Jean Waldman's great adventure started with a letter from
In November of 1995 a fax arrived at the Washington, D.C. headquarters of the American Red Cross, asking for information concerning nursing practices during the First World War. The message landed on Waldman's desk. It was not, she remembers, all that unusual a request.
"The letter wanted to know if morphine was available in World War I, and if blood transfusions were performed, and it asked about the types of medication that were commonly available," she said. "This was the kind of information I routinely handled."
A 1964 graduate of the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing program, Waldman worked as a full-time volunteer historian with the Red Cross, often answering questions relating to practices and people in nursing at the turn of the century.
"I'd get requests from someone who had found her grandmother's nursing pin and knew that she had served in Europe during the First World War and wanted more information," Waldman said. "Over the years I had gathered a fairly large amount of material, including a 1922 history of Red Cross nursing that is very detailed."
Occasionally, Waldman would get requests from historians and filmmakers working on specific projects. Only months before, she had helped a documentary filmmaker research material for a television program that touched on nursing practices during that period. So this latest request seemed largely routine_except that it came from Twickenham Film Studios near London.
After consulting her sources, Waldman was able to send off a reply answering all the questions on the fax. She remembers thinking that would be the end of it. But this, after all, was the movies, and that simple fax was to be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Not long after the first fax was answered, another arrived. Hollywood scriptwriter Anna Hamilton Phelan--who had written Mask and Gorillas in the Mist--was working on a new film, titled In Love and War. She had some additional questions.
Waldman answered them.
Soon a torrent of questions and answers was racing back and forth across the Atlantic. "Between November of '95 and April of '96 I received literally hundreds of questions," Waldman recalled. "Not long after I started corresponding with Anna Phelan, the costume designer Penny Rose [whose recent work includes costume designs for Shadowlands and Evita] began sending requests."
How were bandages rolled? What did the famous nursing cape look like? What was the design for the rolling canteen? The questions kept coming and coming.
"I lived in the National Archives," Waldman said. "It was endless, and some of it was way out of the scope of nursing, which is my specialty." At one point, she was even asked to help come up with a sketch of what Hershey bar wrappers looked like during this period. (Luckily it turned out there was a helpful archivist at Hershey headquarters who was able to send copies of the correct design.)
"In February and March I began to think I was in over my head," Waldman said. "I don't think they understood there was only one of me, and there were so many of them asking questions." She persisted in her research, however, opening "boxes and boxes" of material that had been donated and carefully stored in the archives at the end of the war.
"I found the original patterns for nursing uniforms. I found the pattern for the nurses' capes. I even found specifications for ambulances and the rolling canteens," she said. "I just kept sending the information as quickly as I could."
Then, around April, one of her contacts in the costuming department asked Waldman what she thought was the strangest question yet. "They wanted to know how old I was," she said. "I couldn't understand it, but when I told them I was in my early 50s they became very excited. I said, 'I'm glad you're excited by that.' "
Only when she received a subsequent invitation to fly to Montreal to meet with the film's director, Lord Richard Attenborough, did she understand. "They were afraid I was some 92-year-old biddie," she said. "They were looking for a technical director, but it had to be someone who could keep up with the pace."
After meeting with Attenborough--whom Waldman calls "a wonderful, charming man"--and answering still more questions about World War I ambulances, it was arranged for Waldman to join the film crew as filming began in Italy.
Waldman's husband had died of cancer three years earlier. Her four children were grown and busily engaged in medical residencies, graduate work and other projects. "I thought, Why not?" Waldman said. "This is the chance of a lifetime." She flew home and packed, eventually bringing one suitcase of clothes and three of research materials with her on location.
Filming commenced May 16 in the Italian village of Vittorio Veneto, about 45 minutes outside Venice. In Love and War is the film version of the real-life romance of writer Ernest Hemingway and nurse Agnes Von Kurowsky during the closing days of World War I. Based on the recently discovered diary and love letters of Von Kurowsky, it tells the story of a love relationship fostered in war but ultimately destroyed by the unyielding mores of social convention.
Hemingway was a brash 18-year-old from the Midwest, desperate for glory and adventure, who drove ambulances and tried to get as close as possible to the fighting. After being wounded by a German machine gunner, he came under the care of the 26-year-old Von Kurowsky, and the two eventually fell in love. The story of their romance is generally accepted as the basis for one of Hemingway's greatest novels, A Farewell to Arms.
Both Hemingway and Von Kurowsky subsequently married other partners (Hemingway repeatedly), and Von Kurowsky later denied the affair; yet the diary and love letters tell a different story, as does the fact that Hemingway still possessed three of her letters when he committed suicide in 1961.
It was Attenborough's intention--and Waldman's job--to make the movie as period-authentic as possible. On the set, Waldman was asked to answer questions, offer opinions and call attention to any facets of the filming that struck her as historically out of place.
"It's sort of a strange feeling to be standing in front of Lord Richard Attenborough and say, 'You can't do it that way,' but that was my job," Waldman said. "At first it was very difficult because I was used to consulting historical sources on every issue. But on a set there's no time, and I found that very difficult. Finally, one of the crew took me aside and said, 'Look, they brought you here because you know more about this than anyone else on the set. You're just going to have to trust your instincts.' So that's what I did."
Luckily, Waldman's nursing training was in the "old school" of Hopkins nursing, different in many ways from what occurs today. "In some ways my Hopkins training in the 1960s was more similar to the kind of nursing training Agnes would have had in 1918 than the kind of training done today," she said. "There are some things that nurses from that era just know, and you don't even know how you know them."
Nursing in an earlier age tended to be more hierarchial-- "The head nurse was the HEAD NURSE!" is how Waldman put it--and there was a strict code of behavior based not a little on what was considered seemly and acceptable behavior in a woman.
"One of the things I tried to do was to keep it from being ER," Waldman said. "All that shouting and people running around. It wasn't like that at all. It was very controlled and very orderly, and there were rules you had to follow no matter what."
In one scene, actress Sandra Bullock, who portrays Von Kurowsky, sat on the bed to perform a procedure on the wounded Hemingway (played by actor Chris O'Donnell). Director Attenborough liked how the scene looked through the camera lens. "But I had to say no, no, no way!" Waldman recalled. "No nurse would have ever done that, and I think any nurse in the audience would feel that right away."
Despite some occasional nay-saying, Waldman was "treated like royalty" on the set, even finding a special chair with her name on it when filming began. "Of course, I was so naive, I didn't even know the significance of that," she said. "Here's a chair for Richard Attenborough, a chair for Sandra Bullock and a chair for Jean Waldman. Can you imagine?"
At the end of interior filming in England, Attenborough called the entire cast and crew together and made a little speech thanking Waldman and presented her with an inscribed golden locket. It was her help, he said, that enabled them to create the sense of historical place so important to the film.
Yet, unknowingly, Waldman's countless hours of research and reams of trans-Atlantic faxing may have had another, subtler influence. There is a scene midway through In Love and War when Sandra Bullock explains to an Italian surgeon that a procedure used at Johns Hopkins might save them from having to amputate the young Hemingway's leg. "And who is this John Hopkins?" asks the surgeon, innocently enough.
"It's JOHNS Hopkins," replies Bullock, setting, once and for all, the record straight. Only in Hollywood.
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