by Gelett Burgess




If you’re old enough to remember—or if you’re historian enough to care—you know that the United States entered the Second World War on December 7, 1941. The naval air arm of the Empire of Japan attacked the United States fleet lying at anchor at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on that bright, sunny Sunday morning. The following day President Franklin Delano Roosevelt addressed an emergency session of Congress and asked for a declaration of war against Japan, and received it. Whereupon Nazi Germany declared war on the United States.

It all seems sudden and dramatic and clear-cut, in retrospect, but in fact the war had been coming to America, and America to the war, for some time. Japan had invaded China as early as 1933, and the United States retaliated by imposing economic sanctions against Japan, and then by sending a squadron of “volunteer” fighter pilots and their Curtiss P-40 aircraft to aid the Chinese. These were the famous Flying Tigers.

In Europe, Hitler and Stalin had pounced on Poland from West and East, obliterating that country, in 1939. Britain and France then declared war on Germany. The Soviet Union had also gobbled up the tiny countries of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, and had fought a terrible “winter war” that resulted in the annexation of part of Finland. The partnership of Nazis and Soviets proved short-lived and Germany invaded the Soviet Union.

President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill met on a destroyer in mid-ocean to sign the so-called Atlantic Charter. In short order the United States was supplying Britain and the Soviet Union with tanks, aircraft, and munitions. A squadron of military pilots comparable to the Flying Tigers, the 777th Fighter Group, equipped with Bell P-39 (and later, P-63) aircraft, fought against the Nazis on the Russian front.

It was against this background that Gelett Burgess wrote Ladies in Boxes. Although the book was published in 1942, after the United States had formally entered the war, it was clearly written prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, at a time when the United States was theoretically neutral.

Rumors of war filled the air. Americans were divided as to whether and how this country should intervene. Foreign agents worked to influence American policy. Spies were everywhere.

Germany had defeated France in its famous blitzkrieg or “lightning war,” outflanking the defensive Maginot Line and securing the surrender of a shocked French government. France was then divided into two zones, one administered by a German occupation force and the other ruled by a weak, collaborationist French government. French forces that had fled the debacle in their homeland were rallied by Charles de Gaulle and worked with sympathetic forces in England and elsewhere to retake their homeland.

Nazi agents were active in Latin America and even in the United States a Fifth Column fronted by the so-called German-American Bund worked to minimize American aid to Nazi Germany’s enemies and to prevent the United States from openly entering the war.

At the same time ordinary citizens went on with their ordinary lives. They pursued their careers, fell in love, married and raised families. Hobbyists collected dolls and stamps and butterflies. Performers honed their talents and auditioned for booking agents and producers. Motion picture production, the Broadway theater, and network radio were booming industries.

Gelett Burgess, a native Bostonian and former Californian, had returned to New York where he married a lovely (and, some would say, notorious) showgirl. Together they had moved to France, lived la vie boheme for several years, then took passage for the United States once more.

Ladies in Boxes was written late in Burgess’s career. Born in 1866 he had studied architecture, briefly pursued an academic career at the University of California, then turned to literature. While best remembered for his light verse and his children’s books, he was also a prolific journalist, short story writer, and novelist. When he wrote Ladies in Boxes he was well past seventy years of age, but the complexity of construction and the skill of execution of this novel give clear evidence that his creative powers had not flagged in the least.

To the Twenty-first Century reader some of the social attitudes expressed, especially Burgess’s portrayal of African Americans, will surely seem outmoded and offensive. No attempt has been made to alter these unfortunate caricatures. The reader is urged to realize that their characterization is not a matter of advocacy, but is in fact a reflection of the prevailing imagery of the time.

The New York City of Ladies in Boxes is a bustling, living metropolis. The neighborhoods, department stores, night clubs and restaurants are full of authentic color and noise. The tension of a city on the brink of war, in a nation on the brink of war, is tangible.


Richard A. Lupoff


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