A Trans-Atlantic Voyage Centennial

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Courtesy Wayne Vial

Just as the centennial of the sinking of the Titanic is upon us, it seems appropriate to describe another trans-Atlantic voyage of 1912, this one involving one of my ancestors, my grandmother Marie Marguerite Keller. She was later to be the second wife of Leon C. Vial Sr.

In September 1911, the New Orleans Daily-Picayune announced a contest open to “any white woman, sixteen years or over, single or married, residing in any of the contest districts.” All she had to do to enter was submit a form with three references from her district, attesting to her good moral character. Louisiana and Mississippi were divided into 12 districts for the purpose of the contest. To win the contest in her district, a woman had to have the most votes cast. Single ballots appeared every day in the newspaper, but existing annual subscribers held 1,500 votes, and new annual subscribers were entitled to 3,000 votes. Essentially, the contest made all of the contestants saleswomen dedicated to increasing the circulation of the newspaper.

The prizes made their efforts worthwhile. The top three vote-getters would win a tour around the world. The next 12 district winners would win a tour of Britain and continental Europe.

The contest went on for three months, with articles appearing almost daily exhorting the contestants on to ever greater efforts and extolling the educational benefits of a world tour. This sample, from 6 October 1911, is representative:

How to Be a Winner of a Tour Around the World or of One to Europe

You have a large circle of friends and acquaintances who, realizing the educational and pleasurable facilities a tour around the world or to Europe will afford, will naturally be interested in seeing you win. Those already taking the Picayune will gladly save their clipped coupons for you, and those who have not already subscribed will do so when they realize that they will be instrumental in securing for you one of these wonderful tours. Talk travel. Get all your acquaintances interested in your success; impress on them the broad influence this trip will have on your life, and what a disappointment the loss of it will be to you, and it is the easiest thing in the world to work up your listeners to such a pitch of enthusiasm that from indifferent hearers they will become your loyal supporters, enlisting the interest of their friends in your behalf, and your vote score will shoot up so rapidly that you will be amazed at the proportion it reaches. Do not be half-hearted. Try it. Success begets confidence.

Marie Keller lived in the Sixth District, which encompassed the parishes of Jefferson, except Gretna, St. John, St. Charles, St. Bernard, Plaquemines, Terrebonne, Lafourche, and St. James. There were about 40 nominees from this district, including Marie’s cousins Noelie and Lillian Hart. She showed none of them any mercy, though, on the way to accruing 312,203 votes (the overall winner collected a staggering 1,096,166 votes, and this was before Facebook). The winners were announced in a front-page article on 21 December 1911.

Despite having six months’ notice before departure, Marie seems to have saved some tasks for the last minute. She signed her passport application on 19 June 1912, and she instructed that it be mailed to the Victoria Hotel in New York, where the group would stay before departure.

Finally the day of departure, 22 June 1912, arrived. The group was to leave New Orleans on the SS Momusfor New York, and from there go to Philadelphia to depart for Europe. A photo at the dock shows the group in their travel finery. The Momus left at 10:30 a.m.

Marie’s handwritten journal of most of the trip survives. The night after their departure, the travelers were treated to a banjo concert on the deck, in the moonlight. The next morning they sighted Florida. A thunderstorm hit, but they spent it listening to a concert in the dining room. The following day, possibly sailing out of the calm waters of the Gulf, Marie wrote simply, “All sea sick!”

The tour group arrived in New York on 27 June. Their first sight of the city was the Singer Building, then the Statue of Liberty. After going to their hotel, they went sightseeing. They took a train to Philadelphia, from where they departed on the SS Dominion on 29 June. Certainly their excitement and anticipation must have been tempered at least a little by anxiety: the Titanic had plunged to the bottom of these waters just two months before, carrying 1,500 souls with her.

The next day’s entry was hrief: “Everybody sea sick!!”

They arrived at Liverpool on 11 July, and took a train to London. That night at the Palace Theater, she saw the great Anna Pavlova perform.

The subsequent itinerary, which is included in the “Photos” section, included Antwerp, Brussels, The Hague, Amsterdam, Cologne, Mayence, Heidelberg, Lucerne, Interlaken, and finally four days in Paris. They embarked on the SS Chicago at Le Havre on 3 August, and reached New York on 12 August.

Marie Keller Voyage
The Daily Picayune for June 23, 1912.

Two weeks later, the Picayune published the following article:

Homecoming is Celebrated

Miss Marie Keller, Just Back From World Tour, Is Honored.

HAHNVILLE, LA., Aug. 24. – After a lengthy sojourn in Europe, during which time all the cities of importance were visited, Miss Marie Keller, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. P. A. Keller, has returned to her friends, and in appreciation of her home-coming a reception was held at her parents’ palatial home, Home Place, Tuesday evening.

The home, which is without a peer in St. Charles Parish, with its beautiful oaks and orchards, was profusely decorated and brilliantly illuminated with incandescent lamps of various shades and designs for the occasion. An orchestra of wide repute rendered all the latest selections.

The guests, among whom were many Orleanians and some from distant lands, were conveyed to and fro in autos, coupes, etc….

Marie Keller had been fortunate enough to take the “European Grand Tour,” as so many wealthy young people had done for decades before her. Just two years later, the guns of August would signal the beginning of the First World War, and the end of a way of life. She had gotten in just in time.