The Call of the Arctic: Travels of Louise Boyd
There was a young lady named BoydIn 1928 Louise Boyd again hired the Hobby, but when she and her party arrived at Tromsoe, Norway, the place was all-abuzz with the news that Umberto Nobile and his crew had crashed while aboard a dirigible somewhere in the Arctic. The Hobby had already been in use as a rescue ship and had come back to port to pick up Louise. Roald Amundsen had set out in a plane to try to find the lost men. Amundsen was never to be seen again. Louise Boyd immediately put the Hobby at the disposal of the Norwegian government. As she said, “How could I go on a pleasure trip when those 22 lives were at stake?” Under orders of the Norwegian government, Louise and her friends set off as part of the rescue effort. Louise Boyd stood her shift at watch with the others and she described the illusions and mirages that appeared on the ice. “There were times when we clearly could see tents. Then we’d lower boats and go off to investigate. But it was always the same – strange formations of ice – nothing more.” Nobile and his men were rescued, but Amundsen and his plane were never found. Louise Boyd said to the press, “It was a privilege for me to have a part in such a humanitarian enterprise.”
When the Hobby arrived back in Norway, Louise discovered she was to receive the chevalier cross of a Knight of St. Olaf from King Haakon of Norway. Since the only apparel she had was her rough Arctic clothing, she took the first steamer to Paris and returned with a new fur coat and several Parisian gowns. When the royal carriage came to fetch her at the hotel to take her to lunch at the castle, Louise Boyd was properly attired to receive the Order of St. Olaf. She was the first American woman to receive the order and the third woman in the world to be so honored. The French government presented her with the chevalier of the Legion of Honor. Several other governments also honored her for her part in the rescue work.
The trip in 1928 put Louise Boyd in contact with many men who were engaged in Arctic exploration and were contributing to the scientific knowledge of the area. I believe it was this contact that inspired Louise to change her voyages from hunting expeditions to scientific explorations. From this time on, Louise surrounded herself with scientists and their equipment. Louise found an official spot for herself on these trips by becoming the photographer. She had always been interested in photography and now had a chance to use this hobby to advantage. For her next four trips she chartered the ship Veslekari. She did all the planning, found the crew and scientists, and equipped them with the necessary provisions and instruments. She equipped four expeditions: 1931, 1933, 1937 and 1938. The last three were sponsored by the American Geographical Society. Her work was to chart the northeast coast of Greenland. She describes one expedition aboard the Veslekari:
“Well, our ship is a sealer about 127 feet long and perhaps 25 feet wide and about 25 or 30 of us are aboard. We are on reconnaissance. Laying the groundwork. Mrs. Roche, my secretary and I are the only women on board. Along the north east coast of Greenland there is a strip of land visible in the summer virtually free from snow. But we have to sail across a strip of pack ice 100 to 150 miles wide, which takes from one to two weeks.
“Polar bears, seals, musk oxen and foxes are there. The farthest north wireless station. Eskimonaes (a village) where people live is far behind us. Hunters go little further north. The nearest settlement is Scoresby Sound and ahead of us the great icebergs and fields stretch. Cold? Yes, of course, but there’s unearthly grandeur about it all and I love it.”
The primitive conditions on board were evident when Louise Boyd recounted that there was no running water making it necessary to carry all their water by hand. There were no baths or showers. The usual clothing on shipboard was heavy coats and hip boots to protect the wearer from the heavy swells that washed over the sides. There was no refrigeration and all food was canned. Extra food stocks had to be taken aboard in case the ship was stranded or stuck on the ice. Dynamite was routinely carried for breaking up ice packs.
Once the scientists were able to get to land, there was feverish activity. All photography, botanical collection, and gathering of scientific information had to be done in a few short weeks before the ice closed in around them. Louise Boyd and the other scientists would trek out each day. In the evening they would go over the data they had collected by oil lamp. Louise herself set the pace and was quoted as saying, “I’m reproached sometimes for wearing out the crew, but they haven’t suffered yet. There is never any hardship in doing what you are interested in.”
Louise describes one eventful evening on board: “One night while I was writing down some notes on a rough table, a sudden squall broke and the motor ship was bouncing around like an eggshell in a bathtub. My oil lamp overturned and the entire floor of the room caught on fire. I shut the door quickly and ran for fire extinguishers and help. Mind you, I didn’t know the dynamite was stored under my bunk or else I might not have enjoyed my sleep so well.
“I told Captain Olson what had happened and that I had confined the fire to my room by shutting the door. He yelled bloody murder and rushed to the room with fire extinguishers before the flames had started to lap at the supposedly fireproof case.”
Louise Boyd’s work as an explorer did not end when the voyage was over. Photographs had to be developed and labeled. Scientific specimens had to be mounted. Louise said once, “The real work of an expedition begins when you return. I’m going to spend this winter and next summer studying our findings. You’re an explorer even when you’re home, you see.” Louise Boyd had three books of her photographs published by the American Geographical Society: The Fiord Regions of East Greenland, 1935; The Polish Countryside, 1937; The Coast of Northeast Greenland, 1949.
Louise Boyd had hoped to continue her expeditions, but these and all else were interrupted by history. With war rumbling in Europe, there would be no more private expeditions for a while. Then Louise heard that her valuable cameras and scientific equipment stored in Norway were in the hands of the Nazis. She went after them.
When Louise Boyd returned home to San Rafael in 1939, the city gave a party for her at the Marin Golf and Country Club. Everyone recognized that Louise had brought distinction to her native city with her many honors. It was a gay and happy occasion where Louise received much affection and admiration as San Rafael’s best-known citizen. In an official speech Mayor Nock made Louise an “honorary citizen.” As she stated in the San Rafael Independent, “No recognition from any foreign country brought me the happiness my friends and neighbors provided by giving a reception and dinner for me.” Speaking for her friends, Dr. Lynn T. White said, “Her friends hold her not as a famous person, but as a woman great in spirit.” Or as one other guest put in, “She’s a darn swell person.” It seemed Louise would spend the war years at home, but further adventure awaited her.
When Greenland became a sensitive area at the beginning of World War II, the United States government began looking around for an expert in this area and discovered that all of them were behind enemy lines, except Louise Boyd. In the summer of 1940, the State Department contacted Louise Boyd and asked her about information on Greenland. At that time, the publication of her book, The Coast of Northeast Greenland, was cancelled. The information that was contained in the book was thought to be useful to the enemy. All these photographs, charts and other information that Louise Boyd had assembled, she sent to Washington, D.C. at her own expense for the use of the State Department.
In the fall of 1940, Louise Boyd went to Washington herself at the request of the National Bureau of Standards to arrange an expedition to western Greenland and eastern, arctic Canada for the next summer. In 1941, she organized an expedition aboard the Effie M. Morrissey. Louise paid for the ship and crew herself as well as for the food and supplies, arranging it all herself. The scientific staff and equipment were supplied by the National Bureau of Standards.
The expedition sailed June 1, 1941 going up the west coast of Greenland and down the coast of Baffin Island and Labrador. The object of the expedition was to collect data on radio wave transmission, which seemed irregular in the Arctic. The main concern was the necessity that communications be kept open between American fliers and sailors protecting United States ships and submarines.
When Louise Boyd returned from this expedition, she continued to work for the Bureau of Standards. She had an office in the Pentagon and was employed until June 1942. These were busy times for her and she probably did not realize that this had been her last voyage. Later, when she heard that the Veslekari had gone down, she wrote a friend, “I am going out to dinner tonight with an awful feeling of sadness, for I feel as if I have lost one of my best friends when I think that the Veslekari has gone down in the Atlantic, I loved that ship and all she meant to me and enabled me to do.” She could no longer lead the Veslekari into the Arctic, so she settled for the challenges she found at home. Louise Boyd became the honorary chairman of nutrition for the San Francisco chapter of the American Red Cross.
Since she had inherited her family estate, Maple Lawn, Louise Boyd was known as a marvelous hostess. She had the best of everything in her home, and her guests shared in her lavish hospitality. When there was a dinner party at Maple Lawn, the guests were seated in the formal dining room decorated with antique Swedish murals. There was an elegant lace tablecloth and the finest wines were served in crystal goblets. Fine Danish porcelain and heavy heirloom silver graced the tables. Gay and witty, Louise could keep the conversation flowing. She could talk to men on their level, but also enjoyed a good gossip with her women friends.
In 1952, Louise Boyd remodeled the house to facilitate entertaining her guests. The old house was very Victorian, with small, dark rooms. Louise kept the Victorian décor and heirloom furniture, but opened up the house by adding a large living room/library, in which she displayed the mementos and maps of her expeditions. Photographs of royalty as well as heads of state with their personal greetings crowded the walls. To the opposite side of the house, Louise added a large dining room that would seat 40 guests. She also undertook some major landscaping projects that resulted in a formal terraced garden for her garden parties. There was also added a glassed-in card room that looked out on the garden. A large retaining wall was built to allow a swimming pool complex on an upper level. This beautiful pool had changing rooms and a fully equipped kitchen, so nothing had to be removed from the house during poolside parties.
The gardens at Maple Lawn had gained a widespread reputation for their beauty and superb care. Much of this was due to the gardener, Ah Sing, who was hired by Louise’s father and cared for the gardens for 50 years. When he wished to retire, Louise Boyd paid his expenses to return to China. Many of the plants at Maple Lawn were quite rare and had been imported from all over the world in the early days. Alice Eastwood, who trained Louise in plant collecting for her expeditions, found one variety of tree from South America that she identified as the only specimen in California.
Louise Boyd had a well-known camellia collection, said to be the best in the West. It was reported as a news item when Louise Boyd spent several hundred dollars on a rare camellia bush she found in Covina. Louise carved a flat area out of the hill behind her house and covered it with a lath house. There she grew the beloved camellias that became her trademark. She would be approached by perfect strangers while attending a public event who recognized her by the huge camellia she wore.
Louise Boyd also had a penchant for moving trees. She moved a 45-foot fir tree from the San Rafael firehouse when it was threatened with destruction. When she was constructing the formal terrace garden, full-grown magnolia trees located in other parts of the garden were moved to provide an instant garden.
Another way that Louise Boyd indulged her guests was by serving fine food. When remodeling her house, the kitchen received a thorough renovation with new appliances and a walk-in refrigerator. Louise Boyd had an extensive cookbook collection with recipes from the many countries she had visited. She had a group of friends from the South who often discussed Southern cooking while having a cocktail in the garden. They absolutely adored soft cornbread, or spoon bread, as some of us call it, and would have luncheons that featured this special treat. One of Louise Boyd’s particular friends was Julia Langhorne Calhoun, who along with her husband, John, accompanied Louise on her early Arctic voyages. Julia had a special Southern recipe for “Calhoun punch” that she convinced Louise to serve at the lavish reception honoring Nelson Eddy the year he was the guest artist at the Marin Music Chest performance. What goes into Calhoun punch, I don’t know, but this deceptive drink was certainly one of the reasons the party was such a memorable one.
Louise Boyd was often the hostess for the reception held for the guest artist of the Marin Music Chest. This organization was formed by Maude Fay Symington to bring world-acclaimed artists to the public at reasonable prices. The performances were out-of-doors in Forest Meadows at Dominican College. The proceeds went to scholarships to help young Marin musicians continue their musical studies. Several other prominent Marin women led the Music Chest, and in 1950 Louise Boyd became the president and served for several years in that capacity.
Louise Boyd also served as a member of the Executive Committee of the San Francisco Symphony for more than twenty years. Her appearance at the symphony always attracted notice because of her elegant gowns and jewelry, and of course because of her famous camellia, which she sometimes wore in her hair. She usually bought three Grand Tier seats for the opera and attended with a married couple. She was an early supporter of the San Francisco Ballet, an art that she grew to enjoy while traveling in Europe. Louise’s love of music was developed as a child. It was part of her home life in San Rafael, where her mother played the piano and taught her and her brother, Seth. Her brother John accompanied them on the guitar and one can picture the charming musical evenings she enjoyed at Maple Lawn.
Louise Boyd made Christmas a special time at Maple Lawn. Even while she was traveling, Louise made a special effort to be home for Christmas. Starting in the 1930s, she began the tradition of a Christmas Eve party for the San Rafael city officials, policemen and firemen. Also invited were the local businessmen of San Rafael, anyone who had done business with her during the year. Louise had an open house where all these old friends could mingle and renew old acquaintances. The house at Maple Lawn would be brightly lighted in the evening and a magnificent Christmas tree would greet the guests in the entrance hall. A hot pecan punch (one of Julia’s recipes) would be served and there would be an atmosphere of conviviality. Then Louise herself would come down the staircase and call out “Merry Christmas,” in her raspy voice. Everyone would receive a present, usually a necktie, and the more important officials received a check. This homey tradition was carried out through the years until Louise sold her house and moved to San Francisco.
The last expedition that Louise Boyd organized was a flight over the North Pole. She never liked flying in airplanes, but in this case the plane was the only way she could achieve her long dreamed-of goal to reach the North Pole. In 1955, she chartered a DC-4 and crew and made a trip to the North Pole. It was the first private flight over the North Pole. Louise Boyd carried the flag of the Society of Women Geographers with her on that flight. This flag is displayed at that Society along with other flags taken on expeditions led by other woman geographers.
Louise Boyd continued her travels, although she slowed down as the years progressed. She especially enjoyed touring in California and took a great deal of pleasure in driving. Of course, she always had a chauffeur; the first one had driven her parent’s horse and buggy. In the early days, she owned a Locomobile, when these were considered top of the line, even better than a Cadillac. She enjoyed calling up her Marin friends and saying, “L.A.B. will be over to pick you up in the Loco.” (She liked to refer to herself as L.A.B.) The last car she owned was a Packard formal sedan customized by Dietrich to her and his specifications. She gave the car to her chauffeur when she moved to San Francisco.
As the years went by, Louise accumulated many honors from universities and scientific organizations. She received an honorary law degree from the University of California, Berkeley and from Mills College. She flew to Alaska in 1969 to receive an honorary degree of science. These honors were in recognition of all she had accomplished with only a high school education. Louse Boyd was the second woman ever to receive the Collum Medal of the American Geographical Society and in 1960 was the first woman to be elected to their board. She was made an honorary member of the California Academy of Science. The Louise Boyd Junior Museum was named in her honor. The ultimate compliment any explorer can receive was given her when a portion of Greenland was named for her, Miss Boyd Land.
At the end of her life, Louise Boyd made some mistakes in managing her finances. The fortune that had supported all her adventures dwindled. She sold her home, Maple Lawn, to the Elks Club in 1962 for $350,000. Then her fine furniture, her Danish china and other valuable possessions were auctioned off at Butterfield and Butterfield. She moved into a nursing home near the end of her life. When she died in 1972, there was no money left. A group of friends had supported her in her last days. Her funeral was held at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in San Rafael. Instead of burial, Louis Boyd chose to have her ashes scattered over the North Pole. There is no grave or plaque in San Rafael commemorating her life and contributions.
Louise Boyd was a legendary figure. A type of person that those who knew her remembered well. She was not a sweet or gentle person, you couldn’t overlook her. She was a vivid personality and the life of the many parties she hosted. To explain her life, perhaps a quote from one of the news clippings would begin to do the job: “Miss Boyd decided that being an heiress wasn’t enough to fill one’s life, especially if one had the adventuresome blood of do-and-daring ancestors in one’s makeup.” The ancestors helped, but to accomplish all she did took more than inherited traits; as Rev. Hugh Hardin said in his eulogy, “She possessed a freedom that too many of us are afraid to exercise.” An Arctic explorer and a society woman, Louise Boyd never let other’s expectations determine her way of life or keep her from living a full and meaningful life.
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California Academy of Sciences
California Historical Society
Kent Room, Marin County Library
Marin County Historical Society
San Ramon Historical Society
Collection of Ken McCready
Deeds, Marin County Recorder
Deeds, Contra Costa County Recorder
Probate Record, Contra Costa County.
Mrs. John Upton
Research aid from Bill Allen