Hope Amidst Hardship: The Indomitable Character of Anita Willets-Burnham

Originally appeared in the Fall 2020 Gazette, by Ann Thompson

Anita Willets-Burnham “flying” around the world with her four children.

Every age is subject to tragedies and challenges and how people coped in the past can be an interesting thing to ponder. In 1921, shortly after the Treaty of Versailles ended the devastation of WWI and the Spanish flu raged worldwide, the Winnetka family of Anita Willets-Burnham set off for a year and a half of travel through Europe. This was no ordinary European tour; in fact, it was a low-cost ramble for the family of six, a testament to the indomitable character of Anita. Her acclaimed artwork and life at the Log House family home, now situated in Crow Island Woods, are frequent topics of articles in this publication and interpretive programming provided to Log House visitors.

One compelling aspect of our study of history is its ability to assure us that our forebears faced challenges and met them, sometimes with courage and sometimes, as in Mrs. Willets-Burnham’s case, with humor and resilience. Her account of the family’s travels in her memoir, Round the World on a Penny, offers examples of a life well lived and enjoyed.

A clue to Anita’s character appears early in her book: “From a magazine article, I read that dust undisturbed is not injurious.” Once the decision was made to travel, their log house rented, and their suitcases and art supplies packed, four children aged nine-months to 13 years, set off with their parents to explore Europe on their own schedule and with few resources. In a nod to what must have been some raised eyebrows, Anita wrote, “There are always some to approve and some to disapprove, so in the end you have to decide for yourself.”

Admittedly, their style of travel may not be well suited to others: they spent less than a dollar a day per person. Meals were irregular, shared, and meager, and sometimes even nonexistent. Traveling by train, the family’s pattern was to arrive in a new locale and have “Dad” go find cheap lodgings while Anita sat with the children and the luggage. They must have walked hundreds of miles while lugging their suitcases. The children, according to this account, did not complain, probably in part because they were given free rein to explore on their own, sometimes considered lost until they showed up just as their next scheduled train was pulling out of the station. That the children all survived and thrived seems a minor miracle.

Sketching the people and scenes they encountered was not just a pastime (each child eventually showed artistic talent), but also a source of spending money. They made friendly acquaintances, explored back alleys, sampled local food and customs, and generally embraced their time abroad as an affirmation of life.

This same spirit was reflected in the popular culture of the day, aptly given its name, “The Roaring Twenties.” Following the great tragedies of the early 20th century, people were anxious to shake off their common gloom. Bathtub gin, flappers, the Harlem Renaissance, jazz, and a general rejection of Victorian restrictions, all indicated a need to put the past behind and enjoy oneself.

Round the World on a Penny by Anita Willets-Burnham, is a hilarious and sometimes harrowing account of her world travels with her family.

The Willets-Burnham adventure was not, of course, carefree or without its opportunities for deep reflection. Seeing post-WWI Europe, Anita made reference to the burned out Argonne Forest with its dugouts and trenches: “ . . . the tragic row of bayonets we saw and the thousands upon thousands of white and black wooden crosses side by side scattered along the railroad . . . May world peace be their monument!”

In her account of a second family trip from 1928-1930, this time around the world, Anita laments the failure of the United States’ support of the League of Nations, which was designed to prevent future wars. The family witnessed Chinese soldiers returning from public beheadings. Smallpox was a concern and in fact the youngest child Ann experienced whooping cough all through their travels in Japan, and later measles.

So often, even in trying times Anita resorted to humor. On a train to Bombay with no clean, safe water to drink, they collected the boiled water off the engine exhaust. Rather than a source of complaint or discouragement, it was seen as a triumph of ingenuity to be celebrated.

The memoir is a pleasant read with examples of her art and is a reminder that the human experience is a shared one. As well as practical travel advice, (Always travel with a black lace dress. It never wrinkles, always looks ritzy, and no matter how worn and holey, it’s always lace.) Anita Willets-Burnham left us with a call to life that we can adopt and embody during our own troubling times: “Doing what can’t be done is the glory of living.” ■

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