“Do you suppose I’m an international incident?”
I recently finished processing the fantastic papers of Curtis Bok (Philadelphia attorney and judge) and his wife Nellie Lee Holt Bok (religious educator from Nebraska). This collection has been full of so much wonder and discovery that it’s been hard to know what to highlight – it’s all so great! – from learning about Nellie Lee’s world tour and visit with Mahatma Gandhi in 1926 to Curtis Bok’s landmark obscenity case, Commonwealth V. Gordon. But since last Wednesday marked the anniversary of the 1937 coronation of England’s King George VI, this is as good a time as any to discuss one of my favorite related finds in the collection.
Curtis Bok enjoyed a successful life in Philadelphia. His father was author and editor Edward Bok, a Dutch immigrant. Bok eventually crossed paths with publisher Cyrus Curtis, who went on to form the Curtis Publishing Company with Bok serving as editor of the Ladies’ Home Journal. Under Bok’s leadership, the Ladies’ Home Journal became the first magazine in the United States to reach one million subscribers in 1903. Bok eventually married Curtis’s daughter Mary Louis. From their union came two sons: William Curtis and Cary William. During his formative years, Curtis considered following in his father’s footsteps, but after serving a term in the U. S. Navy, he decided to pursue a law degree. He worked in Philadelphia as a lawyer during the 1920s and 1930s. In 1935 he was appointed to Philadelphia’s Orphans Court, and later was elected to the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas. In 1958, Curtis was elected to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court – a position he held until his death in 1962.
Due in part to his family’s social and political ties, Curtis, who proved to be a very amenable, eloquent, and outspoken citizen, became acquainted with national figures such as President Franklin Roosevelt and J. Edgar Hoover. In 1937, he was selected to be an American delegate to the coronation of King George VI. He accepted the position and attended to his adventures in England. His wife, Nellie Lee, later joined him and also witnessed the spectacle. In separate but similar fashion, they both recalled this experience in writings they titled “Coronation of George VI.” I came across Curtis’s handwritten and typed account and was delighted to also find Nellie Lee’s typed account with them.
Curtis was quite the wordsmith. (He wrote four books and also published his often humorous “Judge Ulen” articles in the law magazine The Shingle.) His recollections are vivid, wry, and sincere. In a mere 53 pages he covered a wide variety of topics. He discussed George’s brother Edward’s abdication of the throne:
But however much Edward may have shocked and hurt England, he has helped to humanize the job [of King] just the same. (p. 6).
He talked about the community of people from around the world in attendance:
Most of the delegates came, among them the fierce Arabs from Yemen, sitting in a corner and looking anciently bored and as though they would at any moment produce a horse from under their copious robes and gallop away on it. (p. 14).
And he acknowledged the pomp and circumstance of the ceremony itself:
I hesitate to describe the ceremony itself with any particularity: there is too much of it and every bit is coated with history and tradition. One must go to the books to find out who, and why and wherefore is the King’s Champion, why the Maltravers Herald Extraordinary is called that funny name, what is a Gold Stick in Waiting, the meaning of the Sword called Curtana, and the History of the Ampulla and Spoon. (p. 25-26).
In one of my favorite and his most descriptive passages, Curtis describes a reception at Buckingham Palace at which he committed his “gravest social error.” From the invitation, he interpreted that the gathering would be “just a get together of delegates under the royal roof and that we’d look at each other and go home.” He also believed that the required dress code of “Full Dress” meant formal attire with long pants, which he wore, rather than the uniform, complete with knee breeches, that he had to wear for the coronation. Once he arrived, however, he realized quickly that the latter was the case. “Barely half a dozen men in evening clothes,” he noted, “and two in long pants, so I felt easier until I saw their clothes were velvet and they had swords.” To Curtis’s seeming surprise, both the King and Queen made an appearance to greet the guests. He exclaimed, “I sank through the floor and arose in a burst of spray. What, no knee breeches!” But despite his fashion faux pas, he met them cordially and without incident.
In her own writings, Nellie Lee recounted a very different experience. She was not always at Curtis's side, though she did enjoy a few perks as the wife of a delegate. For example, while Curtis went to Buckingham Palace and had to deal with his poor choice of costume, Nellie Lee went to Westminster Palace for a separate reception. She noted the formal and beautiful attire of the guests:
The men were in full dress uniform or knee breeches with decorations. The women were in evening dress, with decorations. . . The women at that reception and at every other formal gathering we attended, were the most exquisitely dressed of any women I have ever seen. Each dress seemed to me to me to have been designed and made for the woman who wore it. Each figure, tall, short, round, oval, or square, was shown off to advantage. The lines were soft and flattering rather than alluring." (p. 10)
Afterwards, she met with Curtis and the two took a car back to their hotel. In a wonderful moment of levity, probably coupled with a little fatigue, she presented the results of Curtis's "wardrobe malfunction":
Once seated in privacy, Curtis let out a groan that froze the blood in my veins. ‘I wore the wrong pants! Should have worn my knee breeches. But I met the King and Queen. Shook the royal paws and looked Lizzie [Queen Elizabeth] right in the eye – long pants and all. My God, do you suppose I’m an international incident?’ I tried my best to be wifely and consoling, but I literally shook with laughter… (p. 11)
After going through the Bok collection and coming to understand the two of them both as a couple and as individuals, this moment of humor during an otherwise momentous occasion described Curtis's and Nellie Lee's commitment to each other and wonderful honesty.
It’s these great little discoveries that make this and HSP’s collections more than just papers in file folders – they bring to life the people, places, and adventures contained within.
The finding aid for the William Curtis Bok and Nellie Lee Holt Bok papers (Collection 3096) is now available on HSP's website.