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COLLECTION Identifier: HUM 266

Bruce Willard Forbes letters to his parents


Bruce Willard Forbes (1921-2016) attended the University of Michigan, receiving his AB in French in 1942; in 1943, Forbes earned his MA from Harvard University. Forbes later entered the ministry and spent the next five decades as a priest at St. Bartholomew’s Church in New York City. The collection contains seventy-six letters written by Forbes while he was a Harvard graduate student between January 29 and August 21, 1943. The letters document Forbes’ experiences as a student on the Harvard campus during World War II.


  • 1943 January 29 – August 21


Conditions Governing Access

Open for research.


.17 cubic feet (1 document box)
The collection contains seventy-six letters written by Harvard graduate student Bruce Willard Forbes to his parents between January 29 and August 21, 1943. Forbes wrote every two to four days and discussed his activities and experiences as a student on the Harvard campus during World War II.

Forbes’ early letters express his discouragement over his dormitory room because it was dirty and the floors needed waxing; the room lacked proper lamps and rugs, and the room’s chairs had “springs which reach the floor.” However, he tells his parents that he and his roommates companions, Paddy and Dirk, will “manage to stand it.” Many of the letters detail Forbes’ meetings with friends, students, and faculty for dinner at local restaurants, lunches, or afternoon teas. Forbes’ letters mention relaxing afternoons listening to the radio, playing bridge with fellow students in the dorm, or attending pleasant evenings in the homes of professors in which beer and cheese were served, and discussions were undertaken on American slang and the works of Thucydides. “A quite successful soirée” is recounted by Forbes during some time spent at a friend’s apartment where he met a German woman “who was loads of fun.” Forbes dances polkas, waltzes, and fox trots; as well as discusses everything from flea bites to the Spanish Civil War with her. In April 1943, Forbes chronicled a trip his mother took to Boston to visit him, and their visit with his brother Arthur, who was serving in the United States Navy, to the Officer’s Club in the Boston Navy Yard.

Forbes’ letters reveal an active college social life. An avid movie goer, Forbes attended the favorite shows of his day including the musical comedies Oklahoma and Dancing in the Streets, the crime drama The Maltese Falcon, and the escapist film, The Constant Nymph. Almost on a weekly basis, Forbes movie attendance included Desert Victory, an account of the British advance from El Alamein, Bataan, and Watch on the Rhine. In May 1943, Forbes remarks that he saw his first French movie, the comedy Les Perles de la Couronne (Pearls of the Crown), exclaiming that he was happy to be able to understand a good deal of it. Forbes also talks about visiting the Sanders Theatre, “an ugly Victorian Gothic building, but the inside not so bad,” to see the Harvard Glee Club and Radcliffe Choral Society perform. He mentions going to Lockerbie’s in Boston for dinner and then attending a concert at the Boston Esplanade; and visiting Hartwell Tavern in Lincoln, Massachusetts to eat some chicken soup, grilled ham, corn on the cob, potatoes au gratin, sticky buns, and peach ice cream “all for $1.20.” Afterward, he walked six miles to Walden Pond in Concord.

Travel by public transportation, by train, walking, or ship in and out of Boston, were regular happenings for Forbes. Sailing into Boston Harbor on a trip to Provincetown, Rhode Island, Forbes describes seeing an aircraft carrier getting repairs and a collection of cruisers and destroyers. He also notices Navy blimps and airplanes over the Harbor, as well as getting a good look at gun emplacements and submarine nets. Lamenting that he has only an hour to stay in Provincetown before sailing home, Forbes quickly eats his dinner and gulps down his dessert. Forbes other excursions include attending a garden party at the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Estate, where lunch and cookies were served; and visiting an Episcopalian Church, at which George and Martha Washington once worshiped. Also, Forbes attends Church at Harvard Memorial Chapel with friends where “the sermon wasn’t too good, but the choir and music was.”

Many of Forbes’ letters include complaints about the lack of clean shirts, handkerchiefs, and other clothes. He grumbles about wearing dirty pajamas and needing to wear his roommate's white shirts because his laundry box had not returned on time from home. At the time, reusable laundry mailing boxes provided a convenient way for college students to deal with the time-consuming task of cleaning clothes. Also, shipping clothes home to be laundered, was cheaper than a local professional cleaner. Forbes thanks his mother for “faithfully fulfilling all requests” as well as the candy, popcorn, marshmallows, and peanuts she sends him. Similarly, Forbes seems to be in constant need of money, complaining that having new soles and heels placed on his slippers and repair work done on his radio, is hampering his ability to go on dates. Forbes mentions that he would die happy if he no longer had to worry about the “deterioration of shoe leather.” He regularly asks his mother to use his ration cards to purchase food for him and his father for funds to pay for his room and board.

Forbes frequently mentions his studies in French, Spanish, and Italian in his letters to his parents, suggesting the existence of a “rapport between teacher and student which makes life easier” at Harvard. He explains that he is studying for his examinations, writing papers in French about his first Christmas vacation from Ann Arbor and a French paper about himself and his brother, Arthur. In July 1943, after his return from summer vacation, Forbes tells his parents that he will be taking three French courses, two literature courses, one class in linguistics and one course in Spanish-American literature; hoping to receive high grades in all of them. According to Forbes, the study of “Italian is quite easy and is my favorite course.” Additionally, Forbes describes the use of a study stall in the Widener Library at which he regularly reads French poetry, translates old French, and reads sixteenth-century poetry. He states that he doesn’t “know how long this spirit of studying will last but no doubt it’s temporary.” Forbes, a frequent reader, also mentions the books he is reading in his letters to his parents including War and Peace, the history of the French invasion of Russia; La Cousine Bette, an 1846 novel by French author Honoré de Balzac; and Gideon Planish by Sinclair Lewis.

Letters from July to August 1943 highlight Forbes' search for a job after graduation and his desire to take a civil service examination in French and Spanish to secure an overseas interpreter position. He also informs his parents that he may try to secure a place in the Navy Supply Corps or the United States Office of War Information; however, his future employment plans with the government are contingent on his changing his 4-F classification before the draft board.

Scattered throughout Forbes’ letters are references to the effects of World War II on campus, including frequent blackouts, the lack of sugar and other foodstuffs including meat, the use of ration tickets to purchase food, and the occupation of Harvard buildings by the Navy. Forbes notes that by July 1943 most of the students on campus are wearing military uniforms and that many of his friends are attending the Coast Guard Academy.

Biographical note

Bruce Willard Forbes (1921-2016), an Episcopal priest, was born in Allegany, New York and attended the University of Michigan, receiving his AB in French in 1942. During his time at the University, he was involved in Mimes, The Union Opera, and Vice President (then President) of Phi Tau Alpha. In 1943, Forbes earned his MA from Harvard University. Forbes’ father, Robert Norman Forbes, was a dentist who received his DDS from the University of Michigan in 1898; while his brother, Arthur Willard Forbes, received his AB from the University of Michigan in 1938, and served in the United States Navy during World War II.

After engaging in secular work, including the diplomatic service, after World War II, Forbes began to pursue his life’s vocation, entering the ministry at The General Theological Seminary in New York City and, in 1962, receiving Holy Orders as a priest in the Episcopal Diocese of Western New York. He then served as a curate at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Jamestown, New York. In 1964, he returned to New York City to serve at St. Bartholomew’s Church. Forbes spent the next five decades among the parishioners of St. Bartholomew’s and became especially regarded for his pastoral counseling, guidance, and encouragement. He was exceptionally faithful in his pastoral visiting, assisting those in hospitals, rehabilitation centers and hospices, and the homebound. In addition to his pastoral cares, Forbes enjoyed the theater, excellent cuisine, and dancing.


Letters are arranged chronologically by month.

Acquisition information

Bruce Willard Forbes letters to his parents were purchased by the Harvard University Archives.

Accession number: 2017.400; 2017 May 16.


  1. Bowers, Thomas. “Celebrating the Life of Bruce Forbes, a Homily by the Rev. Dr. Thomas Bowers.” Sermon, St. Bartholomew's Church, New York, NY, October 12, 2016. Accessed May 26, 2017.
  2. Dietsche, Andrew M.L. The Rt. Rev. Andrew M.L. Dietsche to the parishioners of Saint Bartholomew’s Church, New York, October 5, 2016. Accessed May 26, 2017.
  3. Grandinetti, Dominic P. “Re: Bruce Willard Forbes.” E-mail message to Emily Swenson, Project Archivist, Bentley Historical Library. May 25 2017.
Inventory update This document last updated 2020 September 14.

Processing Information

Bruce Willard Forbes letters to his parents were processed in May 2017 by Dominic P. Grandinetti. Processing included arranging the letters chronologically by month, rehousing the letters in appropriate containers, and the creation of this finding aid.
Link to catalog
Forbes, Bruce Willard, 1921-2016. Bruce Willard Forbes letters to his parents, 1943 January 29 – August 21: an inventory
Description rules

Repository Details

Part of the Harvard University Archives Repository

Holding nearly four centuries of materials, the Harvard University Archives is the principal repository for the institutional records of Harvard University and the personal archives of Harvard faculty, as well as collections related to students, alumni, Harvard-affiliates and other associated topics. The collections document the intellectual, cultural, administrative and social life of Harvard and the influence of the University as it emerged across the globe.

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