Joe’s rise from interpreter to press officer, at the rank of second lieutenant, was rapid. He had toyed with photography at Harvard, and on his world travels, and, somehow, he managed to pick up film-editing skills as well; these were still new technologies that many of his elders could scarcely fathom. By the time Joe went to the front, in November, 1917, he was supervising six hundred men: “operators, developers, censors, stenographers, messengers, etc.” It was a job that “requires vision,” he wrote home, “for there are no precedents to guide me.” He would leave the Army as Captain Marshall.
Joe often credited life with Elizabeth for his success. He pitied his fellow-officers, who would “wander aimlessly about the hotel lobbies smoking innumerable cigarettes, plainly bored and lonesome.” How much better it was to come home for a convivial meal at the pension with his wife, then retire to their fifth-floor room, pull their “big aristocratic armchair” up to the French windows, open them wide, and curl up together, gazing at the sunset and the Eiffel Tower. “In the midst of excitement and stress and sorrow, we two are keeping our heads and living simple normal lives,” Joe wrote.
The Marshall family’s corn fields had been suffering disastrous growing seasons, with too much and then too little rain, and so the couple mostly lived on Joe’s lieutenant’s salary, the first he’d ever earned. Elizabeth, already accustomed to economizing, didn’t mind. “We are just ridiculously in love,” she confided to her mother, and “we never could have stood it apart from each other.” As for the narrow bed the pension provided, she wrote, “here’s a real Marshall secret—we prefer it narrow.”
Without realizing it, Elizabeth had conceived during their May honeymoon, or perhaps on the Atlantic crossing. In August, an American doctor explained her summer-long queasiness by confirming the pregnancy. She continued attending classes at the Alliance Française, which permitted her to tour museums and cathedrals closed to the public in wartime. Her mother was a tireless clubwoman who kept insisting that Elizabeth “do something” for the war effort but, with a baby on the way, Elizabeth felt she was doing plenty. She read the Paris papers daily and summarized the news for Joe; occasionally she aided him in translation work. “I haven’t forgotten that I can be of use,” she assured her mother, but “homes and babies and knowledge—those things have to go on well, too.” In the weeks before the due date, Germany launched a campaign of aerial attacks on Paris with its heavy Gotha bombers. Joe took out an expensive “war risk” life-insurance policy; when, on January 30th, a bomb was dropped straight through the house across from theirs, and then merely “thumped out into the street,” going off like a “fizzer” instead of exploding, the couple joked about Joe’s prescience in saving a monthly premium by setting the policy to start on February 1st. That same night, a bomb landed on the Crédit Lyonnais where Joe received occasional cable transfers from his father. It blew out the corner of the building, killing two.
Two weeks later, on Valentine’s Day, Elizabeth was playing four-hand piano duets with her landlady when labor commenced. At the American hospital in Neuilly-sur-Seine, a suburb of Paris, Joe was allowed to attend the birth, talking his Sunbeam through what proved to be an easy labor. (The doctor credited Elizabeth’s “athletic life and ability to relax.”) Elizabeth savored a compulsory month-long recuperation at the hospital, but when she and the baby returned to the pension, she couldn’t sleep, and her breast milk stopped flowing—small wonder when blasts from “la grosse Bertha,” a German cannon, interrupted a nighttime feeding, or a fire engine, that “machine of noise and horror,” raced down Rue Vaneau, warning of an air strike, “leaving in its place only a nameless questioning of the sky above us.” Joe, Jr., was losing weight.
In May, Joe and Elizabeth went to Île-aux-Moines, a coastal island in Brittany, where there was a small American colony, fresh sea air, and a milk cow for the baby. Joe could only spend the night but, after one week in a hotel, Elizabeth made up her mind to rent a house and stay for the summer. (“I believe it’s the first time in my life that I ever decided anything for myself,” she wrote to Joe, on May 24th, their first anniversary.) Their families back in Kansas and Michigan begged Joe to send Elizabeth and the baby home, but Joe refused, stressing the value of living through “these tremendous events together.” He doubted if “a thousand years at Detroit or Kansas City could ever have brought us to the same degree of mutual respect and love and understanding that this year in Paris has given us.” And “we haven’t let anything make us sad either,” he claimed. “There is so much sorrow now that it is one’s duty to be gay and happy just to show others that the world hasn’t gone all to pieces after all.”
Still, a note of desperation crept into his defense. “We are in this cursed business to do our full duty,” he wrote. Censorship rules prevented him from explaining his work and the “influence it may have on the war” to his parents, “but Elizabeth knows,” he went on. Elizabeth knew, too, that Joe wasn’t well—he’d also been losing weight. In late June, he checked into a Red Cross hospital in Paris with the Spanish flu. The attending surgeon prescribed a three-week leave, writing in his orders that Captain Marshall “is much debilitated from over-work.” He would spend the time in Brittany.
Joe arrived at Île-aux-Moines believing the war might go on for another two years. As he rested in the shade of a fig tree in the garden behind the seaside cottage that Elizabeth had rented, his infant son napping in a carriage beside him, he considered how all five of his commanding officers had stepped down from exhaustion, nervous breakdowns, or illness, often leaving him in charge. It was not “an easy sort of work.” Three junior officers had been required to fill his place while on leave. Was he succumbing?
Then, while Joe was still in Brittany, a major military counteroffensive from the Allies brought the grinding Second Battle of the Marne to a close. The Germans were finally outmaneuvered by a swarm of Allied tanks at Reims, the cathedral town ninety miles from Paris. When Joe returned to work in August, the mood in the press office had shifted. Paris was safer now. “No one can overestimate the part the Americans played in turning the tide,” Joe wrote home. In September, Elizabeth and the baby returned from Île-aux-Moines to a “cute little house” Joe had rented in Le Vésinet, “the most modern” of the Parisian suburbs. Joe had regained his energy, if not his weight. “Every hour, these days is so filled with the present that there is very little time to look backward,” he wrote home on his twenty-ninth birthday, October 11th.
One month later, Joe jimmied his way through a locked door at the Chambre des Députés and pressed forward into the packed assembly hall to hear Georges Clemenceau, “the grand old man of the war,” announce the terms of the Armistice. The Prime Minister read out all thirty-four paragraphs in a clear, matter-of-fact voice, Joe wrote afterward, “and it made my blood tingle to hear those words.” Each article brought renewed applause until Clemenceau silenced the crowd to issue his own words of gratitude to the “glorious armies” and “render honor to the brave men who had given their lives for freedom and justice and humanity.” Then someone started the “Marseillaise,” and “the whole assembly took it up with a swing that was great.” Joe sang until the tears rolled down his cheeks.