Willa Cather in the Great "Spanish Flu" Pandemic
1918 was a pivotal year for Willa Cather and the world. She would publish My Ántonia, delayed until the fall of that year due to financial concerns and illness, and she would see her cousin Grosvenor killed in France six months before Armistice Day, November 11, 1918, which ended the war. Meanwhile, the great "Spanish Flu" pandemic raged throughout the world. (Cather's own bout with influenza would come in the pandemic's third wave in 1919, and it was during this illness that Cather was given access to Dr. Sweeney's World War 1 diary, a serendipitous event for Cathe'rs writing.)
In this letter, written on March 13 to her dear childhood friend Carrie Miner Sherwood in Red Cloud, Cather conveys some of the hardships experienced by herself and Edith Lewis at their 5 Bank Street apartment in New York. At the same time, she paints a somewhat cozy picture of socializing, and some isolation, along with their French maid, Josephine. The letter, along with others donated by the Sherwood family, is now in the National Cather Center Archives & Collections.
My dear Carrie;
It has been a long while since I received the letter from you which gave me so much pleasure. I still have it and shall always keep it. I like to know that you, too, feel that our friendship is simply one of those which last for life. How few of those friendships one has, in the long run, and how precious they become as time goes on. One has to live about forty years to find out which things are the temporary excitements, and which are the lasting affections. In every letter I get from Father I hear something of you, and of what valuable work you have done this winter for the Red Cross.
I have had a rather hard winter, though many pleasant things have happened and I have never enjoyed living more. The fuel shortage was inconvenient for me. My study is heated by a coal grate, and during the terribly bitter weather. I had to vacate my study and work in the dining-room, where we managed to keep one coal grate going. The change was disturbing. Then Josephine, my good French maid, was ill and not able to come for a month; and scrub women and ice-men and laundry-men frittered away my time. The net result is that my "My Ántonia" book, which was scheduled for spring publication, cannot come out until early fall. It is a disappointment, but the book may be all the better for not being hurried. At least, I hope so.
Several weeks ago I had a nasty bronchitis for about two weeks, before my maid was well enough to come back to work. When I was recovering my old friend, Olive Fremstad, the singer, came to my rescue and made life more cheerful. Every evening she sent her car down for me and hauled me up to her apartment on 86th street—about three miles from Bank street—gave me a good dinner and a little music, and then sent me home again in her car. Since no German operas are being given this winter, she had had more leisure than ever before, and we have done many pleasant things together.
I have also done many pleasant things with the Hambourgs. I get on well with Isabelle’s husband now; have really learned to like him. Like most people, he has many good qualities when you come to know him well. We have gone to concerts and to the opera often together. We heard "Amelita Galli Curci ;several times during her season. That is certainly one of the loveliest voices that have come along in my time. She had an overwhelming success here.
Before Mr. Wiener died, during his illness of four months, I was at their house often. I usually dined there Sunday night, and after he grew too weak to come to the table I used to see him in his room after dinner. His death is a great loss to me. He was the oldest friend I had in this part of the world. All his family here have always been cordial and friendly to me. At the funeral I was put in the first carriage, with the widow and the only remaining brother, and all the troop of nieces and nephews came after. I would not have thought it would ever make much difference to me in which carriage I was put at a funeral, but somehow this pleased and touched me very much. I thought it an appreciative recognition of a long friendship. The brother, Dr. Richard Wiener, telephoned me often during Mr. Wiener’s illness. He comes to see me sometimes. He is a very interesting and cultivated man, and fond of music. He is Paderewski's physician, and Sembrich's and Ysaye's. His wife, too, is such a cordial, human sort of person. I have a warm feeling for the whole family. They are not clannish and selfish like many big rich Jewish families.
Edith Lewis sends her warmest regards to you and Walter. She had a hard winter, but kept pretty well. While we managed to keep part of this apartment comfortable, in spite of the fact that the gas and water froze, many of the office buildings were almost entirely without heat, and Edith's office so cold she had to work in her coat and furs for weeks. The suffering in the poor quarter to the south of us was disheartening and discouraging. But it's been, on the whole, a happy winter. Every Friday afternoon there have been pleasant and interesting people here for tea, and we have given some jolly little parties. When Josephine is well, she is splendid cook and a good manager, and makes us very comfortable. How I would love it if you could drop in on us sometime! There have been a lot of Lincoln people here this winter, at one time and another.
Now I must close a long letter. Please give my love to Mary and Margie, and keep a great deal for yourself and your household.