The following is a guest post from Music Division Archivist Anita M. Weber.
When our arrearage project archivists and technicians returned to on-site work in July, a team of four eagerly tackled the physical processing of the papers of Roger L. Stevens. This extensive collection of business and personal documents generated by businessman and theatrical producer Stevens documents how he operated in both spheres simultaneously and how he and his wife, Christine, worked together to further their individual goals and interests.
The Stevens’ annual Christmas cards demonstrate this interconnectivity. During the entirety of their 60-year marriage, Christine combined her passion for drawing with her love of animals to create their seasonal greetings.
Although Roger was self-educated in the world of business, Christine Gesell Stevens studied art at the University of Michigan and at Detroit’s Society of Arts and Crafts. She was also a lover of animals. In 1951 she founded the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) through which she fought ceaselessly against animal cruelty in laboratories and against animal extinction throughout the world. Through the Society for Animal Protective Legislation (SAPL) which she founded in 1955, Christine spearheaded efforts that led to the enactment of a number of laws including the Animal Welfare Act (1966), the Marine Mammal Protection Act (1972), the Endangered Species Act (1973), the Humane Slaughter Act (1978), and the Wild Bird Conservation Act (1992).
The same year that Christine founded the AWI, Roger became part-owner of the Empire State Building in one of the largest and most complex real estate deals up to that time. The AWI’s first office was located in the Empire State Building, and Roger served as AWI and SAPL treasurer for decades.
With this background, it’s easy to see how the couple’s hand-drawn Christmas cards came to be. As Christine wrote in Of Elephants and Angels, a self-published collection of the cards, “I always asked Roger’s advice about the drawings and verses as I worked on them, and his critical judgements were integral to the final version of them all.”
At first, the cards were simply based on Christine’s charming drawings that incorporated animals into seasonal motifs that she then cut into linoleum and inked and printed herself; completed with a handwritten note for each recipient. Over time the volume of cards sent out each year swelled to 1,500, and Christine shifted to pen and ink sketches and had the cards printed commercially.
As Christine’s animal welfare advocacy grew, the drawings came to include more animals, with complex settings–oceans, savannas, etc.–and the cards contained printed messages composed by Christine that concerned the animal world.
This soft advocacy for the furred, feathered, and finned was well-received by the Stevens’ friends and colleagues around the world. In their own greetings, card recipients commented on Christine and Roger’s messages: Actress Lynn Fontanne said, “I think those little faces will haunt me. Poor things, poor things!” From Australia Sir Asher Joel wrote, “What a pleasure it was . . . to find your warm and thought provoking festive greeting card waiting for us – so much food for thought in every line!” District of Columbia colleague Stanley Woodward responded, “I am moved by your Christmas verse addressed to the animals in the remnants of the wild and share your deep concern for them with a keen sense of horror – and hope.”
A single blog post cannot do justice to the variety and complexity of this vast collection. Thus, our team will share more of the interesting and unexpected aspects of the Roger L. Stevens papers over the course of 2021. But for now we close with of one of Roger and Christine’s messages from the early 1990s:
“So we wish you a Merry Christmas,
Wish you joyous festive days,
And the same for fellow creatures
With us in Earth’s mighty maze.”