Letters from the Past

The "Letters to Allen" series, part of Nancy Youdelman's art exhibit at Gallery 25, tells the stories of 39 young women who fall for a man who sweeps them off their feet. Youdelman's gallery will display the letters until Sept. 30. Roe Borunda / The Collegian

The “Letters to Allen” series, part of Nancy Youdelman’s art exhibit at Gallery 25, tells the stories of 39 young women who fall for a man who sweeps them off their feet. Youdelman’s gallery will display the letters until Sept. 30.
Roe Borunda / The Collegian

Allen H. Watkins was a dapper young man. He swept women off their feet.

Romance in Virginia Beach, Va., never bloomed brighter.

More than 70 years later, the power of attraction is still strong.

Thirty-nine love-struck women, all around the eastern United States, wrote more than 100 letters to Watkins, never realizing their connection.

The letters were put in a trunk, forgotten in a dusty attic of a house in Greensboro, N.C., until 2006.

Nancy Youdelman, art instructor at Fresno State, has an interesting hobby—vintage American memorabilia.

Browsing around eBay during the summer of 2006, she stumbled across an auction for Prohibition Era letters by antique dealer Lee Dowdy.

The listing caught her interest because of the large amount of letters included in the auction.

Youdelman said that she thought they were typical letters, and didn’t immediately realize their significance.

“I still had no idea what I was buying,” she said.

The letters came in a large envelope, however the fall semester was about to begin, so she put the envelope away.

“It was months before I actually read them,” she said.

During winter break that year, Youdelman caught a cold, and with nothing but time on her hands she re-examined the large envelope that sat untouched for months.

Soon, musty letters were scattered across her kitchen table.

As she read, Youdelman began to notice something oddly similar among the letters. She was taken aback when she finally realized what she was reading.

“I just really was so amazed,” she said. “I can’t even describe the feeling. It was almost like…every hair on my body stood on end because, here I was, seeing there was these groups of women all writing to the same guy.”

Youdelman said she was swept up by the language, the references to songs, plays and film, which haven’t been written about for over seven decades. She discovered a secret world, not often seen out of the 1930s—one of loose talk, fleeting romance and drinking.

“It was like opening this door to the past and falling into it,” Youdelman said. “I’ve always wished I could time travel and I felt like that was the closest thing to actually doing it.”

She knew that her discovery would have to end up as art, but wasn’t certain how.

Eventually she decided to create a dress inspired by some of the letters, and one dress soon became several.

But she felt the women—with their stories of joy and heartbreak—deserved more.

She reprinted many of letters onto a canvas of beeswax and caustic, to be displayed along with the dresses, at Gallery 25 in downtown Fresno.

Youdelman’s “The Dearest Allen Series” is a set of dresses inspired by several women in the gallery.

“Letters to Allen” is a set of letters printed onto the beeswax panels, arranged by writer.

Christina Rea, a student in Youdelman’s Gallery Technique class at Fresno State, helped set up the gallery.

Rea said it took around 10 hours to set up around 48 panels in the “Letters to Allen” series. Each line of panels had to be lined up to suit eye level, she said.

“Each panel takes two nails to hang and it has to be level,” Rea said. “Because of the different sizes of each panel, the shape and orientation, dimensions, there’s different (levels) for every one.”

The letters featured in Youdelman’s gallery are full of joy, longing and heartbreak.

It was during the waning years of the Prohibition Era when Watkins met his many admirers.

Though the women were from cities speckled throughout the eastern United States, including New York, Pittsburgh and Indianapolis, they all had one man, and one place, in common.

Watkins met nearly all of the women at the Princess Anne Country Club at Virginia Beach, Va., Youdelman said.

“I think he symbolized something for them that was going to pull them up and out of whatever doldrums they considered themselves in, because that was kind of the state of women back then,” Youdelman said.

“It was felt that you needed a husband who was going to whatever kind of position that was going to put you in whatever place in society,” she said.

He came from a wealthy family, but money wasn’t his most attractive quality.

Photos of Watkins showed a young man, handsome, with a bright, playful smile.

Watkins was an early aviator and owned his own plane. Youdelman said she believes it was a Curtiss-Wright aircraft.

The plane now rests at a Wright Brothers museum at Kill Devil Hills, N.C., Youdelman said.

Youdelman, however, is more interested in the 39 women who gave their hearts to a single man, yet were given nothing in return.

The “Letters to Allen” series features some of her favorite letters. In one series it was obvious that a woman and Watkins were playing a game of letter swapping while at a hotel.

“This little note was something that I felt was so intriguing because it was obviously sent to his hotel room and it has the numbers,” she said. “It says ‘exactly at the stroke of midnight, I will knock on your door. If you do not answer, that’s too bad.’”

The letter was mischievously signed, The Prowler. However, after comparing it to other letters in the collection, Youdelman narrowed it down to Helen DeVilbiss, a woman who sent many letters to Watkins.

“She was obviously having fun, sneaking around at night,” Youdelman said.

The woman who stood out to Youdelman the most was Betty Potter.

Potter has her own gallery dedicated to her, called, “Who Was Betty Potter?” It includes period clothing and objects, and a recording of Youdelman reciting several of Potter’s letters.

Potter was a young woman who quickly fell in love with Watkins. She appeared to be a novice at romance, Youdelman said.

“She wrote a letter that was kind of pathetic and kind of in pain, ‘Why haven’t I heard from you? What’s the matter? What did I do wrong?’” Youdelman said.

Youdelman believes that a long period of time, perhaps months, passed after her reply.

Potter’s final letter to Watkins betrays her hurt feelings.

“Looking at it from the viewpoint of someone else, I can see just how she’s trapped,” Youdelman said. “She’s trapped by her own faulty expectations. What she wants out of something and what happens are so hugely different.”

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