Flirting with History: A Romance in Early 20th Century China, Part Four

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

This series of posts on the lives of Elizabeth Gowan Haskins Workman and her first husband Thomas Haskins, a member of the American diplomatic legation in China, during the first years of the 20th century continues with excerpts from a 1969 interview Elizabeth did with her daughter, Anne Workman Janeway.

One of the lengthier segments of the interview concerned reminiscences of leisure activities enjoyed by Elizabeth and Tom, while he served as an interpreter and assistant secretary for the legation.  Picnicking in Peking (Beijing) was one memorable element, with Elizabeth recalling that “you had to ride horseback to get to one . . . because there were no roads, or motor cars, of course.”  In fact, she related that is how she learned to ride a horse.

When the guests arrived, they found that

the servants were sent ahead with all the food.  When we’d get there, we’d find a table set up with a lace cloth, and the food was served in courses, and if it was Italian picnic, they would have a big cauldron, so big, where they would cook the spaghetti, and the sauce, everything.  Wines—several wines.  It was almost as formal as if we were in Peking.  It was great fun.

There were also polo games “played on the grounds of the Temple of Heaven” because there were so many British residents there, including diplomats who’d been in India.  Tennis was another pastime and Elizabeth remembered that, when the courts froze over in the winter, they doubled as a skating rink where she learned to skate, though not without nearly breaking her nose in a fall.  Hunting was also very popular among the men, including for pheasant, wild turkey, partridge and nothers.


Further discussion was had about Legation banquets hosted by the ministers and Elizabeth recalled that these usually “consisted of thirty guests.  And in the center of the long side of the table sat the Minister, and his wife on the other side.  And then they graduated down, lower and lower.  We always sat at the very end because we were Second Secretary.”  Yet, she remembered that a Russian secretary once told her “the most interesting people sat at the ends of the table.  The ministers were considered rather stuffy.”

There was also some discussion of the formality of the attire, including white tie and tails for the men and chiffon dresses and the like for the women, but one story returned back to comments made and included in an earlier post in this series, about the wife of Prince Livio Borghese, who Elizabeth referred to in direct terms as a “slut.”  In this story, however, she remembered that the prince arrived at a legation banquet alone and when she asked where his wife, Valerie, was, the nobleman answered that they’d had words and he was unsure if she would come.

A couple of courses into the meal, however, Valerie made her entrance with “the upper part of her dress down, below, where it shouldn’t have been—a great deal below.”  With the prince seated across from her and Valerie only two persons over, he said to Elizabeth, “Mrs. Haskins, will you please tell my wife to pull up her dress.”  So, she did, though adding “that was very embarrassing to me.”  This was followed by a couple of short recollections about men who propositioned Elizabeth, but she was adamant that the tape recorded be turned off and these remembrances not included!   She did say, however, that gossip and scandal were widespread in the foreign legations.

Los Angeles Times, 19 October 1906.  Thomas Haskins’ brother, Sam, who was a city clerk when William H. Workman was Los Angeles city treasurer, was a friend of William H. Workman, Jr.  His wife hosted a tea for Elizabeth when she and Tom returned to Los Angeles for a visit from China.

Elizabeth recalled that “right after dinner, we went to the gaming tables always.”  A German baron would say “well, we’re not here for pleasure” and then bridge would be played until about midnight at which “we always played for money, and somebody kept books” with the reckoning of what was owed or due at the end of the month.  Tom and other men often played poker and “he went very often to the Russian legation.  The Russians loved poker.”

She also noted that there was a servant for each guest waiting at table because the ministers had twenty to thirty employed in their houses.  Notably, as indicated in some of the previous posts, Anne returned to something notable, commenting “my feeling throughout this interview is that you didn’t have a great deal of contact with the Chinese people, and that the Legation Quarter was rather isolated from the city, and from human contact.”  Elizabeth’s response was “yes, it was a foreign quarter.  That’s what it was.  We were a foreign quarter in Peking . . . we would see Chinese on the street but they didn’t live in that quarter.  They were passing through, or they were servants, or officials.”

Then the conversation turned to a very difficult matter.  Anne asked her mother about how many children she and Tom had in China and her mother answered that there were two daughters, but they did not survive.  She went on,

Well, they were both born at seven months, as all my children wanted to be, and they only lived a few hours.  In fact, when the first one was born, there was a difference of opinion between the American and the French doctor[s] that I had, as to whether she was alive or not.  The second lived about twelve hours . . . so it wasn’t until I had my fourth baby that I succeeded in having one.

This last reference was to children during her second marriage to William H. Workman, Jr.  Elizabeth continued by noting that the wife of her British doctor who cared for her during the second pregnancy, Lucy Gray “had been a nurse and she was a great comfort to me at that time.  She was a darling person.”

This remarkable interview from the 23 October 1906 edition of the Los Angeles Herald included a statement from Tom Haskins that “I enjoy China very much and I don’t know but what I would rather live in the orient than in the United States,” which seemed “unaccountable to an American” according to the paper.

Other portions of the interview as it moved towards completion returned to earlier conversations, including the 1906-07 return home for a long vacation and then the long trip back to China.  A couple of points not previously mentioned were that the ship they sailed on hit a reef on Midway Island and they had an unexpected layover and then, not long after the horrific earthquake and fire in San Francisco, Elizabeth and Tom “came in through the [Golden] Gate and saw the city in ruins.  Oh, that was a sight.  It was really shocking.”

After a few days at San Francisco, Elizabeth remembered, “then we went to Los Angeles where we went through a lot of entertainment.  All his old friends there, you know, his family, and all.”  The trip continued to New York, visiting family of Tom’s, to Washington, D.C. where they saw President Roosevelt (as mentioned before) and then the long trip east through Europe and back to Asia.

There was also discussion of friends Elizabeth had in China, including her recollection that “my best friends were French and Italian” including one French woman with whom she remained in correspondence for some thirty years, including a visit in 1927 when Charles Lindbergh landed in Paris after his remarkable solo airplane crossing of the Atlantic Ocean, and an Italian woman she knew well.


On Wednesday, we’ll conclude the series with more excerpts from the interview including the tragic and dramatic ending to Elizabeth’s four years in China, so check back then.

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