If you have kept up with Jessie’s diary, you will have noticed that Jessie has a serious beau. Her first date with Percy Perkins was on December 8, 1919. She saw him a couple of times through the years, but starting on November 9, 1922 (the Debutante Ball) they began to go out more regularly.
This is the way Jessie felt about Dr. Percy Perkins at the beginning of 1923: “Percy is a very interesting talker. Tells interesting tales. He may make them up though.” And, “Percy and I had quite a talk when we got home. I like him, though sometimes I wonder if he is conceited. Still I don’t think he meant to be bragging tonight when he said he never had asked a girl to marry him. I like to be with him and I guess I don’t know just what I think of him yet.” (January 7 & 8, 1923). Then on February 5, 1923 Jessie made an amusing entry. “Percy and I had a long talk when we got home. I don’t know just what to think of him. He wanted to know if he should start coming constantly or just every once in awhile. Well I do like him but….” That made me laugh.
Compare that to the way Jessie writes about Percy in her diary on October 7, 1923: “Had a date with Percy tonight. Perfectly happy just staying at home with him. He is a darling and every time I’m with him I realize it more and more. Just such a satisfied feeling when he is near. Don’t want any body or any thing else. Guess it must be the real thing.” And again at the end of 1923 she wrote: “Had a date with Percy tonight. I do believe if he came at day light and stayed ’til midnight I’d feel as tho’ I’d hardly seen him and so hate for him to go. He’s just about the sweetest thing I know and I just love to be with him. Did nothing particular tonight but had a very happy time.” (December 30, 1923) As Jessie wrote on New Years Eve 1923, after dancing with Percy until the early morning hours, “1923 was surely a ‘Percy year.‘”
This is the house (above) where Jessie was born and spent her childhood. It officially belonged to her Granny (Mary Catherine Porter Swayne) who inherited it from her father, Col. J.T. Swayne. This was a second home to Col. Swayne, his primary residence being in downtown Memphis. The Lathams lived there until Granny died in January 1911, and then moved closer into town on Overton Park Avenue. (See photos below)
But as we have noted before, nothing stays the same, and Jessie and her mother were about to get an unwelcome surprise. Wednesday, March 7, 1923: A sad day, for Dad signed a contract to-day to sell the house. Somebody offered him the price he asked for it so he thought he better take it. I’m going to try and not think about it ’cause “home” is the dearest thing in the world to you next to your family. Mother and I had just gotten new curtains and draperies for down stairs – coincident we were putting them up to-day.
From my modern perspective, I find it quite odd that Jessie’s father would sell the house without letting his wife or Jessie know anything of his plans. There must be a story there. Nevertheless, Jessie spent much of the next month and a half going through drawers, thinning out clothes, making plans to store furniture, and house shopping with her mother since they had be out by the end of April. On April 26th they left their home at 1759 Overton Park Avenue and moved in with a family friend Mrs. Elliott. By June they still did not have a place to live, so on June 6th the Lathams moved again. This time they moved in to the Kerr’s house. Mrs. Kerr and Dorothy Jane were going to California for the summer and Mr. Kerr and Leroy were staying in Memphis. Incidently, while the Lathams were staying at the Kerr’s, Jessie did a lot of swimming. Mr. Kerr liked to get up early and get to the city pool at 6am, and Jessie was one of the regular swimmers.
Finally, there was a deadline for the Lathams to find a home. Mrs. Kerr and Dorothy Jane would be returning at the end of August and the Lathams needed to find their own place. Jessie and her mother looked and looked at houses and even apartments. One day while out looking, Jessie and her mother suddenly and simultaneously fell in love with the cutest little white clap-board Dutch Colonial. Looks like a little doll house. Dad wanted to run get it when we said we likedit. (Thursday, August 9, 1923). On August 31, 1923, after months of living with friends, the Lathams moved in to their new home at 393 Dickinson Street right off of Overton Park Avenue in Memphis.
Nothing stays the same. To Jessie it seemed everyone was passing her by and she was somehow standing still. This first month of 1923 especially, when three of her best friends married, must have been an emotional roller coaster for her. It wasn’t all bad though.
New Year’s Eve 1922, Jessie had dinner at the Gayoso Hotel with her good friend Jimmie Sloan. Then she returned home for a late date with Dr. Percy Perkins. She had been out with him a few times in the last five years, most notably to the recent debutante ball in November. On New Year’s Day 1923 Jessie also had dates with Percy, first to a round of eggnog parties and then to the New Year’s Cabaret Dinner Dance at the Gayoso.
Then the next day, Tuesday, January 2, 1923: Never have I had such a shock as I did this morning. A letter from Dorothy Sanford telling me she was in Dallas buying her wedding clothes. Marries Buddie Erwin tomorrow. Decided all of a sudden. Had told no one but her mother and father. The little monkey. Made me feel real sad to know she was leaving me all alone, but I know she’ll be happy. She wired me last week to please come visit her. Wonder if she would have decided to marry had I gone. Dot Haverty’s wedding invitation came this morning too, so I went to town and got a present for both of them.
Two weeks later Jessie wrote in her diary, Wednesday, January 17, 1923: Had to bid farewell to one of the best friends I ever had in my life to-day, for he took unto himself a wife. He has given me more pleasure [than] most any one for nine years now. And I hope they’ll always be happy. Went to Miriam Fleming and F.D. Gardner’s wedding at Calvary Church this afternoon. It was lovely. F.D. had been Jessie’s best friend for so many years, always so supportive and generous. She would miss F.D.
The next day, January 18, 1923, her good friend Dot Haverty married. Another good friend deserted me today. Dorothy Haverty married Dr. Lon Grove in Atlanta tonight. They are going to tour the West Indies, stop by Florida on the way back.
Meanwhile, Jessie is still trying to figure out Dr. Percy Perkins. On January 8th she wrote, Percy and I had quite a talk when we got home. I like him, though sometimes I wonder if he is conceited. Still I don’t think he meant to be bragging tonight when he said he never had asked a girl to marry him. I like to be with him and I guess I don’t know just what I think of him yet.
Swayne brought Nathalie over tonight. I’m in love with my sister to be. They are so happy that I am too. (Jessie’s diary, September 24, 1922) Swayne was marrying Nathalie Davant, and there was much excitement and activity in the Latham house, along with many luncheons, bridge parties, and dinners to celebrate the young couple.
In past times a bride to be would buy (or make) all sorts of new clothes for her new life as a married woman and this was her trousseau. Jessie had an amusing diary entry regarding trousseaus. – I didn’t realize before that a groom has a trousseau as well as a bride. But everyday more packages come that Swayne has ordered and we can hardly wait to open them – suits, shoes, hats, silk dressing gowns, and oh! the baby blue and lavender silk pajamas. It’s all very interesting. (September 16, 1922)
On September 29 Jessie went over to the Davant’s and saw Nathalie’s bridal veil and train.I couldn’t find a photo of Nathalie in her wedding dress and veil, but perhaps they were similar to some of the wedding costumes below that were from that time period.
The next three weeks were a whirl of parties and activities related to the upcoming wedding. There was at least one party every day, and sometimes there were two. The party that seemed the most fun to me was given by Grace and Bob Snowden on October 15th at their house and property which sat right on Horseshoe Lake. The guests (the bridal party) arrived about 1 pm. There was swimming, canoeing, or just relaxing. Dinner was served about three. So much good to eat and such a crazy bunch. We were all laughing continuously. JL
Finally it was the day, October 18, 1922. Jessie wrote in her diary, Swayne’s wedding day! How I hate to have him leave us, but how happy I am to have Nathalie for my sister and his wife…The wedding came off beautifully tonight. The boys didn’t disgrace Swayne and everything and everybody looked so pretty…Had reception and supper at Davant’s after the wedding. Cut a wedding cake…The mob of us were down at the train to bid the bride and groom a fond farewell...and they were off for Chicago soon after ten.
Jessie was a happy, positive person. For me and my siblings, leaving Knoxville to visit her every summer in Memphis for a week was one of the major highlights of the year. She was so much fun to be around. In her diaries Jessie rarely talked about emotions or her most personal thoughts. She mentioned how much she loved her family. A few times she said she felt blue. But mostly her diary was a recitation of where she went and who she saw, almost a social calendar. Just because it was so rare, I pause and take note of the personal feelings that Jessie revealed in January and February of 1922.
Jessie was away from Memphis for almost 3 months. When she returned from her trip it seemed that everyone she knew was having babies. Saturday, January 14, 1922: A letter from Mollie to-day made me wish I was back on 113th St. Feel more at home with them than I do here with all these babies. Mollie was one of her recent apartment roommates in New York. Most of the people she knew in Memphis were already married and had at least one child which was common for the time.* On December 18, 1921, Jessie turned 27, and there was no one in Memphis that she was interested in. Comparing herself to her two friends named Dot, Jessie wrote, The Dots and I all seem to be of the restless variety. We should “fall in love” with some one person and settle down. I’m still waiting for some one to knock me off my feet, and there’s no such person. (January 17, 1922)
Another emotional sea change – Jessie’s good friend F.D., Francis Douglas Gardner, moved to New Orleans on January 1st of 1922. F.D. was also moving on in his life and and was in a new romance with Miriam Fleming. Jessie found herself at home a lot more, playing dominoes or checkers with the family in the evening. One night she wrote, The trouble is that I am thoroughly disgusted with one Jessie. I think I shall start to change her. (February 5, 1922) Then on February 12, 1922 she wrote, I feel as though I’ve suddenly come to a stand still, and that everybody else is moving on, that I must hurry if I want to catch up with them.
It’s no surprise if I tell you that Jessie did eventually marry, though not just yet in the story. Why not? Perhaps her mother, Jessie Swayne Latham, encouraged her to have fun, be picky, and not settle on one man too soon. Jessie’s mother married at age thirty in 1889, and had her three living children in her thirties. This set a precedent for many of the women in the following generations of our family.
*In fact, in 1920 the average age for a woman to get married was 21. For a man it was 24. Also in 1920, 70% of 1st births occurred to women under 25. No footnote given but these facts are widely available online.
On Wednesday, October 5, 1921, Jessie left on a long journey to visit family and friends. Her first stop on this trip was Abingdon, Virginia where she stayed a few nights with friends. Next stop New York City, with another train to Garden City on Long Island to stay with friends there. Then on October 25 she moved to New York City. Jessie stayed in an apartment with two other girls and two guys. I’m not sure how all this was arranged as they all seemed to be temporary tenants. New York was a lot of fun for Jessie. As she said, Life these days is one grand rush for me. (Oct. 25, 1921) Everywhere she traveled she knew people and had friends. From New York, Jessie traveled to New Haven, Providence, and Boston. Then back to New York for a couple of weeks, a quick stop in Philadelphia to visit cousins, six days in Washington, one more night in Abingdon, and finally home to Memphis. She arrived in Memphis on Friday, December 23, 1921 just in time for Christmas, and having been gone two and half months. It was a very long and eventful journey, but the part I want to focus on is her visit to Washington, DC.
Jessie arrived in Washington the evening of December 14th and stayed with her Cousin Kate Southerland at the Willard Hotel where Kate lived. (Incidentally, the Willard Hotel is still in Washington just across the street from the World War I Memorial. See the photo below.) Jessie wrote in her diary the next day, I’m with my cousin Kate so of course that means we have breakfast in bed. She left a little before noon for the State Department. Kate worked at the State Department. The next day they once again slept late and breakfasted in bed before Kate left for the State Department. Though they were cousins, Kate was quite a bit older than Jessie. At this time Kate was 52 and Jessie almost 27.
Jessie went out with various gentlemen while she was in D.C., but her most interesting times were in the company of Cousin Kate. Monday, December 19, 1921: Washington. This morning Cousin Kate took me through the State Department. Thanks to Mr. Gibbs, we were allowed to see the Secretary of State, Mr. Hughes’ private room, then the Secretary’s Ante Room. Beautiful portraits of all the Secretaries in there. I tried all the chairs.
Next Jessie received a tour of the White House. Unfortunately, The Hardings were at luncheon so we couldn’t see the dining room. That night Jessie and her date were guests at a Southern Society Ball. The ball was given in honor of Lord and Lady Lee of Fareham. Lord Lee of Fareham was one of England’s representatives at the Disarmament Conference (known officially as the Washington Naval Conference) going on in Washington at the same time. Jessie wrote, I got to meet Lord Lee and Lady Lee and they were most charming. After the ball Jessie rushed to the Hotel where she changed clothes, rushed to the train station, and caught the 3:10 AM train for Virginia. Heading home.
For a while Jessie called him Mr. Gardner. Then she called him Douglas. After they had known each other for some months and had become good friends he asked Jessie to call him F.D., so she did. I wish I had a picture of Francis Douglas Gardner for I would post it right here. My grandmother Jessie never once described his looks, only his acts and the ways in which he was such a loyal and generous friend to her, a gentleman in every way.
Francis Douglas Gardner (F.D.) came from a wealthy family in Liverpool, England. His family’s timber trade company, Joseph Gardner & Sons, had been operating since at least the middle of the 18th century. F.D. was in Memphis working in the timber business along the Mississippi River and often traveled to New Orleans or New York on business.
Jessie’s first date with F.D. was on May 22, 1916, and she wrote in her diary, “Had an engagement with Mr. Douglas Gardner to-night – direct from England and he is certainly a typical Englishman. I dearly love to hear him talk. He is very deliberate in his manner…. I think Mr. Gardner’s hobby is finding misspelt words. He showed me at least a dozen to-night – those signs in curios shops. He is a walker alright. We had such an interesting talk after we got home.” They continued to go out once or twice a month, and as they got to know one another and became closer friends, they went out more frequently.
F.D. was a little bit of a ladies’ man, according to Jessie. He had a group of girls/women in Memphis that he took out regularly, gave parties for their birthdays, and bought them gifts and flowers. On June 15, 1917, Jessie wrote in her diary, “Had an engagement for lunch to-day with Douglas Gardner. We had lunch at the Gayoso and had quite an interesting time. He told me tales of Borneo. He leaves to-morrow for Florida. How ‘the girls’ will miss him.”
The birthday parties he gave for Jessie and his other friends were lavish affairs with dinner for 12 or more at the Gayoso Hotel, the Country Club, or the Peabody. F.D. was also an accomplished and trained artist, and the place cards at his dinner parties were portraits of the guests (drawn by F.D. himself) in some fanciful setting, and included a bit of original prose or poetry. Every woman had a different corsage at their place, and the delicious dinner was a multi-course affair. After dinner and perhaps some dancing (live bands often played at the hotels), all the guests would drive out to someone’s home for games and wonderful prizes for everyone from F.D.. As Jessie said after her birthday, “It was all like a storybook party.”
Jessie often remarked how she’d never known anyone like F.D., that he was one of a kind, and that he was a wonderful friend. He was incredibly generous to Jessie and his friends. He almost always sent a corsage of beautiful flowers to Jessie if they had a date, and after a while every date ended with F.D. buying Jessie two boxes of candies (or rather, one box of chocolates and one box of salted almonds). After they had known one another for about a year, he began giving her very nice gifts from time to time. Sometimes Jessie would tell him that he shouldn’t give her so much, but he always said it made him happy to give gifts. When Bud died, F.D. was working in New Orleans, but he sent flowers to Jessie’s home every day. And whenever he came home to Memphis from a trip to New York or Liverpool or New Orleans, he came loaded down with presents for Jessie.
Not only was F.D. a sophisticated international traveler and businessman, an elegant gentleman from Liverpool, an artist and a poet, he was also an accomplished tennis player and an amateur golfer with club titles to his name. But most of all he was one of Jessie’s closest friends. I know that F.D. died in 1959 and was buried at Elmwood Cemetery in Memphis, so I hope that he and my grandmother Jessie remained friends throughout his life.
A final interesting note: Francis Douglas Gardner (F.D.) had an older brother, Gerald Brosseau Gardner, who is known internationally in pagan and occult communities as the “Father of Wicca.”
On Saturday, September 7, 1918, Jessie wrote in her diary: My heart is breaking. I can scarcely write, but it was to-day that the news of Bud’s death in France reached us. He died a hero! He was flying way up in the sky he loved when the wings of his plane fell off. I just know at the same time he took on wings of his own and kept going higher and higher to rest and peace… Frank Latham was killed on August 21, 1918, at Issoudun, France while on his final combat training flight before heading to the Front.
Jessie and her family were notified of Frank’s (Bud’s) death officially and also with a personal letter from Lieut. Bob Haverty, a friend to Frank and to Jessie. On Sunday, September 9th, Jessie’s mother received a wire from Swayne: Dearest, learned about brother yesterday. Am at Issoudun now. Have stopped flying. Be brave and strong sweetheart. I have done everything possible. God bless you, Swayne.
Obviously with both her brothers ‘over there’ Jessie had been worried. Several times in July and August and on into early September Jessie mentioned feeling blue and having bad dreams she wished she could forget. On September 9, 1918, two days after learning about Bud, Jessie wrote: Bud’s last letter was written the 19th, two days before the accident. Oh! it was so sweet. He has always been to me the most wonderful person in the world. And oh! so close that I’ve known of it for weeks. In a dream I saw it all when it happened. For weeks I’ve kept it to myself and tried to forget it but couldn’t. Since the morning of the 21st of August I’ve held my breath almost, just waiting for the message.
Frank was popular in Memphis as was his whole family. Flowers, messages of condolence, and visitors arrived every day at their home. There were even poems written in honor of Bud published in the local newspaper. Here is one called AWAY.The poet says Frank’s aircraft was a Neuport. I believe that was a misspelling and the aircraft was a Nieuport 11, a single seater French airplane used during World War 1.
1918 was not a funny year, just like 2020 will go down in history as a most unfunny year. In January of 1918 the deadly ‘Spanish’ flu had yet to strike the U.S. (the first case would be reported in September of that year in New York), but our country was at war and the public was sacrificing for that effort. On January 21, 1918 Jessie mentioned “Heatless Monday” in her diary. All stores and offices were closed and people stayed home. There was a coal shortage in the country, partly because of transportation issues. The weather had been so cold in December 1917 and January 1918 that the Mississippi River had frozen across in places and blocked all shipping traffic. But the government also wanted to conserve coal and food to ship to Europe in the war effort and so the public sacrificed in these ways for about a month. The next day (January 22, 1918) was “Meatless Tuesday” and “Wheatless Wednesday” followed (January 23, 1918).
All was not grim though and here’s a funny story from Jessie’s diary, written on Wednesday, January 30, 1918.
…Had to go to the chiropodist then went out to Clara’s (Mrs. Exby). The funniest thing happened. She was showing me some letters from her ‘godson’ (the lonely soldier she is writing to at Greenville) and lo! and behold he had sent Swayne’s picture to her and said it was him. She nearly died laughing when I told her that her godson John had sent Swayne’s picture. She said “That’s not the funniest part. He kept writing for a picture of me. I didn’t want to disappoint him so I sent him a picture of you.” Then she showed me the letter where he had thanked her for her ____ picture.
Jessie and her younger brother Swayne were quite attractive.
Excitement this afternoon. Mary Keeler and Estes Armstrong, Elizabeth Edwards and Guion [Armstrong] were married and went to N.Y. From there the boys, now aviators 1st Lieut., will go to France.
It was a double wedding that Jessie attended on September 25, 1917, probably rushed because of the war and the imminent departure of the brothers. As I was searching online for the maiden name of Mary who was marrying Estes, I came across a website (findagrave.com) about their future daughter’s death at 96 (in 2016). The short biography included in her listing told me more about the two brothers. Guion did not make it back from the War. He died in action and his niece, whom he never met, was named for him.
In this biography I also read for the first time about the Memphis Gang. This was a group of 24 men, including Frank (Bud) Latham, who all took their early aviation training together in Memphis, and who were some of the very first American aviators trained to fight in the war. When the U.S. entered World War I there were about 35 pilots in the country and 51 student pilots. During the war more than 40,000 men applied for the U.S. Army Air Service. 22,000+ were accepted, and of those only about 15,000 advanced beyond ground training school to primary flying training. After Frank did that, he went for advanced training in aerial combat at Issoudun, France, at that time the largest air base in the world. These young men were heroes and their bravery was without question.
Here is a link to Invader, the magazine for the 13th Bomb Squadron, which contains an article about a member of the Memphis Gang. The article is titled Hank, starts on page 6, and contains a lot of interesting information about the aviators.
Though I posted this photo recently, I am doing it again to point out Frank’s aviator wings on his chest. His brother Swayne served in the American expeditionary forces in France.