Du Bois Beach at The Point in Stonington Borough was named for, and dedicated to, on Aug. 4, 1960, Coert du Bois, a retired diplomat and, in his early career, a U.S. Forestry Service official in California, who settled in Stonington with his wife after leaving the diplomatic service in 1948.
The story of the beach project and its development in the 1950s, which included raising $50,000 for the land purchase and extensive landscaping work, and trucking in some 500 loads of sand, is generally known, and available on the website of the Stonington Village Improvement Association, which owns the beach. The Stonington Community Center manages it during the summer.
The creation of the beach, which proved to be a community effort, was achieved under the leadership and dedication of du Bois, who was then president of the SVIA. Du Bois died at age 78 in 1960.
What is not so widely known is the story of du Bois’ two daughters. Their story dates to February 1935, in England, and is somehow poetically if not elegiacally tragic and still, from any perspective, simply wrenching.
Coert du Bois was a physician’s son who was born in Hudson, N.Y., and one of the earliest students at the Biltmore Forest School in Asheville, N.C., the first such school in the country. His wife, Margaret Beauvais Mendell, was from Weston, Mass., and a graduate of Smith College. At the time of the marriage, in 1910, duBois was associate district forester for the U.S. Forest Service in California and the couple lived in San Francisco, where they had two daughters, Elizabeth and Jane.
After World War I, in which du Bois served as a major in the 10th Engineers Forest Regiment, American Expeditionary Forces, du Bois left the forestry service, and the military, for the diplomatic corps. He served in Washington, D.C., Paris, Port Said, India, and eventually was named U.S. Counsel General at Naples. He later served in Cuba.
The following was compiled from various newspaper accounts of the day, as well as a narrative posted by the North Weald Airfield Museum in England, and a report, from 2014, published by the Gossips of Rivertown, a blog written by Carole Osterink taking its name from the 1848 novel by Hudson (N.Y.) author Alice B. Neal.
In 1935, while du Bois was posted in Naples, the two daughters — Elizabeth, then 23, and Jane, 20, and a poet, and described in one account as “young, vivacious society girls … traveling around seeking out … the better off classes” — apparently fell in love with two members of England’s Royal Flying Corps. One was Flying Officer John A.C. “Charles” Forbes and the other, Flight Lieutenant Henry Beatty.
On Feb. 15, 1935, the aircraft on which the men served, which had been detained in Naples for some time due to mechanical problems, crashed into a mountain at San Filipo near Messina, Sicily, killing Forbes and Beatty and seven others in the crew.
Less than a week later, on Feb. 21, Elizabeth and Jane paid for all six seats aboard a small plane heading from Stapleford Airport in Essex, England, for Paris. In those days, reads the account published by the North Weald Airfield Museum, “Limited in capacity, the small airliners … could not afford to allocate space to, or meet the cost of, a flight attendant.” The two young women were by themselves in their seats and the pilot, behind a closed door, in the cockpit.
When the plane, at an altitude of about 1,500 feet, flew over Upminster, in Essex, the women, “clasped hand in hand,” according to a witness, opened the passenger door and jumped. Their bodies were found in a field just outside Upminster.
From an Associated Press report, published on Feb. 25, “Coroner’s Jury today returned a verdict of ‘suicide while of unsound minds’ after it had heard the contents of the two letters which the girls had intended only for their father, Coert du Bois, United States counsel general for Naples, and their mother.”
“In their letters,” reported the AP, “the two beautiful American girls told of their grief for the deaths of Flying Officer John A.C. Forbes and Flight Lieutenant Henry L. Beatty, who were killed at Messina, Sicily, two weeks ago when their Royal Air Force flying boat, ‘Ace of Diamonds,’ crashed into a hillside.”
Another report, published by the Romford (England) Recorder, told: “The sisters swigged a flask of whisky before forcing open the external door.”
Still another, post-plunge, reported: “Jane du Bois suffered from chronic asthma, a condition that held out little chance of recovery. Seemingly bored by their lifestyle, the devoted sisters were reportedly regular heavy drinkers and liable for fits of depression, both having recently been found sobbing bitterly over an unknown problem in their hotel room.”
The implication was the deaths of British airmen.
Later in 1935, according to James Reidel, once a scholar in residence at the James Merrill House in Stonington, Yale University Press published a chapbook of Jane duBois’ sonnets.
Coert du Bois devoted much of himself to the creation of a beach for the children and adults of Stonington. It was named for him, but should he have had a say, perhaps he would have preferred his daughters.
Steven Slosberg lives in Stonington and was a longtime reporter and columnist. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.