Donna Reed with servicemen during World War II. She was a popular pinup because so many saw her as a hometown girl.
If you're like me - and who isn't - your recollections of Donna Reed are broken into three segments: the first is as the wife of Jimmy Stewart in It's a Wonderful Life. The second is brief glimpses of The Donna Reed Show you caught on afternoons when you were home sick as a kid watching UHF stations, back when there were such things. The third and - unfortunately - final image is a God-awful performance of Miss Ellie Ewing on one season of Dallas in the mid-80s. There hasn't been a worse prime-time switch since the braniacs at ESPN put Tony Kornheiser on Monday Night Football.
I say that last image is unfortunate because shortly after being rescued from Dallas, Donna Reed died at the early age of 64 in 1986. [Editor's Note: I remember when Reed died in 1986. At the time, 64 seemed old to me. I can now properly call it 'the early age of 64'] Even though she's been gone for 23 years, Reed still holds a spot in the hearts and minds of most Americans over the age of 40, even if it is only for her performance in It's a Wonderful Life.
On this Memorial Day, however, there is another reason to remember Donna Reed. During World War II, Reed was a young Hollywood actress. She was at once both sensual and motherly - even at the tender age of 22. The United States military had encouraged what became known as the pinup phenomenon [providing servicemen with 'glamour shots' of Hollywood starlets] as a way to maintain the morale of soldiers far from home. Reed was a rare pinup girl to the men in the U.S. armed forces in that she was not just an image of home that allowed them to satisfy their very natural sexual urges [these were, remember, young men]. She was that, but she was more: to many, perhaps because she was closer in age to these men than any of the other pinups [Dorothy Lamour, Rita Hayworth, Ann Sheridan, Hedy Lemarr and - paramount of all - Betty Grable come to mind], they looked upon her as sister/mother/lover all in one.
What makes Reed's role as a pinup girl poignant today on Memorial Day is a discovery that Reed's youngest daughter made late last year. Her daughter, Mary Owen, was an out-of-work 52-year-old Bear Sterns employee. With the newly found - and unwanted - time on her hands, Owen pulled out some old boxes of her mother's that she had kept stored away since her mother's death. It was in one of those boxes that Owens made an amazing discovery: Reed had held on to many of the letters that G.I.s had sent her over 60 years ago.
Owen was stunned. Her mother had always downplayed her fame in general, and of her part in the war effort Reed was particularly silent. None of Reed's other three children have any recollection of Reed mentioning the letters, either. After Owen catalogued the letters, she found that her mother had held onto a total of 341 of them. For Memorial Day 2009, she shared them with the New York Times.
The letters are remarkable. For one thing, you remember that at one time there was a generation of us that could actually write. I don't mean the college-graduate, educated classes, I mean everyone could write, from the high school dropout to the kid just off the farm. Even if the grammar and punctuation weren't always right, these men could communicate their thoughts through the written word in a way that text messaging simply does not allow. The other thing that stands out is how innocent the letters are in terms of sexual tension. Most of the men writing her, of course, never met Donna Reed. It could be expected that they simply wanted an autographed picture to...well, you know. Instead, the men write with a wholesome goodness that one wouldn't believe as authentic if they appeared in one of Reed's Hollywood war films of the 1940s.
But they are authentic ands speak of a real time in our history. The letters were real, and the men who wrote them were real. They wrote to Donna Reed, yes because she was famous and beautiful. But there was something else that kept them writing to her: she corresponded with them. It was not uncommon for Reed to send more than just an autographed picture - there was often a letter accompanying it. It was then subsequently not unusual for a second letter to come to Reed from the same G.I. Thus began a pen-pal relationship between Hollywood starlet and American soldier that seems as if it would be unthinkable in today's age.
“The boys in our outfit,” Sgt. William F. Love wrote on Aug. 18, 1944, from the jungles of New Guinea “think you are a typical American girl, someone who we would like to come home to!!!!!” On March 28, 1944, Sgt. John C. Dale of Tennessee, a tail gunner on a B-17, told Reed that he wanted her “to be the girl back home that I am fighting for.” Cpl. Bob Bowie wrote of how seeing Reed in The Human Comedy made him long to be back home in Los Angeles and wishing, “I could see my Mom.” He added: “I don’t know how it affected the other fellows, we never discuss our feelings with one another.”
Reed seemed to keep letters from those with whom she corresponded more than once, as well as from soldiers who came from her native Iowa. These including correspondence with Gordon Clausen, with whom she grew up. “Sometimes I wish I was back there with the old gang, able to go the usual rounds of the week,” Clausen wrote from the U.S.S. Simpson on April 8, 1945. “Occasionally I will sit on the fantail and look at the moon, wondering how many of our old friends were doing the same.”
Even those letter-writers who survived the war have, for the most part, died. But for those who died during the war, their letters are sobering. In an April 12, 1943 letter [the date on the letter is actually "April 12th (I think)"], Lt. Norman P. Klinker - with whom Reed kept a correspondence - wrote Reed from North Africa:
"Have just received your letter from the eighth of December. And believe me or no, it was the first piece of mail I have received in the past two months. By the sound of your tale, life in the old U.S. is not quite as fine as it used to be. But I honestly feel that it is better than eating the same 3 meals out of the same 3 c-ration cans for a month or three. We have been in action for some time here in North Africa, you see. Quite an interesting and heartless life at one and the same time. One thing I promise you - life on the battlefield is a wee bit different from the "movie" version. Tough and bloody and dirty as it is at times, there is none of that grim and worried feeling so rampant in war pictures. Its a matter-of-fact life we live and talk here. And here for the first time, no one has the 'jitters'. I hear you have done your part and done got [sic] married. Congratulations and good luck! See you in your next 'pic'"."
On Jan. 6, 1944, Klinker was killed in action in Italy during his unit’s seemingly suicidal assault on Mount Porchia, between Naples and Rome. An official history of the battle indicates that his unit was part of a task force “organized at the end of the year for the purpose of taking the ‘suicidal’ objective.” It met with “fanatical resistance” and “artillery and mortar fire of such devastating accuracy that the troops were forced to withdraw.”
The Times was able to locate one surviving letter-writer, who could not believe that Reed had kept his letters. Edward Skvarna, now 84, is retired and living in Covina, California. In 1943 he had just graduated high school in a mill town near Pittsburgh. As was the case with tens of thousands of others that year, Skvarna then enlisted in the Army Air Forces. It was while training in Kansas to be a right gunner on a B-29 that Skvarna actually met Donna Reed, at a U.S.O. canteen. Somehow, he got up the nerve to ask her to dance. “I had never danced with a celebrity before, so I felt delighted, privileged even, to meet her,” Skvarna told the Times. "But I really felt she was like a girl from back home. She was from a smaller community, and we were more or less the same age, so I felt she was the kind of person I could talk to.”
In one correspondence - from May 7, 1945 after being shipped to Asia - Skvarna writes:
"Dear Donna: First, I want to thank you for the swell letter, it was just like I hoped it to be. If you remember, I was in China, at the time but now I am in the Marianas, quite a change in climate. Please forgive me for not writing sooner but, I guess your letter took so long , that I almost gave up hope but, one day during male [sic] call, in India, it came boy! Did I jump with joy. Your letter was written Mar. 19th and I received it the latter part of April, just at the time we were on the move so at last I could answer it now. Conditions out here are much better than in India or China but, that should be expected because of the shorter supply lines. Oh/Yes almost slipped my mind, here are a few shots [Skvarna included in this letter three photographs - shown below - taken while in India] of a Rajah's Palace that I took while visiting it. During our stay in India, we were presented with the opportunity of visiting the Rajah's Palace so these three pictures are just part of the outcome of my visit.
The palace I took this shot from his [sic] main gate as you can see the boys are sure eager to get threw [sic] the second gate.
The fountain shot with yours truly it [sic] is also a fish pond, the nature boy is showing me the different types of fish, he also carried my camera, notice the wall in the background to keep out the uninvited.
The third shot was hard to get after a little bribing with food it came out far enough for us to get him in the sun. I was dropping him food that the boys gave me and another fellow took the picture. One of the native boy's [sic] fell in the pit a few days ago so you can see the little fellow's [sic] are a bit scared and I don't blame them a bit. Now I'd better stop this before I start writing a book. Anyway I hope you enjoyed the shots and, as a very slight favor how about a snapshot of yourself. I don't care how small okay! 'Yes'. I've cut a picture of you out of the papers a while back. I think its a shot of you taken out of the movie 'Dorian Gray'. Well I'll sign off now to get a bit of sleep because tomorrow is a big day. So good nite [sic] and may God bless you always."
Here - for those of you prone to wrenching your hands over the U.S. decision to drop two atomic bombs on Japan - it is worth nothing that Skvarna more likely than not would have been one of the 2,000,000 casualties who would have fallen if President Truman had opted to take Japan by invasion. Think of Skvarna the next time you feel guilty about Hiroshima and/or Nagasaki.
Donna Reed died 23 years ago. Thanks to her feelings about the men with whom she corresponded - and her desire to hold onto many of those letters - and to her daughter's efforts once she discovered the letters last year, Donna Reed can remind us - in 2009 - why we aren't working today.
Remember a veteran. It's Memorial Day.
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