New Zealand Woman’s Weekly


‘I’m the face of a million posters’

- Fleur Guthrie

She’s the image behind an enduring World War II recruitmen­t poster that was declared an American icon. She’s also probably the only person still alive who remembers its creation, says Weslee D’Audney, who over the years has found her famous face reprinted on everything from tote bags to face masks.

Chatting to the Weekly from her retirement village north of Auckland, the remarkable 95-year-old recalls how she was propelled into the spotlight nearly 80 years ago, when she was a pre-med student in New York City.

“Pearl Harbour had just been bombed and President Roosevelt called his cabinet a couple of days later to ask them for a prioritise­d list of things that were most urgently needed to fight and win this war,” tells Weslee. “After manpower and arms, third on the list was the need for nurses because they were anticipati­ng a very long, bloody war. It was decided the best thing to do was a poster campaign to recruit nurses.

“William Ritter, a commercial photograph­er I had previously worked with on modelling shoots, called me to his studio and asked me to don a student nurse’s uniform. I was paid $20 for a two-hour sitting and he said to me, ‘This is going to be big.’ That’s all I knew about it!”

There were one million posters produced – showcasing her beautiful image with bright red lips and arched eyebrows – and sent to every high school, university, library and post office in the US.

“My face was on hoardings on the highway. It was saturation point, but nobody knew who I was. I asked the dean at my university if I might have a poster and she responded,

‘Take two!’, so I carried the posters home on the subway that night,” she says, showing the Weekly team the original poster and apologisin­g for it being a “bit beat up”.

The American Nursing Associatio­n has used the poster continuous­ly for the last 70 years. Over that time, it is claimed that 400,000 recruits were influenced by the image.

Weslee’s dream of becoming a doctor was side-tracked when she met her future husband

– a Kiwi – on her first day as a volunteer hostess at a lunchtime servicemen’s canteen in New York. She was assigned to a table with three air force officers on leave, having just won their wings in Canada on the Empire Training Scheme. One was

Noel D’Audney, a dashing Royal New Zealand Air Force pilot from Auckland.

She met him on his third day of leave and what followed

‘The photogragh­er said to me, “This is going to be big.” That’s all I knew about it!’

was a whirlwind courtship of only seven days.

“I wouldn’t say it was love at first sight, but I thought he was very special,” she says with a smile. “Before he left, he said he wanted to marry me. We correspond­ed for two and a half years, while he fought his way through the African and Italian campaigns. While he was gone, I worked as a volunteer at the Anzac Club, taking groups of Anzacs on sightseein­g tours of New York City.

“Noel, at the end of the war, would have been sent directly from London to New Zealand via the Suez Canal unless I agreed to marry him. So I had to send a telegram to the War Ministry in London that said I would marry him on his arrival back in New York.

“He got what was called compassion­ate leave, but his buddies all called it passionate leave,” she chuckles. “As a young girl, I dreamt of the man I would marry – loving, bright and fun. Noel was all that and so much more.”

The sweetheart­s were married on July 1, 1945 in a Manhattan church and honeymoone­d in Pennsylvan­ia. Two weeks later, Noel had to report to San Francisco for a Liberty ship taking him back to Auckland.

His war bride was reunited with him in November, when

‘I dreamt of the man I would marry – loving, bright, and fun. Noel was all that and so much more’

she was aboard the first ship carrying civilians to New Zealand. The Become a Nurse poster lay at the bottom of her trunk. It has since been exhibited in some of the world’s leading museums.

“I instantly loved New Zealand,” she enthuses. “I remember the boat coming into Auckland Harbour; it was a beautiful day and the water was sparkling. One day, I was walking down Queen Street and I hear, ‘Is that you, Weslee?’ Amazingly, they were Kiwis I had previously taken on sightseein­g tours around New York.”

Weslee’s foray into modelling was an accidental one. When her father died of influenza when she was just three, it was the Depression and things were financiall­y very tight.

“I was 11 when I first started working three days a week after school to help my mother put food on the table and I tutored a mentally handicappe­d girl my age,” she shares.

“One day, I was playing with a friend, whose uncle was visiting. He was a talent scout for Twentieth Century Fox and they were getting ready to film The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

“He was looking for a girl to play the role of Becky Thatcher and asked my mother to bring me in for a screen test at their film studios in New York. We were both really keen. But when we went in, they had just cast the lead role of Tom and he was two inches shorter than I was! So I didn’t get to test for it.”

However, they told Weslee’s mum she should see John Robert Powers, who owned the biggest model agency in New York. She was accepted on their books as a 12-year-old.

The young beauty did fashion shows for all the major department stores and appeared in magazines like Good Housekeepi­ng and Ladies Home Journal. She was called the “Clean Face of America”.

Having a famous face isn’t something many can lay claim to, but Weslee is adamant her true achievemen­ts came later in life, when her five kids, John, David, Laurie, Carol and Bruce were born, followed by a career working with children with multiple special needs.

In 1968, at the age of 44, she went back to university, gaining three degrees, including a Master of Science in Special Education to become a teacher to her profoundly deaf youngest son Bruce.

“Bruce was premature,” she explains. “After he was born, at the regular check-ups, I told the doctors I thought there was something wrong with my baby. But they said I couldn’t compare his developmen­t with my other children.

“I finally took him to another doctor, who asked me why I thought that. And I explained, ‘Because he never looks me in the eye.’ The doctor replied, ‘Bruce’s deaf – he’s not looking at your eyes because he’s looking at your lips moving.’ He was diagnosed as being intellectu­ally disabled as well, but engaged with the world and people in it.

“At that time, there was no mainstream education available for children with multiple disabiliti­es. There was no one to teach him. So I went to university to learn to teach deaf children and taught him at home.” Tragically, her son died two years ago.

Weslee and her family moved back to the US, and her career went on to include the directorsh­ip of two Federal Programmes for disabled children, an appointmen­t to a professors­hip at the University of Nebraska Medical Centre, and supervisin­g a class for adolescent multiply-disabled deaf children.

In 1976, Noel and Weslee retired and returned to NZ, making their home in Red Beach. The former pilot passed away in 2001. She’s called the Metlifecar­e Hibiscus Coast Retirement Village home for the past 28 years, and enjoys keeping busy working on genealogy and a DNA research project with her daughter

Carol, 67, who lives nearby.

When asked her secret to living to such a long age, the sharp-witted nonagenari­an doesn’t hesitate. “You’ve just got to keep learning!”

‘I was 11 when I first started working three days a week after school’

 ??  ?? The original poster was packed in the bottom of Weslee’s trunk and came with her from New York to Auckland.
The original poster was packed in the bottom of Weslee’s trunk and came with her from New York to Auckland.
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 ??  ?? A handsome Kiwi pilot won her heart! After marrying in Manhattan, Weslee and Noel moved to Auckland.
A handsome Kiwi pilot won her heart! After marrying in Manhattan, Weslee and Noel moved to Auckland.

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