Helen Hiett Waller of Pekin, intrepid war correspondent

By Jared L. Olar

Local History Specialist

Among the women and men of Pekin who have risen to fortune or fame was Helen Hiett Waller (1931-1961), a talented journalist and war correspondent who is remembered as a cosmopolitan.

Helen Annette Hiett, daughter of Asa Burnett and Estella (Erb) Hiett, came to Pekin with her family about 1925. She excelled as a student and was the valedictorian of the Pekin Community High School Class of 1931. Shown here is her 1931 yearbook photo.

Starting out as a teenage reporter with the Pekin Daily Times, Helen was the valedictorian of Pekin Community High School’s Class of 1931. After graduation she went to Europe and reported on the Spanish Civil War. During World War II she was NBC’s war correspondent, remaining in Paris, France, during Adolf Hitler’s blitzkrieg and having to flee before the advancing Nazi tank columns. Later in the war, she sneaked into Nazi Germany and made it to Berlin.

Sadly, her fearlessness ultimately contributed to her untimely death at age 47, when she succumbed to injuries that she suffered while skiing in the French Alps in the summer of 1961. The Pekin Daily Times devoted a lengthy front-page obituary to her, paying tribute to her remarkable life. In his column, Daily Times publisher F. F. McNaughton observed, “Helen didn’t live out her years; but she lived a dozen lives.

In 1944, Helen wrote a book about her life and adventures entitled, “No Matter Where.” A copy of her book, which formerly belonged to one of Helen’s high school chums Roberta Lindstrom, recently was donated to the Pekin Public Library’s Local History Room collection by Sue Price, in memory of her mother (who was a friend of Roberta). Interleaved with the book are old, browned clipping of her obituary and of the two columns that McNaughton wrote in her memory. The obituary, dated Wednesday, 23 Aug. 1961, reads as follows:

“Injured In Mountain-Climbing Mishap”

“Helen Hiett Waller, Ex-Pekin Newswoman, Succumbs In France”

“Life ended unexpectedly Tuesday morning in a hospital in the Chamonix Valley of eastern France for a former Pekin woman who had filled her comparatively short lifetime with adventure and achievement made possible only by a rare combination of brains, ability and ambition.

“Helen Hiett Waller, 47, who began her career as a reporter for the Pekin Daily Times while she was still a schoolgirl, and who spent exciting years reporting the Spanish civil war and World War II in Europe, died of a blood clot, following surgery to repair injuries incurred in a mountain-climbing mishap last month.

“Helen had spent the summer with her three children in Switzerland, and her husband, Theodore Waller, had joined them during this vacation. It was while the couple was climbing Mt. Perseverance that Helen was struck by a falling rock and suffering internal injuries.

“Her husband and the children remained with her until doctors assured them that she was recovering satisfactorily, and then returned to their home at Katonah, N.Y., to make preparations for the opening of school.

“Mr. Waller called the hospital Sunday and learned that a third operation had been necessary, but that his wife was getting along well. However, an embolism developed, and she died suddenly Tuesday morning.

“Born at Chenoa, Il., Sept. 23, 1913, she was the daughter of Asa B. and Estella Erb Hiett, who later moved to Pekin, where Helen attended school and was graduated from Pekin high school as valedictorian of the Class of 1931.

“She reported school news while still in the eighth grade, and after she entered high school worked part-time and during the summers for the TIMES.

“Her ‘nose for news’ led her all over town, as well as out into the Times area, and her ‘stick-to-it-iveness’ made her an extremely successful reporter, qualities which stood her in good stead throughout her years as a war correspondent.

“Upon completing high school, she entered the University of Chicago, receiving her degree there in three years instead of the usual four, and earning a grant to study at London University.

“A resident of many countries of Europe from 1934 to 1941, Helen made it a practice to live with families in Germany, Russia, France, Italy and Spain, learning their languages and their ways of life. She also spent some time working in youth camps in both Germany and Russia.

“During her years in Europe, she worked first for the League of Nations, editing a monthly review of international affairs. At the outbreak of World War II, she joined the staff of the National Broadcasting Company as a commentator and war correspondent, reporting from Paris until that city fell to the Germans and after that from Madrid, Spain.

“She spent most of the war years abroad, in the thick of things, where her experiences included flying to front-line trenches and reporting on-the-spot experiences during the air raids on Paris, Bordeaux and other European cities.

“Several times during the war years of the 1940’s, she returned to the United States and made personal speaking appearances in Pekin and Peoria.

“Following the war, she also spent some time in Mexico, where she wrote a book relating her experiences, which she entitled, ‘No Matter Where.’

“In 1945 she joined the New York Herald Tribune Forum as director, touring the world to arrange for hundreds of national leaders from foreign countries to visit the United States to participate in the Forum, which continued for a period of 10 years. Starting in 1946, Helen directed a Herald Tribune forum for high school youth, which brought students from 74 countries to the United States.

“Her marriage to Theodore Waller, who has been engaged in various federal government projects and the United Nations, occurred at Pekin Mar. 28, 1948.”

F. F. McNaughton devoted his “Editor’s Letter” that day to her death:

“So Helen Hiett is dead!

“If Dean, in his fone call, had asked us to guess, Helen is the LAST person we would have named.

“Helen ignored death.

“The last time we saw Helen was last summer when she and her wonderful children stopped at our cottage enroute to the Rocky Mountains where they were to risk their lives climbing; then, if they survived, they planned to shoot some rapids.

“This spring she wrote that they were going to Chamonix to climb this summer.

“It brought memories.

“In late winter of 1937 Ceil and I met Helen at Chamonix in the Alps. We climbed into a teleferique (basket on a cable) and were hauled over space (our first space flight) to the top of a famous mountain.

“Helen was not yet an expert skier. But she strapped on a pair of skis; then for several minutes she watched the experts of the world take off as they prepared for a big ski meet.

“Suddenly Helen took off.

“The last we saw of her, she went over the rim, head over heels. But when we, frightened for her and half frozen, rode the bucket back down, there was Helen.

“Today we think we worry over Berlin. There was a day when Berlin gave us terror. It was the day Hitler swept over France. We sat at our radios and with our own ears heard Hitler shout that history for a thousand years was being made as his panzer divisions swept toward Paris.

“Helen was NBC in Paris.

“She stayed so long that she finally had to flee across pastures. She slept in wheatfields.

“During the war she sneaked back into Germany – clear to Berlin.

“Helen started her newspapering as the Pekin Times high school reporter. Then thru Chicago University in 3 years; and off to Europe where she learned the language wherever she went.

“If I’m correct, she saw Mussolini and his mistress hanging by their heels.

“Helen always thought of herself as a girl; so it was fitting that her greatest work was with the youth of all the world. She ran the New York Herald-Tribune’s ‘Youth Forum’ and did an amazing job of presenting to the world the viewpoint of the youth of the world.

“Wherever she is – whatever height she is climbing – you can be sure Helen has Youth with her.

“Helen didn’t live out her years; but she lived a dozen lives.

“Pekin mourns her.

“And salutes her.”

A clipping from Helen Hiett Waller’s Pekin Daily Times obituary.

McNaughton devoted a second column to her in late November perhaps the following year, in which he featured a photograph of her grave near Mont Blanc, Chamonix, France.

The grave of Helen Hiett Waller near Mont Blanc, Chamonix, France, from a browned Pekin Daily Times clipping.

In that “Editor’s Letter” he wrote:

“You’ll recall we recently got a letter asking for a picture of the grave of Helen Hiett Waller at Chamonix, France. Helen’s sister, Margaret Whiteside, has sent this picture.

“Ceil and I once had ridden the teleferique with Helen to the top, and had watched her take off, dangerously, on skis.

“After she had wed and had 2 sons and a daughter, all under teen age, she still could not resist the urge to climb in the Alps.

“It cost her life, and on Aug. 24, 1961, 4 Alpine guides, as was the custom, carried her to this grave to be buried among others who rated danger above death.

“Helen had lived dangerously. For instance, while covering the war for NBC she fled thru wheat-fields ahead of Hitler’s blitzkrieg across France. (Later she slipped into Berlin during the war.)

“On Helen’s trips home, she never failed to have an SRO crowd when she reported to her home folk in Pekin’s biggest auditorium.

“On this Thanksgiving weekend we give thanks for wonderful memories. High among them are the memories of Helen Hiett Waller.”

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Of Gerson Bloom and his son Sol

By Jared Olar

Local History Specialist

The 1870-71 Sellers & Bates Pekin City Directory has a duplicate entry for a certain “G. Bloom” who ran a downtown tailoring and clothing store at the northeast corner of Third and Court. The two entries say:

“Bloom, G., clothier, res ne cor Ann Eliza and Capitol.”


BLOOM, G., dealer in ready-made clothing, gents’ furnishing goods, hats, caps, etc., ne cor Third and Court; res ss Caroline 1 d e 6th.”

This detail from page 14 of the Sellers & Bates 1870-71 Pekin City Directory shows that Gershon Bloom was double-entered in the directory as “Bloom G.,” a clothier whose shop was at the northeast corner of Third and Court Street. Gershon appears in various census records as “Garrison,” “Gersen,” and “George.”

It’s notable that the directory listed G. Bloom twice, giving two different home addresses. Most likely when William H. Bates began to compile the directory, G. Bloom was living in one place but moved to a different house in Pekin, and Bates didn’t catch that he’d entered him in the directory twice. In any case, census records indicate that in 1870 there was only one clothier named G. Bloom in Pekin, so there is no doubt both entries are of the same man.

G. Bloom does not appear in the 1861 Root’s city directory nor in the 1876 Bates city directory, nor in any subsequent Pekin directories, so he must have left Pekin by 1876. (In fact the Blooms left Pekin for San Francisco in 1873.)

U.S. Census records show that “G. Bloom” was Gershon or Gerson Bloom, a Jewish immigrant who came to America from Poland in 1850. He became a naturalized U.S. citizen in Chicago on Feb. 23, 1858.

Gerson Bloom first appears in census records in 1860, when he was living in Peoria’s First Ward. The census that year enumerates him and his family as “Garrison Bloom” (sic), 30, a clothing merchant, “Sarah Bloom,” 28, and “Thomas Bloom,” 10 months. Living right next door to Gerson and his family was the household of his father-in-law Israel Bennett, clerk, also a Jewish immigrant from Poland. A few years later, the Illinois State Census taken in July 1865 shows “G. Bloom” as the head of a household in Peoria consisting of three males and four females.

Gerson and his family had moved from Peoria to Pekin by 1870, when the U.S. Census enumerated his household as: “Gersen Bloom” (sic), 38, clothing merchant, “Sarah Bloom,” 36, keeps house, “Henry Bloom,” 11, “Rebecca Bloom,” 8, “Hattie Bloom,” 5, “Celia Bloom,” 4, “Moses Bloom,” 2, “Solomon Bloom,” 3 months, “Amelia Newman” (sister of Gerson’s wife Sarah), 33, “Moses Newman,” 6, and “Julia Newman,” 4.

By the time of the 1880 census, Gerson and his family had moved to San Francisco, Calif., where he found work as a “huckster” or peddler. The census record that year shows that he had adopted the Americanized name “George.” He and his family are listed as “George Bloom,” 50, huckster, wife “Sarah Bloom,” 45, keeping house, daughter “Rebecca Bloom,” 18, sales lady at a dry goods store, daughter “Hattie Bloom,” 16, daughter “Selia Bloom” (sic), 14, son “Moses Bloom,” 12, and son “Solomon Bloom,” 10. The children Hattie, Celia, Moses, and Solomon were all attending school.

In the course of this immigrant family’s peregrinations across America, by the 1890s they found their way back to Chicago, where Gerson’s wife Sarah died on Oct. 24, 1898, and was buried in the old Jewish cemetery section of Chicago’s Oak Woods Cemetery. The 1900 U.S. Census enumerates Gerson and his family as “Garrison Bloom” (sic), 74, widower, born Dec. 1825 in Poland, immigrated to the U.S. in 1850, daughter “Hattie Bloom”, 31, born Aug. 1868 (sic – 1865) in Illinois, music saleslady, and daughter “Cecelia Bloom,” 27, born Sept. 1872 (sic – 1866) in Illinois, occupation “music.”

The story of Gerson Bloom’s life as told by the U.S. Census and other records shows that he does not seem to have ever enjoyed financial success, and was on the move almost every decade. In many ways, Gerson Bloom and his family seem to have followed an immigrants’ path in America, struggling to make a life in the first generation, but finding or making a good life in the second generation. And that is just what we see in the life of Gerson’s son Solomon, who rose from humble beginnings as the child of immigrants to scale the heights of a prominent and influential life.

Solomon, who was commonly known by the nickname “Sol,” was a Pekin native, born March 9, 1870, when his father Gerson was a clothier on downtown Court Street. As we have seen, however, the Blooms left Pekin in 1873, when Sol was 3 years old. (Sol was probably named after his mother’s brother Solomon Bennett.)

Solomon appears in the 1900 U.S. Census in Chicago as “Sol Bloom,” 30, born March 1870 in Illinois, music publisher, with his wife “Evelyn Bloom,” 24, born May 1876 in California, and their daughter “Vera Bloom,” 2, born May 1898 in Illinois. Also living with them were Evelyn’s parents “Lee Hechheimer,” 56, born Oct. 1843 in Germany, a “capitalist,” immigrated to America in 1857, and “Matilda Hechheimer,” 44, born May 1856 in California, as well as Sol’s niece “Natalie Abraham,” 16, born May 1884 in California. (Sol and his wife Evelyn had married in Chicago on June 23, 1897.)

Pekin native Sol Bloom (1870-1949) – photo supplied to Find-A-Grace by George Seitz

Sol Bloom’s Find-A-Grave memorial supplies the following biographical sketch of his life and career:

“He began his career as a sheet music publisher in Chicago, moved to New York City in 1903, where he engaged in the real estate and construction business. During World War I, he served as a Captain in the U.S. Naval Reserve. In 1923, he was elected as a Democrat to the Sixty-eighth Congress to fill the vacancy caused by the death of Representative-elect Samuel Marx and reelected to the thirteen succeeding Congresses, serving until his death at age 78.”

Among Sol Bloom’s notable achievements were serving as chairman of the House of Representative’s Committee on Foreign Affairs during World War II. He was also named director of the George Washington Bicentennial Commission in 1932 and was director-general of the U.S. Constitution Sesquicentennial Commission in 1937.

Bloom also was a delegate at the 1945 convention that established the United Nations, and the opening words of the UN’s Charter, “We, the Peoples of the United Nations . . .,” were proposed by Bloom, a fact of which he was justly proud. “No! It couldn’t be!” he said in his autobiography, “Why, I was nothing but the child of penniless immigrants who had come from Poland . . . I was only the little Jewish boy who peddled violets on Market Street.

Sol Bloom died before completing his final term in Congress, on March 7, 1949, in Washington, D.C. He is buried in Mount Eden Cemetery in Hawthorne, N.Y.

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