Surprises on Every Page
The Lane Carlson Papers came to Swem Special Collections in 2012 in several large boxes, filled with what at first glance appeared to be just stacks and stacks of mundane letters from a small-town girl to her parents. This could not be further from the truth. Bonnie Elaine “Lane” Carlson, a native of Scotts Bluff Nebraska, was actually a writer, radio performer, globe-trotting professional woman, veteran of the World War II Women’s Army Corps, and one of the first five female colonels in the US Army. Her letters are full of entertaining banter, reflections on historical events happening around her, and insights into the culture and attitudes of mainstream America at the time. But there is a great deal more to this collection than just her letters.
While Carlson was stationed at the Army’s San Francisco Presidio, she was assigned as the Army’s representative in the production of a 1954 Hollywood film about (of all things) a talking mule and his human sidekick, a male lieutenant, who is assigned to the Women’s Army Corps as a result of a computer error. Carlson was the technical director for the film, teaching the actresses, including Mamie Van Doren, Julie Adams, and Zasu Pitts, how to march, wear their uniforms and insignia, and carry themselves in true military trim. She was also involved in other aspects of production, including scripts and staging. Accordingly, the collection has a great deal of fascinating memorabilia, including photographs, banners, and autographs, not to mention behind-the-scenes gossip, and insights into how films were made in this era.
Perhaps the most surprising and exciting find in this collection, however, was discovered during the rehousing of a series of photographs taken while Carlson was stationed in Japan in 1948. Her assignment coincided with one of Helen Keller’s trips to Japan, and Carlson was assigned as a liaison to Keller in her travels throughout the country.
As a token of gratitude, Keller wrote a note to Carlson on the back of a photograph of herself, and signed it. Special Collections now has an original manuscript authored by Helen Keller herself, a most welcome surprise. It just goes to show, you never can tell what you might find in the archives.
Jessica Kidwell is a graduate student in the Department of History and a 2014-2015 Archives Apprentice in the Special Collections Research Center, Swem Library.