When nineteen-year-old Louise Walker boarded the steamship that would take her to Europe in 1935, she noted in her diary that she felt a thrill of anticipation. Like many teenage girls, Walker daydreamed of romantic encounters and hoped to find love in France. A prolific writer and artist, Walker channeled her daydreams into unpublished short stories such as “They Call It Love.” But even her most romantic imaginings paled in comparison to her real life experience, and as she embarked for France, she could scarcely have predicted the love story that awaited her.
Born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in 1915, Louise Walker McCannel was the third of six children and the only daughter born to Archie Dean Walker Sr. and Bertha Willard Hudson Walker. As the granddaughter of a Minnesota lumber magnate and an art collector, T. B. Walker and Harriet G. Hulet Walker, Louise led a lifestyle many would consider privileged, and she regularly interacted with individuals from prominent families.
Especially close to her father and five brothers, Louise became extremely comfortable with the opposite sex. As an adolescent, she met dozens of boys—friends of her older brothers, who attended Harvard and Princeton, and friends of her younger brothers at the Blake School in Minneapolis. At fifteen she began receiving professions of love in the form of postcards, letters, telegrams, and—of course—Valentine’s cards. As adults, some of the boys became well-known in their professions.
The painter, illustrator, and cartoonist Stuyvesant Van Veen wrote adolescent love letters to Louise, whom he met through Hudson, Louise’s oldest brother. Van Veen also exchanged letters with Hudson for years, detailing his successes and struggles as an emerging artist. Those letters—along with hundreds of love letters and diary entries about love, heartbreak, marriage, divorce, and family relationships spanning four generations—are among the materials in the Louise Walker McCannel Papers, which the Schlesinger Library received between 2008 and 2012.
A tall, willowy, charismatic brunette, Louise charmed dozens of boys and men with her smile but won their hearts with her witty, smart, and engaging letters. A page from a letter Louise wrote to her dad while she was a freshman at Smith College demonstrates her humorous nature and habit of adding illustrations to make notes more vivid:
Tomorrow I go to Amherst to a house dance. A good house, in fact one of the best, Psi U [Upsilon]. I snagged the date last (+ also the first) time I went over with a blind. I seemed to go over big, if you’ll pardon the modesty, due to a combination of conscientiousness on my escort’s part + high spirits (none synthetic) on mine, and before the evening was over a tall, blond basketball player not overburdened with brains – which is rest after a college routine – summoned enough courage to give me a bid to this hop. I snapped it up like the Duker [the Walker’s family dog] attacks a wood tick and got me a new dress for the occasion which will knock ‘em dead at forty paces, every one; it’s the sort of a robe that can make or break one. The stuff around the neck is large and stiff and blue + red, the dress is a print of blue + red, + the gloves are of the same material with small ruffs each. It’s sublime or ridiculous depending on how one looks at it. I hope it’s the former or I shall be out $19.75. . . . All my love, Bunty [Louise's nickname]
Louise had countless suitors in America, but none affected her as strongly as Michel Martin, whom she met shortly after arriving in France in 1935. The two fell madly in love, and Martin wrote poignant love letters to Louise nearly daily as World War II raged around him. For seven years, Michel wooed Louise through the mail, repeatedly reassuring her of his love despite their physical distance during the war. At the same time, several others pursued Louise, who had returned to Minnesota in 1937. The daily love letters and frequent proposals she received must have seemed like a fairy tale, and she saved them for posterity. She also dedicated much of her energy to preserving her family’s history. The collection chronicles the relationship between Louise’s parents and includes love letters exchanged between her grandparents and contains their unusual pink marriage certificate and license from 1863.
From scribbled notes exchanged with friends in class and professions of neverending love to confessions of betrayal and heartbreak, Louise’s correspondence captures one family’s experiences with dating. Perfect reading for Valentine’s Day!