More Mad Women: Sally Bowles

Dick Irish, that old codger, has goosed me into recalling on paper a few more of the grand gals and guys who started the Peace Corps in the winter of  ’61. One woman who I remember fondly, and who was one of the class acts at the agency, was the very young and very charming, Sally Bowles, who was, everyone will agree, the first Peace Corps employee. She went to work for no pay at the Maiatico Building on March 1, 1961.

Sally was the daughter of Ambassador Chester Bowles, an honors graduate in history from Smith College where she was named editor of the college newspaper and was elected president of the student body. By the time she arrived at the Peace Corps, she had traveled and lived in Southeast Asia, India, Mexico, Morocco, France and Spain. She had worked for Congressman John Brademas of  Indiana and as an administrative assistant to Solicitor General Archibald Cox. 

On ‘day one’ of the agency there were only a hand full of people working for the new Peace Corps. Sarge, of course, his personal secretary, Maryann Orlando, Nancy Gore, Mitzi Mallina, Warren Wiggins, Charlie Nelson, George Carter, Gordon Boyce,  Al Sims, and Harris Wofford.

These were no ‘ordinary folks’…Sims was vice president of the Institute of International Education, Gordon Boyce, head of the Experiment in International Living; Wofford was working as JFK’s Special Assistant on Civil Rights, as well as developing the Peace Corps with Shriver. Gore was the daughter of Senator Albert Gore of Tennessee, and older brother of Al. Mitzi Mallina, had graduated from the University of Wisconsin, had just returned from overseas with ‘Crossroads Africa,” and was, I believe, the first paid employee at the Peace Corps.

But back to Sally, every one’s favorite. Sarge especially had a close, trusting relationship with Sally and when a problem developed in the field in those early years, he often turned to her and she would make quick and quiet trips overseas to evaluate a situation and come back with an ‘off the record’ recommendation to the Director. Everyone trusted this woman.

I was always awed by her. Now Sally was the most proper of the most proper woman at the agency. (Perhaps only Jane Campbell from those early years was more blue stocking, and later, Sally Collier, and early PCV to Ethiopia who returned to D.C. to work for Wofford at the agency) so the story that Coates Redmon tells in her book Come As You Are deserves retelling. Just how proper was Sally Bowles?

It all happened in San Francisco (of course!) and had to do with Jim Walls, a wonderful character, a former reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle who became a writer for the Division of Public Information, but that’s another story. Back to Sally!

There was a recruiting trip organized by Bob Gale to San Fran in those early days of the famous blitz recruiting and Jim Walls was the key person, i.e., for having lived there as a reporter. He took the Peace Corps HQ types to Enrico, a North Beach haunt of his. With Jim was an “old and dear friend” Yvonne, who bore a slight resemblance to VivienLeigh. She was a top model in San Fran, as well as, I believe, a famous stripper.

It was a long night on the town and Jim would recall that  his hangover was “so large that you could make an awning out of it.”

Sally Bowles was with this game of Peace Corps recruiters and around 3 a.m. when this Peace Corps crowd was beginning to wearily disperse for their hotels, a finale and surpising event took place. Sally Bowles stopped on a North Beach street corner and began belting out, quite to the surprising of everyone, “He’s Got the Whole World In His Hand.” She ws slamming her left hand into her right to keep the beat, and singing out her heart.

The last man on the advance team, and the last man from Peace Corps headquarters whom anyone could have imagined, joining in–namely, Warren Wiggins–who did so and with as much heart, soul, and resonance as Sally. Pretty soon, everyone in the advance team, a half dozen Washington types, and Jim Walls, were singing the chorus in the empty dark night of North Beach. And Sally could sing. Sally could carry on. Sally was a real wonder.

Years past.

I am now managing the New York Regional office for recruitment in the mid-nineties and one summer afternoon we have a recruitment table set up in the vaulted Grand Central main terminal where we hand out recruitment literature and talk about the Peace Corps. One of the recruiters, a  smart guy name Matt Losak comes in the next day to tell me that an old timer, ‘like you, Coyne’ he adds, stopped by the table on her way home from work. She said that she had worked for the Peace Corps in the old days.

I listened, as there were often such stories from recruiters who had met up with early PCVs in New York City.

“She said her name was Sally Bowles,” Matt tells me, “and that she worked for Shriver.”

The kid, not to his discredit, has no idea who this legend is.

She said she use to recruit, he goes on, still not impressed by whom he had met in the terminal of Grand Central.

I asked him what she had said.

Oh, we talked for awhile about the Peace Corps and then she went off to grab her train.

I nodded and didn’t say anything. There is no way I can explain who Sally Bowles is and what she had meant to Shriver and the agency in the early days when there were only a hand full of people creating the Peace Corps out of bits and pieces of dreams and aspirations.

When Matt left my office I sat down behind my desk and all I could envision was Sally walking away from the Peace Corps table in the middle of that crowded Grand Central terminal, heading for her train, headed home, and I wondered what she thought. Here she had met a bunch of young Peace Corps kids, RPCV kids, who had no idea who she was and how she had helped create the agency that they now worked for.

My guess is that on the ride home to Stanford she had reminisced about the old days and smiled as she remembered that time when she was young in Washington. She had been there with the best and the brightest. She had sang “He’s Got the Whole World In His Hand” on a street corner in North Beach. She was an original who had made the Peace Corps out of dreams and aspirations. She was the best!

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  • John, I enjoyed reminiscing on the story about Sally. I used to work for her and Pat Kennedy in DVS. She was the best boss I have ever worked for. First time I heard about the “Whole World” song, and I can picture her doing it.

  • Sally Bowles and Mitzi Molina were the first two I met upon showing up as the PC photographer (described earlier) in March 1961. I was impressed by them. They set the tone that the work in progress was vitally important, and that was what made it fun.

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  • Love, love, love this story–reminds me of my own crazy recruiter days 12 years later. Wasn’t quite as wild and woolly at the agency by then, but on the road, anything went.

    And I remember Sally Bowles in a completely different context. She was the face of the WETA-TV (DC PBS station) fund raisers throughout the 80s, and she actually managed to make those excruciating beg-fests entertaining. She didn’t “do” anything but be her own delightful self, which was enough to make you want to know her and think you probably did. I had no inkling of the Peace Corps connection until now, and, of course, I’m not surprised.

  • I can just envision Bob Gale singing along with Sally Bowles. As an RPCV from Ecuador I in 1964 I spent a few months traveling to college campuses with Bob Gale’s mad band of recruiters. For 2 weeks at a time we’d become embedded in the culture of each school – meeting with professors, visiting classes, telling our stories. and, of course, many late night parties. It was here that I began to hear the names of all the people you’ve highlighted in your postings. Bob and Tom Gee kept in touch with everyone from those days and many of us had opportunities to work with them on other projects — including the startup of VISTA, the Democratic Convention in ’68, creation of an Institute for Regional Development at Ohio University, and many other social and political campaigns that excited and engaged our generation during the 60s and 70s.

  • Sally Bowles passed away this weekend in Connecticut. While ill for some time, it still felt unexpected to those of us who knew her in her latter years. She was so utterly undefeatable and vivacious, even in a hospital bed. I came across this looking for info on her early life, and it provided an amazing glimpse into the “girl” of the woman I came to know, respect and love. Thank you., it made my sense of grief diminish a bit to know that memories of her will be so vivid, years later. You captured her so well.

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