Anne Morgan, daughter of U.S. banking tycoon J.P. Morgan, was certainly from a “good family,” but was anything but faint-hearted. From 1917 to 1924, she led major private fundraising campaigns and recruited an army of 350 U.S. women volunteers to help civilians in war-ravaged France less than 30 miles from the front.
[A documentary about her life, Anne Morgan’s War, will be broadcast on U.S. public channels starting with New York’s WNYE on March 4 at 7 pm EST. Click here for the dates dates, times, and channels in all other states.]
Anne Morgan was born in 1873, and her life began in New York high society during the Gilded Age. As the daughter of John Pierpont Morgan, a man considered to be one of the richest people in the world at the time, she was raised with her three siblings in a luxury residence on Fifth Avenue, now home to the Morgan Library & Museum. “She had a sheltered existence in a conservative, Protestant environment defined by culture and traveling. She was educated by home-tutors with other girls from wealthy, respectable families,” says Miles Morgan, Anne Morgan’s great-nephew, who welcomed us to his home in New York.
But these young women quickly refused the well-ordered lives that awaited them. Inspired by social and political issues of the time, such as workers’ rights and the female condition, and drawing on American philanthropic tradition, they decided to get to work. In 1902, Anne Morgan left for Chicago to meet Jane Addams, a pioneer of social action and the founder of Hull House, a settlement house for immigrants and the poor managed exclusively by women. Following their encounter, Anne Morgan and her close friends turned to other projects. Working alongside the suffragette Daisy Harriman, she helped create the Colony Club in 1903, an institution for women that imitated the private circles reserved for men. This adventure led her to meet renowned literary agent Elizabeth Marbury and her partner Elsie de Wolfe. It was in this women’s club that the trio developed their social and political thinking, and began to define a clear stance.
The women campaigned for the rights of workers in the Triangle Shirtwaist textile factory in New York, and their efforts led to the creation of a canteen for people working on the Brooklyn shipyards. “Their actions certainly attracted criticism from those who thought they had no place in the workers’ struggle,” says documentarist Alan Govenar, who authored a biography of Anne Morgan with researcher Mary Niles Maack. “But she wanted to break down the barriers between the rich and the poor,” he says. It was during this period that Anne Morgan laid the foundations for her future social and philanthropic missions in France.
Raising awareness in America
When World War I broke out in 1914, Anne Morgan was staying in Versailles with Elizabeth Marbury and Elsie de Wolfe. “They were very attached to France as they spent a lot of time there. All three immediately felt a need to react and get involved, despite the fact the U.S.A. had taken an isolationist position at the time. Given their government’s stance, they decided to raise public awareness,” says Miles Morgan. Anne Morgan and her friend Isabel Lathrop founded the American Fund for French Wounded (AFFW) in 1915, which went on to become the American Committee for Devastated France (better known according to its French acronym, CARD, for Comité Américain pour les Régions Dévastées). Their first objective was to raise funds to deliver medical equipment to French hospitals, and packages to wounded soldiers. In 1916, the duo decided to visit Verdun to ensure the aid parcels were making it to their destinations.
© American Friends of Blérancourt
“This was the moment they both realized the full horror of the war,” says Elaine Uzan Leary, former executive director of the New York-based American Friends of Blérancourt association. Anne Morgan met the doctor Anne Murray Dike upon returning to the United States, and developed the second phase of their campaign: Helping civilian populations in the villages of Picardy close to the front. The two women started recruiting American women as volunteers from 1917 onwards. They “had to speak French and know how to drive a car,” and be prepared to travel to a warzone. The seven years that followed saw 350 women join the effort.
While in the field, the group based themselves at Château de Blérancourt — or at least the ruins that remained. French soldiers built seven wooden barracks around the château for them to stay in. The volunteers’ first goal was to improve the health and food situation for local inhabitants, and their missions developed according to needs and the contingencies of the war. They organized the delivery of cooking equipment, shoes, rabbits, and cows from Normandy to reboot milk production. Alongside these initiatives, they also helped to rehouse families and set up sewing and carpentry workshops for teenagers.
“A PR campaign before its time”
Their work was interrupted by the German offensive in 1918, which forced them to briefly leave Blérancourt. But they doubled their efforts after the enemy troops withdrew, and continued their actions long after the Armistice was signed in November. At this point, the CARD had helped some 2,300 people find new homes and live self-sufficiently. And they didn’t stop there. In 1920, the Committee introduced traveling libraries “on wheels,” which can be seen in the archive film compilation Life in the Zone Rouge.
The footage portrays the extent of the U.S. volunteers’ energy as they worked in some 50 villages across Picardy. The film shows them in skirts and blouses grabbing hold of pigs to lead them into trucks that would take them all over the Aisne département, while other scenes offer images of French women playing basketball — one of several sports activities organized by the CARD. The film is a testament to the Committee’s focus on communication, and their promotion work was nothing short of a PR campaign before its time! While Anne Morgan drew on her personal wealth to help France, her family certainly didn’t let her manage her inheritance from her father, who passed away in 1913. Her activities in France were therefore also financed by donations she collected from her New York network and the Colony Club. She even wrote a regular newsletter to send to the Committee’s patrons, and thanks to the group’s efforts, images of the devastated French regions began to reach America.
“People in the United States seem to be more sensitive to photographs than anything else, as nothing you say to them can paint the true picture of what is happening,” she wrote in 1918. In her search for funding, she even helped organize a boxing match between Benny Leonard and Richie Mitchell in Madison Square Garden, raising around 80,000 dollars. Anne Morgan continued to work until 1923, when she began a progressive withdrawal of the CARD, leaving the infrastructure they had created to French associations and local authorities. In July 1924, both Anne Morgan and Anne Murray Dike were awarded the Legion of Honor by the French government.
Anne Morgan did not forget France after returning to the United States. At the age of almost 70, she relaunched her networks during World War II, convinced the German ambassador to France, Otto Abetz, to spare a number of French refugees, organized fundraising events in New York, and did everything she could to send scarce and much-needed goods such as shoes and soap to the newly devastated regions of France where her American friends were working. She returned to France in 1946, but her deteriorating health forced her back to America, where she passed away in 1952. Her courage and her obstinacy according to some, incites both curiosity and fascination. Was Anne Morgan looking for purpose? Almost certainly. “She was ‘crazy auntie Anne’ to the family,” says Miles Morgan. An extraordinary, free, and staunchly modern woman.
Article published (in French) in the July-August 2014 issue of France-Amérique