When one thinks of Juliette Gordon Low, one conjures up the image of her standing tall and dignified in her khaki uniform and wide-brimmed hat as head of the Girl Scouts that she founded in the USA in 1912. But Juliette was far more than that as we shall find out. She was impetuous, witty, intelligent, kind, courageous and artistic. Her brother, Arthur called her “a brilliant eccentric who would try anything.”
The second of six children, Juliette Magill Kinzie Gordon was born on
Hallowe’en, October 31,1860 to Eleanor Lytle Kinzie and William Washington Gordon. Named after her maternal grandmother, she was always called Daisy by her family.
Her parents were an example of “opposites attracting opposites.” Eleanor,
known as Nellie, was from a wealthy family who pioneered throughout the Middle West and helped found the city of Chicago. William, known as Willie, was from an elite Savannah family. His father was the first Georgian to graduate from West Point and went on to found the Central of Georgia Railroad, which opened Savannah to the state’s western boundaries and helped reinforce the city as a rail center and important seaport.
Nellie and Willie’s first meeting well explains the differences in temperament between the two. Willie was at the Yale Library, standing at the bottom of a stairway. Unbeknownst to him, Nellie was at the top of the stairway and unbeknownst to him also was the fact she never used the stairs if there was a banister. Much to Willie’s amazement, Nellie came hurtling down the banister, landing at his feet and knocking his hat from the newel post. He admitted in later years that he decided at that moment to marry this young lady. Nellie was impetuous; Willie, careful and thoughtful. Daisy had strains of both.
With the coming Civil War, more differences surfaced. Nellie’s father and brothers supported the northern cause. Willie a cotton broker, believed in slavery and went off to fight with the Georgia Hussars, later fighting under Confederate General Longstreet. He would ultimately be captured by Union troops.
Savannah was cut off from supplies. Daisy was four years old, sickly and suffering from malnourishment. Nellie, worried about her husband and about her children, obtained help from General Sherman who saw that she left Savannah and traveled to Chicago, where her parents were only too happy to nurse their grandchildren back to health. Juliette would also learn about a different way of life and would meet and talk with Native Americans who visited her grandfather.
Later, Juliette would be in and out of a number of finishing schools, but her love of art would always remain strong.
When she was 18, she met William Low, son of Andrew Low, a wealthy
Savannah cotton broker and shipping magnate. Known as Billow, the son was wealthy, handsome and dashing and he courted Juliette. Her father was against the marriage, telling her that young Low would break her heart…that he was a playboy and a libertine.
But on December 21, 1886 they were married. It might have been considered an omen, but as the happy couple left the church, a well wisher threw a handful of rice and a kernel landed in Juliette’s ear, rendering her almost totally deaf for the rest of her life.
At first, Juliette’s life was a whirlwind of excitement. She traveled in the highest circles in England, partying with Rudyard Kipling and being presented to Queen Victoria. They had spacious manor homes in Wellesbourne and Warwickshire. She continued her artistic side by carving a mantelpiece for one manor house and designing iron gates for another. Autumn was spent hunting in Scotland and winter was spent in the US. Billow gambled, partied, spent money lavishly and left Juliette more and more alone, finally taking a mistress, Mrs. Anna Bateman. Anna ignored Juliette, moving her to another wing of the manor house and ordering the servants about as though she, not Juliette, was mistress of the manor.
Finally Billow asked Juliette for a divorce. But before she could act on it, he had what was thought to be a stroke and later died. However, he had changed his will, leaving the bulk of his state to Mrs. Bateman. Juliette contested the will and received a handsome settlement and the Andrew Low House in Savannah.
Juliette realized she needed a purpose. She traveled extensively to Europe, India, South America and in 1911 she met General Robert Baden-Powell, who had started an organization in England for young boys, the Boy Scouts. His sister had started one for girls, the Girl Guides. Juliette and Baden-Powell became very good friends. He understood her Midwestern roots, as his ancestor had been Captain John Smith and they shared the love of sculpting. She began helping his sister with her organization and finally in March, 1912, the first Girl Guides were registered in the US, later to become the Girl Scouts. The carriage house at the Low house would become the headquarters for the GS.
She campaigned tirelessly for the Girl Scout cause, but still had the time to apply for two utility patents for a “Liquid container for use with garbage cans and the like….” And for the trefoil on the GS badge
During this time she was suffering from breast cancer although she kept it to herself. But on January 17, 1927 she died. She was buried in her Girl Scout uniform and was laid to rest at Laurel Grove Cemetery. Tucked in the pocket of her uniform was a telegram from the National Office of the GSUSA, saying, “You are not only the first Girl Scout, you are the best Girl Scout.”
But it may have been Ogden Nash’s sister, who knew Juliette well, who summed up the quintessence of Daisy, when she said, “She was quicksilver and pepper…the whole leavened with humanity and laughter.”
Our next romantic, historic adventure awaits…come along