Discovery and Research from a Liggett Lecturer

On Thursday evening, film historian Dr. Leslie DeBauche will speak in the Manoogian Arts Wing as part of our Celebration of Women lecture series (more about that below.)

But today DeBauche spent the day with students, sharing her love of film and research with students.

Dr. Leslie DeBauche met with students today and will meet with them tomorrow before her 7 p.m. lecture Thursday night.

Just after lunch, she met with students in the Advanced Research Project Tutorial class. These are juniors who have volunteered to take part in the ARP, as it’s known, next year. The ARP is to be the capstone of a Liggett Upper School education under the Curriculum for Understanding. Several seniors this year have volunteered to try out the intensive research project and the juniors in ARPT are learning the skills and mindset needed to succeed next year as they take on their own project.

DeBauche spoke to the class as an example of someone who found a passion along an unconventional route and as someone who could help students understand the importance of research.

“I’ve always loved stories and always loved history,” DeBauche told the students. She earned a degree in English and at one point took a course in French film. The professor would put the films in context of philosophy and history and she quickly fell in love with film. Eventually, she received a doctorate in film studies. The films fed her love of stories, but she also fed her love of history by researching the films and the times in which they came out.

It’s through this research that she became fascinated with The Liggett School’s Class of 1917, the subject of Thursday’s talk.

In her research, DeBauche kept coming across the same group of silent film actresses – Mary Pickford and Billie Burke the two biggest names – who tended to be cast in roles as “The American Girl.” These characters were good, salt of the Earth types who could always be counted on to help the underdog. The actresses who played them were used by big advertising firms to sell just about everything.

“It seemed like businesses were making an awful lot of money off the ‘American girl’ and it led to thinking about who were the real American girls and what were the effects of the movies on them,” DeBauche said.

DeBauche came across the high school scrapbook of Helen Schloss, a member of the Liggett School’s Class of 1917. Scrapbooks were a common way of remembering high school in the early part of last century and many families have saved them through the years. It was full of movie and popular culture references DeBauche said showed the importance the film industry had on the lives of young girls at the time. She looked into the lives of the other girls in that class, names written by Schloss in the scrapbook.

“As I read this scrapbook and did the research I saw this was a pretty special group of young women,” DeBauche said. “And when I realized who Lydia Kahn (daughter of noted architect Albert Kahn) was, I thought there was something more going on here.”

She contacted Liggett and, with the help of Liggett archives, began researching each member of the class.

“My expectations were that these girls would have lived a pretty conventional life and get married right away after graduating, but that wasn’t the case,” DeBauche said. Many of the women married, for the time, much older and they did so many notable things, she said and she wondered why that was. It might have something to do with World War I, which the United States entered shortly before these girls graduated. They were called to help the country on the homefront in a way people hadn’t been before. But there was another thing.

“I think it had something to do with the curriculum of the school,” she said. “This was an incredibly well-educated generation. Miss Ella encouraged a kind of independence and were given the message that they could make a difference.

She will discuss her research and more Thursday. The lecture is free, but registration is required here.

By Ron Bernas