Louise Bryant: Stuart Island to Bolshevik Revolution

Posted September 4, 2019 at 5:49 am by

It’s that time once again for this month’s his­to­ry col­umn from the San Juan His­tor­i­cal Soci­ety and Muse­um

It’s not often that a tiny slice of local his­to­ry becomes part of an inter­na­tion­al sto­ry of con­sid­er­able fame, but this is one of them. The Stu­art Island por­tion begins on March 27, 1909 when the mail boat from Belling­ham arrives on the island, bring­ing with it a new school teacher.

This is 23-year-old Louise Bryant (pic­tured above in 1904). It is the same Louise Bryant who would go on to become an inter­na­tion­al­ly known for­eign war cor­re­spon­dent, mar­ry activist John Reed (then after him, William C. Bul­litt, the first U.S. Ambas­sador to the Sovi­et Union), and be played by Diane Keaton in the 1981 Acad­e­my Award win­ning film Reds.

But back to Stu­art Island…

On that spring day in 1909, many fam­i­ly mem­bers of the 20 or so chil­dren of Stu­art Island School are gath­ered at the mail dock, wait­ing to greet “Miss Louise,” com­ing from Port­land, Ore­gon, after grad­u­at­ing from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Ore­gon with a degree in his­to­ry. Louise’s salary of  $50 a month will have room and board tak­en out to com­pen­sate her host fam­i­ly. This is the fam­i­ly of the Turn Point light­house keep­er, Louis Borchers, Sr., and it is his daugh­ter Leila we can thank for a first-hand account of Louise’s time on the island.

Although only sev­en years old at the time, Leila would have much to share decades lat­er when she was inter­viewed in her 70s by a writer research­ing the sto­ry beyond the head­lines of Louise Bryant. In Leila’s words, “Nobody on the island had ever seen any­one dressed so beau­ti­ful­ly as she was, except maybe in mail order cat­a­logs.” Leila also remem­bered the pleas­ant scent of Louise’s per­fume, about which her moth­er Cal­lie Borchers said,  “Good girls and ladies don’t wear perfume.”

Archived issues of the San Juan Islander news­pa­per also add glimpses into those days on Stu­art Island. From the April 2, 1909 issue, in the news from Stu­art Island column:

“Miss Louise Bryant arrived Sat­ur­day to open school Mon­day, March 29 in dis­trict No. 26. Miss Bryant will teach a five months’ term.”

Open­ing up school in the spring after a long win­ter clo­sure was a tra­di­tion to avoid storms and high seas, since some stu­dents had to row over from Spieden Island. Class­mates in the one room school­house (built in 1904, pic­tured here) includ­ed chil­dren from the Borchers, Cheva­lier, Cepas, Droullard, and Mord­horst fam­i­lies, in addi­tion to oth­ers. As for a social life on the week­ends, Louise helped clean fish caught by the island’s three unmar­ried Finns (bor­row­ing appro­pri­ate attire from them) or joined the Borchers fam­i­ly for out­ings to Pen­der Island and Roche Harbor.

In mid-April the mail boat brought a let­ter for Louise, with an invi­ta­tion to return to the Uni­ver­si­ty of Ore­gon in Eugene for a cer­e­mo­ny and fes­tiv­i­ties sur­round­ing the nation­al char­ter­ing of the soror­i­ty she helped estab­lish, where she served as first pres­i­dent. Even though Louise had been on Stu­art for just a few weeks, Mrs. Borchers agreed to teach in her place “for a week or so” and off she went back to Oregon.

On April 18, the Eugene news­pa­per report­ed that Louise had arrived on the train, say­ing “She is very pop­u­lar here and many social affairs are being planned in her hon­or.”  A few days lat­er, Louise wrote to the Borchers, ask­ing them to send her trunk of belong­ings because she had accept­ed a job writ­ing for a Port­land news­pa­per and would not be return­ing to Stu­art Island.

On May 7, the San Juan Islander news­pa­per report­ed that

“L.A. Borchers and two sons Louis and Lawrence made a trip to Mitchell Bay to get Miss Bertha Baats, who will fin­ish the term of school in dis­trict No. 26.”

Lat­er that year, the Borchers received a Christ­mas card from Louise. It end­ed with “Love to every­body. Tell my Finns I love them.” It was signed “Louise Bryant Trullinger,” as Louise had recent­ly mar­ried the first of her three husbands.

Our sto­ry could end there, but the rest of Louise’s life deserves the inclu­sion of a few high­lights to posi­tion her in the larg­er pic­ture of our country’s his­to­ry and Stu­art Island’s con­nec­tion to it.

Louise’s career as a Port­land jour­nal­ist worked well with her grow­ing pas­sion as a com­mu­ni­ty activist. Ear­ly assign­ments to cov­er social events fad­ed away to focus on the pol­i­tics and move­ments of the time. Louise active­ly cam­paigned for the women’s right to vote, lead­ing up to Oregon’s pas­sage of the Equal Suf­frage Procla­ma­tion in 1912. With­in the next few years, she met rad­i­cal jour­nal­ist John Reed (a founder of the Com­mu­nist Labor Par­ty and author of  “Ten Days That Shook the World”), divorced her hus­band, and moved with Reed to New York. By 1917, they were mar­ried and in Rus­sia wit­ness­ing the Bol­she­vik Rev­o­lu­tion. Louise’s series of 32 arti­cles, based upon her expe­ri­ences and inter­views with Lenin, Trot­sky, Keren­sky, and oth­ers, was syn­di­cat­ed by Hearst and would appear in over 100 U.S. news­pa­pers. Her book “Six Red Months in Rus­sia” was trans­lat­ed into five lan­guages almost as soon as it was pub­lished in 1918.

Louise was a dar­ing and influ­en­tial for­eign cor­re­spon­dent. Upon her return to the U.S., a nation­al speak­ing tour took her to sold out halls across the nation. One event in Port­land attract­ed 4,000 peo­ple in 1919. She spoke not only on her over­seas expe­ri­ences, but also on domes­tic caus­es that she sup­port­ed. Dur­ing an assign­ment to cov­er the women’s suf­frage move­ment, she and oth­er suf­frag­ists were jailed for three days in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. after being arrest­ed dur­ing a Nation­al Woman’s Par­ty ral­ly in front of the White House.

After return­ing home to the U.S. for a short time, John Reed trav­eled back to Rus­sia where he became grave­ly ill with typhus. Louise was with him in 1920 when he died in Moscow. She walked behind his cas­ket dur­ing his state funer­al pro­ces­sion in Red Square and faint­ed along the route. Reed is the most well-known of the few Amer­i­cans buried at the Krem­lin Wall.

In 1923 Louise mar­ried Amer­i­can diplo­mat William C. Bul­litt in Rome. Their daugh­ter Anne was born the next year in Paris and raised by Bul­litt after his 1930 divorce from Louise. Louise con­tin­ued to work as a for­eign cor­re­spon­dent in sev­er­al Euro­pean coun­tries, although the ear­ly onset of a rare and debil­i­tat­ing dis­ease cur­tailed her activ­i­ty. Louise Bryant died in Paris from a cere­bral hem­or­rhage at age 50.

 John Reed once wrote of Louise that she was “wild and brave” and “a lover of all adven­ture of spir­it and of mind.” Oth­ers not­ed her “bril­liant wit” and called her “intel­lec­tu­al­ly alive.” To read more about Louise Bryant, we can rec­om­mend what the Ore­gon His­tor­i­cal Soci­ety has pub­lished about her. If you know any­thing about her time on Stu­art Island, please let the San Juan His­tor­i­cal Soci­ety and Muse­um know.

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Categories: History, People
One comment:

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  1. Very inter­est­ing sto­ry! Also use­ful infor­ma­tion about the Stu­art Island school, and fam­i­lies involved. Tom (Orcas Id)

    Comment by Tom Tweddell on July 31, 2021 at 5:14 pm

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