How the Spanish-American War Met the Society Pages

25, April 2017

It’s probably been a while since a St. Louis Post-Dispatch editor has penned several hundred exasperated words about the tango:

Last year, when the turkey trot, the bunny hug and several variations of “rag” dances were taken up by St. Louis society, somebody . . . called them all the tango. The turkey trot was a tango, the one-step was a tango—everything that was different from the old waltz and two-step was the tango. It is as incorrect to call anything and everything the tango as it would be to call all dances a minuet or a polka. Like all dances, it can be danced many ways and like the Cuban danzon, can be a thing of beauty or not, all depending on who dances it.

Sepia portrait of Frances Cabanne Scovel, seated and wearing a light-colored dressFrances Cabanne Scovel was born to a prominent St. Louis family. She later edited the society pages for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Missouri History Museum.

Society page editor Frances Cabanne Scovel’s November 1913 column could be read as an amusing diatribe from someone oddly fixated on dance taxonomy. But the Cuba reference is more profound than it appears: Scovel was in Havana with her husband when the USS Maine exploded, touching off the Spanish-American War—and changing both of their lives.

Frances Cabanne was born in St. Louis in 1871. Her relatives had familiar, well-to-do last names—Gratiot, DeMun, Papin, and Berthold—and her father was a wealthy landowner. She met Sylvester Henry “Harry” Scovel in 1896. He was a correspondent for the New York World who had reported extensively on the Cuban insurgency and was imprisoned in Sagua La Grande, Cuba, by the Spanish in February 1897.

In his prison diary, part of the Sylvester Henry Scovel Papers in the Missouri History Museum's Library and Research Center, Scovel argues for U.S. intervention in the Spanish-American War:

The Cuban war has degenerated into: A pitiful loss of Spanish soldier-life by Cuban climate, a brutal slaughter of Cuban farmer-life by Spanish swords . . . and a general crippling of foreign capital by both sides. . . . It is at once the duty, the privilege and the power of the United States to quickly put an end to this state of affairs.

A page from Sylvester Scovel's diary from prison expressing his views on the Spanish-American War.An excerpt from Sylvester Scovel's prison diary. Missouri History Museum.

Scovel was released in March 1897 and married Cabanne the following month. His work took him to Europe, Alaska, and then back to Cuba. His wife was a near-constant presence all the while—and later became a writer herself.

In letters back home to her parents in St. Louis, she described Havana in devastating detail. For example, in November 1897 she wrote:

I shall never forget those poor people, most of all women and children. . . . The soldiers look like half fed, half clad, half sick boys, so of course the starving ones can’t live because they eat and then they swell up, and they die from eating. The streets are filled with the most ragged, the thinnest people you can imagine. It is awful.

Scovel noted that “something should be done in the name of humanity and civilization,” but she struggled with what action to take:

I am only a woman and I don’t count, but I see a whole lot of things that make me not only angry, but ashamed of our Government. Our people are all right but the Government rank. If that had been Great Britain, the whole fleet would have been here and glad of such a good chance.

Ultimately, she did what she could: Other letters reveal she cared for the injured and stood up to a Spanish soldier she saw beating children in the street.

After her husband died in Cuba in 1905 at just 35 years old, Scovel moved back to St. Louis and continued writing. As the society editor for the Post-Dispatch from 1909 to 1917, she documented the lives of St. Louis's elite—a world away from war-ravaged Cuba. But every so often you can catch a hint of her wry sense of humor and subtle self-awareness, as in this 1912 profile of a wealthy woman opening her own business:

Why any woman surrounded by all the beautiful things money can buy—a woman counted as a beauty, belonging to that innermost holy of holies, the “smart set,” to which all aspire and few arrive—should want to go to work, is beyond the understanding of those who must.

But Frances Cabanne Scovel—herself a member of the “smart set” who witnessed war, poverty, brutality, and death—seemed to understand those reasons entirely.

—Kristie Lein, Associate Editor

Membership appeal