Yesterday a memorial service was held in our auditorium for Elisabeth FitzHugh. She was a most remarkable lady whose long life was well worth celebrating. Bill and I enjoyed hearing things about her life that we had never known. But we had many happy memories of Elizabeth ourselves. As new residents in January 2015 we were pleased to be greeted by a very erect, tall, gracious woman as we walked from Cottage 3006 toward the dining room. We could tell from the very beginning that she was a welcoming presence in the 3100 section. Since we ate our meals at almost the same time and our route to the building went right past her cottage, we were fortunate to see her almost every day since that first day when she introduced herself and learned our names (which she never forgot). There is one thing we both know we will miss very much – the absolutely beautiful smile with which we were always greeted. It was so full of warmth and delight that we remarked on it often during her life and now know we will miss it very much. For me her absolute distinctive was her amazing voice. I have never heard a voice like Elisabeth’s. It was in a register all its own and I cannot think of any way to describe it other than it was so very beautiful. I could never reproduce it but I can hear it in my head and the memory of her voice will stay with me I am sure.
Her son Will gave my husband permission for me to type this following essay which Elizabeth wrote about a very formative period in her life as a teenager. I hope you will enjoy it and be amazed by it.
EAST FROM BEIRUT TO BOSTON – A WARTIME TRAVELOG
Elisabeth West FitzHugh
My family was evacuated from Beirut, Lebanon, in May 1941, courtesy of a European – not yet world – war. A group of us left Beirut with only a few days’ notice when the Free French were about to march into Vichy-controlled Lebanon, the Germans were infiltrating into Iraq and Rommel’s army was approaching Cairo. We ended up traveling two-thirds of the way around the world.
We first spent a month in Ramallah, just outside Jerusalem. We did some of the tourist things, floating in the Dead Sea, inspecting the walls of Jericho. The boys in the party became boarders at a Jerusalem boys’ school and wild stories came to light later of typical American kids dumped unexpectedly into a very British school. We then spent another month in Cairo waiting for ship transport south since civilians were forbidden to travel in the Mediterranean. We climbed to the top of one of the Giza pyramids and I remember traveling by streetcar through the hot city streets. We saw “Gone with the Wind” in the Cairo Opera House, and my first view of those immortal scenes between Scarlett and Rhett Will forever be associated in my mind with a scorching Egyptian July.
I spent my fifteenth birthday in Suez harbor a the north end of the Red Sea, where burnt-out bombed ships were scattered. The ship we boarded at Suez, headed for Sydney, Australia, was the former Cunard liner Aquitania, veteran of many Atlantic crossings, now a troopship battered by months of transporting Australian and New Zealand troops to the desert war in North Africa. In addition to our group of refugees, the passengers included some Australian airmen being invalided home, and several hundred Italian prisoners-of-war below decks, destined for prison camp in Ceylon. My father came out on the lighter with us to the ship, to say goodbye, then to return to his teaching job at the American University of Beirut. As a parent years later I can imagine my parents’ feelings as we set out – my mother, two younger brothers and I – through the Red Sea and across the Indian Ocean. There were known to be U-boars in the area but the Aquitania was too fast for any convoy so we travelled alone. My youngest brother recalls that we were each assigned a certain item to grab if we were torpedoed. One family travelled to Australia on the Queen Elizabeth, also a troop ship, and were her first civilian passengers because the ship had gone directly into wartime use. By the time we reached Ceylon my father was back in Beirut and his first news of us was a newspaper report of the arrival of a group of Italian prisoners in Ceylon.
There were thirty or forty of us – families or parts of families – and a few teenagers traveling independently, headed for school or college in the U.S. We spent a month in Sydney, at a hotel on Bondi Beach, a well-known resort area where accommodation was available at bargain rates in what was then early spring. We saw Koala bears and kangaroos. We visited the Sydney zoo in the company of the American ambassador and had our picture in the local paper. Headed north toward an American winter we bought warm clothes; I acquired a beautiful blue Australian wool bathrobe which lasted for many years. It was a big event to go to the movies and see Deanna Durbin and Leopold Stokowski in “100 Men and a Girl.”
Our group eventually got passage to the United States on the Monterey, a Matson line cruise ship. We stopped briefly at Fiji and Pago Pago, and I still have a bag of tapa cloth – made of bark – from one of the islands. In New Zealand we drove up into the mountains and I recall spectacular scenery of tree-covered mountains so different from the dry Middle East. In Honolulu we were entertained at the beach by friends, watched hula dancing and admired the sands of Waikiki.
Finally I remember the oil derricks thick in the ocean off Los Angeles; as we headed slowly in to port we were entertained by a showing of “The Philadelphia Story.” Because the movie was cut off so we could go through customs and immigration it was several years before I found out what happened to Katherine Hepburn in the end.
We took the train across the country, stopping at the south rim of the Grand Canyon accessible then by train. We disembarked from the train in Newark where relatives greeted us, and then went on to the Boston area where life became serious once again with finding a place to live and starting off in strange schools. I’ve often thought how different our lives might have been if we’d been travelling a few months later. It was two months before Pearl Harbor.