Tag Archives: Elizabeth Robertson Coombs

A Little Flight Through History

Mona Lisa; Elizabeth Robertson Coombs

Mona Lisa; Elizabeth Robertson Coombs

January 8, 1962 saw the unveiling, for the first time in the United States, of Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece La Gioconda — or, as it was probably better known to an advance audience of dignitaries at Washington’s National Gallery of Art, the Mona Lisa.

The painting was on loan from the Louvre, but half a century earlier a petty thief named Vincenzo Peruggia had attempted to borrow it permanently.  On August 21, 1911, he hid in the Louvre until it closed for the night, then removed the Mona Lisa from its frame.  The next morning, he sauntered out of the museum with the treasure concealed in a smock.  By the time it was recovered more than two years later, the Mona Lisa had entered the public imagination as the world’s most famous, and now closely guarded, work of art.

Traveling in Europe at the time, an aunt of Bowling Green’s Elizabeth Robertson Coombs had a unique experience of the theft.  She had spent the summer in England, touring the countryside and enjoying London — “of course it isn’t New York,” she wrote, referring to Elizabeth’s home at the time, “but it is very nice.”  After a tour of France’s chateau district, she went on to Paris for a month, where she shopped for her winter wardrobe, wandered through Montmartre, and visited the Moulin Rouge (which fell short of a promise that it was “eminently respectable”).  And yes, she reported, “we saw Mona Lisa before stealing — and the hooks where she had hung — after.”  But one can imagine Elizabeth’s aunt smiling as serenely as La Gioconda when she dropped this bomb on her 18-year-old niece: “By the way — I had my first aeroplane flight while we were in Paris . . . in a biplane — went around the horizon — and mounted to about the height of the Eiffel Tower . . . it was perfectly heavenly.”

Letters written to Elizabeth Robertson Coombs early in the 20th century are part of the Coombs Family Collection in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives holdings of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here to access a finding aid.  For more collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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Apple Blossoms and Horseradish

Red Cross Motor Corps, 1944 (Elizabeth Coombs first row, second from left)

Red Cross Motor Corps, 1944 (Elizabeth Coombs first row, second from left)

Bowling Green native Elizabeth Robertson Coombs (1893-1988) spent much of her youth in New York City, but returned to Kentucky after the early death of her father, a railroad executive.  When the U.S. entered World War II, Coombs, who had worked for a decade as a reference librarian at WKU’s Special Collections Library, was ready to volunteer her skills.  In 1942, she filled out an application to serve with the local branch of the Red Cross Motor Corps.  She noted her proficiency in French, gave WKU uber-librarian Margie Helm as a reference, and for some reason boldly lopped nine years off her date of birth.

The Motor Corps was no delicate feminine pastime.  In their dark grey uniforms and caps, and with an identifying metal disk attached to their licence plates, volunteers undertook a variety of tasks related to the civilian war effort: carrying messages and deliveries, ferrying public health officials to their duties and children to hospital in Louisville, driving mobile canteens, transporting supplies for the blood donor program, doing office work and assisting at public gatherings.  Members attended meetings at the Bowling Green Armory and were liable to be discharged if they missed more than three; an acceptable excuse, however, was having a husband home on furlough.

In order to qualify for the Motor Corps, Coombs completed Red Cross first aid training, then took a 30-hour course in motor mechanics where she learned to change tires, put on chains, adjust brakes, and replace spark plugs.  But the Motor Corps also provided support to the civil defense authorities, and consequently Coombs received additional education in war’s worst-case scenarios, including the possibility of chemical attack.  She learned about the telltale odor of tear gas (fly paper or apple blossoms), mustard gas (horseradish), and paralyzing gases (bitter almonds or rotten eggs), the symptoms of exposure, and what aid to administer.

Fortunately, for Coombs and her fellow citizens, the discomforts of the home front did not extend beyond coping with a scarcity of consumer goods and a federal system of rationing and price controls.  Instructions on her books of ration stamps for food and gasoline gave her the right “to buy your fair share of certain goods” at reasonable prices.  “Don’t pay more” on the black market, warned the Office of Price Administration–and, conversely, “If you don’t need it, DON’T BUY IT.”  Some commodities required special clearance; completion of a two-page form allowed Coombs and her mother to apply for a “home canning sugar allowance” subject to an annual limit of 20 lbs. per person and a warning to “only apply for as much sugar as you are sure you will need.”

Material relating to Elizabeth Robertson Coombs’ life during wartime is part of the Coombs Family Collection housed in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives section of WKU’s Special Collections Library.  Click here to download a finding aid.  For more collections relating to the home front during World War II, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

Homemaker's pledge; ration stamps

Homemaker’s pledge; ration stamps

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