June 5, 2011

Last week I wrote about a young, talented woman from Portsmouth who went off to Hollywood, fell in love with and married a Navy flyer and died at an early age, leaving a box of letters in what became an abandoned house.

Those letters rested undisturbed for more than 30 years before a friend – who had helped rewire an old Portsmouth house in the 1970s – asked if I could help solve the mystery. Fortunately, several relatives contacted me and filled in some gaping holes in her story.

Eloise Merrell Rawles was born in Portsmouth in December 1920 to Joseph A. and Marian Whitehurst Rawles. At Woodrow Wilson High, class of 1938, she was obviously popular. Many of the letters she received during junior and senior years were from former schoolmates who confessed their love to her.

The yearbook’s description of Eloise as “biggest bluffer” was apparently accurate. A cousin said she was known for teasing boys into making fools of themselves.

What the yearbook doesn’t mention was how talented she was.

Growing up across the street on Webster Ave. in the Park View neighborhood, Warren Rawles, was in awe of his older cousin. Having a mother who taught music in her home, she was surrounded by musical instruments: xylophones, miniature harps, a grand piano.

“Eloise could play just about anything you put in her hands,” Rawles said from his home in Florida. Her mother, he said, was so proud of her that she invited neighbors every Sunday to recitals.

There was much more. “She was the kind of person that made you feel welcome, made you feel important,” Rawles said. “She was always interested in what I was doing. She just had a warmth about her.”

Another cousin, Margaret Ann Cuthriell Cummings of Deep Creek, who went to the movies, rode bicycles and played paper dolls with Eloise, said she “had a sweet temper. She was a kind, gentle person.”

Eloise went to Coker College in Hartsville, S.C., but dropped out in May 1940. At this point her letters now bear a Hollywood, CA, address. The talented Miss Rawles, president of the dramatic club in high school and gifted musician in college, was hoping for stardom.

“She escaped to live her own life rather than be a protégé of her mother,” Warren Rawles said. “It caused quite a stir.”

Her mother told friends that she was associated with the prestigious Pasadena Playhouse, but she never made it to the next step. Among her papers are letters of regret from several Hollywood big shots who didn’t have the time to grant her auditions.

Suddenly, in 1944, the scene shifts back to Portsmouth and she’s writing love letters to Lt. John J. Wilkinson in care of a Navy seaplane base in New York. One letter to her was addressed to Mrs. Wilkinson.

A search of genealogical records shows that they were married on May 29, 1943, at Little Church Around the Corner in New York City.

The letters end abruptly and there’s little to indicate what happened to Eloise. An alumni directory at Wilson High indicates that by 1963 she had already passed away.

There’s a yawning void here that has now been filled by relatives and a small community of ardent genealogists who rose to the challenge.

While Wilkinson served in the Navy during World War II, she returned to Portsmouth at least for a few years and, possibly with her mother, gave piano lessons. It appears that, after the war, the couple moved out west.

He got a law degree from the University of Colorado in 1949 and the following year they moved to Alamogordo, N.M. They had two children, a girl and a boy.

But news reached relatives in Portsmouth that Eloise had become sick. Breast cancer, one of her cousins said. And on Aug. 3, 1958, at the age of 37, she died in Santa Fe.

Records for the Portlock section of Oak Grove Cemetery in Portsmouth suggest she was buried there alongside her mother and father. But a stroll through the historic graveyard last week showed a memorial plaque, not a grave marker. She was buried in Alamogordo.

The couple that brought me the letters was right: I wouldn’t be able to resist the challenge of learning more about this bright, ambitious, talented woman.

With the help of many others, I feel I’ve finally, in my mind at least, laid her to rest.

Photo from a family album shows Eloise Rawles as a teenager. Courtesy of Margaret Ann Cummings.