”

By 1941, Vining had graduated from Yale and submitted manuscripts to MGM and 20th Century Fox in Hollywood, but they were turned down. He wrote, “I rebound very quickly to professional setbacks and disappointments, which is either a very great asset or a quality that will lead me and my family smack onto the shoals. How long does one go on achieving nothing much. It always comes out all right in the biographies of successful authors, but what about the many you never hear about? When should one fight on, and when wise up to one’s own inadequacies and give up the attempt.”

Soon World War II was raging, and men of Vining’s age were being drafted. After some reflection, Vining submitted the necessary paperwork to be classified as a conscientious objector but still was required to go through the Army’s induction process. It was there that he was declared unfit for service by a psychiatrist who wrote “homosexualism-overt” on his papers. Vining was relieved to be rejected by the Army and resolved to move to New York City, saying “I know that I must take my talent, education and experience to market before it gets rusty.” In New York, he found some success writing plays and synopses of scripts and reviewing books. He felt compelled to write, saying “I have to have my freedom to write just as much, almost, as I have to have water, food, and sleep.” Vining wrote, “Being in New York is wonderful, high cost of living and amorous misadventures not-withstanding. Much of what I came for has not developed or has lost its appeal, but music and theatre are swell.”

By 1945, Vining was working as a clerk at the Sloan House YMCA. During the war it housed more than a thousand men, many of them enlisted, and was the biggest YMCA in the nation. Vining wrote about practicing his swimming in the Y’s basement swimming pool and keeping an eye out for attractive gay men there and in New York City’s Central Park West, a popular “cruising” spot.

While Vining still harbored an interest in playwriting, by 1949 he had taken a job in the Development Office at the Teacher’s College of Columbia University. Much of his diary in the 1940s, 50s and 60s documented the minutiae of everyday life – searching for an apartment, caring for his cats, and airing work grievances. His diary revealed that he enjoyed knitting and needlepoint and played mahjong and bridge. He maintained a busy social life and capitalized on the benefits of living in New York City. Visits to museums were frequent and he was a regular movie goer. He enjoyed opera, symphony, ballet and theater performances, often recording his impressions in his diary.

Vining eventually settled into a long-term relationship with Richmond Purinton. As the year was drawing to a close in 1956, Vining, then 39, wrote, “As I look around me, I seem to have all I ever wanted even if perhaps not so much of any one thing as I used to envision. I have a companion I love who fills my days and years with a nice balance or surprise, whimsy, thoughtfulness, and dependability. I have books, a bank account that permits travel, a job I don’t resist rising to in the morning, small but pleasant rewards from writing and painting, and I have New York.”

Vining long admired Samuel Pepys, who was known for his mid-17th century diary. Pepys’ diary is remembered today for its insight into upper-class life in London. It seems that Vining saw himself as a sort of gay New York City Pepys. By 1959 he had agreed to give his diary to Yale. He wrote “So now I don’t have to worry about offering it elsewhere and have only to pack it and send it off…Then I can stop worrying about fire, etc.” Vining spent his evenings transcribing his diary, writing “I must say that as I do the transcription I become convinced that with the chaff threshed away mine is a very good diary on the whole, ranging from poor in the Tech years to superb in the years where actual quotes characterize people very well. I am committed now to the dream that it will be published eventually but this is a little difficult to guarantee for its great value lies in its utter frankness.”

The American Heritage Center’s copy of Vining’s diary is largely typewritten transcripts, but when Vining was traveling, he resorted to writing in longhand.

A handwritten page of Donald Vining’s diary, July 11, 1969. Box 5, Donald Vining papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

He was widely traveled, often spending up to a month at a time abroad, frequently in Europe. While away from home he was exceptionally observant, making note of cultural differences, architecture, museum artefacts and more.

Photographs taken in Italy from Donald Vining’s diary, May 1963. Box 4, Donald Vining papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

While Vining and Purinton were a couple for decades, their relationship was not strictly exclusive, and Vining wrote of his trips to the gay bath houses of New York City. His March 1982 diary notes, “we went home and had supper. Afterward I set out for Everard. During my first five minutes in the steam room and elsewhere I saw 6 handsome bodies that showed Everard is still the place. Beauty thinned out after that but still I had one of my better nights.”

Publicity photo of Donald Vining from A Gay Diary 1975-1982. Box 5, Donald Vining papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Eventually, after failing to find a publisher for his diary, Vining founded Pepys Press and published a five-volume series simply titled A Gay Diary. The dedication page read, “To THE UNABASHED Those thousands of gay men and lesbians who didn’t wait for the Stonewall Rebellion and Gay Liberation to live full and loving gay lives without undue regard for what family, church, psychiatrists or state thought about it. My true kin.”

Cover of the A Gay Diary 1975-1982. Box 5, Donald Vining papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Vining had been a diarist for more than 50 years and had produced thousands of pages of single-spaced typewritten diary entries. He said he made “no attempt to touch up the self-portrait by removing warts nor to make improvements in the quality of the writing, often poor due to haste, fatigue, and, I’m afraid, blind spots in my mastery of capitalization, punctuation, and grammar … On the one hand I should have loved to amplify, explain, retract, or rephrase a thousand passages but on the other hand I felt it unfair to cosmeticize, patronize or apologize for my younger self.” Reviewers at the time praised his published work as “unquestionably the richest historical document of gay male life in the United States”.

Vining’s diaries capture his evolution from precociously observant boy to gay senior citizen. His last published diary entry, written on December 31st, 1982, begins “As an interim piece of writing I decided to work on the little 500 word essay for SAGE’s contest on MY LIFE AS A LESBIAN OR GAY: THEN AND NOW. I fussed and fussed with it long after working hours and way out of proportion to the rewards offered.”  He concluded “Since this entry rounds out fifty years of diary, it makes a very natural place to stop. For now, at least.” Vining passed away in New York City on January 24th, 1998, at the age of 80 and is buried alongside Richmond Purinton in Maine.

The Donald Vining papers at the American Heritage Center consist of five boxes of diary transcripts and a published copy of A Gay Diary 1975-1982. There are edited and original diaries from the the years 1926 through 1982. The New York Public Library also houses Vining’s correspondence, diaries, novels, play scripts, stories, articles, scrapbook, two videotaped interviews, two of his original childhood diaries (1926-1927), and typescripts of his diaries, 1926-1970, illustrated with photographs, that Vining called his “Diary Digests.”

Post contributed by AHC Writer Kathryn Billington.


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Dreaming of Caucasia: Georgia Then and Now with Joseph Becker Phillips

In 2019, I was visiting a dear friend living at the time in Tbilisi, Georgia. After a week or so getting to know the city—ancient, Soviet, and modern—and experiencing first hand Georgia’s legendary hospitality (including endless toasts with, of course, lots of wine—Georgia does have the oldest winemaking tradition in the world, after all)—my friend and I decided to try to venture out into the countryside and see some of the beautiful ancient castles and monasteries nestled into the verdant mountainsides. We had seen images online and thought we could just drive right to some of these places. We did not, however, have a car.

We took the majorly subterranean Soviet era metro to the outskirts of the city, where we then hired a cab. The driver spoke limited English and my friend spoke limited Georgian (though she was actively learning). I could say “yes,” and that “thank you,” and that was about it. After quite a while driving and stopping once—seemingly randomly—to pick up another man on the side of the road (this is normal, but I did not know that at the time!), we were dropped off in the middle of a tiny village. We had asked to go to Kakheti, 85 kilometers (about 52.82 mi) east of Tbilisi, thinking it was a region with tourist stops. The driver took us to the small town and just drove off without a word.

What we thought we would see in Kakheti. The earliest structures of Alaverdi monastery date back to the 6th century. The present-day surviving cathedral is part of an 11th century Georgian Orthodox monastery. Located in 20 km (about 12.43 mi) from Telavi, in the Kakheti region of eastern Georgia. Photo by Paata Vardanashvili, 2008. Wikimedia Commons.

Hmm, what to do now? We looked around and saw no dramatic castles or monasteries, so we walked to what looked like a restaurant. Luckily, the young man there spoke English and filled us in on our mistake. The castles were quite far away and difficult to get to. He also let us know that it may be difficult to get back to Tbilisi. We laughed, knowing we had a delightful story in the making, and we were soon proven correct. What we thought was a small restaurant was actually a lovely winery (Kakheti is in Georgia’s wine region). The young man gave us a tour and a tasting, and even showed us some examples of the massive clay casks ancient Georgians used to make wine. We were then treated to a wonderful dinner and conversation with a great spread of traditional Georgian foods (I still dream about Khachapuri).

By the time we finished our dinner, the young man had managed to get a cab to come all the way from Tbilisi to pick us up (yes, all while entertaining and feeding us) and we communicated our sincere thanks and goodbyes. When I say that Georgians have legendary hospitality skills, I’m not kidding. We did not see any castles or monasteries, but we certainly had a real Georgian experience that day.

Many people before me have been inspired and intrigued by the Caucasus region. Just a few months ago, I had a student from Tbilisi in one of my classes visiting the American Heritage Center (AHC). She was researching Georgia. I thought for sure I would not be able to find much to help her. We are, after all, the American Heritage Center! But I did find one collection that had some information about Georgia from a journalist stationed in Moscow in the years leading up to WWII. Like my friend and I, Joseph Becker Phillips was drawn to the mountains outside the city when he visited Tbilisi in 1936 (he went north while I went east toward Azerbaijan).

The Collection

Joseph Becker Phillips (1900-1977) was working as a journalist for the New York Herald-Tribune. He had been stationed in Paris, London, Rome, and Moscow. Though part of the Russian Empire, Georgia’s independence was recognized until Stalin and his Red Army invaded in 1921, annexing Georgia into the Soviet Union in 1922. Phillips interest in Georgia, then, makes sense while he was stationed in Moscow.

His collection at the AHC is small, only filling two document boxes. But contained within are hundreds of articles he wrote for various magazines and newspapers. There are also detailed notes about a trip he undertook to the then difficult-to-reach Khevsureti region, northeast of Tbilisi on the border with Chechnya.

Presumably Joseph Becker Phillips or his companion, US Foreign Service officer Elbridge Durbrow, in Khevsureti, 1936. Box 2, Joseph Becker Phillips Papers, 1926-1948, Collection #6311, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Although it did take me four days, four different itineraries, and four flights (thanks to a bomb cyclone that hit Denver just after I arrived and effectively shut the city down), my trip to Georgia was undoubtedly much easier than Phillips’ was in 1936. He and a fellow journalist started out in Moscow and took two planes. The first one had to make two emergency stops to “take on water” because the engine was overheating. Unlike my two-hour-or-so cab ride from Tbilisi, Phillips was advised it was better to travel by horse the (approximately) 100 kilometers (about 62.14 mi) from Passanauri (he called it Passanaur) to Khevsureti (he called it Khevsuretia or Hevsuretia, though Khevsuria is also correct). They needed a guide to show them the way through the mountains and a lieutenant from the NKVD (internal affairs of the USSR, who acted as police for prison and labor camps) also insisted on going along. His notes offer a detailed account of his travels, including descriptions of castles on picturesque mountains, sylvan passes, the villages, and an incident where their horses stepped into a yellow-jacket nest!

Once he made it to the Khevsur region, he took some relative rare photographs of the region and began to document his experience with the people. In 1937, he published an article about the “peaceful” Russian takeover of the Khevsur region and described how the Soviets were building roads, hospitals, and schools in this once truly remote region. Because of its difficult geography, Phillips described the annexation as “one of the most interesting and difficult experiments in penetration into an isolated community which the Soviet Government has made.” Even after the Soviet road was built, Phillips commented that it was easier to traverse the 12,000-foot pass by horse than by truck, just as his guides had suggested.

That doesn’t, however, mean the trip was easy. Lev Nussimbaum, a Jewish Ukrainian writing under the pseudonym Essad-Bey in 1931, described how difficult it was to access Khevsureti in his book, Twelve Secrets of the Caucuses

A gigantic wall of rock surrounds Khevsureti and separates it from the rest of the world. After surmounting this wall, a precipice confronts you. Far below in the valley are to be seen the free villages of the Khevsurs. From the cliff wall down into the void there hangs a long rope. Whoever has the courage can catch hold of the rope and let himself down to the Khevsurs.

Like much of what Essad-Bey wrote about Khevsureti, this is probably embellished and romanticized. Phillips, traveling there just a few years after this book’s publication, described a difficult journey but nothing so outlandish. Essad-Bey described this nearly impossible descent via a rope to reinforce the idea that the Khevsurs were unusually independent and uninfluenced by outside forces since medieval times. He even goes so far as to say that this rope was used by political refugees and criminals to escape the police, who dared not go into Khevsureti.

The Untruth of Crusader Khevsureti

Like Essad-Bey and other writers, particularly westerner writers, before and after him, Phillips promoted a long-held belief that the Khevsurs are descended from a lost group of medieval Crusaders. Essad-Bey said the Khevurs were a “strange and mysterious mountain race. Who they are and whence they originate nobody knows. They are surrounded by a secret which it is now impossible to unveil.” Of particular interest to those who perpetuated the Crusaders myth was the unique form of battle dress the Khevsurs held onto. Into the 1900s, they still wore chain mail and fitted breeches, which admittedly looked very medieval European.

Kavkaz. Khefsur.” The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed May 17, 2023.

To top it off, writers like Essad-Bey and, more broadly, Richard Halliburton in his popular 1937 book, Seven League Boots, claimed that Khevsurs sewed Maltese crosses onto their clothes and their weapons bore the letters A.M.D., which they say stood for the Crusaders’ motto: Ave Mater Dei. Though he didn’t go into such romantic detail, instead relying more on his own observations as a journalist, Phillips still talked of how the men wore chainmail and carried armor from the Middle Ages, while women dyed their hair “in the manner of the ancient Greeks.”

The Real Khevsurs

It is impossible to summarize the complex history and culture of Khevsueti in such a brief article. I will, instead, point to a recent article by Ryan Michael Sherman from Cornell, “Kicking the Crusaders out of the Caucuses,” to help reinforce his argument that Khevsur ethnicity, tradition, history, and origin stories are more interesting and valid than the attempts to Europeanize or Russianize them. Despite Essad-Bey’s claim that “who they are and whence they originate nobody knows,” it is likely they broke off from other nearby groups to begin farming practices in the mountains, as their origin stories claim. It is a demanding terrain that is difficult to trek, resulting in a somewhat isolated set of small communities that depended greatly on their horse, cattle, and one another. Likely because of minimal outside influence, they also kept very traditional forms of dress, music, language, and an interestingly unique religion.

Khevusr people in 1936, dressed in both traditional and more modern clothing. Box 2, Joseph Becker Phillips Papers, 1926-1948, Collection #6311,  American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Luckily for us, a few outsiders who ventured in Khevsureti, like Phillips, took photographs while they were there. However, the Khevsurs, like much of Georgia, has kept an admirable amount of their traditional culture alive and well despite time, outside influence, and Soviet attempts to quash or destroy it. You can see many photos of modern Khevsurs in traditional dress, listen to a traditional Khevsurian folk song, or if you’re feeling ambitious enough to try to hunt down the ingredients in the US (I’ve tried, it’s not easy), try a Georgian recipe.

Georgia is a magic place of vast and intricate history and the most beautifully welcoming people, and I encourage everyone reading this to find out more. It’s amazing to me that I found such an unexpected pearl of Georgian history tucked away in a small collection at the AHC, but that just goes to show that you never know what you’ll find at the archives until you start digging in. Who knows where your next archival adventure will take you?

Post contributed by AHC Public History Educator Brie Blasi.


Sources consulted:

Essad-Bey. Twelve Secrets of the Caucuses (New York: Viking Press, 1931).

Halliburton, Richard. Seven League Boots (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1937).

Phillips, Joseph B. “Russia Takes Peaceful Way to Win Tribesmen of Caucasus who Bear Weapons used in the Crusades.” May 4, 1937. St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Reiss, Tom. The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life (New York: Random House, 2006).

Sherman, Ryan Michael. “Kicking the Crusaders out of the Caucuses: Deconstructing the 200-Year-Old Meme that the Khevsurs Descended from a Lost Band of Medieval Knights,” Nationalities Papers 49, no. 1 (2021), 54-71.

Soldak, Katya. “Two Steps Forward, One Step Back: Georgia’s Path from Soviet Republic to Free Market Democracy.Forbes. November 23, 2021. Accessed on May 16, 2023.

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“What Did the President Know, and When Did He Know It?” – The Watergate Hearings of 1973

May 17, 2023, marks the 50th anniversary of the opening of the hearings of the Senate Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities. More commonly known as the Watergate hearings, the inquiry focused the attention of the American public on the activities of President Richard Nixon and his staff during and after his 1972 campaign for re-election.

Cover of Time magazine featuring Richard Nixon, May 14, 1973. Box 32, Harry Barnard papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

The hearings went on for weeks and were broadcast live on all the major TV networks and on PBS and NPR. 85% of Americans watched or listened to at least some of the 319 hours of proceedings, which ranged between two and seven hours daily.

The Watergate hearings were so named after the Watergate office complex located in Washington D.C.

Photograph of the Watergate complex, from the Chicago Tribune newspaper, April 29, 1973. Box 49, Harry Barnard papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

The Democratic National Committee (DNC) had their national headquarters on the sixth floor of the building. In 1972, DNC offices were burglarized and, unbeknownst to the Democrats who worked there, bugged. On June 17, 1972, when the burglars returned to the scene of the original crime to deal with some problems with their bugs, they were caught red-handed by Frank Wills, an observant security guard. Investigative reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein from the Washington Post tied the break-ins at the DNC’s Watergate offices to Republican President Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign. But Nixon repeatedly denied any association with the break-ins.

Newspaper headline reading “President again issues a denial over Watergate” from the Chicago Sun-Times, May 8, 1973. Box 32, Harry Barnard papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

White House press releases on the subject were terse and point-blank – “Any suggestion that the President was aware of the Watergate operation is untrue…Any suggestion that the President participated in any cover-up activity or activities is untrue…Any suggestion that the President ever authorized the offering of clemency to anyone in this case is also false.”

In the Senate the Watergate hearings were led by Democrat Sam Ervin, with Republican Howard Baker as the Vice Chairman. Senator Ervin was widely respected and considered to be the Senate’s preeminent constitutional authority. The committee was rounded out with five more senators, both Democrat and Republican. They were all lawyers. An additional two attorneys served as counsel, and the committee was supported by a staff of 39. The committee was given a half-million dollar budget after a unanimous Senate vote. Their charter was to investigate the Watergate break-in and any subsequent cover-up of criminal activity, as well as “all other illegal, improper, or unethical conduct occurring during the Presidential campaign in 1972, including political espionage and campaign finance practices.” Hearings began on May 17, 1973.  

Newspaper headline “Today’s cast in Watergate” with photos of the Senate Watergate committee members and legal counsel from the Chicago Tribune, May 17, 1973. Box 32, Harry Barnard papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Robert Odle, a 28-year-old former administrator for President Nixon’s reelection committee, was the first witness. It was a fairly inauspicious start to what would eventually become a precedent shattering investigation. Committee Chairman Ervin kept the proceedings somber and took pains to avoid political grandstanding. Still, some fervent Nixon supporters decried the investigation as a political witch hunt. A small minority protested the hearings, which usurped daytime soap-operas and gameshows.

Satirical newspaper headline reading “Mind boggling Watergate protests mount”, 1973. Box 32, Harry Barnard papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

While Nixon continued to maintain he knew nothing, Nixon’s former legal counsel John Dean’s testimony before the committee suggested otherwise. Dean’s opening statement alone lasted more than 7 hours and was 245 pages long. When it came time to question Dean, on June 29, 1973, it was Vice Chairman Baker who framed the now famous question, “What did the president know, and when did he know it?” At the time, Baker was perceived to be a presidential ally, and he was trying to give Dean the opportunity to protect the president. But Dean turned the question around and began to elaborate on Nixon’s involvement in discussions about the break-ins and payoffs to the accused burglars. Dean’s testimony before the committee revealed that Nixon himself was a prime figure behind both the Watergate scandal and the coverup. The White House, on the other hand, blamed Dean for both the planning of the Watergate break-in and of the coverup.

Newspaper headline “White House puts all blame on Dean” June 28, 1973. Box 48, Harry Barnard papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

For a time, it seemed that it was John Dean’s sworn testimony before the committee was against President Nixon’s public statements. Dean’s testimony was portrayed as suspect since he had asked for immunity against prosecution by the Justice Department in exchange for telling all he knew regarding the Watergate conspiracy.

Then, on July 16, 1973, there was a surprising breakthrough in the Watergate hearings. One of Nixon’s former aides, Alexander Butterfield, testified that President Nixon’s conversations from the Oval Office had secretly been recorded on tape. Butterfield himself had supervised the installation of a voice activated audio taping system in the White House at Nixon’s request. On July 23, 1973, the Senate committee voted unanimously to subpoena some of Nixon’s tapes that included conversations between Nixon and his top aides. The tapes were believed to be evidence with direct bearing on whether there were criminal conspiracies, including a conspiracy to obstruct justice, among high government officials. It was the first time a congressional committee had issued a subpoena to a president. Famously, Nixon refused to comply with the subpoena.

Newspaper headline reading “Nixon has duty to release tapes, Cox tells court”, August 13, 1973. Box 48, Harry Barnard papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Senator Baker expressed concern that the Watergate committee, and indeed, the country was “on the brink of a constitutional confrontation between the Congress and the White House.” It seemed that the issue might have to be decided in the Supreme Court. There was much discussion of executive privilege and the separation of governmental powers. Nixon believed that the concept of executive privilege allowed him to withhold information from Congress under the guise of maintaining confidentiality within the executive branch. He cited executive privilege multiple times over the course of the Watergate committee’s investigations, including when the committee tried to subpoena some of the members of his secret service detail. Meanwhile, Senator Ervin remarked, “The President has stretched the doctrine of executive privilege far beyond its true boundaries and far beyond any precedent on the subject.” To him and many on the committee Nixon’s claims of executive privilege smacked of a cover-up.

The Watergate hearings damaged the American public’s confidence in President Nixon and blunted his ability to govern. There were calls for his resignation and for his impeachment. To that end, the political wheels moved slowly. On May 9, 1974, formal hearings in the impeachment inquiry of Nixon began. But it was only when the Supreme Court ruled on July 24, 1974, that Nixon must release his secret audio tapes, that impeachment began to seem probable. By then it was more than a year after the initial Senate Watergate hearings. When the transcript of what is now known as the “Smoking Gun” tape was released to the public on August 5, 1974, President Richard Nixon realized his deception had reached an end. He no longer had the support of members of Congress and was sure to be impeached. He announced his resignation on August 8, 1974, and left the White House the next day.

Cartoon depicting “The Nixon Memorial” with Nixon listening to wiretapped tapes, taken from Time magazine, May 14, 1973. Box 32, Harry Barnard papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

The Watergate scandal left the American public with a deep distrust of politicians and a new cynicism about politics and the political process. Today, the Senate Watergate committee hearings are remembered as one of the most significant congressional inquiries in U.S. history.

For more insight, you can explore newspaper and magazine articles from the Watergate era in the Harry Barnard papers at the American Heritage Center.

Post contributed by AHC Writer Kathryn Billington.


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Summer Travels, On a Wing and a Prayer

So, you’re doing some air travel for the summer? Perhaps you’re anticipating the destination, but not the journey itself. We can commiserate. Yes, there can be many vexations with modern air travel, even in the 21st century. As annoying as it can be, let’s take you back to an earlier era when it was even more unnerving and just plain daring to take to the air.

Luckily, knickerbockers are no longer de rigueur, unless you are pining to show off those fancy new argyle socks Grandma gave you for the holidays.

Photo of Richard “Dick” Leferink, an early Wyoming pilot and barnstormer, from his scrapbook housed at the AHC (Collection No. 7818). Photo dated 1928.

Although this would be a homey touch for your plane’s pushback, it’s more likely the tractor will be made by a company like AERO Specialties rather than John Deere.

From the Richard Leferink scrapbook, Collection No. 7818, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

It’s highly unlikely that the airport’s ground crew will use your plane to show off their catch of the day but if they do, send us a picture!

Box 88, S. N. Leek papers, Collection No. 3138, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

No need for us to dress for the elements at 30,000 feet. We can feel fortunate for that.

Navy Lt Commander Theodore “Spuds” Ellyson with Glen H. Curtiss, 1910. Photo File: Planes-Old Timers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

So can our pets!

From the Richard Leferink scrapbook, Collection No. 7818, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Unfortunately, one thing hasn’t changed. We’re still at the mercy of airline schedules.

From the Richard Leferink scrapbook, Collection No. 7818, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Your welcoming party can no longer greet you at planeside. That’s no fun. They’ll have to greet you in baggage claim. But at least they’re available to help you find that lost luggage.

Box 82, Folder 18, Roscoe Turner papers, Collection No. 5267, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

The romance of air travel may have waned, but we must admit it’s a lot faster. If your flight doesn’t get canceled that is.

We do hope you have safe travels and a very happy summer!


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Shopping Big in The Netherlands

Shopping malls have provided communities with convenient shopping options and social gathering spaces for decades but have seen a decline in popularity across the United States. In Europe, however, they seem to continue to supply these things. The largest shopping mall in the Netherlands is testament to how popular shopping malls can be.

Main Entrance to Hoog Catharijne Mall with the Canal running underneath, 13th of April 2023. Author’s personal collection.

At the American Heritage Center, there is a digital collection that includes information about shopping malls from all across the world. This collection is the Stephen James Poll Collection of International Shopping Developments, 1960-2018 (collection #12711).

Stephen James Poll collected information about shopping centers from around the globe, including the largest shopping centers in The Netherlands: The Hoog Catharijne in Utrecht. In 2018 Poll donated his collection to the American Heritage Center and I discovered it when looking for connections to Utrecht, where I am studying abroad. The material covering the Hoog Catharijne within this collection is promotional material for the mall after a major renovation from 2017 to 2018.

The Hoog Catharijne Mall boasts some staggering statistics, it is more than 1,076,391 square feet with 180 shops and 26 million visitors each year. It is the most visited mall throughout the Netherlands and is in the top 10 of all Europe. This modern shopping center is found a short walk from Utrecht’s historic city center and steps from Utrecht Central Train station. Utrecht Central is the largest transit hub in the Netherlands and over 90 million people pass through it each year.

The mall sits between the old city center and Utrecht Central Station, making it a popular and convenient access point to both. Inside the mall there are plenty of options when it comes to shopping. There are large department stores, small boutiques, food stores and restaurants, clothing stores for all price ranges, and specialty stores that sell a wide variety of things.

Entrance across from the Utrecht Centraal Station, 13th of April 2023. Author’s personal collection.
Iconic ‘Bubble Cloud’ roof that stretches the distance between Hoog Catharijne and the Utrecht Central train station, 13th of April 2023. Author’s personal collection.

The popularity of bicycle riding in The Netherlands cannot be overstated. Thousands of people zip around the city on their bikes as they go to school, work, play, and, of course, shop. With all these bikes there must be a place to store them, and at the Hoog Catharijne, the solution is found underground in one of the largest bike parking centers.

Entrance to underground pike parking outside of The Mall, 13th of April 2023. Author’s personal collection.

The Utrecht Canal runs directly under the mall and can be accessed from inside the mall for a canal cruise. In what is called the “City Square” in the promotional material from the Poll collection, there are water features with windows that look down into the canal where people can watch the water and boats. The City Square is the main walkway through the mall and contains the majority of restaurants.

Canal cruise ship unloading underneath the mall, 13th of April 2023. Author’s personal collection.
“City Square,” 13th of April 2023. Author’s personal collection.

Walking around the mall I noticed how busy it was and how there were no empty shops. This was quite different compared to many of the malls I have been to in recent years across the United States. There seems to be a decline in the popularity of in-person shopping in the US, but here in Utrecht the mall continues to be a popular meeting point, social gathering space, and of course shopping hub.

Post contributed by AHC Archives Aide Grace Derby.


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True Crime Obsessed: The Literary Figures Who Contributed to the Craze and the Stories That Feed It

With the current plethora of media – documentaries, podcasts, books, and biopics of serial killers – it’s no wonder true crime is so popular. But it isn’t just today’s societies that have this obsession.

The love for true crime stories can be traced back to the 19th century, and further back, with many from the middle and upper classes finding fascination in crime cases that were happening around them and because they had the down time to witness them.

Some of this true crime craze has been influenced by a Victorian Era author whose character has contributed to true crime popularity even more than a hundred years after his first story came out – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. His popular character Sherlock Holmes was one of the first literary figures who worked alongside detectives and used forensic data and logical reasoning to crack open cases. Due to Doyle’s contributions, the world was able to recognize and memorialize this character as a popular culture figure with actors like Robert Downey Jr. and Benedict Cumberbatch portraying him in adaptations that have taken place in the last twenty years.

Some of Doyle’s work can be found in the Toppan Rare Books Library, such as the 1892 copy of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. This copy features stories such as “The Adventure of the Boscombe Valley Mystery” that displays Holmes’ logical reasoning and forensic skills with sections such as:

‘These are young McCarthy’s feet. Twice he was walking, and once he ran swiftly so that the soles are deeply marked, and the heels hardly visible. That bears out his story. He ran when he saw his father on the ground. Then here are the father’s feet as he paced up and down. What is this, then? It is the butt end of the gun as the son stood listening. And this? Ha, ha! What have we here? Tip-toes! tip-toes! Square, too, quite unusual boots!’ (97)

This section is one of many that highlights the skill of the character Sherlock Holmes and how he helped solve crimes in a logical, but also approachable way for mainstream audiences. These books were instrumental in creating a widespread audience for criminal crimes and contributed to the number of people who would show up for the real court cases in their areas. Not only were the books used for entertainment, but the real cases became a form of entertainment, especially for those in the middle and upper classes who had time for leisure activities.

Illustration of Sherlock Holmes avid search for clues in “The Boscombe Valley Mystery,” The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.
British illustrator Sidney Paget famously illustrated Sherlock Holmes stories that appeared in The Strand Magazine. Between 1891 and 1904, he did 594 illustrations for Doyle’s works. This illustration is also from “The Boscombe Valley Mystery.”

Doyle’s “Bascombe Valley Mystery” is just one of many stories that delve into the fantastical, but realistic nature of crime during the 19th century and helped the true crime genre gain such a strong standing in popular culture. This story and many others can be accessed at the Toppan Rare Books Library by crime lovers of all kinds.

There are, of course, a variety of other contributions that came before Sherlock Holmes, such as Lionel Benson’s The Book of Remarkable Trials and Notorious Characters, which features many different cases of murder and robbery. There is even an absurd case about the “suspected murder of a ghost”:

Francis Smith… doubtless incensed at the unknown person who was in the habit of assuming this supernatural character, and thus frightening the superstitious inhabitants of the village, rashly determined on watching for, and shooting the ghost; when unfortunately he shot a poor man, named Thomas Milwood, a bricklayer, who was in a white dress, the usual habiliment of his occupation (293).

Illustration titled “Shooting a Ghost” from The Book of Remarkable Trials and Notorious Characters. Illustrator: Hablot Knight Browne.

Although far from what we think of as the supernatural, these kinds of cases were frequent throughout the 17th to 19th centuries and contributed to the fascination with crime and our understanding of humans and their motivations.

Illustration titled “The Man with the Carpet Bag” from The Book of Remarkable Trials and Notorious Characters.

For more recent cases, there is also The Encyclopedia of Murder written in 1962 and housed within the Toppan Library collection. This book contains an intriguing history of criminal cases and offers brief glimpses into the lives of murderers through the centuries. The cases include the “Rattlesnake Murderer” Robert James, the “thirty-nine-year-old barber, charged with the murder of his wife in 1935” (306), which was a disturbing case about a man trying to kill his wife with rattlesnake venom due to his own obsession with it, but how in the end drowned her because it didn’t work. Other cases include The Lonely Hearts Killers – Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck – who pretended to be brother and sister and who lured women through lonely heart columns in newspapers to trust them and then con and murder the women. In the aftermath of the trial, many believed that the duo’s killing of these women was due to Martha’s hatred for other women because of being declared an unfit mother for her children as Raymond did not start murdering women until after he met Martha.

Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck. Public domain image.

There are many theories as to why we are so fascinated with serial killers, including our need to understand human nature and those who display the worst of their natures, or simply just wanting to become aware of what is out there. But even without a full understanding of why we choose to learn about these killers, there is a plethora of material in which to satiate our needs and many of these works, including cases closer to home, can be found in the Toppan Library.

Post contributed by Toppan Library Intern Bailey Bonner.



Benson, Lionel, The Book of Remarkable Trials and Notorious Characters : from “Half-hanged Smith,” 1700 to Oxford who shot at the Queen, 1840. (Publisher, J. C. Hotten, 1874). (McCormick Collection, Toppan Library, uncatalogued)

Wilson, Colin and Patricia Pitman, Encyclopedia of Murder. (New York: Putnams, 1962). (Toppan, catalogued)

Doyle, Arthur Conan, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. (London: George Newnes, Ltd., 1892) (Toppan, PR4622.A3 1892)

Posted in Authors and literature, Book history, Crime, Interns' projects, Toppan Rare Books Library, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Prints Profoundly Proper: Unveiling the Works of George Cruikshank

George Cruikshank (1792-1878) was an English caricaturist known for creating political satire pieces and famous illustrations for notable authors like Charles Dickens. While taking printmaking classes, I came across his name multiple times. This piqued my interest to learn more about his story and style. When I started my internship at the Toppan Rare Books Library, it led me to find out more about Cruikshank and his exciting life. Whether it was for the renowned prints he made during his life or his collaboration with Charles Dickens, I wanted to investigate the life and works of this famous caricature artist loved by so many during the heyday of his career in the 19th century.

A colored print from Sketches by Boz (1905). The illustration, originally created in 1836, is titled, “The Beadle. The Parish Engine. The Schoolmaster” and appears in the book’s first chapter, “Our Parish”. AHC Toppan Rare Books Library.
Illustration titled “Tell Tale” by George Cruikshank for Scraps and Sketches (1828-32), which was designed and published by Cruikshank. The image constitutes a verbal-visual pun as the “tale” or “narrative” concerns a naval “pig-tail” tied so tightly that Royal Marine’s face is distorted into a caricature, a classic example of Cruikshank’s humor. AHC Toppan Rare Books Library.

Cruikshank started as an apprentice in his father’s print shop. From there he began creating political satire works that featured caricatures of famous figures. They ranged from lampooning British royalty to illustrating current events in the U.S. Most of these caricatures were made for various popular newspapers in England to expand his portfolio. Once he gained popularity from his caricatures, Cruikshank decided to expand his artistic repertoire to include book illustrations. This was when he began drawing for Dickens. The most notable set of pieces he did for Dickens were for Oliver Twist; or, The Parish Boy’s Progress (1838). Both Dickens and Cruikshank gained renown when Oliver Twist became highly popular.

Cruikshank’s illustration titled “Oliver recovering from fever,” for a scene in Dicken’s Oliver Twist; or, The Parish Boy’s Progress (1838). AHC Toppan Rare Books Library.

After working with Dickens, Cruikshank next focused on solo projects. His first notable work was the Comic Almanack (1835-1853) which he started during his collaboration with Dickens. The Comic Almanack was a satirical almanac that was full of tales, poetry, and illustrations. The next solo work that stood out from Cruikshank’s repertoire was The Bottle (1847). The Bottle was an eight-plate story detailing the ideas of how alcoholism could destroy an entire family. He continued the story with a sequel called The Drunkard’s Children (1848). Both works were completed during a time when Cruikshank advocated for temperance movements.

A print from the Comic Almanack (1835-1853) for the month of May which is showing a Mayday parade in a town. AHC Toppan Rare Books Library.
A print from The Drunkard’s Children (1848) shows a dance hall full of people. The daughter of the Drunkard is in the center. AHC Toppan Rare Books Library.

Another noteworthy work of his is called Cruikshank’s Table-book (1845). This piece was a set of twelve books that followed the months of the year. They contained Cruikshank’s prints alongside poems, stories, and depictions of current events. Inside the books, there was a statement that claimed Cruikshank was the sole creator, which is borne out in the title page which only mentions him and an editor. When looking over each month, I got a sense that Cruikshank wanted this to be a more mature work or of a higher standard than just the typical satire that was seen in Comic Almanack or his early caricatures. Cruikshank’s Table-book shows the progression to his more mature style.

Cover for the January issue of Cruikshank’s Table-book (1845). The figures depicted are reading and discussing the latest issue of the Table-book. AHC Toppan Rare Books Library.

When looking at his works from Oliver Twist or The Bottle, Cruikshank had a distinct style and a specific way he did his illustrations. Every face has eclectic expressions or details, while the backgrounds had cross-hatching, creating shadows or three-dimensionality in a flat piece. This sophistication of technique is interesting considering that, although he was instructed by his father, he was mostly self-taught. He used a style of etching that is called glyphography. Glyphography was a trendy way to print drawings and illustrations. It uses a chemical process that is like traditional etching. The process starts with covering a metal plate with wax and the image is drawn in the wax. Then the plate is put through electrotyping or stereotyping which creates a positive version of the image. Ink is applied to the plate and pressed into a piece of paper.

A plate print depicting the family of The Bottle (1847). The illustration caption reads, “The bottle is brought out for the first time. The husband induces his wife ‘just to take a drop.’” AHC Toppan Rare Books Library.

With Cruikshank’s etching style, he produced an impression that every image was hand drawn into the book or journal. His drawing style remained the same over the years but refined over time. Figures in works such as the Comic Almanack were a little messy and had a youthfulness to them. Conversely, the characters created for The Bottle or Oliver Twist were clean and detailed. Cruikshank was an artist who became confident in his style and made it his trademark.

A scene from Oliver Twist (1838) titled “Oliver plucks up spirit.” Cruikshank excelled at grotesquerie as seen in the grimace of the bully Oliver is confronting. AHC Toppan Rare Books Library.

When looking at Cruikshank’s body of work, one realizes that his pieces were full of hilarity and solely focused on connecting others with moments in time. He was considered one of the first political caricaturists to make a mark on society, thus bringing him renown and fame for his name and signature. It astounds me that this illustrator had been hidden all this time from my knowledge until I started to dive deeper into the world of printmaking. This is just one instance of how certain art mediums have been forgotten and need to be brought to the forefront once again. Cruickshank’s art is something that deserves to be recognized and celebrated.

Post contributed by Toppan Rare Book Library intern Kaleigh Johns.


Sources consulted from the AHC’s Toppan Rare Book Library:

Cruikshank, George. The Bottle, in eight plates; The Drunkard’s Children: a sequel to “The Bottle”: in eight plates, 1847 and 1848, Fitzhugh Collection.

Cruikshank, George. George Cruikshank’s Table-book, Edited by Gilbert Abbott À Beckett, 1845, Fitzhugh Collection, PR4519.C4 T3.

Dickens, Charles. Oliver Twist; or, The Parish Boy’s Progress, 1838, Fitzhugh Collection, PR4567.A1.

Dickens, Charles. Sketches by Boz: illustrative of every-day life and every-day people, 1905, Spec. Collection, PR4570.A1.

Cruikshank, George. The Comic Almanack … : an ephemeris in jest and earnest, containing “all things fitting for such a work” / by Rigdum Funnidos, gent ; adorned with … “righte merrie” cuts, pertaining to the months …, 1850-1853, Fitzhugh Collection, AY758.C7C7.

Thackeray, W.M. An Essay on the Genius of George Cruikshank, 1840, Fitzhugh Collection, 741.5 C888yt.

Posted in 19th century, Artists, Authors and literature, Book history, Interns' projects, Toppan Rare Books Library, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Fascinating Life of Nellie Bly

Elizabeth Cochrane was born in 1867 near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Little is known about her early life except that she grew up in a large family and was particularly independent minded. While still a teenager, she was offended by a Pittsburgh newspaper editorial titled “What Girls Are Good For”. The paper claimed that girls were “good for nothing except cooking, sewing and bearing children.” Cochrane wrote a fiery retort to the newspaper. Soon she was hired by the paper’s editor for five dollars a week. He stipulated that she use a pseudonym for her writing and suggested Nellie Bly after a name taken from a Stephen Foster song. Thus, reporter Nellie Bly was born.

Nellie Bly, 1890.
Box 11, Ernest C. Miller papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

She got her start writing articles about divorce, a subject that was taboo at the time. As a reporter she was unafraid to seek out stories in unusual places. She spent time in slums, sweatshops, factories, and poor houses. Seeking greater opportunity, she moved to New York where she landed a job reporting for Joseph Pulitzer’s newspaper, The World. Always interested in reporting based on firsthand experiences, she feigned madness in order to be admitted to Blackwell’s Island, an insane asylum for the poor, located in New York’s East River. It was her story titled “Behind Asylum Bars” that launched her notoriety. She wrote about the brutal treatment of patients and the inedible food. Her revelations led to a grand jury investigation, and a three-million-dollar investment in improving conditions at the asylum. It was groundbreaking work for a woman and groundbreaking investigative journalism.

Her biggest reporting assignment came soon after and was even more noteworthy. In 1889 she set off on a race around the world. The goal was to beat the record of fictional hero Phileas Fogg of Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days. Pulitzer was convinced that articles from Bly about her trip would generate publicity and boost circulation for The World. Bly was given 4 days to prepare. She is said to have packed three veils, an extra dress and a makeup kit consisting of a jar of cold cream in her black traveling satchel.

By all accounts, Bly’s trip was a roaring success. She had traveled by steamship, train, rickshaw, horse and buggy and burro. At only the age of 22, and traveling alone, she had crossed continents, oceans, and the Suez Canal, enduring monsoons, and seasickness. Her dispatches from abroad enthralled readers. Bets were placed on when she would reach the next point in her travels. The World offered a free trip to Europe to the person who guessed most closely how long her journey would take. The last leg of her trip was aboard a special transcontinental train Pulitzer had dispatched to California to collect her. Nellie Bly received a tumultuous welcome upon her return to Manhattan. Her record time was front page news – 72 days, 6 hours, and 11 minutes.

Headline from New York’s The World newspaper announcing the news of Nellie Bly’s successful trip around the world, January 26, 1890.
Box 11, Ernest C. Miller papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Songs were composed in her honor. Someone invented a “Round the World with Nellie Bly” board game.

Song titled “Globe Trotting Nellie Bly” composed in honor of Nellie Bly’s trip around the world, 1890.
Box 11, Ernest C. Miller papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Newspapers poked fun at other, slower explorers who had circumnavigated the world in earlier eras.

Reprint of an illustration of Nellie Bly and other world circumnavigators from The New York Times, January 24, 1971.
Box 11, Ernest C. Miller papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Less than a decade after her globe-trotting adventure, Bly married millionaire hardware manufacturer Robert Seaman. She was 31. He was 73. Before long, failing health began to interfere with his ability to manage his business. That left Nellie in charge of the Ironclad Company. She took a particular interest in metal working and the problem refineries had struggling to ship oil in expensive and leaky wooden barrels. Inspired by a steel barrel holding glycerin she had seen in Europe, she oversaw the patent for a 55-gallon barrel for mass production in her factory.

Patent drawings for steel barrels manufactured by Nellie Bly’s American Steel Barrel Company, November 11, 1904.
Box 11, Ernest C. Miller papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

She started by manufacturing five barrels a day but was soon able to crank out a thousand daily. She spun off a subsidiary – the American Steel Barrel Company – and worked long hours overseeing production and factory operations. For a time, she was one of the leading female industrialists in the United States. But while Bly was well versed in the manufacturing aspects of her company, she paid little attention to the finances. Some untrustworthy employees took advantage of the lack of oversight and began forging her signature on checks. Before long, Ironclad had lost more than two million dollars. Bly had to declare bankruptcy and suffered a series of legal entanglements.

Nellie Bly, ca. 1920.
Box 11, Ernest C. Miller papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Bly moved to Europe and spent the First World War living in Austria. She did some reporting as a newspaper correspondent but suffered from ill health. Eventually she returned to the U.S. and took a job with the New York Evening Journal. She covered the Republican National Convention in 1920 and, after witnessing an execution, wrote a blistering story condemning capital punishment. Then, in 1922, at the age of 57, she died of pneumonia. It was an untimely and inglorious end for someone who had been so celebrated as a young woman and so successful as an undercover journalist and industrialist. You can learn more about Nellie Bly in the Ernest C. Miller papers at the American Heritage Center.

Post contributed by AHC Writer Kathryn Billington.


Posted in American history, Journalism, Uncategorized, women's history | Tagged , | Leave a comment

From Talking Movies to Looney Tunes – Celebrating 100 Years of Warner Brothers

April 4, 2023, marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of Warner Brothers Pictures. Here at the American Heritage Center, we have the papers of some of the creative personalities behind the films for which Warner Brothers is revered.

The Warner boys (originally surnamed Wonsol, before the Anglicization of their names when the family moved to the U.S.) were four Polish brothers, who got their start when they acquired a movie projector and began traveling through Pennsylvania and Ohio showing silent moving pictures. By 1923, they had begun producing their own films and before long they relocated to Hollywood, where they became a veritable powerhouse of film production. Warner Brothers Pictures was an innovator in using Technicolor and was at the forefront of moving the industry from silent films to “talking pictures.” By the 1940s, the company had established itself as a leader in live action films as well as in animated cartoons.

Drawing of Bugs Bunny alongside the Warner Brothers’ logo from Film Comment magazine, January 1975. Box 8, Michael Maltese papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

M.K. “Moe” Jerome was one of the many artists that helped bring Warner Brothers movies to life on the big screen. His specialty was composing for movies. He moved to Hollywood in 1934 and within ten years had written more than 350 songs for Warner Brothers. He wrote “Knock on Wood” for the 1942 film Casablanca. That same year, for the film Wild Bill Hickok Rides, Jerome composed “The Lady Got a Shady Deal” which was sung by the film’s star, Constance Bennett.

M.K. Jerome with actress Constance Bennett rehearsing the song “The Lady Got a Shady Deal” from the film Wild Bill Hickok Rides. Box 12, M.K. Jerome papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.
Sheet music for “The Lady Got a Shady Deal” composed by M.K. Jerome for the film Wild Bill Hickok Rides, September 10, 1941. Box 12, M.K. Jerome papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Jerome often worked with lyricist Jack Scholl. In developing music for a film, the two first read the script. Then they brainstormed song titles. After that, Jerome sat down at the piano and began to improvise while Scholl listened in. The improvising could go on for hours. Once Jerome had the melody for a song worked out, Scholl wrote the lyrics. But Scholl was famously forgetful, so when it came time to present their songs to Warner Brothers’ executives, Jerome both played the music and sang the lyrics.

M.K. Jerome at the piano with lyricist Jack Scholl. Box 12, M.K. Jerome papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

While Jerome and Scholl were a team working on music for live action films, another pair of artists worked on Warner Brothers’ Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons. Carl Stalling joined Warner Brothers in 1936 as musical director. It was a position he held until his retirement 22 years later, in 1958. He wrote and conducted musical scores for more than six hundred cartoons. Setting to music the antics of Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Bugs Bunny and more, Stalling was a master of synchronizing tunes to align perfectly with the animation on screen. His music was vigorous, funny, and inventive. He particularly liked to use the sounds of bassoons and trombones for comedic effects and the viola for creating an aura of mystery. In the 1940s, when Warner Brothers was churning out three or four cartoons a month, Stalling was composing practically nonstop. He conducted a 50-piece Warner Brothers’ studio orchestra. Recording the score for a seven-minute cartoon took three hours.

Cue sheet for Warner Brothers’ cartoon Bugs Bunny Rides Again. Box 1, Carl Stalling papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Michael Maltese was one of the mainstays of Warner Brothers’ cartoon making talent from 1937 to 1958. On occasion he worked with Carl Stalling, including on the 1941 Looney Tunes cartoon Notes to You starring Porky Pig.

Credits for the animated film Notes to You starring Porky Pig, written by Michael Maltese with musical direction by Carl Stalling, 1941. Box 3, Michael Maltese papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Maltese employed a story board, populated with his sketches which were pinned to the board with thumbtacks, to convey the story line of each cartoon he wrote. He walked, story board sketches in hand, to Stalling’s office to brainstorm with him about the music to accompany each scene. Maltese used the story boards to pitch his ideas to Warner Brothers executives. He acted out the scenes on each story board himself, complete with character voices. Maltese explained, “You have to make an idiot of yourself when you act it out – and I loved it.” He believed that the secret to Warner Brother Pictures success in animated films was that “we wrote cartoons for grownups”. Characters were often sarcastic and irreverent. The cartoons were filled with gags, slapstick, and puns. Maltese took inspiration from the Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton movies he loved as a child. His most famous cartoon was the 1957 What’s Opera, Doc? featuring Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd. It is considered by animation aficionados to be one of the best cartoons of the 20th century.

Reprint of a scene from What’s Opera Doc?, starring Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd, written by Michael Maltese. Box 8, Michael Maltese papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

But it was Maltese’s story about Tweety, a little yellow cartoon bird, who starred in the cartoon Tweetie Pie, that won him an Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film in 1947. Another Academy Award soon followed in 1949 with For Scent-imental Reasons, which starred the skunk Pepé Le Pew.

Drawings of Pepé Le Pew. Box 8, Michael Maltese papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Maltese is also co-credited with originating the characters of Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote, whose madcap adventures featured among the 1,027 cartoons he created for Warner Brothers.

Letter from Chuck Jones to Mike Maltese on Warner Brothers Cartoon Division letterhead, depicting some of the many iconic Warner Brothers cartoon characters, December 5, 1958. Box 8, Michael Maltese papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

The cartoon character creations of Mike Maltese and the music of Moe Jerome and Carl Stalling live on in streaming services and television reruns today. For greater insight into the creative processes behind the scenes at Warner Brothers Pictures in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, visit the American Heritage Center, where you can see the Michael Maltese papers, the M.K. Jerome papers and the Carl Stalling papers.

Post contributed by AHC Writer Kathryn Billington.


Posted in Animation, cartoons, Hollywood history, motion picture history, music, popular culture, television history, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Welcome to the University of Wyoming’s Living Room

The Wyoming Union on the University of Wyoming opened on March 3, 1939, and soon became the “living room of campus,” as described on the Union’s website.

The university had expanded greatly since its inception in 1886 with a much higher student population. A large gathering space was desired and, by 1935, serious discussions to build a student union ensued. Bonds were issued against student fees to provide construction monies and federal funds were sought and received from the Public Works Administration, which was a Depression era recovery program created in 1933 to offer employment through the building of large-scale public works. Via the PWA, students were hired to do some of the construction work, including stone cutting. The federal agency provided a $128,250 grant toward the project, whose total cost was $295,955, which, adjusted for inflation, is $6,274,183 in today’s dollars.

Early photo of the Wyoming Union by Harold Sanborn, a commercial photographer based in Denver between the 1920s and early 1960s. He shot locations in Wyoming and Colorado and quickly turned them around into photo post cards like this one. University of Wyoming Photo File, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

William Dubois, a prolific Wyoming architect from Cheyenne, designed the structure late in his career. UW Trustees approved the final building plans during their meeting on December 9, 1937. This swanky new three-story campus social spot would feature a soda fountain, billiard room, game room, and a large ballroom for students to shake a leg. Necessary facilities such as a post office, bookstore, and meeting spaces were also included. As student housing was still in high demand, dormitory space was incorporated onto the third floor. Construction began in November 1937 and completed in February 1939, an event celebrated by faculty and staff with a sedate formal attire banquet in the new dining room. Perhaps the students had a much livelier celebration in the new ballroom.

UW faculty, staff and their spouses at a banquet honoring the opening of the Wyoming Union in 1939. Wyoming Governor Nels Smith is in attendance as seen at the head table on the far right. Box 23, Ludwig & Svenson Studio Photographs, Collection No. 167, Negative #31345.
Photo captioned “Student rendezvous in the new Wyoming Union Fountain Room, Uni. Of Wyo.” University of Wyoming Photo File, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.
Well-attended billiards demonstration at the Union, 1940. Box 24, Ludwig & Svenson Studio Photographs, Collection No. 167, Negative #32842.1.

Several additions have occurred since the Union opened. In 1956, plans moved forward to add space to the north, including the expansion of the basement. This addition included more ballroom space and the addition of a bowling alley. Also added to the plan was a 42-room hotel. This was met with resistance from business owners and was removed. The project was completed in time for the start of school in the fall of 1959.

The Union receives an addition in the 1950s. University of Wyoming Photo File, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.
Testing out the lanes at the Union’s bowling alley. University of Wyoming Photo File, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.
The Wyoming Union Lounge in 1955. The university’s living room indeed. University of Wyoming Photo File, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

The Union holds several noteworthy murals, the best known of which is in a ballroom located on the second floor – Lynn Fausett’s 7 x 28-foot depiction of the “western welcome” of President Arthur Crane to UW in 1922 in which the new president and his family were greeted with a mock hold-up and kidnapping from their Laramie-bound automobile by students dressed in cowboy regalia.

Incoming UW President Arthur Crane and his wife looking rather shell-shocked at their rowdy welcome by UW students in October 1922. As described by UW historian Deborah Hardy: “Out from the window he peers like a prisoner; he is neither smiling nor waving nor eagerly surveying the sagebrush around him. If anything, the camera catches a tone of disapproval for this youthful, high-spirited prank.” Photo File: Crane, Arthur Griswold, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

The mural was dedicated in 1940, while Crane was still the university’s president. The artwork originally hung in the student lounge and later in the grand staircase of the union but was moved to its present location in the West Ballroom in 2003 following restoration funded by the class of 1958.

Five individuals significant to UW history are depicted in Fausett’s mural—Crane, front and center; outgoing UW President Aven Nelson, next to him in black hat and suit; longtime university board secretary, faculty member and historian Grace Raymond Hebard on the left in a green skirt; longtime psychology Professor and Department Chair June Etta Downey in a red dress; and next to her longtime Greek and Latin Professor and Dean of Liberal Arts Justus Soule, in gray suit and red tie. Photo courtesy Greg Nickerson/

More additions and restructuring were completed to the Union in 1973 and in 2002. Although the soda fountain and the bowling alley were removed, the updates did create more dining options as well as vital campus programming relating to student government, Greek Life, diversity programs, and more.

Students can still play billiards at the Union. Photo courtesy UW Wyoming Union

The Union remains the university’s living room and offers a variety of entertainment, dining, and meeting options. Learn more about the Union’s history in the collections of the American Heritage Center. Also take a look at the Center’s virtual exhibit “Keeping History Alive: 136 Years of Progress” for more information on University of Wyoming building history.

Post submitted by University Archivist and Historian John Waggener with additions by AHC Simpson Archivist Leslie Waggener.


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