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Wintersteen, Bernice McIlhenny, August-December 1944

 File — Box: 66, Folder: 15

Scope and Contents

From the Sub-Series:

McIlhenny penned many of the letters that comprise this subseries, writing primarily to his mother as a youngster at summer camp and as a young man in college and to his sister while on active duty in the Navy Reserve during World War II. Correspondence written by various family members and other individuals makes up the remainder, and includes glimpses of family life prior to McIlhenny's birth.

Written one to eight years after his father's death, McIlhenny's letters to his mother often make evident a young man's attempt to serve as head of the house. He advises on the upkeep of the gardens and grounds and in one letter stresses the need for a "decent household," and urges his mother to use her "Davenport resolve" in hiring staff, alluding to her maternal family ancestry. Although almost all of McIlhenny's letters from Harvard University are not dated, his references to Dunster House, which housed upper classmen, suggest 1932 and 1933, his final years as an undergraduate. Although McIlhenny writes about his studies, he reserves most of his remarks for his social activities. Having membership in the Signet Society, the Institute of 1770, the Hasty Pudding Club, DKE (probably referring to Delta Kappa Epsilon) and the Iroquois Club, McIlhenny declares "all my aspirations are realized." Apparently after completing his A.B. at Harvard, McIlhenny travels to Europe in August 1933. He seems to have had a definite agenda while in London and Paris, writing to his mother that "the desire to collect consumes me with a raging fire." As most of the letters from this trip prove, McIlhenny combatted these consuming flames with a whirlwind shopping spree, buying for himself, his mother and his sister. His purchases included some of the most notable works of art in his collection, including Delacroix's portrait of Eugene Berny d'Ouville, which he tells his mother as being "perfectly beautifully painted," and "terribly Romantic in the best way," and Renoir's pen and ink drawing of the "Dancing Couple (study for 'Le Bal a Bougival')." Even then, he considered the latter as the "high mark" in his collection. McIlhenny also had to have "The Ballet Master, Jules Perrot," a drawing by Degas. Although the work would enter McIlhenny's collection several months later, the private owner changed his mind, convincing McIlhenny that a "masterpiece has slipped though my fingers." McIlhenny was completely unsuccuessful in convincing his mother to purchase a small, early work of Peter Breughel's [sic] depicting St. Michael killing the dragon. Describing it as "very minutely painted, but not irritating in its minutiae," McIlhenny felt it had great guality and that works by the artist were extremely rare. McIlhenny presented his argument over several letters, but to no avail. Purchases for his mother included antique silver items as well as an ancient Luristan Cup. For his sister, McIlhenny purchased works by Picasso, Chirico, and Lurcat.

It appears that McIlhenny's last letters to his mother were written in the summer of 1942 when he entered the service. Since she died the following March, most of his wartime correspondence aboard the USS Bunker Hill was to his sister Bernice ("Bonnie"). Although the carrier participated in many important missions in the Pacific, McIlhenny makes few references to such events. As he often notes in his letters, censorship in correspondence was strictly enforced. McIlhenny, therefore, commented on other matters, particularly museum activities, which included the inaugural exhibition of the McIlhenny collection bequeathed by his father and featured in the January 1944 Museum Bulletin. McIlhenny's wartime writings end at the close of 1944 when he received orders to report to the Bureau of Aeronautics in Washington D.C. The correspondence that follows are letters he wrote, most as a youngster, to several other relatives, including his maternal grandmother and aunt.

The next group of correspondence was written by and to various relatives and documents some of the earliest activities of McIlhenny's immediate family. Included is a letter that McIlhenny's father wrote to his parents in March 1898 announcing his engagement to the lovely and sweet "Fanny." In another letter, written a few days after their June 15 wedding of the same year, the groom mentions removing the balloons that decorated their carriage and the slipper tacked to the trunk. The young couple was still removing the rice from their luggage as they readied for sailing to Europe for the summer. In a September letter, the bride wrote to her family of their homeward bound voyage, and particularly of what appears to have been her husband's sea sickness.

Included in the correspondence written by other individuals to McIlhenny's parents is a letter from the headmaster at Episcopal Academy, reporting on the "splendid showing" made by young Henry in his studies. The "Helme & McIlhenny" folder pertains to the gas meter manufacturing company, upon which the family's fortune was built. By 1932 the company, at the time run by McIlhenny's brother, John Jr., closed. The correspondence between several employees and McIlhenny's mother pertains to compensation for the closing.


  • August-December 1944

Conditions Governing Access

The collection is open for research but certain insurance and personal information, conservation reports, and appraisals are restricted. Excerpts of restricted material may be made available at the discretion of the Archivist.


From the Series: 1.5 linear feet

Language of Materials

From the Collection: English


Repository Details

Part of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Library and Archives Repository

Philadelphia Museum of Art
PO Box 7646
Philadelphia PA 19101-7646 United States