Earlier this year, I caught myself doing the most Muncie thing possible, eating Pizza King and Googling Emily Kimbrough. It wasn’t planned, but there I was, inhaling a Royal Feast and exploring Kimbrough’s biography. There weren’t any giant Canada geese in the room, but I was wearing a Muncie DWNTWN hoodie. Like most dinners, the soundtrack was provided by Norfolk Southern.
Emily Kimbrough, as you might know, was a nationally well-known 20th century writer, world-traveler and journalist from Muncie. She only lived here about a decade, but remained connected to our community throughout her life.
Emily was born to Lottie and Hal Kimbrough on October 23, 1898. The Muncie Evening Press reported the next day that the Kimbroughs’ “pretty new home on East Washington street is graced by a bouncing young woman who made her advent last evening. Mother and babe are reported doing well.”
The Kimbroughs’ home still stands pretty today at 715 E. Washington. Residents in East Central, a neighborhood known in Emily’s time as the East End, memorialized the author when they created the Emily Kimbrough Historic District in 1976.
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The extended Kimbrough family owned or managed several gas boom era businesses, including Kimbrough’s Hardware. Emily’s father Hal had electrified much of the city around 1900 as superintendent of Muncie Electric Light Company. Her grandfather Charles ran Indiana Bridge Co. for contracts.
Emily’s immediate family moved to Chicago in 1910, though she often returned to Muncie for visits with her grandparents. Many years later in 1944, she wrote lovingly about this time in “How Dear to My Heart.” A New York Time’ reviewer found the book “full of that wide-eyed exuberance which, unhappily, most of us have put away.”
After graduating from Bryn Mawr in 1921, Kimbrough landed her first job in Chicago, writing for Marshall Field’s advertising department. She moved to New York City in 1926 where she edited and wrote for Ladies Home Journal. She married John Wrench in 1927 and had two daughters, Margaret and Alis.
Kimbrough’s marriage didn’t last, but her passion for writing did. From the late 1920s through the early 1950s, she freelanced for several national publications including Reader’s Digest, The New Yorker, and Atlantic Monthly. At the onset of World War II, Kimbrough’s work was read across the United States.
She also wrote 17 books during her career, mostly travel memoirs and autobiographies like “How Dear to My Heart.” Her most famous work in this vein was “Our Hearts Were Young and Gay,” a book she co-authored with her good friend and former Bryn Mawr classmate, Cornelia Otis Skinner.
Written in 1942, the book chronicled Emily and Cornelia’s misadventures as they traveled through Europe in the summer after their 1921 graduation. The book was enormously popular, spending five weeks on the New York Times non-fiction best-seller list in 1943. A year later, Paramount Pictures adapted it into a feature film of the same name.
I didn’t know much about “Our Hearts,” which is why I was googling ‘Emily Kimbrough’ and eating pizza a few months ago. During the search, I came across the Wikipedia entry for the book. It’s pretty straightforward, offering some well sourced tidbits about publication and subsequent adaptations.
But then I read something at the end of the article that caused me to drop my Pizza King: “During the Second World War, Hugh Trevor-Roper discovered that this book was used as a codebook by German intelligence.”
WHAT?!? Nazi spies used Emily Kimbrough’s famous book for espionage? I thought to myself, “Holy crap! This is the greatest local historical discovery since George Carter found natural gas a second time in 1886.”
This was a ludicrous notion, of course, seeing as how Wikipedia was my source; a freely accessible, online encyclopedia maintained by thousands and read by millions. And lest you assume I blindly accept Wikipedia ‘facts’ as accurate, this golden historical little nugget was at least footnoted.
The note took me to a book, “Spies, Wiretaps and Secret Operations: An Encyclopedia of American Espionage.” In an entry about Britain’s counter-espionage war efforts, we learn that Germans sent encrypted communications with the infamous Enigma machine, but Nazi secret agents weren’t “parachuted or debarked from a submarine into England with an Enigma machine so (the British) concluded the agents were using a codebook.” A new intelligence officer named Hugh Trevor-Roper “broke the code and concluded that the code-book was the popular novel, “Our Hearts Were Young and Gay.”” There was no footnote, however, for the source of this information.
As I continued my search, I found the work of writer Adrienne Crow. She, too, was intrigued by the same Wikipedia note! According to Crow’s blog, on a trip to England, she stopped by the British National Archives to look through Trevor-Roper’s wartime papers for some reference, but found nothing. Crow also tracked down the original author of the counter-espionage entry in “Spies, Wiretaps and Secret Operations.” He couldn’t remember, “let alone physically locate in his records, the origin of this information,” according to Crow. The two concluded that “the story had to be true, only because it was a very precise statement, about a specific person and a specific book” the author was unfamiliar with.
This is all certainly plausible. Along with editions published on the homefront, “Our Hearts Were Young Gay” was issued twice as an Armed Services Edition during the war. ASEs were small paperback printings of popular books and distributed widely among American soldiers. With thousands of copies in England, Kimbrough and Skinner’s book wouldn’t have raised suspicion if found on a German spy, or so the Abwehr probably reasoned. As a side note, an article in the June 23, 1945 Saturday Evening Post relayed the story of a soldier who saw the book in the pocket of a fallen comrade in the South Pacific. This was immortalized in the 1949 film, “Sands of Iwo Jima,” figuratively punctuating a young soldier’s tragic death.
Whatever the truth, Skinner and Kimbrough’s work comforted tens of thousands of service men and women, including those from Muncie. Decades later in October of 1978, Kimbrough returned here for the official dedication of the Emily Kimbrough Historic District. During the ceremony, she told the assembled Munsonians, “I am at this moment so engulfed in waves of gratitude, incredulity and nostalgia that I find it difficult to keep my head above water long enough to say a few words without making gurgling noises.”
Kimbrough died in February of 1989 at her home in New York City. For me, her legacy demonstrates the truthfulness of the famous Kurt Vonnegut quote: “I don’t know what it is about Hoosiers, but wherever you go there is always a Hoosier doing something very important there.”
Chris Flook is a board member of the Delaware County Historical Society and is the author of “Lost Towns of Delaware County, Indiana” and “Native Americans of East-Central Indiana.” For more information about the Delaware County Historical Society, visit delawarecountyhistory.org.