@ArchiveReynolda: Love & Loss, Katharine's Letters to R.J. in 1917

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@ArchiveReynolda: Love & Loss, Katharine's Letters to R.J. in 1917

By Bari Helms, Director of Archives | @ArchiveReynolda

I feel that I just must write a word of love whether you see it or not, for thoughts of you are ever in my heart and prayers. 
-Katharine Reynolds

The opening of the exhibition Love & Loss made me pause and reflect on how profound loss and grief have shaped the history of Reynolda from its very beginnings. In 1917 as construction on the bungalow was approaching completion, R.J. Reynolds not only fell ill but took a serious turn for the worse. The Reynolds family’s anticipation for their new home was clouded as they were forced to confront the grave illness of their much loved husband and father. In July of 1917, R.J. was forced to take a trip to Atlantic City in the hopes that the sea air would alleviate his condition. Showing no signs of improvement, R.J. checked into Jefferson Hospital in Philadelphia for tests. Despite a brief return to Winston, R.J. would spend the autumn of 1917 at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore.

After a visit from a group of Reynolds Tobacco employees resulted in a worsening condition for R.J., his doctors took the drastic course of denying him access to visitors, including his wife and children. In a letter dated 21 November 1917, Dr. Thomas R. Brown explained that the reason for the prescribed isolation was that R.J.’s “worry in regard to his business was so definitely inhibiting his recovery, that… he must have complete mental rest.” And, Katharine because of her “great knowledge of his business... could not fail to keep his mind more or less active along business channels.” Dr. Brown requested that Katharine restrain her contact to “short, very cheerful letters, without any reference to his business affairs.”

Katharine reluctantly agreed to the separation, but made it clear in one of her many letters to R.J.’s nurses that she was extremely displeased over the doctor’s decision: “I cannot help but feel that had he not been allowed to received all those business men, I would not now be denied the privilege of seeing and writing him, but it is too late, and I would not only give my happiness for his welfare, but my life, if necessary.” Despite her misgivings, Katharine kept her notes to her husband light and sweet, speaking only of her affection while providing brief updates of the goings on at Reynolda: “My precious one, I know not what to say to you in so few words, only I am ever thinking and praying for you -- that the time may soon come when we shall be no longer separated…. The weather is fine and the works going on nicely at Reynolda. The house is finished and ready to move into. It is most comfortable and convenient in every way.”

As her own health deteriorated, the pain of the separation began to show through in Katharine’s words: “I am wondering if this strange separation from one who loves you better than all others in the world is doing you good? I trust that it is, for your health comes above everything else, but I cannot tell just how you are getting on from Miss Taliaferro’s letters. I would think from their cheery note you were about well. You will never know how terribly I miss you and love you and want your arms again around me and the children.” Along with this poignant note to her husband, Katharine enclosed a desperate letter to his nurse, Ella Taliaferro. While Katharine managed brave words to her husband, this small missive to his caregiver speaks to the heart-wrenching ordeal of being separated from a loved one during a time of illness:

“This has been the most awful trial I’ve ever been through in my life – if you would only tell me something real of Mr. Reynolds – how much he weighs, what he has gained, how many hours he sleeps out of twenty-four, how much he sleeps at night? It would make it a little more bearable. For I am his wife and I love him above all else in the world and I am not in isolation or having a rest cure and not likely to, if it keeps me away from all I hold dear…. Of course, I know you are doing everything you can for him and that he is in the best of hands; but in the lonely, dark hours of the night when sleep will not come, only seeing him would convince me that he is all right…. Now please send me a telegram at my expense and tell me just how Mr. Reynolds is. I wonder if you realize, my dear, how little real information you give me.”

Katharine’s pleas were answered. From then on, Ella Taliaferro provided Katharine with detailed accounts of R.J.’s day--what he ate, when and how long he slept, if he walked or went out for a drive. While not a substitute for being with her husband, these detailed missives seemed to provide Katharine with some sense of comfort.

R.J. would make a brief recovery from his illness and return home to Winston in time to move into the new bungalow for Christmas 1917. Sadly, it would be the family’s first and only Christmas spent together at Reynolda. R.J. remained seriously ill and had to be hospitalized again in the spring of 1918, and he would finally succumb to his illness (believed now to have been pancreatic cancer) on 30 July 1918. We are fortunate to have Katharine’s correspondence during this time, and these letters portray the stressful and painful realities of caregiving that are as true now as they were at the beginning of the twentieth century.


Image Credits: 
a) Three letters from Katharine Smith Reynolds to R.J. Reynolds written on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday in 1917. There are no specific dates on the letters. Reynolda House Museum of American Art. 
b) Two notes written from R.J. Reynolds's nurse Ella Taliaferro to Katharine Smith Reynolds. One is dated 7 October 1917, the other is not dated. Reynolda House Museum of American Art.
c) R.J. Reynolds holding his son Smith, circa 1912. Reynolda House Museum of American Art.

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