80 letters, about 250 pp, various sizes, dating from 1919-1932 with the
majority being written in 1920 and 1921 between 22-year-old American sailor
Howard “Bobby” Belt and his young French wife Blanche “Betty.” The letters are deeply emotional and contain
explicit details of how Belt feels regarding his sexual longings.
The letters expose the difficulties of a globe-spanning relationship – intense sexual tensions, loneliness, jealousy, constant worries about money. Belt promises Blanche that he has only been sexual with four women and he wants to remain faithful to her and begs her to do the same. It appears the couple will be reunited in 1922, possibly at the end of Belt’s term of service.
Belt is apparently a yeoman or storekeeper aboard the “USS Panther,” a venerable auxiliary cruiser and a veteran of the Spanish American War. By 1919, she is serving as a destroyer tender in France and the British Isles.
The U.S. Navy established a Naval Operating Base at Brest, France, in June 1917, with the French Navy to engage against German submarines. The location became a landing point for U.S. Army troops for service with the American Expeditionary Forces. In September 1919, both the Naval Port Office and the Army Transport Service were ordered closed but the Naval Port Office continued operations until July 1920.
Belt writes from Scotland, Jerusalem, the Philippines, France, China and other countries. He writes of his work on the ship in the paymaster’s office, of having been jilted by a former lover and his passionate love for Betty. While the majority of the narrative between the two deals with their deep and painful love for each other, Belt occasionally includes news about the work he and his fellow sailors are doing. On October 12, 1919, he writes to Betty from Brest, France, saying, “We are all through sweeping mines and back here at Brest, how long is not known…”
Writing from the Philippine Islands, aboard the Panther, on January 13, 1920, Belt writes Betty about a sexual dream he had about her with very explicit language.
Belt marries Blanche in France in 1920, at which point, the “Panther” is sent to the Asiatic station, separating them. Betty is eventually transported to his people in Baltimore.
Aboard the “Panther” on May 13, 1919, Belt writes about having to leave her for his stint in the service, referring to her as “so different from other French girls…the little French girl whom I love…”
On July 1, 1920, he writes from the “Panther” in Brest, “…The commanding officer received a telegram today to proceed to South Hampton, England, to do some repair work to one of our ships prior to sailing to Bordeaux…prior to sailing to Italy…In the United States Navy…you never can tell as to where you will be tomorrow…I feel sure we will come to Bordeaux, prior to sailing for Italy. We have some stores to bring aboard there…”
Belt’s racism is exposed in a letter to Blanche, who apparently witnessed a fight between an African American and a white man. “…You were right to agree with the American because your husband does not like Negroes and I do not want my wife to like them…You cannot trust them…”
Belt writes his wife about sexual shenanigans on the ship. “Darling, do you remember when the “Panther” was in Bordeaux…and [we] were walking toward the ship and we passed an officer…He had a girl and I told you that was his wife…[They are no more.] He married a bad girl from Paris and…she was not true to him…Her reputation was all ruined when she arrived…at Manila…The person whom she was sleeping with…was stationed at Manila and while we were away on trips, she would live with him…He [her husband] caught her one night and he beat up the soldier. He was a captain in the U.S. Army. He did not know the girl was married…This naval officer was dismissed from the Naval Service and is in the states somewhere…”
The Belts go on to have children. He takes up work as a commission merchant in a company in which he apparently has an interest – Lespine & Belt – in Bordeaux. He is later back in the United States. She’s back in France with the children and has stopped writing to him, much to his distress. By 1930, they are divorced. He still professes his love for her but she signs her letters “your friend” and speaks of possibly marrying again.
Folds, toning. Some miscellaneous items and partial letters are included. A wonderful assemblage of love letters between an American and a French woman with all the conflicts and complexities involved in a distant and youthful relationship.
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