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Volume 35, Number 5September/October 1984

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The Many Hats of William Yale

Written and photographed by Aileen Vincent-Barwood

They're just big enough to fit on an egg. They're accurate in every detail. And though the bright silks and satins are now somewhat dulled, the fabric now a little frayed, they tell a colorful tale...

The tale, which begins more than 100 years ago, has all the elements of a modern thriller and some of the elements of a TV soap: two wars, a beautiful refugee, political intrigue, a secret agent and a romance that lasted 60 years. It even has, in a cameo role, Lawrence of Arabia.

Enter, the first player in the drama.

In 1870, to escape the Franco-Prussian war, a Miss Baldensperger (first name not revealed) fled Alsace-Lorraine for Palestine, where she had been born 18 years before. Her father and mother ran a Protestant mission school for orphans there - though they were better known for the bees they kept in old clay hives - and on her return, Miss Baldensperger began to teach arts and crafts at the school. Miss Baldensperger, who had grown up in Palestine and lived there until the end of her life, wrote of her childhood with fondness:

At our house in the village of Urtas, there is a narrow glen, enclosed to right and left by rugged hill-slopes, and watered by an ever-running brook, where the most luscious apricots, peaches, pears, figs and other kinds of fruit are grown. These fruit trees of Urtas, gay with innumerable blossoms or weighed down by fruit fit for the tables of kings and princes -the bright blue sky seen through the branches as I lay beneath them dreaming - the singing of the birds, the murmur of the brook, and the fragrant odor of the plants on which our bees find so plentiful a harvest, make a never-to-be-forgotten world.

To Miss Baldensperger, one of the most arresting sights of the area was the colorful headdresses of the men: the paisley and red turbans of the Druze elders, the conical yellow, red and green hats of the protectors of the mosques and holy places, the purple-tasseled headgear of the men of Bethlehem, the red fezzes of the Turks and the sky-blue kafiya of the desert chieftain. She was so taken with these headdresses, in fact, that she encouraged her young charges to study the beauty and uniqueness of these head coverings and to reproduce them in miniature - on bases of scooped-out lemon and lime halves, baked hard by the sun. The intricate draping and tiny stitches done by these young craftsmen show their teacher's exacting eye for detail; so precisely wrought, in fact, are some of the tiny turbans that only a child's small hands could have fashioned them.

Enter, now, the second player.

Prior to World War I, in 1913, a young American, William Yale, arrived in Constantinople. A descendant of Elihu Yale, founder of Yale University, and himself a Yale man, William had yearned from the time he was a boy growing up in New York state "to go adventuring." At 26 he had already worked as a laborer on the Panama Canal, as a private tutor, and as a roustabout in the U.S. oil fields - though "always dreaming of the time when I would be sent to foreign lands," as he later wrote. Now employed by the Standard Oil Company of New York, he had been sent to the Middle East in the company's foreign service.

One day, while on an exploratory trip through Palestine in search of oil deposits, he met and fell immediately in love with a beautiful dark-haired American woman from Cleveland, Ohio: Edith Hanna, visiting Jerusalem with her mother and sister and staying at the Grand New Hotel. As Yale tells it in his memoirs: "While cooling my heels in Jerusalem my tedium was relieved by the arrival of an American mother and two daughters. The youngest daughter was so lovely I was crazy to meet her." Before Edith Hanna left for London the two had made plans to meet again as soon as possible.

But it was not to be so.

The year, by now, was 1914. In Europe, Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany declared war on England and France, and when Ottoman Turkey sided with Germany, the whole of the Middle East, with the exception of Egypt, was suddenly right in the middle of the enemy camp. War had once again intervened in the lives of the story s protagonists: the romance had to be postponed.

Edith Hanna went no farther than London. Here she joined the nursing order of St. John's of Jerusalem at St. Dunstan's Hospital and began working with blind soldiers and sailors while she waited for her suitor. Yale, still in the Middle East as a Standard Oil employee, was able, as an American neutral, to continue his travels throughout the area. For the next three years he made many valuable contacts, meeting and talking to people on both sides of the conflict, Turk and German as well as British and French.

Like his friend Lawrence of Arabia, who was the same age, Yale sometimes dressed in Arab or Turkish garb; thus disguised, he traveled throughout Turkey and Syria, Palestine and Egypt, speaking Arabic as well as French, becoming, in his own words, "more and more a friend of the Arab cause."

During all this time, his correspondence with Miss Hanna was difficult and complicated: their letters had to travel across Europe by train, and had to pass through four sets of censors: Turkish, Bulgarian, Austrian and German. So they devised a code and arranged to exchange letters through a "Swiss connection" in Geneva, a friendly lawyer who sped their mail on its way along with his own. To the end of their lives, it was a story each of the Yales delighted in retelling.

Early in 1917, Yale, wanting to be of service to his country, and to the Arabs, went to work for the U.S. Department of State. His duties were loosely defined - "to report on any Near East matters that might be of interest to the U.S. government when peace comes" - so, based in Cairo, he resumed his travels throughout the area, gathering information and friends later to prove useful to his career as well as his country.

In 1918, he returned to Jerusalem - this time as the U.S. Military Observer on the staff of General Sir Edmund Allenby, the British general in charge of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force. Because he freed Palestine after four centuries of Turkish rule, Allenby then was the hero of the day, and Yale found him to be a courageous and outspoken man and a fine companion.

Re-enter Miss Baldensperger, now in her late 60's, still active at the mission.

Through her, Yale saw and was enchanted with the miniature headdress collection. He knew he must have it, he wrote, because it "summed up all the color and dash and design of the teeming streets I've come to love." He bought the collection as a wedding gift for Miss Hanna - though he had not yet proposed to her, nor even seen her in four years.

But again there was a delay.

By now prominent - and recognized as a specialist in Middle East affairs - Yale was asked by President Wilson to serve on what came to be called the "King-Crane Commission," a blue ribbon government group formed by the president to sound out Arab opinion on the forthcoming mandates being proposed by Britain and France. Later that same year, Yale was also sent to Paris as the U.S. delegate on Arab affairs at the Paris Peace Conference.

In Paris, however, Yale wangled an assignment as a diplomatic courier so that he could take the diplomatic pouch from Paris to the American embassy in London. So, finally, he caught up with - and proposed to - the elusive Edith Hanna. "There I saw the same lovely woman I'd met five years before in Jerusalem," he wrote of this meeting. "I was somewhat daunted ... but ... there was a garden, there was moonlight, it was Spring."

At the wedding, Yale at last presented the headdress collection to his bride, "as a reminder of the happy day in Jerusalem when we met." It was delightfully received by the new Mrs. Yale, and when the war was over, they, the hats and the household were moved to Cairo where, for the next three years, Yale ran a shipping and tourism business. Then, however, the Yales left Cairo to go to the Institute of Politics in Williamstown, Massachusetts, where Yale was to lecture on Middle East affairs for the next two years. And when they arrived the headdress collection failed to show up.

Edith Yale was distraught. "Alas, my precious hat collection, gift of my beloved, has been lost. I am most upset," she wrote to a friend.

"They both loved that little hat collection," says a New Hampshire friend, Frank Maria, "because it reminded them always of the Middle East where they'd met. It had become for them a sort of symbol."

Three years later, the Yales moved again - to the University of New Hampshire at Durham, where Yale was to teach Near East History as an assistant professor - and during the move found the hats. They were in an unpacked box that had been stored in a friend's attic. Restored to its delighted owners, the collection was displayed prominently in their new home, in Chester, New Hampshire for the next 45 years, carefully preserved and much admired.

During this time, William Yale, now Professor Yale, never lost his interest in Arab affairs. Taking temporary leave from the university in 1945, he attended the United Nations Conference on International Organization in San Francisco as assistant secretary of the international secretariat. Later that year, he was country specialist for Palestine in the State Department's Office of Post-War Planning, but resigned because of President Harry Truman's Middle East policy. Upon his return to the University of New Hampshire, he completed The Near East for the University of Michigan's History of the Modern World series. It was, for its time, the definitive work on the subject.

In 1974, now in their late 80's, the Yales were forced by illness to move to a nearby nursing home, and their beloved farm, with all its contents, was put up for auction. Concerned as always, about her "dear little collection," Edith Yale asked friends in Boston's American Arab Association (AMARA), of which the Yales had long been active members, to see that the collection was kept intact and preserved. Happy to do so, two AMARA members attended the auction, found the little headdresses loose in a box, bid on them, got them - for $22.50 - and made them a part of AMARA's cultural exhibit. This exhibit is shown around New England whenever there is occasion to put on a Middle East display, where it captures admiring attention and, to a handful who know, evokes memories of a Middle East romance.

Aileen Vincent-Barwood is a regular contributor to Aramco World magazine.

This article appeared on pages 38-40 of the September/October 1984 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for September/October 1984 images.