The Schlesinger Library recently received the papers of the arts consultant and playwright Priscilla Dewey Houghton (1924–2012). The collection includes diaries Houghton kept throughout her life, as well as some kept by her mother, Priscilla Badger Blackett, and maternal grandmother, Grace Richardson Learnard Badger. Thus, the collection provides a look at the private musings and worldviews of three generations of women.
Houghton’s grandmother, Grace Richardson Learnard Badger (1860–1950), kept two diaries separated by almost 60 years: one describes her wedding day and trips she took with her father early in her life, the other details the last year of her life. (She may have kept diaries in the intervening years, but they are not present in the collection.) The first diary concludes with an account of her wedding day and records her distress over her father taking ill that day and being unable to accompany her to church: the entry ends, “we had a dreadful night—working over father. Dr. Webster staid [sic] all night and we brought him through alive.” Her later diary includes a poem she wrote in praise of a fish her son Ted had caught for her.
Her daughter (and Houghton’s mother), Priscilla Badger Blackett (1897–1942), kept a diary documenting several months spent visiting friends in Yokohama, Japan. In an entry from June 1916, she noted, “I just got a glimpse of real Japanese life as we passed through a little settlement. The houses were tiny and all higglety-pigglety but so picturesque.” In another entry, she reported driving to Kamakura and seeing the Daibutsu: “Never have I seen anything so wonderfully calm and inspiring . . . I opened my eyes and saw the great Buddha looking calmly down . . . I was simply speechless with wonder.” These glimpses of the “real” Japan are relatively few, however, as the bulk of Blackett’s time was spent playing tennis, shopping, or attending lunches or dinners.
Blackett does not appear to have kept a diary at the time of the US involvement in World War I, but she did keep a scrapbook. In addition to theater programs and photographs of family and friends, the scrapbook documents her concern about the war and her involvement in relief efforts. It includes articles about women learning to drive cars in order to serve in the “Active Corps” of the Special Aids Society for American Preparedness, the certificate Blackett received after completing a course at the Boston YMCA’s automobile school, booklets published in support of the war effort, and pamphlets such as “Rules for Parties with Men in the Service.”
In Houghton’s diary entry for December 7, 1941, the day of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, she vividly described her reaction and that of her family and friends, noting, “Doffie is quite worried because all the boys will go away next year and we won’t have any coming out parties. Gus and Frannie are quite distressed over the possibility of no skiing in Christmas vacation. . . . Uncle Ted is at the highest pitch of excitement at the possibility of wearing a uniform.” The following day she lamented, “Why the hell didn’t they wait until after Christmas, and why did they pick a Sunday? Nobody can talk of anything but the war. God, it’s really terrible when you think of your own brothers.”
Sixty years later, she reacted to the next unprovoked attack on American soil, noting on September 13, 2001, “There’s a certain numbness that’s enveloped me and probably most people who are processing the events of Tuesday, September 11th. . . . It defies imagination that people could use planes with captive human beings aboard, as weapons of mass destruction.” She went on to describe being on the streets of Washington, DC—where “neighboring drivers locked eyes, exchanged supportive, confused looks, tears in the eyes of those hearing the radio news”—and the relief and comfort of being among family and friends.