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 Kilmer Smoking Scandal

"Would you care for a bad cigarette?"

In the last 100 years, Coe has hosted many distinguished authors on campus:  Wendell Berry, Gwendolyn Brooks, Truman Capote, Robert Frost, Edna St. Vincent Millay, William Stafford, and most recently John Updike.  But no visit has ever created a bigger stir than in 1926 with the arrival of the poet Aline Kilmer.

The announcement in the Cosmos for Aline Kilmer's impending appearance in October of 1926 gave no clue that anything shocking was about to occur.  The article stated that "Aline Kilmer, noted poet and lecturer, has been secured by the women's literary societies to speak in the chapel Monday evening at 8:15 o'clock."  The article listed titles for her best known works (Candles that Burn, Vigils, and The Poor King's Daughter) and indicated that the topic for her appearance at Coe would be "Poet Personalities."  Readers were informed that she was the widow of Joyce Kilmer, the well-known poet killed during the World War.  Tickets for the lecture cost 50 cents and could be obtained from members of the women's literary societies.

As usual with "scandals" of this sort, the students found little concerning Aline Kilmer's visit to warrant serious attention.  It was the community that was shocked by what occurred.  The lecture was given on a Monday evening.  On Saturday the Evening Gazette reported that Mrs. Aline Kilmer had been smoking cigarettes in the presence of some Coe women and had invited the coeds to smoke with her.  The article was soon picked up by the Des Moines Register and other papers in the state.  When interviewed about the incident, Florence Nicholson, Coe’s Dean of Women, assured the reporter (and the community concerned about College's moral standards), "I don't think anyone needs to worry about the influence on the coeds, because they were all so shocked."

According to an article in the Cosmos (November 5, 1926), two "college women" met Mrs. Kilmer at her hotel for purposes of escorting her to the campus.  After a few minutes of conversation, Mrs. Kilmer-who appeared to be nervous or agitated-asked if the girls would mind if she smoked.  "Would you care for a cigaret?  I don't have a thing but-- (and she named a popular brand of cigarets, which she did not seem to relish herself."  The Coe women refused, and Mrs. Kilmer proceeded to smoke two cigarets.  The three were then joined by a member of the Coe faculty, the four had dinner together at the hotel-during which Mrs. Kilmer returned to her room for another smoke because it was "hard for her to speak unless she had quieted her nerves with a cigaret."

When they returned to campus, the two Coe women told some people about the smoking incident.  According to the Cosmos, one "prominent Y.W.C.A. worker" informed the group that if Mrs. Kilmer had "offered me a cigaret, I would certainly tell her what is proper and would give her my little talk on women smoking."  As it turned out, she had her chance.  When the lecture was over, Mrs. Kilmer was in need of a ride back to the hotel.  The Y. W. C. A. coed had a car and she offered to give Mrs. Kilmer a life.  When they arrived at the hotel room, the poet asked her if she would care for "a very bad cigaret?"  The response was a frigid "no thank you."

In the same Cosmos issue is an editorial on the Kilmer smoking incident.  The editors remind their readers that Coe’s students are not as innocent and naive as the faculty and administration had portrayed them in the interviews with local reporters.  According to the editorial, Mrs. Kilmer delighted her audience and won many friends.  Not many students would be shocked by her smoking-or asking a female student if she wanted to smoke.  "The interest in the story did not lie in the fact that Mrs. Kilmer blew some smoke rings, but it made good copy because the faculty members believed that the coeds here were so shocked to see a woman smoke, since 'of course it isn’t done here.' " The faculty simply do not have a full command of the facts.  Interviews with coeds suggest that perhaps as high as 75% of the coeds have smoked or would "if the conditions were right."  The Cosmos editors concluded that the days of the moralists in controlling behavior is passed.  " . . . now it is the efficiency expert, and all 'evils' must be fought by telling the people that there is a loss of efficiency in the practice of them."

This should have been the end of the controversy, but the whole affair was resurrected in the national media five months later when Josephine Herbst's article "Iowa Takes to Literature" appeared in the April 1926 issue of H. L. Mencken’s The American Mercury.  A Morningside College alum living on the east coast, Herbst focused her portrait on "club women" in Iowa who have no real purpose in their lives but to waste their days flirting with literary fads and a shallow pursuit of knowledge.  Their meaningless dalliance with "half-baked knowledge has dulled rather than sharpened the Iowa female brain." In the midst of this broadside on Iowans' interest in gossip rather than real literature is a paragraph on the way the Iowans have dealt with women smoking in public. 

A few months ago Mrs. Aline Kilmer received attention from newspapers all over the State because she smoked a cigarette in her hotel room before her lecture to the innocent co-eds of Coe.  'Enjoyed a Fag Before Her Talk to College Co-Eds' read a typical headline.  The account went on: 'Mothers of some of the girls heard of the incident, and they suggested that Mrs. Smith, president of the Iowa W.C.T.U., be notified, fearing that Mrs. Kilmer's indulgence in cigarettes would have a harmful effect on the moral of the students.  Miss Nicholson, dean of women, took the opposite view.  She said all the girls were shocked by the incident, but she didn't believe they would be harmed.'

Needless to say, the Coe Library had a booming business for a few days with Coe students reading about themselves in The American Mercury.

It is fitting that the final word on this scandal comes from a January 1928 Patter Column.  The Patter editor reprints a brief item from the Cedar Rapids Republican on the recent visit to Cedar Rapids by Louis Untermeyer, a New York poet.  Untermeyer informed his Iowa audience that the hottest topic in the east is not prohibition or how long skirts should be or who will be the next tennis champion.  No, the subject of attention among diners at all the fashionable cafes in the east is:  "What are we going to do about the girls smoking out at Coe college?"  The Patter editor followed this bit of information with a well-chosen joke on the whole affair: "Following the action of Coe authorities who forbid smoking on the campus, it is rumored that a well known correspondence college will adopt a similar ruling by forbidding its students to smoke in the post office."

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