"Poor Butterfly"

Blog Post #31

by Jan Van Ryan

Politicians often use songs to set the tone of their campaigns. The song “Happy Days Are Here Again” ushered in all three-terms for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Former President Bill Clinton’s campaign relied on a Fleetwood Mac song called “Don’t Stop (Thinking About Tomorrow)” to energize the crowds during his campaign events. And recently Hillary Clinton reprised a James Brown favorite called “I Got You” when she re-emerged on the campaign trail after being diagnosed with pneumonia.

The song’s lyrics open with “Wo! I feel good, I knew that I would now,” which would seem to be a suitable message for the former Secretary of State to broadcast to her supporters. Had her staff thoroughly researched the song, however, they would have learned that James Brown died from complications attributed to pneumonia. It was an “oops” moment for the campaign.

Wars also are associated with songs. During the period of World War I (1914-1918), several songs became American classics. “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary,” “Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag,” and “Over There” are among the most memorable. But there were others, and at least one seemed to have a role in the love affair between Evelyn Hazen and Ralph Scharringhaus.

In a letter written to Evelyn after the United States entered the Great War, Ralph mentioned how forlorn he felt after hearing the song “Poor Butterfly.”  Unlike the upbeat tunes that were designed to encourage young American men to vanquish the foe in Europe, this particular song focused on the uncertain fate of young couples caught up in the conflict.

The song’s lyrics tell the story of a young Japanese woman named Miss Butterfly who grieves over an American sailor who never returned after the war.  “They met 'neath the cherry blossoms every day and he taught her how to love the American way. To love with her soul t'was easy to learn. Then he sailed away with a promise to return. Poor butterfly.”

The song ends sorrowfully with “I’m sure he'll come to me by and by. But if he won't come back, then I'll never sigh or cry. I just must die. Poor butterfly.”

This grim sentiment was on Ralph’s mind as he sat in a hotel lobby in Columbia, South Carolina, composing a letter to Evelyn in late August 1917. After joining the U.S. Armed Forces earlier in the year, Ralph had received basic training at Ft. Oglethorpe in Georgia, was commissioned as an officer, and then was sent to Camp Jackson (now Ft. Jackson) near Columbia to train troops destined to fight in France. Since his barracks were still under construction, he and other soldiers spent several days at the Jefferson Hotel.

His letter laments his inability to spend time with Evelyn. “Someone is playing ‘Poor Butterfly’ on the piano and it makes me awfully lonesome for you,” he wrote. “Now it’s “I Ain’t Got Nobody.’ I wish they wouldn’t play it, I guess you think I’m silly but I love you…and when I hear certain pieces of music it makes me realize that I can’t see you for a long while.”

But Ralph did see Evelyn that fall during his first leave from Camp Jackson, and his desire for her led to her seduction. He asked her to marry him and move to Columbia with him immediately. When they were unable to get a marriage license during the weekend, Ralph asked her to prove she loved him by giving herself to him.

According to Evelyn, Ralph said, “We would be married in the sight of God in a sort of secret marriage, and that there was nothing wrong in it…I gave into his wishes. That first experience was ghastly, for I was frightened to death at the reality which turned out to be painful, totally lacking in any gentleness that he had hinted at before, and suddenly very repulsive…[T]hat one experience was enough to bind me to the conviction that I must have a marriage ceremony to right it and give me peace of mind….”

Thus began the multi-year saga of Evelyn’s and Ralph’s tempestuous relationship. It started during World War I and ended in a scandalous trial in 1934. Through it all, Ralph was proud, arrogant and self-indulgent as he made excuses for failing to marry her. Meanwhile, Evelyn like the heroine in Poor Butterfly considered ending her life before going on the offensive and suing Ralph for seduction and breach of promise to marry.

Most women who had loved and lost early in the Twentieth Century did not air their dirty laundry per se in public. But Evelyn was ahead of her time.  The song that best characterizes her personal campaign against Ralph was written many years after the trial: Carly Simon’s 1972 hit “You’re So Vain.”