The face behind a famous poster

Last updated 00:33 04/05/2008
MICHAEL BRADLEY/Sunday Star-Times
Weslee D'Audney became the face of American nursing recruitment in World War II.

Relevant offers

WHEN THE war in Europe ended, the news flashed around Times Square.

People danced in the streets. Strangers hugged and kissed. And an 18-year-old New York model waited for word from her Kiwi sweetheart.

Three months earlier, Weslee Price Wootten had sent the Western Union cablegram that would change her life: Darling, I will marry you. All my love.

Noel D'Audney enlisted in 1939, an Auckland University student who became a Royal New Zealand Air Force pilot. His young American bride never imagined, nearly 70 years later, it would be her own war contribution that would endure.

Weslee D'Audney an 82-year-old widow living north of Auckland has this week been revealed as the face of one of America's most famous wartime recruitment posters.

"I'm probably the only person alive who remembers its creation," she told the Sunday Star-Times.

July, 1942. Pearl Harbor had fallen six months earlier and President Franklin Roosevelt foresaw a long war with heavy casualties. He made the training and recruitment of new nurses a priority and launched a major poster offensive. "Become a nurse, your country needs you," was one of the most successful.

D'AUDNEY WAS a first-year pre-med student at Barnard College, Columbia University, whose modelling career had begun by accident. A talent scout spotted her playing in the yard and suggested she try out for the movie Tom Sawyer.

Two inches taller than the male lead, she never read for the part but did sign with the prestigious John Robert Powers modelling agency.

Good Housekeeping called her the "the clean face of young America". Jergen's Face Cream used her in a campaign that promised a "smooth, kissable complexion". Redbook magazine employed her as the teenage daughter in a monthly feature on the typical American family. She modelled for Sears Roebuck and posed for the artists who drew for the Saturday Evening Post and the Ladies Home Journal.

She remembers the day William Ritter, a commercial photographer, called her for an appointment.

"When I arrived at his studio, I was asked to put on a student nurse's uniform. An older man was given two navy blue sleeves with white stars and red and white stripes to slip on."

The photographer told the young model he had to follow the exact layout of a pencil drawing provided by the J Walter Thompson advertising agency.

Ad Feedback

"This one is important," he said. "It is big."

And he was right.

A fortnight ago, on a kitchen table at a retirement village unit near Orewa, D'Audney showed the Star-Times that poster. Originals sell for upwards of $US795 ($1000) plus shipping. It is still being reproduced on everything from coffee cups to boxer shorts. But this one, ageing at the edges, first came to New Zealand in the bottom of a trunk, on board the first post-war ship carrying civilians out of the United States.

A bound, hand-typed memoir records D'Audney's first impressions:

"It was breathtaking. Auckland harbour was a picture, the water was sparkling blue with sailboats everywhere. The green hillsides looked like velvet and the houses all seemed to be painted white with red roofs. I fell in love with it, even before the boat docked."

D'Audney gave up modelling for motherhood and academia. She earned a Master of Science degree in special education, and published work on the care of disabled children. Her love of learning never stopped.

A few weeks ago, during a talk at a local meeting of the University of the Third Age (an organisation that promotes education for older people), she spoke about her poster. An American in the audience said he'd grown up with her image prompting an internet search that revealed just how iconic it had become.

According to one website, the poster "burned an enduring image on the national psyche". University of North Carolina masters student Michelle Rubino featured it in her 2007 thesis "The art of war", describing D'Audney thus: "She is extremely pretty with bright red lips, well-defined eyebrows, flushed cheeks and hair swept up away from her face. She is smiling up into the face of the person who is placing the cap on her head, as if it was a pageant crown."

But what of the woman behind the picture?

WESLEE PRICE D'Audney (nee Wootten) was born in July 1925, in Modesto, California. Her Christian name had been handed through generations of her family but always to boys. A week after her birth, the local paper published an apology: "Through an error in a report of the birth, the announcement was made of a baby son."

It was an error that dogged her entire life. When D'Audney graduated from high school, her girlfriends got letters from secretarial schools. "I received mail that said `the Army needs you!' and telling me where to rent a tuxedo for the prom."

Her father's forebears had come to California from Indiana in a Conestoga covered wagon. They carried a dining table, its five legs unscrewed and nested inside, especially designed to stand on its side in the wagon and provide protection from Indian arrows.

D'Audney's father would eventually become a Californian grapegrower, and, at 43, Modesto's "most eligible bachelor". He met D'Audney's mother, a young nurse from New York, when she came to town for a friend's wedding and stayed to help out during the flu epidemic.

"I was my daddy's girl," writes D'Audney in her unpublished memoir. "I can remember riding on his shoulders, sharing his saddle on horseback around the ranch and walking proudly down the street holding his hand."

Prohibition knocked the bottom out of the grape industry. The stock market crashed. When D'Audney was 4 1/2 years old, her father succumbed to pneumonia. D'Audney and her mother (an active member of the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Society of Mayflower Descendants) went home to New York.

"I grew up during the Depression years," says D'Audney. "I can remember the soup kitchen that operated from our church and the out-of-work men selling apples in the street corners."

Money was very tight the day D'Audney was noticed by the talent scout.

THE AMERICAN Women's Voluntary Service was created in January 1940, to provide aid and information during World War II. In Manhattan, at the Green Room in the Hotel Edison, it ran a servicemen's canteen two lunches for the price of one, or the company of a hostess.

D'Audney's mother urged her daughter to attend. So there she was, at a table with two Englishmen, a Scotsman called Charles, and a Kiwi called Noel.

There is a photograph of that day. Weslee wears a Voluntary Service armband. Noel is all neatly combed side part and teeth, a handsome man with RNZAF wings on his chest. She looks at the camera. He looks at her.

That day, she accepted a date with Charles. Noel walked her, first to a dentist's appointment, through the snow, through Central Park. He waited for her, and walked her to the Plaza where she was to take afternoon tea with the Scotsman.

"By 4.30pm, Charles hadn't shown up and I didn't care if he ever did. Noel and I had waffles and Hildegarde sang and our lives were changed forever."

At 82, D'Audney says her life has been full of magic moments: "Extra special times when everything is so perfect you are transported to another plane." February 2, 1943, was one of those days.

It's raining when the Star-Times leaves this elderly woman's retirement cottage. She sees us off from the door guarded by miniature stone lions, her eyes still as bright and her cheekbones still as high as they were the day she met her Kiwi husband.

"Everybody dreams about the perfect husband," she says. "Someone warm and caring, thoughtful and affectionate, funny and sensitive, but often ends up with less. Except me. When I met Noel, I ended up with a lot more."

And what about Charles, the man who broke that date at the Plaza? Many years later, D'Audney found out the truth: "Noel told him he'd break both his legs if he turned up!"

AN EIGHT-DAY, whirlwind courtship. Before the wedding, came the war. The couple wrote for two-and-a-half years. D'Audney joined the Anzac club, taking servicemen on guided tours of New York City. "I wouldn't like to think how many times I've climbed to the top of the Statue of Liberty or gone to the top of the Empire State Building. If the fellows were broke, we'd ride the Staten Island ferry for a 5c fare."

And she was a debutante, coming out at the 1944 New Year's Day ball at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. "Mother thought being asked to join the debs was an honour that shouldn't be turned down."

Society columnist Cholly Knickerbocker (the US patent office-registered byline for writer Maury Paul the man who coined the term "cafe society") records the event:

"She'll be more or less unhonored and unsung during this third war-winter in Gotham. But as a new season looms on the horizon, the young `bud' just celebrating her coming-of-age, the ripe young age of 18, will take her place... just as London's debutantes have had their moment in the social sun, despite the terrors and blitzes of war."

In London, wrote Cholly, the debs did not mind the cake was made of dark flour, and contained little sugar; that their white dresses were their mothers' made over.

"They danced with the uniformed beaux, many of whom were scheduled to be off the next day or so to far-flung battle fronts, as gaily and as happily as if the dove of peace were hovering over the land."

It would be 18 months before peace came before Weslee married Noel on the hottest day of the year at the Church of Transfiguration, she in high-necked lace and ruffled sleeves, he in his woollen Air Force uniform.

They honeymooned at the Pocono Manor Inn, Pennsylvania, where the Fourth of July celebration menu ran to candied yams and poached red salmon, raisin stuffed duckling and boiled hominy grits and boiled Maine lobster with mayonnaise. And then they made plans to come back to New Zealand.

Years later, D'Audney would write, "I don't know why our marriage has worked so well. Two people from opposite sides of the world, an eight-day whirlwind courtship followed by two-and-a-half years of separation isn't the usual formula for marital success. But it has worked for us."

IN THE end, the initial trip to New Zealand was short-lived. The first Auckland years spanned 1945-47.

Noel and Weslee set up in Shelley Beach Rd, Herne Bay. "To celebrate our first dinner in our first home I made a cake and put it in the oven right after lunch... then I discovered the gas was only turned on from 7-9am, 12-1pm and 5-7pm, because of the gas shortage. Four hours later, the cake was cooked. It was as tough as shoe leather!"

The American wife never mastered the art of brewing tea. Her father-in-law would diagnose the problem: the water wasn't boiling long enough, it had steeped too long, or not long enough.

"One time I really had him puzzled. I was certain I'd done everything as taught, but Dad said, `Wes, if I didn't know better, I'd say you'd burned the tea'." She realised the canister was sitting on the stove and the heat from the pilot light had toasted the leaves.

"I couldn't tell the difference. But Dad could."

Eldest child John was born in New Zealand. But with the job market tight, the couple decided to move to California. They sailed on the Marine Phoenix, Noel a newly qualified accountant, Weslee a new mum, sharing a cabin with Nola Luxford, the famous New Zealand silent screen actress and a friend from the Anzac club days. "The general feeling is very much like boarding-school," wrote the actress, a "special roving correspondent for the New Zealand Free Lance".

The D'Audneys settled in Palo Alto, then moved to San Francisco, New Jersey and Portland, Oregon.

"We were travelling by air," remembers D'Audney. "The poster was always a bit of a problem; too big for a dresser drawer, it had to survive under the sheets in the linen closet or under the bed."

At every stop, they added to their family. Five in all: John, David, Laurie, Carol and Bruce.

"Bruce was a most beautiful baby," writes D'Audney. "He had large, dark blue eyes and long thick eyelashes. He was very small, but didn't need to be put in an incubator. By the time of the six-week check-up, I knew something was wrong."

Bruce's eighth cranial nerve, which controls hearing and balance, was not functioning. Doctors diagnosed profound deafness, mental retardation, mild cerebral palsy and vision problems.

"I learned a lot from him," says D'Audney. "Patience, the joy of achievement when it's hard won, and how to live with heartbreak."

Her memoir records the passing years. Children grew up and left home. Bruce became institutionalised. The mother and housewife became a fulltime university student and career woman. And America escalated its presence in Vietnam.

"The more I read about the history and the origins of the Vietnam War, the more opposed I became," says D'Audney.

"The pronouncements of our national leaders didn't tally with the facts.

"Noel and I found that our friends embraced the government position. For the first time in my life, I knew how uncomfortable it was to be in an isolated minority."

By then, the family lived in Nebraska. D'Audney organised discussion meetings to present information and views not easily available in that state. But, says the woman who smiled so prettily from that World War II poster, "the effort to bring home to the American people what was happening in Vietnam was a slow and frustrating one".

And on the domestic homefront, things were changing. At his school, Bruce had found an ally, a speech therapist who felt deafness, not mental retardation, was his major problem. Once properly diagnosed, Bruce made phenomenal progress.

D'Audney trained to become a teacher of the deaf, and in 1970, Bruce came home. Daughter Carol wrote about the occasion in a school assignment: "He taught us to show love for each other and not be embarrassed by an open display of affection. It made us a closer and stronger family."

BRUCE IS still living in the United States. D'Audney became a teacher of the deaf, and would eventually end her career with three university degrees, as an associate professor at the University of Nebraska Medical Centre and project director for two federally-funded programmes for the early identification and education of handicapped children.

D'Audney's oldest children were 12 and nine when they saw their mother's poster hanging in Washington's Smithsonian Institute.

That nine-year-old, David, grew up to join the US Army Medical Corps. At the Letterman Army Hospital in San Francisco he asked to sit the registered nursing exam; "on the day of the test, he thought he better pass because there on the wall was his mother looking down at him from the poster".

David would eventually move to New Zealand. And on a visit, D'Audney and her husband fell in love with a clifftop home overlooking Red Beach, north of Auckland. "We bought it on the spot on Christmas Eve, 1975, took early retirement, and the poster, after 30 years in the US, crossed the ocean once again."

WHAT GIVES that poster its enduring appeal? D'Audney asked a New Zealand friend, a psychotherapist who has lived in the United States, and received this explanation:

"Where else would you get a symbol of innocence, purity and patriotism all rolled into one? In World War II, America was the saviour of mankind, loved by everyone. There is a great need for Americans to feel good and patriotic about themselves at this particular time in their history."

D'Audney's husband died seven years ago. This story is largely drawn from the memoirs she wrote at that Red Beach house she fell in love with. Her new home has her paintings of Central Park on the wall, her needlework on the couch cushions. The bookcases are crammed.

Last year, D'Audney took herself to South Korea for three weeks; the year before she travelled to Kazakhstan. And if she ever had to choose between brains and beauty? "I think I'll take brains any day."

 

 

 

- © Fairfax NZ News

Special offers

Featured Promotions

Sponsored Content

Contact the Sunday Star-Times

Subscribe to the Sunday Star-Times

Click for the latest subscription offer

Er, where's my paper?

What to do - and who to call - if your delivery doesn't arrive