“Gilbert Jerome: New Haven’s WWI Aviator” is an unusual and intimate exhibit capturing the brief, enthusiastic embrace of life by New Haven native and Boy Scout Executive Lt. Gilbert Jerome during World War One (WWI). “Gilbert” offers a bittersweet glimpse of WWI through the eyes of an artistic soul enchanted by the wonder and excitement of aviation, and the tender regard with which he held his family. The exhibit includes excerpts from Jerome’s diary, the charming letters, sketches, and tiny watercolors he sent home from “in the field,” and striking memorabilia on loan from the Connecticut Yankee Council, Boy Scouts of America. On view through the centenary of the WWI armistice, November 11, 2018.
Sweeping over the French countryside at 120 mph in an aeroplane crafted of wood, wire and canvas, Jerome had the time of his life. Fewer than 20 years after Kitty Hawk, the world was captivated by the glamor and danger of early flight. Aviators were the pampered aristocrats of war, soaring high above the horrors of the trenches. Well-fed, and with plenty of down time, they spent much of their time behind the lines in camps geared to keeping the cadets in top shape. Heading to France for flight training, Jerome naively quipped in a letter, “I cannot get over the feeling that we are off on a sort of grand pleasure tour in which Uncle Sam pays the bills and conducts the tour...”
Artifacts in the exhibit include Jerome’s dog tags, the altimeter and a wooden strut from his SPAD XIII aeroplane, and the wooden marker from his original gravesite in France, all on loan by the Connecticut Yankee Council, Boy Scouts of America, in New Haven.
Evident in Jerome’s correspondence, writing, and photos is a boyish sense of fun, from his poem, “The Great Disappointment,” recounting his distress on learning that there were no French fries in France—to assurances to his mother that his underwear was sufficiently warm.
Rossi, an historian specializing in the late Victorian and Edwardian periods, whose master’s thesis was on Gilbert’s sister Jennie Jerome, notes that what makes the exhibit unusual, and a curator’s dream, is the volume and types of documentation she had available. “The level of detail we had to work with is rare,” she says. “The New Haven Museum collection chronicles the Jerome family and Gilbert’s entire war-time experience, from his first flight in an airplane to the death notice telegram received by his mother.”
Noting that Gilbert Jerome is not just a name on a monument, Rossi adds, “Unlike the millions who perished in WWI who we know little or nothing of beyond their name, we get to know Jerome in detail, in his own words, and come to admire his enthusiasm, wit and devotion to family.”