The Best Girl Scout Of The Mall

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In 1911 Juliette “Daisy” Low taught her first seven female Girl Guides to raise chickens and to spin wool. Now their 2,500,000 descendants, called Scouts, can learn to change the washer on a faucet, rewire a lamp, style hair, take a photograph, clean and set the gap on a lawn-mower spark plug, or recaulk a window. They learn to “relate to others,” participate in groups in a “personalized way,” and “work through tensions.” Gone is the loyal, honorable, obedient, thrifty, pure, courteous friend to all and to animals. She has been replaced by an honest, fair, helpful when needed, cheerful, friendly, considerate, wise user of resources, protector and improver of the world, and respecter of herself and others. Today she wears green polyester instead of blue cotton. But some things never change, and a Girl Scout is as prepared today as she was seventy years ago.

Daisy Low never felt prepared for anything—not for the elegant Savannah society into which she was born, not for the Civil War, which rocked her family, not for her disastrous marriage, and not for her volcanic mother, the stimulating, egocentric, and melodramatic Eleanor Kinzie Gordon.

Daisy, the second of her six children, was a disappointment on two counts: first that she was a girl and second that she was born at all. Eleanor hated being pregnant, hated children, and constantly announced her preference for her husband over her offspring. Apparently something of a child herself, she was impatient and competitive with her children and had little time for their complaints and problems. Daisy learned early to hide what troubled her; to manifest independence and maturity long before she felt them—indeed, in certain respects, she never felt either. Temperamentally Daisy was quite like her demanding mother. She never took no for an answer and had little patience with other peoples foibles but expected much tolerance for her own. And like her mother, her chief object of devotion was her father. William Washington Gordon was an honorable, loyal, dutiful man, a wealthy cotton broker who took public service seriously. He left his new bride in 1861 to fight for the Confederacy (“On his part, he didn’t care a fig what I wanted,” Eleanor wrote. “He took the usual ‘Gordon’ ground of duty”), served in the Georgia legislature after the war, and later acted as commissioner of Puerto Rico. Through it all he remained permanently fascinated and scandalized by his Yankee wife.

The Civil War was a difficult time for all the Gordons. Eleanor came from a pioneer Chicago family, and two of her brothers died fighting for the Union. Her husband tried to understand her personal loyalties, but it was hard for a man deeply attached to an impersonal one. In Savannah, Eleanor compounded her disloyalty to her husband by entertaining General Sherman in her home during his infamous progress through Georgia. Daisy, in the middle of things, as usual, is said to have sat on Sherman’s lap. Daisy’s first glimpse of marriage was of conflict between her father’s duty and discipline and her mother’s caprice and emotionalism.

 
 

Perhaps because her mother was so lacking in compassion, Daisy had a quick and unusual sensitivity to suffering. She saved stray animals, slept with her dolls to warm their cold china bodies, took her best blanket to cover the cow, and organized a society called the Helpful Hands to make clothes for poor children. (Since she couldn’t sew, her brothers renamed her group the Helpless Hands.)

Daisy was a lovely, tiny girl with huge, dark eyes and long, dark hair, but her mother said she was “as ugly as ten bears.” Thus Daisy considered herself unattractive and felt ill at ease in mixed company. But the society of girls was a positive delight to her. She wrote her parents at the end of a school year: “All the girls have gone, and as I look back on it I wonder how any mortal could manage to squeeze so much pleasure in so short a space of time. I can hardly realize that I will never see some of the girls again. School girl love is called silly, but I feel that in all my after life, I can never love as warmly and purely as I do now. ” The upshot of Daisy’s confusions was, not surprisingly, a bad marriage. William Mackay Low, the only son of a wealthy cotton merchant, was immature and unstable; his main interests were horses and, late in life, drinking. Daisy met him in England at his father’s home. Her father cautioned her not to take up with Willy, but despite his warning the two announced their engagement.

Daisy chose her parents’ anniversary, December 21,1886, as her wedding day. Just after the marriage ceremony she caught a grain of celebratory rice in her ear. She spent her honeymoon in pain and emerged totally deaf in that ear. She had thought—and hoped—before her wedding that they would remain in her home city, but before long it became clear that Willy, whose father had died shortly before the wedding, would have to move to England to manage the family estate.