Google+ Georgia On My Mind: The Two Faces of Juliette Gordon Low

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

The Two Faces of Juliette Gordon Low

There is no one more revered by a Girl Scout, even a Girl Scout in her mid-40s, than Juliette Gordon Low. Our founder, our fearless leader, our reason for being…quiet simply there would be no Girl Scouts without the efforts of Juliette Gordon Low. Her birthplace located in Savannah, Georgia is now a museum and is one of the most visited places in Georgia. Girls Scout troops from all over the nation have an ultimate goal…to raise enough money to one day make the pilgrimage to Savannah and see the museum. In fact, Christ Church in Savannah reserves the fourth floor of their parish house strictly for Girl Scout groups to stay in, but reserve it far in advance because it’s quite popular.

Born on Halloween in 1860 Juliette Magil Kinzie Gordon was thankfully saved by her uncle from such a long name when he nicknamed her Daisy. From this point on that is how I will refer to her.

Her father was William Washington Gordon, II while her mother hailed from the Kinzie family of Chicago.

Her grandfather was the first William Washington Gordon, president of Central Railway and Banking Company (Central of Georgia Railway) which was the first set of rails to reach from Savannah deep in the interior of Georgia’s many acres of cotton. Just knowing this little fact it can be quickly ascertained that a fortune was to be made and that the Gordon family were movers and shakers.

Gordon bought a house at the corner of Bull and South Broad Streets (Oglethorpe Avenue) which is known as the Juliette Gordon Low birthplace however, it is also known as the Wayne-Gordon home since it was built in 1821 by James Moore Wayne, an associate justice of the Supreme Court. Today it houses the Girl Scout Museum and is one of the most visited museums in the state of Georgia.

As a young girl Daisy attended school for a time in Savannah before attending boarding school at the Virginia Female Institute now known as Stuart Hall School. She then went to New York City to Mesdemoiselles Charbonniers, a finishing school. A life of priviledge and lifelong connections to powerful families would pay off later.

Many Gordon family members have expressed that Daisy was very eccentric and was often illogical about many things including spending and managing money. She once stood on her head just to show someone her new shoes. She adopted and abandoned pet projects at will never sticking to anything but traveling for very long expanses of time. Her brother once wrote, “Two plus two by no means equals four to her.”

Daisy did enjoy the arts, however. She sketched, painted, sculpted and worked with iron. A bust of her grandfather is on display at the Savannah city hall and visitors to her birthplace can see a wrought iron gate she created.

After finishing school she returned to Savannah for her debut and began spending her time traveling and caring for her young siblings. She had no real obligations and spent most of her time with her art, parties, dances, and teas. It truly sounds like a very carefree life.

On December 21, 1886 she married William “Willy” Mackay Low. He was the son of Andrew Low, a Scottish immigrant and native Georgian Mary Couper Stiles. Andrew Low was an immigrant from Scotland who had come to America to make his fortune in the cotton business, and then later returned to England.

The marriage got off to a bad start when a grain of rice became lodged in Daisy’s ear and her ear drum was punctured during the procedure to remove it. She had already lost her hearing in the other ear earlier in her life when silver nitrate was used to treat chronic ear infections that had plagued her for most of her young life Any hearing she had in the other ear was basically lost after her marriage. Her initial hearing loss caused her much anguish and frustration. The additional hearing loss caused her to have periods of despression and what has been described as melancholy.

For a time the young Low couple lived in the Andrew Low House on Lafayette Square, but spent most of each year in England at a country estate some sources have called Wellesbourne located in Warwickshire. ‘Willy” Low hobnobbed with the Prince of Wales (Edward VII), a close friend of his, along with several member of British high society. “Willy” spent his time hunting, playing cards, and drinking among other things.

While she lived in England Daisy traveled, was presented at court, and gave and attended lavish house parties at various estates. Ever the eccentric she refused to drive on the "English" side of the road stating, “I’m an American.”One source indicates Rudyard Kipling was an attendee at the Low estate from time to time. She had plenty of help to oversee the long country weekends as the Lows kept a full staff and an African American cook had come along from Savannah. I wonder if she prepared fried green tomatos and corn bread for the high born British.

It’s not surprising that in a fifteen year marriage the Lows remained childless and gradually grew apart. Though Daisy partied and traveled much of the time she was married she and “Willy” were rarely together during the final years of their marriage.

Daisy did have her moments of volunteerism. She returned to the United States during the Spanish American War, and volunteered alongside her mother to set up a hospital for returning wounded soldiers from Cuba.

After a fifteen year marriage Low abandoned Daisy for another woman named Anna Bateman, and he even showed up for a country weekend with the mistress at the home he and Daisy shared. She had enough and filed for divorce. Low passed away before the divorce was final and Daisy was shocked to learn that her husband had left everything to his mistress. She was totally shut out of the estate. She filed suit and was eventually awarded the Savannah property, a London home, and a sizeable income.

It’s hard to imagine the Daisy portrayed above is the same Daisy who stuck with and organized the Girl Scouts. Her other side finally came out at age fifty-one once she met Lord Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts. She was most impressed with his efforts and she began to volunteer with the Girl Guides, the female counterpart for the Boy Scouts. She wanted the Girl Scouts to be a place where young women could learn self reliance and resourcefulness much like the Boy Scouts.

For once Daisy’s interest and determination in a project did not eventually ebb away. She took advantage of the connections her priviledged life could bring her. Over the years she contacted friends like Edith Macy, wife of the Macy’s Department Store owner and was able to secure a meeting at the White House simply by calling her long time friend Edith Wilson, first wife of President Woodrow Wilson. It also didn’t hurt that Daisy’s sister was married to a member of Congress at the time she was getting the Girl Scouts off and running. She financed most of the expenses to get the Girl Scouts going with her own money.

The Girl Scouts of America began with 18 girls in Savannah on March 12, 1912. The Girl Scouts website advises Daisy felt all girls should be given the opportunity to develop physically, mentally, and spiritually. With the goal of bringing girls out of isolated home environments and into community service and the open air, Girl Scouts hiked, played basketball, went on camping trips, learned how to tell time by the stars, and studied first-aid. Today the Girl Scouts [organization] has over four million members all over the world.

Eventally Daisy contracted cancer and died. Though she no longer handled the day to day running of the Girl Scouts she was heavily involved in promoting the organization and traveled meeting with many different troops and taking part in their activities. Not wanting to be a burden to those around her she remained active through her illness and didn’t want people to know about it.

Daisy was buried in her Girl Scout uniform. A telegram was placed in her pocket from the national headquarters of the Girl Scouts that said, “You are not only the first Girl Scout, you are the best Girl Scout of them all.” Her funeral was at Savannah’s Christ Church and every Girl Scout in Georgia’s first city lined the steps to pay hommage to their founder.

Every life has a course to follow. Every person has a role in this world to play. Juliette Gordon Low is proof that we sometimes have to live a little to determine what our course will be.


Stephen Rahn said...

Great work! I used to work as a tour guide in Savannah during the summers, and showing her home was one of the main parts of every tour.

ET said...

That was a great post! I enjoyed it. We have visited her home in Savannah also.

elementaryhistoryteacher said...

Thanks for the comments. When I investigated her life a bit I was amazed at well connected she was and how flighty she had been early in her life. I found her journey to reach her purpose in life to be interesting.

I really wanted to post a picture of the estate she and Willy partied at in England, but all of the houses open to the public in Warwickshire are not the house she owned. It may be the house is privately owned and is not currently open to the public in any way.

The Tour Marm said...

I had recently seen this portrait in the National Portrait Gallery - a real different side from the usual photos of Juliet in her uniform.

For a short time I was a girl scout (Troop #4552) but it was disbanded because it was more like Troop Beverly Hills: camping out to my friends meant staying at a Holiday Inn!

Great post, as usual!

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