One of my favorite duties as a graduate assistant is working the reference desk in the Maryland Room. Having only been a part of Special Collections and University Archives for less than a year, there are still a number of collections I haven’t seen, and helping others with their research is one way that I get to learn more about our holdings. Recently, a researcher introduced me to the illustrated letters of Hendrik Willem van Loon in the Helen Sioussat papers. I was delighted by the brightly colored, whimsical illustrations van Loon drew on the envelopes he sent Sioussat, and seeing them inspired me to learn more about the two friends, both of whom were compelling historical figures I knew little about.
The Helen Sioussat papers are an important part of our Mass Media and Culture collection. Sioussat was the Director of Talks for CBS radio from 1937 to 1958, and in that role, she regularly scheduled as many as three hundred broadcasts a year, booking appropriate speakers from an array of diverse fields such as politics, labor, industry, education, civil rights, religion, and international affairs. In 1941, she also created, produced, and hosted one of the first television talk shows, Table Talk with Helen Sioussat. Her career enabled, and indeed required, her to be in contact with some of the most significant figures of her era, so much so that her correspondence reads like a “Who’s Who” of the twentieth century. Scanning through the finding aid for her papers, I found familiar names like Fidel Castro, Jack Dempsey, John Foster Dulles, Albert Einstein, Douglas Fairbanks, Alger Hiss, J. Edgar Hoover, Al Jolson, Helen Keller, Douglas MacArthur, Edward R. Murrow, Eddie Rickenbacker, Jonas Salk, and every President from Herbert Hoover to Gerald Ford.
While Sioussat’s fascinating life and correspondence could provide almost limitless material for a blog post, the letters she received from Hendrik Willem van Loon between 1941 and 1944 were particularly striking to me because of the colorful watercolor and ink artwork that decorated the envelopes. Learning more about van Loon, I realized that he was every bit as well-connected and accomplished as Sioussat. A Dutch-American historian and self-taught artist, Van Loon wrote and illustrated over forty books. The most well-known is The Story of Mankind, a history of the world written for young adults, which won the first Newbery Medal in 1922. With a PhD from the University of Munich, van Loon was qualified to write academic tomes, but he was most successful in writing accessible and entertaining histories illuminated with hand-drawn sketches and diagrams. Although sometimes criticized for their accuracy (a fault, perhaps, of his tendency to be both extremely prolific and wide-ranging in his choice of topics), his books were popular with the general public. Beginning in 1929, he also became a radio commentator, most notably for NBC, which may have been how he first became acquainted with Sioussat.
The drawings van Loon sent Sioussat sometimes resemble the illustrations in his children’s books, drawn in a playful, almost cartoon-like fashion. My favorite envelope depicts a rotund red elephant with the address “To Helen Sioussat…” tied like a banner to its tail, floating above a blue ocean with yellow ship masts below it. The letter was sent to Sioussat in 1941, while she was in Nassau. The left side of the envelope is stamped “opened by censor,” because it arrived in the Bahamas (then a British colony) during World War II and had been read by government officials before Sioussat received it.
In a letter that Sioussat wrote to van Loon’s wife, Eliza Helen “Jimmie” Criswell, in December 1944, she explained that when she first arrived in Nassau, van Loon sent her a similar envelope decorated with a pink pig carrying a Nazi flag in its tail. Sioussat wrote,
Naturally, the Nazi flag acted as a wonderful introduction of me into Governmental Nassau. In fact before long the censors knew everything about me. Fortunately, they couldn’t know anything bad because there wasn’t anything bad to know. After opening the first few letters Hendrik sent me, the censors and the post office, as well as the Government House itself decided just to sit back and enjoy the drawings rather than open the envelopes and try to read Hendrik’s scrawl.
Sioussat found the incident amusing and called the letter (which, unfortunately, was not found in her papers) “my most cherished possession.”
It was especially ironic that van Loon’s letter with the Nazi pig raised suspicion because he was one of the era’s most vehement critics of the Hitler. In 1938, he published Our Battle: One Man’s Response to “My Battle” by Adolf Hitler, which was a condemnation of the ideology presented in Mein Kampf. Two years later, he also wrote Invasion, a novel that imagined a future in which Nazis invaded the United States, hoping that it might convince isolationists to do more to support the nation’s embattled allies. Van Loon challenged Americans to fight back against Hitler’s growing power, stating his case in a forceful way that earned him the respect of President Roosevelt, who called him his “true and trusted friend.” Moreover, van Loon advocated for wartime refugees (he was friends with two of the most famous German refugees, Thomas Mann and Albert Einstein), produced morale-boosting radio segments in Dutch that were broadcast to Holland, and helped to raise money for the Finnish Relief Fund after the Soviet Union attacked the country in 1939.
Sioussat was instrumental in organizing the Finnish Relief Fund in New York, and in January 1941, van Loon wrote her boss, President of CBS William Paley,
When you allowed Helen Sioussat to become our program director you did us a service but you could not possibly have anticipated the importance of her work for the Madison Square Garden meeting of the Finnish Relief Fund. Without her those six politicians would have messed up everything and I myself was helpless. Now everything went so smoothly and so beautifully that I can only thank the good Lord for having given our profession at least one active member who is as intelligent as she is handsome…
Throughout 1941, van Loon continued to be disturbed by the United States’ inaction, and in March he sent Sioussat an envelope that included a portrait of himself feeling unwell while listening to a radio blaring “Wheeler this! Wheeler that!” The “Wheeler” the illustration refers to is almost certainly Burton K. Wheeler, the Democratic Senator from Montana who staunchly opposed providing aid to countries fighting the Axis Powers. Wheeler was one of the fiercest opponents of the Lend-Lease Agreement, which enabled the United States to send much-needed supplies to the Allies, because he said it would “plow under every fourth American boy.” His comment shocked and offended many, and Sioussat held a debate on the merits of the agreement on her television program, Table Talk. It was only after Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 that isolationists like Wheeler admitted the necessity of the United States entering the war.
Most of the correspondence van Loon sent Sioussat during the war was more lighthearted, however. When she was in Nassau, the majority of the letters he sent her came in envelopes with a nautical or island theme, like the whale at the top of the post, or the following envelopes which feature a fisherman, a ship approaching land, a group of musicians on Nassau beach, and a storm sweeping through the island’s palm trees. In another envelope, he depicted himself trudging through the snow in heavy winter clothes with a shovel over his shoulder outside his home in Old Greenwich, Connecticut, so perhaps his imagination was stimulated by her escape to a tropical climate.
Unfortunately, van Loon died in March 1944 and did not live to see the Nazi surrender or the end of World War II. He continued to write Sioussat, who he called his “little pigeon” in the months prior to his death. Although he was married, the womanizing van Loon, who once jokingly admitted to a friend, “I have never yet sat in a room alone with a woman without offering her matrimony,” may have been flirting with Sioussat when he sent her a Valentine’s Day message showing an elephant (his frequent animal avatar) with a heart-shaped trunk holding Cupid’s arrow outside her door. “Keep Out,” written on the doormat, suggests she kept their relationship as just friends.
Sioussat was not the only one to receive illustrated letters from van Loon. After he died, van Loon’s son recalled that “like rays from an extinguished star” his father’s last letters, with their “merry sketch-embellished envelopes,” kept appearing in the mailboxes of his friends in the days that followed. (The last one was written one hour before his death.)
Do you have a favorite envelope? Tell us in the comments!
If you are interested in taking a closer look at the Hendrik Willem van Loon letters in our collection, visit the Maryland Room to explore these and other treasures in the Helen Sioussat papers. You can also read more about van Loon in the biographies The Story of Willem van Loon and Van Loon: Popular Historian, Journalist, and FDR Confidant.
Tracee Haupt is a Special Collections and University Archives graduate assistant in Access Services, where she assists with digitization projects and processing new collections. She is pursuing a Masters in American History, a MLIS with a specialization in Archives and Digital Curation, and a certificate in Museum Scholarship and Material Culture.
She thanks David Rosen for being the researcher that introduced her to van Loon’s letters.