BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
Woven from intimate diaries and unpublished letters, the memoir Farming, Fighting and Family brings to life dramatic wartime experiences in England and Egypt while making an intriguing connection to Chicago’s McCormick dynasty.
Daughter of Arthur Street, a farmer who became a famous BBC broadcaster, Pamela Street was an Ava Gardner lookalike who volunteered as a nurse at a nearby military hospital. David McCormick was a cadet soon to be posted to North Africa.
Pamela told her diary of an early date she shared with David, not long after they met at the White Hart, when they went to “watch the flics [sic] while sirens and bombs went off.” Of her new beau, she noted, “David was very spoilt—so am I.”
In her book, Miranda tells us plenty more about David (and his famous family) than just her mother’s first impressions:
“He came from a rather different background than her own. His parents lived in a large house in Weybridge. His father Edward—a scion of the wealthy American McCormick International Harvester family—had been sent over from Chicago, together with his two brothers, to be educated at Eton.
“While there, he befriended Francis Samuelson, the son of a Yorkshire baronet who invited him back to his family home, Breckenbrough Hall, where evidently a romance between Edward and Francis’s sister Phyllis was kindled.
“After her marriage, the strong-minded Phyllis had no intention of returning to the USA with her new husband, and she and her husband settled in at Shaws, their home in Weybridge. This choice of location pandered to Edward’s passion for early motorcars and aviation. The now legendary Brooklands motor-racing circuit and aerodrome were only a few miles away.”
An issue of the Chicago American from July 30, 1933, chronicles David’s first visit to Chicago to see the Century of Progress and the family’s subsequent drive to California in a 10-year-old Packard “which sat gathering dust in the Rush Street garage of McCormick relatives.”
Several years later, David would be facing a less pleasurable voyage. Neither Pamela nor he knew if they would see one another again after David shipped off to Egypt, and the courtship was marked with uncertainty.
On March 13, 1941, Pamela penned, “Went!! Just caught the connection at Bristol and David met me at Weston and kissed me on the platform and was very sweet.”
The couple was unofficially engaged by the time David was sent to fight in North Africa. Pamela wrote of this agreement many years later:
“I suppose we had what was known as an understanding, not a particularly satisfactory liaison. But there were many conscientious young men who, facing the prospect of death, did not feel it right to marry or tie a girl down by becoming officially engaged until the hostilities were over.”
While David was overseas, Pamela dated U.S. Army Captain Holden Bowler, whose name was shared with the most famous Holden ever: Holden Caulfield, hero of Catcher in the Rye. Bowler to know J.D. Salinger when they both worked on an American cruise ship—Holden was a lead singer, while Salinger danced with unattached female passengers as part of his role as a staff boy.
At the beginning of the war, society photographer Cecil Beaton had been commissioned, for propaganda purposes, to take photographs of attractive young people engaged in unaccustomed war work. He saw Pamela working a tractor on the Street’s farm and immediately wanted her as his subject.
David’s reports from the Egyptian front did not include tales of chance encounters with glamorous photographers. Instead, his constants were miles of sand and scores of flies, his only reprieve coming in the form of a leave to Cairo:
“One day, I galloped on a white Arab stallion across the sand from the Mena pyramids almost down to the other ones. . . . It was wonderful to have a hot bath after nearly two months.”
The hot baths would once again cease after David’s troop fell under severe fire from German General Erwin Rommel (“the Desert Fox”), and he was taken prisoner, later transferred to Italy.
Of the ordeal, Miranda writes:
“After the war, David discovered the reason he had been singled out for transport to a prison camp in Italy via submarine. Following Pearl Harbor, when the United States formally entered the fray, his surname would have been picked up for Axis intelligence, since the influential McCormick family had diplomatic connections.
“Edward McCormick’s first cousin Leander McCormick-Goodhart was David’s godfather, owner of Langley Park and a private assistant in Washington to the British Ambassador, Lord Lothian. He worked on the development of the Lend-Lease program.
“Consequently, David would have been classified as a ‘prominente,’ a potentially useful bargaining tool. The family was very grateful he sent food parcels to my father in the POW camp.”
Families of POWs were allowed to obtain special airmail forms to write letters to their loved ones, subject to strict censorship. Many of David’s letters back to Pamela and his parents are in the book.
During a risky escape from the prison camp, David was recaptured. His daughter feels that the McCormick name helped him from being summarily executed, which was “the fate of most prisoners trying to escape.”
A year after their wedding in July 1945, the young couple set sail on the SS Argentina for a belated honeymoon and a visit to the Chicago McCormicks.
“We were hailed in Chicago as the poor, dear, heroic British, and I was showered with presents, nylons, shoes, dresses, and swim suits. Their spontaneous generosity was endearing and they even offered us use of their homes.”
David’s aunt Joan arranged for her to be photographed by the leading portrait photographer Philippe Halsman. Pamela wrote of this unusual experience in her diary:
“Suddenly, I found myself all dolled up in a hired evening dress with an unrecognizable hairdo, seemingly unable to live without a face cream I hardly ever used. It was fun, fun for which I received $100 and an enormous supply of cosmetics, which I posted home to my mom.”
Miranda McCormick started on the other side of publishing, editing the works of well-known authors such as Lord Kenneth Clark and travel writers Freya Stark and Patrick Leigh Fermor.
“Knowing that my mother possessed a large literary archive, I had been thinking of writing for a long time. In terms of my research, I was fortunate to have nearly all I needed under my own roof.
“I did, however, have to give myself something of a crash course in the history of World War II. This publication made me realize that some of us are simply late developers.
“It is never too late if you set your mind to it.”
We asked Miranda if she had any tips for people who would like to write, particularly those interested in tackling their own family histories. She was kind enough to provide us with a few pieces of sound advice:
“First of all, I’d advise everybody to resist the temptation to throw out any family papers without going through them first. Even if you yourself aren’t intending to write anything about them, your children or grandchildren might, so you could be cheating them of a valuable inheritance.
“Secondly, you must decide if what you will write is just for the family in a private publication or whether you want to appeal to a wider audience. In the latter case, you need to look for a peg on which to hang your memoir. In my case, I realized I had enough of general interest to agrarian, military, and social historians.
“Finally, it is important to get someone impartial to read through your first draft to warn you what sections would be of no possible interest to anyone outside the family. I had to cut my original typescript by about a third before it was finally accepted by The History Press.”
And the result is certainly appealing. Miranda has shaped her family treasures into a personal and compelling portrait of hardship and sacrifice during World War II. This fascinating account of her influential ancestors spans over years and oceans, from the United Kingdom and North Africa to the United States, centering on the familial and romantic connections made along the way. (And we think it is fair to say that another important connection is that of the McCormicks to Chicago.)
While her book focuses on the past, Miranda is looking to the future of her family with its publication: her author proceeds will be donated to benefit a young descendent of her mother’s family (the Streets), who faces learning disabilities. This will be accomplished through a branch of the Royal Mencap Society, a UK-based charity working to challenge existing attitudes and prejudices while fighting for equal rights and greater opportunities for people with learning disabilities.
To learn more about Farming, Fighting and Family, visit Trafalgar Square Publishing’s website: email@example.com.