Thu Jun 14, 2018 5:00pm

Gilbert Jerome: New Haven’s WWI Aviator Opens at NHM

Sponsored by: New Haven Museum

On Thursday, June 14, at 5:00 p.m., the New Haven Museum will open “Gilbert Jerome: New Haven’s WWI Aviator,” an unusual and intimate exhibit capturing Jerome’s brief, enthusiastic embrace of life during World War One (WWI), using excerpts from the Yale graduate’s diary, the charming letters, sketches, and tiny watercolors he sent home from “in the field,” and memorabilia on loan from the Connecticut Yankee Council, Boy Scouts of America.

Exhibited in an intimate, second-floor gallery space, the exhibit offers a bittersweet glimpse of WWI through the eyes of an artistic soul enchanted by the wonder and excitement of aviation, and the tender regard with which he held his mother, Elizabeth, and sister, Jennie.

Sweeping over the French countryside at 120 mph in an aeroplane crafted of wood, wire and canvas, New Haven native and Boy Scout Executive Lt. Gilbert Jerome had the time of his life. Fewer than 20 years after Kitty Hawk, the world was captivated by the glamor and danger of early flight. Aviators were the pampered aristocrats of war, soaring high above the horrors of the trenches. Well-fed, and with plenty of down time, they spent much of their time behind the lines in camps geared to keeping the cadets in top shape. Heading to France for flight training, Jerome naively quipped in a letter, “I cannot get over the feeling that we are off on a sort of grand pleasure tour in which Uncle Sam pays the bills and conducts the tour…”

According to Guest Curator Deborah G. Rossi, pilots were treated well because they typically lasted one to three weeks in combat before being shot down—and there were no parachutes. “They didn’t want to encourage pilots to bail out and crash the planes,” Rossi explains. “Till they finally realized it was more expensive to train new pilots than to make new planes.” 

Artifacts in the exhibit include Jerome’s dog tags, the altimeter and a wooden strut from his SPAD XIII aeroplane, and the wooden marker from his original gravesite in France, all on loan by the Connecticut Yankee Council, Boy Scouts of America, in New Haven.

Evident in Jerome’s correspondence, writing, and photos is a boyish sense of fun, from his poem, “The Great Disappointment,” recounting his distress on learning that there were no French fries in France—to assurances to his mother that his underwear was sufficiently warm. 

Rossi, an historian specializing in the late Victorian and Edwardian periods, whose master’s thesis was on Gilbert’s sister Jennie Jerome, notes that what makes the exhibit unusual, and a curator’s dream, is the volume and types of documentation she had available. “The level of detail we had to work with is rare,” she says. “The New Haven Museum collection chronicles the Jerome family and Gilbert’s entire war-time experience, from his first flight in an airplane to the death notice telegram received by his mother.”

Noting that Gilbert Jerome is not just a name on a monument, Rossi adds, “Unlike the millions who perished in WWI who we know little or nothing of beyond their name, we get to know Jerome in detail, in his own words, and come to admire his enthusiasm, wit and devotion to family.”

And, with that degree of familiarity may come a sense of loss. Rossi tells of two elderly men who attended an exhibit she created at NHM in 1996 which explored New Haven during WWI through the Jerome family. The former Boy Scouts told her they had known and admired Jerome, and still mourned their former Scout leader. “One of the things I’m struck with while working on this exhibit is that Jerome’s death was a loss his family, yes, but also to New Haven,” she says. Knowing the impact young Jerome had on the Elm City, Rossi wonders how many others, who faded into anonymity, might have greatly affected the community—had they survived.

“Gilbert Jerome: New Haven’s WWI Aviator,” is part of the New Haven Museum’s year-long commemoration of WWI, comprised of micro-level views of The Great War based on the personal narratives of individuals from the New Haven area. “We took this approach to WWI in order to make our tribute really meaningful,” says NHM Collections Manager Mary Christ. “Rather than tackling the entire, massive conflict, we want visitors to understand the impact the war had on individuals, and fully realize the personal costs of war that often get lost when looking at the big picture.”  Also on view are “The Courier: Tales from the Great War,” which captures the spirit of the dramatic WWI diary of Lt. Phillip English, and a display case in the rotunda with changing selections highlighting New Haveners’ contributions in WWI.

The exhibition is made possible with support from the Richard L. English Fund.

About the Curator
Rossi’s work with the New Haven Museum dates to her undergraduate days in the museum’s photograph archive as a volunteer. She has served as curator for the Shelton Historical Society for over two decades and with other institutions across the state on various projects and exhibits.  Her work has won awards on both the state and national level.  She holds a B.S. from Southern Connecticut State University where her thesis on J. Frederick Kelly, architect of the New Haven Museum, was awarded the Phipps Award for Historical Writing, and a M.A.L.S. from Wesleyan University where her thesis on Jennie Jerome, “1907:  A Year in a Life,” was so large it had to be bound in two volumes.

Admission: free
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