A star comes to Fredericksburg

From John Hennessy:

Greer Garson speaking at Maury Field, September 10, 1942. Image courtesy Historic Fredericksburg Foundation.

Fredericksburg has always been small enough to get excited when someone big comes to town (unless it’s Abraham Lincoln, whose visit here during the Civil War stimulated “no demonstrations of joy… from any of the citizens,” said the local newspaper). Few visits have stimulated more anticipation and excitement–surely a mixture of patriotic fervor and starstruck awe–than British-born actress Greer Garson’s trip to Fredericksburg to sell war bonds on September 10, 1942, at the height of World War II. At the time, Greer Garson was perhaps the most popular actress on earth. Her Oscar-nominated film Random Harvest had just finished its nationwide run; the magnificent Mrs. Miniver (for which she would win an Oscar in 1943) was then in theaters. The Free Lance-Star fairly gushed at the prospect of her coming, tossing away any pretense of gender neutrality—titling an editorial about her appearance “Beauty and the Bonds.”  “It has been a long time since Fredericksburg entertained a movie star of Miss Garson’ stature—not we believe since Gloria Swanson spent some time here in 1926—and it is going to be fun.  But remember, folks, buying War Bonds is the big idea and Miss Garson won’t let you forget it.”

For Garson, Fredericksburg was the second of three rallies she would do on September 10. She arrived from Winchester and crossed the Falmouth Bridge at 12:15–about 45 minutes late—and went straight on to James Monroe High School at what we today know as Maury School. There more than 2,000 people awaited on the football field.   

It cost attendees $200 in bonds to have lunch with Garson at the Princess Anne Hotel. Courtesy Historic Fredericksburg Foundation.

She appeared in “a red fez, with cock feathers of green and red.  Her travelling suit was of aqua,” with a corsage of orange and red gladiolas–a variegated pallet that more than a few noted.  The paper wrote delicately:  “Some people were momentarily shocked by the vivid colors of her ensemble, but when she talked in such a friendly and sincere manner all was forgotten except the compelling charm of her personality.”

She spoke for about ten minutes and then was whisked through town to a luncheon at the Princess Anne Hotel (which today houses offices on Princess Anne Street)–open to anyone willing to buy at least $200 in bonds.  After lunch, she posed for pictures, and then sped up Route 1 to another rally in Alexandria.  Her stop in Fredericksburg helped sell $160,000 in bonds, wiping out the city’s $59,000 shortfall for the year.

The fatigue that would ultimately hospitalize Garson is clearly visible in this image. Does anyone know who the officer is? Courtesy Historic Fredericksburg Foundation.

The FLS rejoiced at the visit, but young reporter Charles Rowe offered a sobering assessment of “the Hollywood Queen”—one that surely displeased her publicist.

“Visibly worn and haggard from her exhausting trip on behalf of the Treasury Department, Miss Garson definitely lacked the exquisite beauty movie goers in “Goodbye, Mr Chips…and Mrs. Miniver….  Days of speeches and luncheons have left their mark on the lovely…actress.  The dulcet voice theater goers remember has become worn from countless addresses on the tour…”

In fact, within the week Greer Garson was hospitalized for exhaustion.

Fredericksburg’s experience during World War II has several interesting wrinkles, and we’ll explore of them as we go forward. Next, we’ll look at the single biggest event in Fredericksburg during the war…and it had nothing to do with the war at all.

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