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Gilbert Jerome: New Haven’s WWI Aviator
June 14, 2018 - December 31, 2018
New Haven Museum
114 Whitney Avenue
Sweeping over the French countryside at 120 mph in an aeroplane crafted of wood, wire and canvas, New Haven native and Boy Scout Executive Lt. Gilbert Jerome had the time of his life. The New Haven Museum hosts an unusual and intimate exhibit capturing Jerome’s brief, enthusiastic embrace of life during World War One (WWI), using excerpts from the Yale graduate’s diary, the charming letters, sketches, and tiny watercolors he sent home from “in the field,” and memorabilia on loan from the Connecticut Yankee Council, Boy Scouts of America. Admission is free and the public is invited.
Exhibited in an intimate, second-floor gallery space, the exhibit, “Gilbert Jerome: New Haven’s WWI Aviator,” offers a bittersweet glimpse of WWI through the eyes of an artistic soul enchanted by the wonder and excitement of aviation, and the tender regard with which he held his mother, Elizabeth, and sister, Jennie.
In 1917, fewer than 20 years after Kitty Hawk, the world was captivated by the glamor and danger of early flight. Aviators were the pampered aristocrats of war, soaring high above the horrors of the trenches. Well-fed, and with plenty of down time, they spent much of their time behind the lines in camps geared to keeping the cadets in top shape. Heading to France for flight training, Jerome naively quipped in a letter, “I cannot get over the feeling that we are off on a sort of grand pleasure tour in which Uncle Sam pays the bills and conducts the tour…”
According to Guest Curator Deborah G. Rossi, pilots were treated well because they typically lasted one to three weeks in combat before being shot down—and there were no parachutes. “They didn’t want to encourage pilots to bail out and crash the planes,” Rossi explains. “Till they finally realized it was more expensive to train new pilots than to make new planes.”
Artifacts in the exhibit include Jerome’s dog tags, the altimeter and a wooden strut from his SPAD XIII aeroplane, and the wooden marker from his original gravesite in France, all on loan by the Connecticut Yankee Council, Boy Scouts of America, in New Haven.
Evident in Jerome’s correspondence, writing, and photos is a boyish sense of fun, from his poem, “The Great Disappointment,” recounting his distress on learning that there were no French fries in France—to assurances to his mother that his underwear was sufficiently warm.
Rossi, an historian specializing in the late Victorian and Edwardian periods, whose master’s thesis was on Gilbert’s sister Jennie Jerome, notes that what makes the exhibit unusual, and a curator’s dream, is the volume and types of documentation she had available. “The level of detail we had to work with is rare,” she says. “The New Haven Museum collection chronicles the Jerome family and Gilbert’s entire war-time experience, from his first flight in an airplane to the death notice telegram received by his mother.”
Noting that Gilbert Jerome is not just a name on a monument, Rossi adds, “Unlike the millions who perished in WWI who we know little or nothing of beyond their name, we get to know Jerome in detail, in his own words, and come to admire his enthusiasm, wit and devotion to family.”
And, with that degree of familiarity may come a sense of loss. Rossi tells of two elderly men who attended an exhibit she created at NHM in 1996 which explored New Haven during WWI through the Jerome family. The former Boy Scouts told her they had known and admired Jerome, and still mourned their former Scout leader. “One of the things I’m struck with while working on this exhibit is that Jerome’s death was a loss his family, yes, but also to New Haven,” she says. Knowing the impact young Jerome had on the Elm City, Rossi wonders how many others, who faded into anonymity, might have greatly affected the community—had they survived.
“Gilbert Jerome: New Haven’s WWI Aviator,” is part of the New Haven Museum’s year-long commemoration of WWI, comprised of micro-level views of The Great War based on the personal narratives of individuals from the New Haven area. “We took this approach to WWI in order to make our tribute really meaningful,” says NHM Collections Manager Mary Christ. “Rather than tackling the entire, massive conflict, we want visitors to understand the impact the war had on individuals, and fully realize the personal costs of war that often get lost when looking at the big picture.”