Brooklyn Public Library

Mobile AppDownload our Mobile App

eNewsletterSubscribe to BPL eNews


Mary Sandsted, a "typically American girl"

Dec 18, 2015 10:02 AM | 0 comments

As it often happens, one stumbles upon a story by chance. While going through a stack of old portraits of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle editorial staff, I happened upon a portrait of a young woman, Mary Sandsted Igoe, a society reporter for the newspaper. Encased in a passe-partout freckled with age, the portrait was remarkable in more than one way. To start with, it was the only portrait of a woman in the whole stack. Other images were studio portraits of venerable gentlemen in formal suits, with grave countenances and carefully groomed moustaches. Mary Sandsted Igoe seemed incapable of proper modelling for a portrait. Her bobbed hair mussed, her posture less than perfect, her arms bare, her mouth slightly open, her direct and curious gaze straight into the lens of the camera -- all these things defy the conventions of a formal studio portrait. But what stopped me in my tracks was the caption: “Mary Sandsted Igoe, 1917-1925. Reporter, society editor and manager of the Paris Bureau during the World War. Died July 16, 1925”. I had to find out more.

Mary Sandsted Igoe. (Brooklyn Public Library -- Brooklyn Collection.)

The years 1917-1925 signify Mary Sandsted’s engagement with Brooklyn’s most influential daily paper of the day. Mary E. Sandsted was a native Brooklynite, who graduated from Girls’ High School in 1912 (with honors in English, American history and civics, physical geography and Latin) and then from the Teachers’ College. She taught in school for three years before joining the Eagle staff. After a short stint as a reporter, she was dispatched to the paper’s Paris Bureau.


The Brooklyn Daily Eagle's Paris Bureau offices at 53 rue Cambon.

It was July 1918. Less than a year prior, the American Expeditionary Forces joined the British and the French in the battles of the Great War. We know it now as World War I, but it had not been numbered yet, it was known as the World War, the Great War and it became the pivotal point of the entire history of the modern world. Young Mary Sandsted, age 25, found herself in immediate proximity to the bloodiest war yet known to the humanity. 

Guy C. Hickok, the Paris Bureau Chief. (Brooklyn Public Library -- Brooklyn Collection.)

A well-respected journalist Guy C. Hickok who had distinguished himself for the “thoroughness of his investigations and brilliance of his writing” was appointed the Chief of Paris Bureau. He was expected to go straight to the front line to send dispatches on the” Brooklyn boys in the battle line”. His wife Mary Hickok stayed in the Bureau. Miss Mary E. Sandsted had been already in place and she took active charge in the Bureau’s work in Paris.

Reading room at the Paris Bureau office.

Her main job was, of course, journalism. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle features several long pieces (with long titles -- one on German propaganda was called “Wasn’t Fritz a Jolly Brick to Send Us Over Such a Bully Funny Sheet’, Say the Sammies”) but the bulk of her writing consists of a collection of dispatches about individual Brooklyn “doughboys” to those who were anxiously waiting for any news about their loved ones across the Atlantic. That was the era when the only means of instant communication were telephones and cables. Both were unavailable for most of the military personnel, especially for those who were wounded and convalescing in hospitals. The only source of regular news for ordinary citizens was newspapers.

These dispatches, signed simply “Sandsted”, seem so mundane and dry today, but they were a lifeline and a comfort for the families and friends of the soldiers.

“Lt. Harry Smith of 5919 Fourth Ave.…has fully recovered from a gas attack and is ready to return to the fighting front”. Or: “The Rev. M.M. Amunson of the First Church of Christ, Sterling Pl. and Seventh Ave., who is doing Y.M.C.A. work at the front ... sent the Bureau a story of a Halloween celebration in which 25 Brooklyn boys were guests” and attaches a list of names and addresses. Or: “23 Brooklyn Sgts Are Made Lieutenants”, again with names and addresses. Or: “Lieutenant W.F. Barnaby, 91 East 18th Street ... writes that he is anxious about his family, fearing that some members of it may have been victims of B.R.T. accident”. Or; “William Kuhn Jr., of 28 Arion Pl. ... acknowledges receipt of long delayed money order”. And many, many more like these, several times a week.

Mary Sandsted and other bureau staff turned the office at 53 Rue Cambon into a home away from home. It was known as “La Maison Brooklyn”, to all American military personnel who passed through Paris at the time, especially for those from Brooklyn.

A party at the Paris Burea offices.

Accounts like these pepper the Eagle of the day:

“The warmest words of praise for Miss Mary Sandsted, who has charge of The Eagle's Paris Bureau, are brought to America by James A. Lamb of 513 Park pl., a Knights of Columbus secretary, who was three times invalided to hospitals for shrapnel wounds, shell shock and gassed lungs. Miss Sandsted’s work for wounded soldiers in the hospitals around Paris have endeared her to everyone she attended. Americans, and especially Brooklyn men, have nothing but the highest praise for the typically American girl who distributed flowers and aids in the reception of many of the wounded men from the front. Her bureau in Paris is a rendezvous for American soldiers visiting Paris”.

Or this letter to the editor from Jennie F. Walsh, “mother of Bugler Harry C. Walsh”:
“Today I received from Miss Mary Sandsted of your Paris Bureau a picture of my son’s grave in France, together with a letter that only a girl like Mary Sandsted could write – a girl who has given to her country, her paper and her boys from Brooklyn the very best that was in her. Almost two years ago, the Red Cross promised me the pictures of the grave, and this little girl without fuss or asking, after only three weeks since her visit to the grave, sends me the pictures that my heart has hungered for.”

She not only sewed their buttons and shared meals with them, he sent cables home for them, she helped them get in touch with old friends, she shopped for them, and she also visited the wounded in hospitals. The Eagle published a long and somewhat rhapsodic essay by Corp. John Black titled "Somebody Paid Me a Visit":

 Excerpted from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 11, 1919. Read the full article here.

Once the war was over, Mary Sandsted went back to Brooklyn. Upon return, she announced her engagement to one of the officers she had met in France, Mr. E. Harold Igoe, of Yonkers. A wedding reception was given to her by the newspaper’s management in the Eagle auditorium, to which “all those parents and boys which whom she has come in contact [in Paris] were invited.”

In 1920 Mary Sandsted, along with the Bureau Chief, Guy C. Hickok, was recognized by the French government for her work for the troops during the war. She was also awarded a gold medal by the Kings County American Legion.

In the peacetime, Mary Sandsted Igoe continued her work at the Eagle as a society columnist. The young woman who just recently ministered to the wounded and the grieving effortlessly switched to covering the latest fashions from Paris; the charms of the French capital and what Brooklyn could learn from it; New Year’s Eve dance parties; mahjongg; and all the hot destinations in Brooklyn and New York.

Yet the war never really lets one go: on Memorial Day of 1920, Mary visited the graves of the fallen Americans and placed wreaths on 53 graves of the borough soldiers in France.

And then, on July 17, 1925, tragedy struck: Mary Sandsted Igoe died two days after delivering twin boys.

All major local newspapers published tributes to the writer from the rival publication. Her funeral was held at St. James Episcopal Church on the corner of Lafayette Ave and St. James Place, in Brooklyn. The service was led by Rev. Harry Handel, whom she befriended in France and who just three year earlier officiated at her wedding. The church was crammed with the Eagle staff, members of the family and many, many Great War veterans who came to pay their final respects to the “typically American girl” who became their guardian angel during the war.

Mary Sandsted Igoe's ashes were strewn among the graves of American soldiers in Suresnes Military Cemetery in France. She returned to rest to the place where the most intense, productive and perhaps happy years of her short life unfolded. She returned to her "boys". The good Rev. Harry Handel, although seriously ill, made this trip with Harold Igoe to finish his services of devotion.

Mary's twin boys, William James and John Roberts, did not outlive her by long. They succumbed one after another within two months after their mother’s death.

Ervin Harold Igoe, who used Harold as his preferred name, went on to serve in the next World War, in US Air Force. He remarried and lived a long life. He died in 1983.
I was not able to find Harold Igoe’s portrait in our collection. Perhaps it is him, in the middle, sitting next to Mary Sandsted in this photograph taken in La Maison Brooklyn?