April marks the centennial of the United States entry into World War I, a devastating conflict that saw 17 million combat dead and 20 million wounded.
This is the story of three brilliant, fiercely independent and romantic souls who weren’t acquainted when war in Europe began, but whose lives became entwined and deeply changed by world events.
Two of them were upper-crust Richmonders in their mid-40s.
Henry Watkins Anderson was an esteemed corporate lawyer in the firm Munford, Hunton, Williams & Anderson, now the 750-attorney juggernaut Hunton & Williams.
Ellen Glasgow was an internationally known writer, whose books were seldom read locally because they skewered Richmond society. “Ellen, I was crazy to read your book,” a friend once gushed, “but I never found anybody I could borrow it from.” Ouch.
The third player was the reigning Queen Marie of Romania, a granddaughter of Queen Victoria and the high-spirited, resourceful and controlling wife of Ferdinand I. She often was called the most beautiful woman in Europe, and maligned for that reason.
Let us begin with Ellen Glasgow.
- Library of Congress
- Pulitzer Prize-winning Richmond novelist Ellen Glasgow held a mirror to Richmond society that did little to sell her books locally, but drew praise from fellow writers.
She was attractive, unmarried and under-schooled, a natural writer whose near-deafness from childhood was growing worse. On July 3, 1918, she was in deep despair. Closing the blinds of the parlors at 1 W. Main St., an elegant but faded mansion which she was the last in her once-large family to call home, the writer ascended the broad wooden staircase. Upstairs, she locked the bedroom door and kept her focus on ending her life. That night she swallowed an overdose of sleeping pills.
It wasn’t that Glasgow was devastated by relentless reports of war carnage — in fact, those haunted her. “In the dark hours I seemed to see the danse Macabre whirling over the battlefields,” she wrote, “over the bleached skeletons that had danced as gaily when they were clothed with flesh.”
“Night after night, I saw in my imagination, the gangrened flesh on the barbed wire, the dead stiffened in horror, the eyeless skulls and the skeletons.”
And although her existence in Richmond grew more isolated as her friends moved to the emerging West End and North Side suburbs, some of them went farther afield in the evenings, entertaining army officers in training at Fort Lee, which was growing in Petersburg.
“Several women told me it was the gayest winter, in little ways they had ever known,” she wrote. “On with the dance! Faster! Faster!”
Glasgow suffered from loneliness and depression, but not because of her intellectual superiority to Richmond associates. She’d accepted that.
“My oldest and closest friends … read as lightly as they speculate,” she wrote. Besides, “So far as I have been able to observe, the things of the mind have never, in any place or age, received a welcome in the highest circles.”
Only one local writer met her standards in 1917: James Branch Cabell — for whom the Virginia Commonwealth Library is named. So she communicated with others elsewhere. She enjoyed the company of Thomas Hardy in discussing his “The Return of the Native.” She visited Joseph Conrad in England and found the “Heart of Darkness” author to possess “natural innocence.” She and Henry James admired each other.
- Scott Elmquist
- Ellen Glasgow wrote prolifically in an upstairs study at her family home at 1 W. Main St. She also entertained guests frequently in its double parlors, including her fiance, Henry Anderson.
She didn’t suffer financially. Income from books and short stories more than offset the cost of running her household with a staff that included a cook, a chauffeur and a full-time secretary.
And her brother Arthur Glasgow, a fabulously wealthy engineer with projects in the British Isles in the gas and utilities industries, didn’t neglect his hard-working sister. Soon after their father died in 1916, and their sister, Ann, the following year, he remodeled the rambling Greek revival antebellum house extensively, putting in modern plumbing and bathrooms.
When Arthur was host to Ellen on holiday trips they traveled to exotic places — Greece, Egypt and Turkey. Today his benevolence continues to Virginia Commonwealth University medical programs and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, including funding for art acquisition and the endowment.
It wasn’t the dreary old house where Ellen Glasgow returned after a number of years living and writing in New York that could have sunk her spirits. “I had come back to the old gray house on the corner,” she wrote, “where the great tulip poplars were slowly dying from the wounds at their roots and the electric wires in their branches.”
No, Glasgow was in despair when she swallowed too many pills that July night because the man she thought she loved, her fiance, Henry Anderson, was enthralled with another woman. He could speak of little else.
- Virginia Historical Society
- At his Red Cross office in Romania, Henry Watkins Anderson works below a portrait of Queen Marie — not his fiancée, Ellen Glasgow.
Glasgow hadn’t expected to even abide Anderson when they were introduced by her friend Maude Williams, the ebullient wife of one of his law partners, during an intimate luncheon on Easter Sunday in 1916.
For one thing, Anderson was always in female company, puffing himself up as a ladies’ man. Folks doubted physical intimacy as the selling point. As one acquaintance put it, “He kept their secrets and cultivated the fact that that he had secrets to keep as well.”
And if Anderson’s lady friends were wealthy or titled, all the better. He was pretentious, a trait Glasgow despised, and lived in a splendid townhouse he’d extensively renovated at 913 W. Franklin St. His household staff included a butler and valet — who was trained in England — a cook, a chambermaid, and a chauffeur for his foreign-made automobile.
The country boy from Dinwiddie County also had acquired a British accent. Although he hailed from Virginia aristocracy, none of his haughty airs impressed Richmonders. When he became the first man in town to wear a wristwatch, a fellow member of the private men’s lair on West Franklin Street, the Commonwealth Club, poked fun at him by strapping an alarm clock to his leg. He lifted it, saying in a British accent to the laughter of all nearby, “What o’clock is it?”
Glasgow also disapprovingly listed Anderson’s interests, as “trivial honors, notoriety, social prominence, wealth, fashion title and empty show in the world.” Others who knew him abhorred his name-dropping and social climbing.
“Anderson had cast aside every rung of the ladder which he had climbed,” an observer wrote. “He never acknowledged the genteel poor aristocrat in whose home he had formerly boarded.”
But Anderson was nothing if not ambitious and hard-working. And his considerable smarts had taken him to the heights of his profession. As a youngster growing up in post-Civil War Virginia, he worked for a railroad in Crewe and took the clerking skills he acquired to Washington and Lee University. There, he became secretary to the school’s president while earning his law degree.
Upon moving to Richmond in 1898 he started a small legal practice, which in 1901 morphed into what has become Hunton & Williams.
By 1906 he was working for the Jay Gould operation in New York. He labored tirelessly and effectively on behalf of the Goulds, especially their electric streetcar interests. As a junior partner in the firm, Anderson traveled continuously to New York, Connecticut, Hampton Roads and Washington, as the Virginia Passenger and Power Co. became his firm’s largest client.
He also became a director of the Norfolk & Portsmouth Traction Co. And the new Virginia Railway and Power Co. made Anderson a vice president and general counsel. Today that company is Dominion Resources.
Anderson’s expertise in railroad and street car law and policy led to opportunities beyond the Old Dominion. He became the general counsel of the International & Great Northern Railroad, which ran from St. Paul, Minnesota, to Seattle.
While establishing an excellent reputation in law and transportation, Anderson became a Republican, a party then on the outs in Virginia since Democrats had long controlled political power. He was particularly fond of the GOP’s William Howard Taft.
“The division of the people into parties representing different schools of thought is essential to the intelligent discussion of political questions,” Anderson wrote. After Taft went to the White House, Anderson gained an additional honorific title: friend of the president. Taft’s portrait hung over the fireplace in his home library.
- Scott Elmquist
- Henry Anderson’s wealth from practicing railroad law allowed the bachelor to live opulently at 913 W. Franklin St. with a British-trained household staff.
In 1916, when Virginia-born Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, followed Taft to the White House, Anderson vocally criticized his policies. But patriotism prevailed as war broke out throughout Europe. Too old to be called up in a possible draft or to volunteer, Anderson threw himself into humanitarian efforts by fundraising for the Allies even before the United States’ official involvement.
It was this fired-up, now Col. Henry Anderson, as head of the Virginia War Relief Effort, whom Ellen Glasgow met that Easter afternoon.
Just back from Florida, her new acquaintance was tanned, rested and sun-blond. “Here was reality, here was life itself, solid, eager, active, confident and undefeated,” she wrote.
She also liked that he was as difficult, strong-willed and opinionated as her. And she admired his opposition to the state’s political status quo. There was mutual intellectual and physical attraction from the start.
Over the next months, messages and freshly written poems flew back and forth between their respective homes on Main and Franklin streets. Anderson visited Glasgow at least three times a week. They dined by candlelight on oysters and chicken and usually repaired to her rear veranda to continue their conversation amid the magnolia trees.
Usually they were chaperoned. This often was under the cautious eye of Anne Virginia Bennett. Glasgow’s secretary, having long served the family as a nurse, had become a possessive and probably jealous companion. (While Bennett had little interest in Glasgow’s writing career, they shared an obsession with animals, especially protecting dogs.)
As war prospects loomed, Glasgow supported Wilson’s policies, but chose not to fall in behind Anderson. Meanwhile, her suitor, splendid in his Red Cross uniform, delighted in leading high-stepping fundraising parades along Franklin Street. Trailing him were young men who maneuvered trucks disguised as floats and young women wearing nurses’ veils fashioned from white linen towels.
- Ellen Glasgow
But Anderson yearned for more than fundraising — he wanted to serve at the front. The opportunity came a year after he and Glasgow met when Wilson declared war on Germany in April 1917. Romania was strategically situated between Russia and Germany, and it was in American interests to pour aid into the country to ensure it remained loyal to the allies. The Red Cross sent a Virginia delegation that included doctors, nurses and dieticians, led by Anderson.
Anderson broke the news to Glasgow on June 19, 1917. “I decided finally to go to Roumania,” he wrote to her. “Everyone seemed to think it my duty to go, a chance to render service for which I have been asking — but I go with a heavy heart.”
Then, dropping to his knee, he proposed marriage. She accepted.
Anderson traveled to the West Coast and sailed from Seattle on Aug. 1, 1917, writing detailed letters to Glasgow daily as he crossed the continent and then, the Pacific.
But strangely, the letters stopped when he reached the Balkans.
The weeks went by. Anderson’s silence was painful to Glasgow. But it was a dagger to the heart when word drifted back to Richmond that Anderson was enamored of, and inseparable from, Marie, the charismatic and beautiful queen of Romania.
A Richmond woman visiting Nancy Langhorne Astor, the former Virginian who became Britain’s first woman member of the House of Commons, couldn’t contain herself upon meeting the queen at party. She breached protocol, approaching Marie before being introduced, and gushed: “In Richmond we wonder why Henry Anderson has never married. Now that I see you, I no longer wonder.”
- Library of Congress
- Queen Marie of Romania was admired for her style and beloved for her compassionate work during and after World War I.
Marie Alexandra Victoria, a grandchild of Queen Victoria, was married to King Ferdinand I of Romania. They reigned from 1914 to 1927.
The country was devastated from months of conflict, and Anderson and his team from Virginia performed magnificently. Queen Marie already was beloved by the Romanians for how she undertook relief efforts, donning a Red Cross uniform and visiting hospitals. There would be 336,000 Romanian military dead.
“A Queen, if she is worthy of the name, must live in beauty,” she wrote, “but I live in almost terrible hard work.”
While she and Anderson made hospital rounds daily, they grew closer. The couple dined together and found time for horseback riding and exchanging expensive gifts. He was host to lavish parties for her despite the desparate conditions of the war-savaged country.
- Virginia Historical Society
- Col. Henry Anderson and Queen Marie make a hospital inspection tour in Romania on horseback.
And because the chattering class in Europe and elsewhere considered Marie promiscuous, Anderson’s attentions only fueled gossip. Some suspected disproportionate Red Cross funds were assisting Romania, aid intended for wider distribution.
Was Marie’s fondness for Anderson enlightened self-interest? Regardless, Romanians knew that he represented the power, wealth and goodwill of the United States. Peasants often kneeled when his car sped by along the roads, with the American Red Cross — and the flag of the Commonwealth of Virginia — flapping in the breeze.
Anderson was later recognized for his work with medals and citations from Russia, Greece, Czechoslovakia, Italy, Bulgaria, France and Romania. When Anderson finally left Romania after that first mission, Marie wrote, “a southern colonel” fell on his knees and kissed the hem of her skirt.
- Library of Congress
- Henry Anderson dressed in the national costume presented to him by Queen Marie of Romania.
Returning to his home in Richmond, Anderson replaced the picture of President Taft with a portrait of Marie. A miniature of the queen in a bejeweled frame sat on his desk. He even imported a dog from the Balkans.
On his first visit with Glasgow he dressed in his foreign uniform for her to see how handsome he’d looked overseas. But worse, he spoke of nothing but Marie. He even relayed an especially intimate exchange: “I told the queen, ‘While I am not royal, your Majesty, I think that I understand you.’”
Glasgow only would remark understatedly that the Queen of Romania was “not in quite good taste.”
On July 3, 1918, after dinner at her house, Anderson and Glasgow argued. When he left, she went upstairs and overdosed on sleeping pills.
It wasn’t fatal. Glasgow awoke the next day and soon recovered.
Returning to writing, she published what are considered her best works, “Barren Ground” and “The Sheltered Life,” both drawing from her relationship with Anderson. She later received the 1942 Pulitzer Prize for fiction for “In This Our Life.”
- Library of Congress
- Queen Marie hands out American-made biscuits to children as Col. Henry Anderson, the commissioner to the Balkans for the American Red Cross, looks on after World War I.
After the war, King Ferdinand and Queen Marie were crowned rulers of an expanded Romania in the last opulent coronations on mainland Europe. Typically theatrical for Marie, the ceremony took place in a specially built, art nouveau cathedral. Upon her husband’s death, she published books herself — the well-reviewed “The Story of My Life” and a collection of Romanian fairy tales.
Anderson continued to practice law in Richmond and returned to politics. He was nominated for vice president at the 1920 Republican National Convention, but Calvin Coolidge was placed on the ticket with Warren Harding. The next year, Anderson won his party’s nomination for governor but lost: He had spoken forthrightly about improving race relations.
Anderson and Glasgow maintained their platonic relationship, and apparently their engagement, until she died in 1945. Soon thereafter Anne Virginia Bennett burned every letter she could find that Anderson had sent to her companion.
But Glasgow had the last word. In a memoir published after her death, “The Woman Within,” she wrote of her tempestuous relationship with Anderson: “For seventeen months out of the twenty-one years we were happy together.” S