Style Weekly

The Kaiser’s Pen Pal

A Richmonder reflects on corresponding with the monarch many blame for WWI and other celebrity encounters.

Edwin Slipek Sep 11, 2018 1:00 AM

With Nov. 11 marking the centennial of the end of World War I , in the coming weeks those lazing in Byrd Park or traveling past the Carillon may contemplate the 240-foot-high bell tower and those it memorializes — 4,000 Virginians who died and 100,000 others served in the war to end all wars.

Worldwide, 37 million people perished in the conflict.

For Robert G. Willis Jr., sharp and mischievious at 96, the impressive edifice conjures specific memories of October 1932, "I was at its dedication; my sister Edith and I walked over."

Seated in the living room of the brick house his grandfather built on a tree-shaded, Fan District block, Willis becomes animated as he describes that autumn day 86 years ago: "As we approached the park from the Boulevard, people poured out from nearby streets, all of us strolling to the ceremony together."

Scott Elmquist
Robert “Bobby” Willis Jr. at home among his many photographs paintings and books. The framed portrait at right is of Joseph Melville Willis, a great-great-uncle who was killed in 1862 at the Battle of Seven Pines near Richmond during the Civil War. It was painted by Willis’ mother, Edith Duesberry Willis.

The event, which attracted some 15,000, was described by a local newspaper: "One of the greatest displays of pageantry in Richmond's peace-time history."

Willis had learned of the Great War as a boy first-hand from his father, Dr. Robert Willis, a Richmond physician, who himself had served at Base Hospital No. 45 in Toul, France, an operation organized through the much-lauded efforts of Dr. Stuart McGuire, a physician colleague of the elder Willis. McGuire, a professor at the Medical College of Virginia, now the VCU Medical Center, had assembled an impressive team that included 400 doctors, nurses and other medical personnel from Richmond.

But for Bobby Willis, as friends call him, there's another World War I connection. He may be the last American alive who communicated directly with the man many historians consider the perpetrator of a war that not only claimed tens of millions of lives but changed the nature of warfare and gave rise to Nazism and World War II.

That provocateur was Fredrich Wilhelm Viktor Albrecht von Hohenzollern or Kaiser Wilhelm II (1859-1941).

Wilhelm, Willy for short, was the eldest grandson of Queen Victoria. He assumed the throne in 1888 as emperor of Germany, king of Prussia, and kaiser [Caesar] of the Second Reich. His erratic and impulsive behavior swung famously between ingratiating and bullying. Early in his reign, after dismissing Otto von Bismarck, his highly-regarded chancellor, Wilhelm embarked on a militaristic and expansionary course that included a naval arms race with Great Britain and the annexation of parts of Eastern Europe.

Kaiser Wilhelm II, emperor of Germany and King of Prussia from 1888-1918, during the last years of his life, from 1937 to 1941, he corresponded with Bobby Willis, a Richmond teenager.

British King George V called his first cousin "The greatest criminal in history."

Fifteen-year-old Bobby Willis began corresponding with Wilhelm in December 1937 while at Thomas Jefferson High School. His history teacher had asked each student to develop a project focusing on a foreign country.

The deposed kaiser was then in his 19th year of exile in the Netherlands.

"I chose Germany because my father had told me about [it] and he spoke German," Willis says, "I'd also been there a couple of times."

Willis first visited Germany in 1933 with Lewis Grant, an uncle from New York who handled the finances of wealthy widows. "My mother wasn't interested in going," he says of Edith Duesberry Willis, who, like many Americans, harbored anti-German feelings at the time. "She called them 'Huns.'"

"My uncle and I sailed on the King Arthur II, a steamship. There were hundreds of people waving from the Hudson River piers as we left New York."

Willis relishes opportunities to share his stories — and the animated raconteur has quite a few.

On a recent afternoon he holds court in his dimly lit, south-facing living room. Afternoon sunlight is shielded by a broad front porch and drawn shades. He finishes his breakfast, an early afternoon ritual of scrambled eggs, hash browns and coffee served on a television tray table with a nearby TV blaring away.

Along with a cadre of devoted friends who drop by regularly, Willis keeps himself company with scores of framed photos and painted portraits of departed family members. Other visages that peer from any available surface are George Washington, Robert E. Lee, and friends now dead, including personalities from Hollywood's Golden Age.

Suddenly, Willis snaps at two friends seated nearby: "Why is that lamp on?"

This frugal son of the Great Depression keeps lights off during the day.

On their two trips to Berlin, Willis and his uncle resided at the Kaiserhoff, a posh hotel near the government center and the iconic Brandenburg Gate. "There were always big parades in front of our hotel, I once saw Hitler," he says. "I'd urge my uncle to come with me, but he didn't care for hoopla so I'd go out on the sidewalk myself."

Occasionally the two Americans dined at the even fancier Adlon nearby. That hostelry, which inspired the classic movie "Grand Hotel," more recently, in 2002 was where Michael Jackson dangled his 9-month-old son from an upper balcony to the shock of spectators below.

Willis' correspondence with Wilhelm II occurred during the kaiser's last years. Residing in Doorn, the Netherlands since 1918, during World War I, the former monarch had avoided prosecution for war crimes. The Dutch refused to extradite him and wartime President Woodrow Wilson believed that a trial would only further international instability. During the 22-year exile, Wilhelm published his memoirs and ultimately denounced Hitler for persecuting Jews.

Before drafting his first letter to Wilhelm, Willis consulted Virginia State Library staff on how to address the royal personage. "They said it'd be a safe bet to address him as 'Your Grace.'"

"At first I received no reply," Willis says.

But he persisted.

"I wrote the Kaiser back and asked: 'Why don't you answer me, is it because my father was in the Great War?' I explained that his patients had included both Germans and French."

This time a cordial reply was forthcoming accompanied by an autographed copy of Wilhelm's autobiography. "I think he liked that I was a young American boy."

Other exchanges took place over the coming years, each containing general pleasantries. Willis' last note from Wilhelm was a New Year's greeting for 1941. The Kaiser died that June.

Willis, a student at Thomas Jefferson High School when he initiated the correspondence with Wilhelm as a history project, always addressed him as “Your Grace” and received cordial responses.

"I felt like he was a friend," Willis says, "I was planning on visiting him."

The German experiences unleashed a life-long wanderlust that often included random brushes with famous personalities.

"I was a born vagabond," he says.

Soon after high school Willis hitched a ride with two other young men who were driving to Hollywood. He would live there until the United States entered World War II.

Willis was born in Richmond's Grace Hospital on May 6, 1922, a birth date he shared with actor Rudolph Valentino. "When he died my mother went into mourning and wore black," he says. If Edith Willis was a tad dramatic, Willis says she was also a talented painter and soprano who sang with the Wednesday Club, a stylish local musical organization.

As a toddler, he remembers his nurse, Lena, rolling him afternoons in a cart to the old soldiers' home at Boulevard and Grove (now the campus of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts). While the Confederate veterans conversed on green Adirondack chairs set among the oak trees, she visited with other domestics.

Willis says that although his father was one of a long line of doctors, he wasn't a success professionally. "He was lazy, never pushed himself, was not ambitious." But there one area in which he did excel: "Dr. McGuire always said that he was the best diagnostician in the area; other doctors would come to him for advice."

Each Christmas Day young Willis made the rounds with his father to open houses, including stops at three physicians' homes in the 2300 block of Monument Avenue. "This bored my mother but I loved it. 'Don't give him eggnog,' she'd always tell my father."

"But my parents weren't strict," Willis says, "I was not a mama's boy."

He ran track at Tee Jay and summers he swam in Byrd Park's Swan Lake, then only for white people. There were excursions to Buckroe Beach in the family's 1924 Studebaker while back in Richmond a favorite transit mode was the electric streetcar. "Rides were 7 cents in the old days and you saw everybody on the street car."

Willis roamed the neighborhood and admits to regularly filching chocolate milk from neighbors' stoops. More serious infractions occurred from running with the wrong gang but he says he got off the hook since his father and the judge traveled in the same circles.

Kay Aldridge, a popular magazine cover girl in the late 1930s and early ‘40s and a motion picture actress from Virginia’s Northern Neck, befriended Willis and made him part of her Hollywood circle.

Academically, he enjoyed history and literature but never considered himself a scholar.

Soon after high school Willis hooked up with two teens from Charlottesville and drove to Southern California.

"Gas was only 15 cents a gallon but nobody went West in those days," he says. The sight of Native Americans gathered at service stations along the route intrigued him.

Although Willis enjoyed Los Angeles, he had no intention of settling. That is, until the day before his scheduled return. He made a requisite call on Cornelia Aldridge, a longtime family friend and widow from Warsaw on the Northern Neck, who resided there.

"All of a sudden, her daughter, Kay, burst into the room," Willis says. "`Who is that?'" the glamorous young woman asked, referring to the visitor from Virginia. Not awaiting a reply, she commanded: "'He'll stay for dinner.'"

The encounter was the beginning of a lifetime friendship between a nationally-famous model and aspiring movie actress and the unassuming, but feisty young Richmonder.

Classically beautiful Kay Aldridge had been discovered in Baltimore and moved to Hollywood in 1938 to model and break into acting. She would become a three-time cover girl for Life Magazine and graced the covers of Saturday Evening Post and Look. Entertainment columnist Dorothy Kilgallen called her "a honey-haired Southern honey with a 'Gone with the Wind' accent" (she screen tested for Scarlet O'Hara's role in that epic film). President Franklin D. Roosevelt once invited her to his birthday party.

In Hollywood Darryl Zanuck, head of 20th Century Fox, signed Aldridge to a studio contract despite her rebuffs to his repeated sexual advances.

"Zanuck was a prick," says Willis, in a rare disparaging quip.

But truth to tell "Kay never had any real talent," Willis says. "Olivia deHaviland (one of Willis' few Hollywood acquaintances who, at 102, is still alive) told me she was 'a terrible actress.' When I watched her movies I'd would cover my face with both hands and peep through my fingers." A high point in Aldridge's film career was playing the femme fatale in the popular "Perils of Nyoka" series.

By her own admission, Aldridge had few aspirations as an actor. She told reporters she was more focused on finding a well-off husband so she could install plumbing at Bladensfield, the rambling 18th century family place back in Richmond County.

Willis and Kay hit it off immediately. The unassuming Richmonder found himself in the reflective glow of highly popular Aldridge at top-tier Hollywood functions, her peers attracted to her down-home honesty, cheerfulness, and self-effacing manner.

Willis decided to stay in California when Aldridge's brother got him a clerical job at Douglas Aircraft Co. He rented a room in Beverly Hills, using the same Murphy bed where Stan Laurel, of Laurel and Hardy fame, had slept. Willis met Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, Joan Crawford, Hattie McDaniel, Jimmy Stewart and Jane Withers.

Withers, a celebrated top-10 box office draw in 1938 and 1939, had been a child actress who co-starred with Shirley Temple. She played "the really, really bad child to Temple's 'goody-goody' roles," Willis says.

Off the set the two actresses were rivals: "You couldn't mention Shirley's name to her," he says of Withers. "She lived with her mother and father, whom I really liked, in a beautiful house on Sunset Boulevard overlooking the UCLA campus. They had a compound with horses and areas in which to play games. That's the way child stars lived in those days."

To a later generation of TV viewers, Withers became famous as Josephine the Plumber on Comet cleanser commercials.

"Kay Aldridge opened so many doors for me," says Willis of his life-long friend who died in 1991. "I had no ambition. I didn't want to be anybody. I just wanted to be a member of the crowd."

Immediately after America's entry into World War II in early December 1941, Willis moved back to Richmond to enlist in the Navy from his home state. He felt a sense of family duty since his ancestors had served Virginia dating back to colonial times. He reported for basic training in Chicago.

In 1943, however, when his ship was attacked and sunk by the Germans off the coast of Sicily, he survived near-fatal back and spinal wounds. After being stabilized he was sent to a military hospital on Long Island to recover.

"One day the ward door opened and every doctor and nurse came to attention," he says. "'Play dead,'" hissed a fellow patient.

Native Richmonder and Navy veteran Willis settled in Los Angeles World War II. Pictured here in 1946 at the Santa Anita Racetrack near Los Angeles, he was often mistaken for actor and singer Gene Kelly.

"Gen. George Patton entered and walked around each bed. 'Willis, how long have you been here?' he asked, 'Where are you from?'"

"I told him Virginia and he said: 'All my family is from that renegade state now called California.'"

"He called for an aide to bring him a Purple Heart and presented it to me on the spot. I think that was out of the ordinary, but it was because both he and I had Virginia roots."

During his recuperation, Willis was eventually able to explore New York City. As a wounded veteran, he says he enjoyed being treated as a hero: "I played it up."

At this time Kay Aldridge was appearing on Broadway in a long-running play, "Over 21," a comedy written by, and starring Ruth Gordon later of "Rosemary's Baby" and "Harold and Maude" fame. Willis often joined Aldridge after the performance for dinner.

"Years later, whenever Kay would say 'When I was on Broadway…,' I'd roll my eyes and interject: 'When you were on Broadway you had two lines.' She'd hated that and would frown."

After the war Willis returned to Richmond and attended Richmond Professional Institute, now Virginia Commonwealth University, on the GI Bill. Still having developed no career path, he took a variety of classes.

"I took whichever courses I could pass," he says. "After RPI I could go anywhere on the GI Bill so I took graduate classes at Columbia. I got the lowest grades, but I didn't care, I was back in New York!"

Willis rode the subway to Columbia from his Lower East Side, fifth floor walk-up apartment. Rent was $17 a month. And since it barely had plumbing he purchased a small tub that he managed to get to the top floor. "The tub was so small, you drew up your legs to your chin." It was nonetheless a luxury and word got out: "I'd often get knocks on the door and someone would be standing there with a towel.

He lived across the hall from an aspiring actress, Doris Roberts.

Jane Withers, one of Hollywood’s biggest box office draws in the late 1930s, and Willis were good friends. She later appeared in TV commercials as “Josephine the Plumber.”

"She'd sit and drink coffee in my kitchen," Willis says. "She was upbeat: 'Don't worry,'" she'd say, "'we'll get jobs.'" Indeed she did. Roberts landed her first Broadway and television roles in 1951 and went on to win five Emmy Awards — for "Remington Steele" and four for "Everyone Loves Raymond."

Among Willis' jobs was dining room captain at the St. George Hotel near Grand Central Terminal. Early one afternoon two ladies came in and Willis explained that at lunchtime the dining room was reserved for businessmen. As the women, Helen Keller and an assistant left, his manager was horrified and adamant that Willis pull them back in.

"When I apologized profusely she said she didn't want cause any trouble. I told her that I'd be in a lot more trouble if she didn't come in. When I told her the daily special was liver and onions, she said that it was her favorite. I told her I hated it. But she tipped me very well."

After serving briefly as a graduate teaching assistant at Columbia, Hollywood again beckoned and Willis went to work at 20th Century Fox in the research department. Here he assisted script writers and scenic and costume designers in assuring proper period details were carried out in every aspect of a production.

Willis eventually rented a house at Santa Monica. People often thought he looked like Gene Kelly. "Sometimes I'd catch people looking and say, 'No, I'm not who you think.'"

Once, when Willis was attending brunch at the home of Ann Miller, the celebrated tap dancer, singer and actress, her phone rang just as guests were arriving.

"'Would you answer that?' she asked me. I explained to the man on the other end that she was occupied at the moment. 'Wait, don't I know your voice?' `Just tell Ann that Harry called.'" It was President Truman.

Ever restless, Willis moved back to New York in the late 1950s and had a successful career in the office an upscale fabric company, Patterson Fabrics. Among its clients was another former Richmonder, William Haines, a big movie star from the silent film era who had become one of Hollywood's most sought-after interior decorators.

Not surprisingly, Willis had a connection: "Haine's mother [who lived on Richmond's Bellevue Avenue] made my mother's wedding dress."

Willis continued to live in Greenwich Village but went to Maine in the summer, where he had spent childhood summers at camp. He bought a house in Lincolnville, a town just north of the more picturesque and stylish Camden where Kate Aldridge had settled. Now retired from acting, she had married a wealthy husband and was rearing a family.

Willis, who remains a bachelor, retired to his boyhood home in 1973 to look after his aged parents.

"I've touched a lot of history in my day," he says, "I was curious, some say too curious, but you're never going to learn anything if you're not curious." S