‘Desert Battalion’ Captures Colorful Bit of U.S. History

May 24, 2009 Updated: May 24, 2009

What do General Patton, Disney, and a love story all have in common? A book published in 1944 chronicling women’s efforts in WWII.

Gladys “Robbie” Robinson, wife of legendary Hollywood actor Edward G. Robinson, founded a service organization in 1942 to entertain U.S. military servicemen in California. Her experience became a book, “Desert Battalion,” a personal account of the organization later known as the “feminine battalion.”

The book written by Gladys Robinson and Jack Preston, which told the story of ladies called “brigadiers,” was auctioned off in April at the prestigious Goldberg Coins and Collectables in Beverly Hills.

What makes this a rare, interesting, and valuable collector’s item is the wealth of supplementary material. Passed down through the Robinson family, the materials auctioned as a package include 11 original illustrations from Walt Disney’s brother, Roy, and Freddie Moore, a letter from Walt Disney to Mrs. Robinson, two original copies of the book, and over 425 related photographs of celebrities who attended the Robinson’s “tea parties” to raise money for the troops.

John Garfield, Jack Benny, and Richard Conte were some of the guests at these fund-raising soirées. Over 359 letters from grateful servicemen, parents, and military officers including General Dwight Eisenhower and Eleanor Roosevelt express their heartfelt thanks for the women’s efforts.

The women who volunteered for the Desert Battalion were all around 18-25, and worked in offices, factories, and war plants during the week. They paid their own bus fare to travel to desolate military bases and performed for hours in the same hot conditions as GI’s training for North Africa duty under George S. Patton. In its two-year existence, over 600 young women participated in Desert Battalion.

Beverly Hill, Director of Manuscripts and Collectables, at Goldberg Coins and Collectibles, said that Francesca Robinson Sanchez, granddaughter of the Robinsons, had invited her to the family home to see the collection. “I spent seven hours going through every scrapbook—six scrapbooks, 400 photographs. We went through everything.”

“It’s wonderful, it’s a question of bringing all of it together,” Hill said.

A few days before the auction, I spoke with Francesca Robinson Sanchez who expressed apprehension to see the collection go. We spoke at length about the book, which she is very proud of, as well as her grandparents, the late Edward and Gladys. Their activism, philanthropy, and cultural patronage have left an enduring impression on her.

“She [Gladys] gave herself to many causes as my grandfather did too.” Especially during the “war movement helping in every which way they could,” said Sanchez.

Sanchez said, “She [Gladys] was known as the hostess with the ‘mostess.’” Sanchez described her grandmother as “vivacious and beautiful,” who hosted “wonderful grand parties [and] salons” [for] industry colleagues as well as “the intellectuals of our times—artists and musicians like George Gershwin.”

Sanchez was very close to her grandfather Edward G. Robinson, a Jewish immigrant from Bucharest, Romania. In every way he was “the opposite of the gangster image he had,” a generous man who gave not only money, but time and energy, she said.

“I hope [the collection] goes to a wonderful collector who loves this stuff and will treasure it or that it will end up in a museum,” Sanchez said a bit wistfully.