Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Some Words About Donald Bigelow

View from "Dellwood," the Bigelow family's lake house on
Manitou Island, Minnesota

Like most researchers, I often stumble over someone who is intriguing while I’m on the way to find information about an entirely different person. Such was the case with Donald Fairchild Bigelow.

In 1925, while serving as an American consul at Paris, the 29-year old Bigelow made the mistake of chatting with reporters about his refusal to grant a permanent U.S. visa to Nina Zizianoff.*

Princess Nina Zizianoff, 1920s

Nina was a French-born self-proclaimed Russian princess, the widow of Prince Karaman Petrovich Zizianoff, himself a suspicious character with close ties to the Czar. In 1903, General Zizianoff was accused of terrorizing the Jews of Vitebsk, a city in northeastern Belarus.

There, after a military parade, he asked the Jewish soldiers to step forward and announced: “I want you to tell your people to keep out of politics, or we shall grind them into powder. Should anything befall them, not a man will be sent to protect them.” Indeed, that is what happened.

In 1903, Donald Bigelow was a seven-year old boy growing up in a Victorian confection of a house in an elegant neighborhood in St. Paul, Minnesota. His father, C. H. Bigelow, president of a wholesale hardware manufacturer, later ran the St. Paul Fire & Marine Insurance Company. These were highly profitable businesses.

Donald and his sister Alida had a close friendship with F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose family lived nearby during the first decade of the twentieth century. The children’s parents insisted that they all take dance lessons in a ballroom at a local hall called Rameley’s.

The dance master, Professor William Baker, was familiar to them. In summertime he worked as a bartender at the White Bear Yacht Club on Manitou Island, about ten miles north of St. Paul. Fitzgerald often visited the Bigelows there at their vast stone lake house, “Dellwood.”

Several of Fitzgerald’s short stories are set in the St. Paul of his youth, and it is believed that The Great Gatsby was inspired by White Bear Lake.

Both Donald and Fitzgerald graduated from high school in 1914, and both would go off to Princeton. But their lives followed quite different trajectories.

Donald spent a year on a ranch in Idaho; then, after two years of college, he decided to work for the American Red Cross in Poland when the U.S. entered the war in 1917. Subsequently, he joined the American Ambulance Corps of the American Field Service.

Donald F. Bigelow in France, 1918

Fitzgerald also left Princeton to serve in the war. He accepted a commission as a second lieutenant and reported to Fort Leavenworth, where he hastily started a novel, The Romantic Egoist. But the war ended before he shipped over.  

Donald never saw combat either but he was in the thick of war. After arriving in France, he wrote to his family:

From the moment we entered trucks at 21 rue Raynouard for our first stage of the journey to the front, equipped with steel helmets, gas-masks, and rifles (the rifles–I speak it softly–are of the vintage of 1874), we have experienced a rapid succession of impressions which can’t be assimilated . . . 

The convoy
(from "The Camion Diaries")

Assigned to the Aisne region northeast of Paris, where he manned convoys that transported cartridges, clips, bandages, food, water, and other supplies, Donald was promoted to second lieutenant in the U.S. Field Artillery. The “Princeton Section,” as the Army called his group, worked in and around Reims and a small village, Soissons, which changed hands several times between the French and the Germans.

“A perfect little piece of medieval France,” he wrote to his family.

Donald described ruin and desolation; towns shelled daily. Yet in one village he came upon Mont Notre Dame, a twelfth-century church of “really rare beauty,” used as a convalescent home, where an officer leaned against a stone wall with a sketchpad and pencil.

After the war Donald studied at the Ecole Libre de Sciences Politiques in Paris. In 1920 he returned to the U.S. and enrolled at Harvard Business School but soon changed his mind and entered the American Foreign Service. That same year excerpts of his letters from the front – titled “The Camion Diaries” – were published in History of the American Field Service in France, 1914-1917, told by its members.**

Assigned first to Bucharest, Donald took time out to marry Honor Louise Morrissey, society editor of the St. Paul Daily News, in England in 1922.

In Paris Bigelow worked at 18, rue de Tilsitt,
office of the American Consulate General. 

In 1924 the couple moved to Paris where Donald encountered the unfortunate Princess Zizianoff. His indiscretion does not seem to have damaged his career, for he went on to Tangier in 1930; then Geneva and Vienna; Bern in 1941, and Addis Ababa in 1951. That would be his last post.

Donald and Honor’s sons served in World War II. The eldest, Larry, became a painter who spent much of his life in Europe. Their younger son, Roger, died at Iwo Jima at age 18.

Donald F. Bigelow, lower right,
American Foreign Service bulletin, 1936

In 1917, 21-year old Donald wrote to his family:

The other day, riding through the Compiegne Forest for miles without seeing a soul, we suddenly came to a place where a grassy forest road crossed our macadam obliquely. The trees were so thick and high that all our road was in deep shade. A little to one side, almost hidden by a large tree, was a cross with a wreath resting on the ground. As we came up to the spot, I thought that perhaps some French or German soldier was buried there . . . rolling on by, I saw the inscription which read: “Here are 160 men who died in defense of their country . . .” It moved me to think of this group of unsung heroes left in this shadowed backwater as the tide of battle swept on and away.


**Camion: a wagon used to transport ordnance. 

Note: Donald F. Bigelow died in Perroy, Switzerland in 1979.

1 comment:

  1. 160 men. How often does anybody walk by an see that cross, and remember them?


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