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The Moray Epstein Collection: A Merchant Marine in Love and War

The following is a guest post by Rachel Telford, Archivist for the Veterans History Project.

Photograph of Moray Epstein from the front of his diary. Moray Epstein Collection, Veterans History Project, American Folklife Center, AFC2001/001/5539.

While I often think of men of the greatest generation as more stoic than emotive, collections made up of wartime letters and diaries can tell a very different story. These collections are often filled not with the drama of combat, but the melodrama of a young man’s love life. While reviewing the Moray Epstein collection recently, I quickly became engrossed. A veteran of World War II, Epstein served with the Merchant Marines, working in the Steward’s Department aboard numerous ships and traveling to ports around the world, including Shanghai, Murmansk, and Rio de Janeiro.

As a student at UCLA in 1941, Epstein took a job on a merchant ship over the summer to earn money for tuition. But after injuring his back, he was left behind in Honolulu to receive medical attention. Following a brief period of recovery, he decided to stay in Hawaii, and found a job as a reporter for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. Living just a few miles away from Pearl Harbor, he witnessed the outbreak of war first-hand, and soon decided to return to service aboard a Merchant Marine ship.

All the while, Moray was exchanging letters with a former girlfriend named Sylvia, and nursing a not-so-secret desire to rekindle their romance. Writing on November 6, 1941, Moray noted that it had been at least a year and a half since they had seen each other, and he was sure she had her choice of suitors, asking, “Have you thought seriously enough of one to marry? Perhaps by the time you receive this, you’ll no longer be Miss Edelstein. But I’ll be entirely selfish and say I hope you are not thinking of it yet.”

Hand-drawn map of the northern hemisphere annotated to indicate Moray Epstein’s travels. Moray Epstein Collection, American Folklife Center, AFC2001/001/5539.

In January 1942, Moray wrote of his love for Sylvia, noting, “In every thought-filled moment of my homeward journey, uppermost in my mind is the thought that I shall soon see Sylvia.” He vows that when he gets home he will tell her how he feels, and offer her a ring. But in a brief post script, dated Valentine’s Day, he writes, “She gave me her answer in these words. ’Let me write to you, for what I have to say will not make you happy.’ And finally I said good night… I shall try not to speak to her or write or see her again.”

Though he seems brokenhearted, just three weeks later, a friend introduced Moray to a woman named Rita. His diary notes that they shared “an especially memorable time” after an evening of dancing, and he resolves not to tell her of his previous heartbreak. But Moray soon boards a ship transporting cargo down the east coast of the United States, and when he returns to New York in August, he finds that Rita’s been “going steady with a fellow who has given her a ring.”

Fortunately, Moray was not one to spend time being lovelorn: his diary indicates that a few nights later, he attends a dance with a woman named Steffi, but she doesn’t seem to have been particularly receptive to his advances. The next night, he meets yet another prospect, Sally, and after dancing, they go out for waffles. But unfortunately for Sally, Moray spends the evening talking about Sylvia. She suggests he give Sylvia a call, and after thinking it over all night, he decides to call her just to say goodbye. But she’s happy to hear from him, and that evening, he offers her a friendship ring, with the promise of an engagement ring to follow. Later, he noted in his diary, “I feel that this time we’ll be together for keeps… I kissed Sylvia goodnight, the second time I ever kissed her. No, she leaned over and kissed me.”

Postcard from Moray Epstein to Sylvia Edelstein, April 16, 1943. Moray Epstein Collection, Veterans History Project, American Folklife Center, AFC2001/001/5539.

Moray and Sylvia were married in May 1943, and after returning to sea, Moray never missed a chance to write to his new bride. His letters are filled with professions of love, poetry, news of his travels, and plans for the future. Unfortunately, we don’t have Sylvia’s side of the correspondence, so we’ll probably never know what changed her mind about Moray. Perhaps she just couldn’t resist a man who traveled the world, but kept finding his way back to her.

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