Who’s that pretty lady on the magazine cover?
By Sabrina Messenger
You may recognize this highly glamorized iconic picture on the cover of the May 1943 issue of a popular general interest magazine of the time called Collier’s. Her face shows up on a lot of USMC related merchandise, including t-shirts, mugs, and computer mousepads. You may have asked yourself “Was she just a fashion model or an actual Marine?”
Elizabeth Louise Stewart (sometimes known as E. Louise Stewart or simply “Louise”) of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania was no ordinary pin-up girl hired from a modeling agency. That smiling Marine had every reason to look as uber-confident as she did in her photographs. In February 1943, she made history by joining a unique group of women. She was one of the first SIX women to accept an officer’s commission in the United States Marine Corps.
Why is this such a big deal? Well, you might recall that during the First World War, there were no female commissioned officers! Moreover, the highest enlisted rank the female reservist of that time could ever hope to attain was sergeant. As it was, women officers were still limited to Colonel and below, and could not exercise disciplinary authority against enlisted men, but still it was a major advancement for the times!
Despite such a significant accomplishment, E. Louise Stewart remains a mystery to many a Marine Corps history enthusiast. What did she do in the Corps? And whatever happened to her after the war was over? Well, the author did a bit of sleuthing and here’s what little bit was found about E. Louise Stewart.Elizabeth was a daughter of the Keystone State. She was born approximately in 1919 in Villanova, Pennsylvania (a university town and suburb of Philadelphia). She spent at least part of her childhood in another suburb called Bryn Mawr. She was more than likely from a well-to-do family as those areas were and remain areas where the affluent make their homes. Elizabeth may have attended a preparatory school in Rhode Island at some point in her adolescence. Her name shows up on a Rhode Island State Census with the likely age and location of residence.
Elizabeth was a 1939 graduate of Wellesley College, one of the famed “Seven Sisters” colleges (the equivalent to the prestigious Ivy League). According to the college yearbook, The Legenda, “Louise” she was quite active in variety of leadership roles! She was a 1st alto in choir, had acted in school productions, worked on school publications as a reporter. She earned a Bachelor of Arts degree. Her Collier’s magazine cover is part of the university archives.
After graduation, E. Louise, like many of her sister graduates, spent some time in the Big Apple. Indeed that is where she joined the Corps! On February 16, 1943, only three days after accepting her commission, the New York PM Daily published an article on page 5 of their “Daily Picture” section about the first local women to join the Corps. A very lovely picture of Elizabeth is prominently displayed in the article with the following caption:
‘The Situation is well in hand. 1st Lt Louise Stewart, 24, of Villanova, Pa (Wellesley ’39) still is a bit embarrassed when enlisted male Marines salute her.”
Interesting side note: According to Wikipedia, The New York PM Daily was financed by millionaire Marshall Field III, and was considered Socialist in its tone. Interesting that the Marines will use any kind of publicity! haha
1st Lt Stewart was featured in several military and civilian publications. With her background, one can easily understand why. Collier’s Magazine wrote this little blurb about E. Louise Stewart when they featured her on the cover of their March 27, 1943 issue.
FIRST LT. E. LOUISE STEWART, Cover Girl, this issue, was sworn into the Women’s Reserve of the Marine Corps, February 10th, one of its first five members. Got the yen when she edited a column “Your Men in Uniform” for a monthly magazine. Is now barnstorming the country, helping recruit girl Marines. Wellesley ’39, home town, Villanova, Pa., Lieutenant Stewart is as pretty as her picture.
Which monthly magazine? Well, according to Lt.Colonel Aaron B. O’Connell’s book Underdogs! The Making of the Modern Marine Corps,Elizabeth previously worked at the Ladies Home Journal. Further research reveals that LHJ did indeed run a column entitled “Your Men in Uniform.” Perhaps that column is what initially inspired her to serve her country?
Regarding Elizabeth’s accepting of a commission, the Underdogs book states on page 76
“As soon as the Marine Corps opened its ranks to women in 1943, General Denig started a woman Marine Section at the Division of Public Affairs and recruited Louise Stewart, an editor of the Ladies Home Journal to run it.”
Elizabeth was put to work immediately. However, she didn’t just sit in an office in New York or Washington. Elizabeth and Major Ruth Cheney Streeter traveled the nation in a dual mission of recruitment and publicity. They spoke before women’s clubs and Chambers of Commerce to gain support for the MCWR.
According to the book Free A Man To Fight: Women Marines in World War II by Colonel Mary Stremlow, USMCR (Ret), a more subtle but equally important reason for the tour and indeed for having a Director of Women’s Reserve at all, according to Colonel Streeter,
“. . . was because the parents were not going to let their little darlings go in among all these wolves unless they thought that somebody was keeping a motherly eye on them.”
E Louise Stewart may or may not saw herself completely as either ‘motherly’ or as ‘the wholesome girl next door.’ One thing is clear: when one reads the piece she wrote for the Marine Corps Gazette’s May/June 1943 issue entitled “Shakedown Cruise.”, she definitely has developed a different view of herself while taking on this national publicity tour.
“Somewhere on the trip something happened to us…We weren’t women in uniform anymore. We were Marines.”
During that time 1st Lt Stewart wrote news stories and media releases that were published in several civilian and military publications, including the Marine Corps Chevron published in San Diego and read by many West Coast based Marines. From 1943 to 1945, she also trained other women Marines to do public relations work for the Marine Corps. This took place in Washington, DC and several other major cities.
All of this can be confirmed by the Marine Corps Muster Rolls.
Elizabeth must have been very good at her job because based on what could be gleaned from the Marine Corps Muster Rolls, Elizabeth was promoted to Captain by the Spring of 1944. The Rolls, sadly, also reveal that the pace she was on was possibly beginning to take a toll on her health! At various times throughout 1945 into 1946, the rolls shows her as being ill and having been admitted to Naval Hospitals in Boston as well as Bethesda, MD. The rolls don’t mention what the exact illness was. Apparently, the illness or illnesses were severe enough that she was placed on the list to be “detached” sent home and await retirement from the Marine Corps. That finally took place by January 1947. Her brilliant military career was effectively over at the age of 28
So the biggest mystery of all? Whatever happened to Captain Elizabeth Louise Stewart after her ‘retirement’ from the Corps.
Several years ago in the ‘Nouncements, Nancy Wilt, the historian of the Women Marines Association, put out the call to ask if anyone knew of E. Louise’s whereabouts, but from what the writer can gather, there were no responses.
However, while researching at ancestry.com, the writer discovered a possible clue as to her whereabouts. The name Elizabeth L Stewart shows up on a 1948 Honolulu, Hawaii, passenger/Crew Listing!
What appears on that passenger list seems to match with what we already know about her…an Elizabeth L Stewart, of Philadelphia, PA, age 29, embarked from the island of Oahu. The ship’s destination was Samoa.
Now whether this is the same “Elizabeth L Stewart” who ended her military career as a Captain the year before is anyone’s guess. I like to think that it is…and that her reward for all her hard work to keep the Marine Corps in a positive light publicity-wise may have been rewarded with some extended R&R, fun in the sun!
How’s that for literally riding off into the sunset?
Semper Fi!Works Cited: Books: American Women during World War II: An Encyclopedia By Doris Weatherford Underdogs! The Making Of the Modern Marine Corps by Lt Colonel Aaron B O’Connell Marine Corps Historical Reference Pamphlet: Marine Corps Women’s Reserve in World War II US Marine Corps Muster Rolls at Ancestry.com Honolulu, Hawaii Passenger and Crew Lists 100-1959 at ancestry.com