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OPINION | OLD NEWS: Mrs. Bernie Babcock speaks her mind about Little Rock censors in 1923

by Celia Storey | February 13, 2023 at 2:29 a.m. | Updated March 29, 2023 at 5:06 p.m.
Photo of Bernie Babcock from the Feb. 6, 1934, Arkansas Gazette (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

Besides being a painful way to improve the mind, mistakes also can hop us down into fascinating rabbit holes where we meet new friends.

Mistakes can be fun.

Such was a mistake Yours Truly made recently — not, for a change, in print. While scanning January 1923 editions of the antique Arkansas Democrat, I stopped to admire a letter to the editor signed by the late, still great Mrs. Bernie Babcock. The voice of this advocate for Arkansas rings off the page even though that page is 100 years old and she has been dead since 1962.

In 1923, Julia Burnelle "Bernie" Smade Babcock was already 55, already long since the widowed young mother of five, already a playwright and novelist, already the first Arkansas woman in Authors and Writers Who's Who, already a bestselling expert on the life of Abraham Lincoln, and founder of the Arkansas Pioneer branch of the League of American Pen Women, and publisher of an artsy magazine, The Sketch Book. She had not yet founded the museum that evolved into today's Museum of Discovery; but already, already, already.

Years before, while hustling to support her children, she freelanced from her home. And then she worked as society editor for the Democrat, and then she rose to editorial page writer. For a year she was that paper's wire editor, at the time the only female wire editor in the South. And then, after five years, she moved on, to New York, to Chicago.

But she came home to Arkansas, which she loved and despaired for in equal measure, and in exuberant words that I imagine delivered in a high-toned, dry and cultured drawl. (If Friend Reader has a recording of her voice, please tell us what she sounded like.)

The letter to the editor concerns the dance act at the Majestic Theater that Old News described Feb. 6 (see As the Democrat reported in its review of that show, the troupe's arrival had been greeted by the official censor squad with troop support from self-appointed morals police. But, after watching a preview, they allowed the Portia Mansfield Dancers and Maryon Vadia to proceed without "harness," even though they were pretty women sans hosiery.

A "Grecian dance" act was not hoochie-coochie. Not that she liked vaudeville, often a trashy waste of time, but, Babcock wrote, this interpretive dance was lovely; to describe it adequately would require "poetry at its best."

"No small sum has been paid by Little Rock visitors to New York and Washington to see lesser art," she wrote.

"The young ladies who do the dancing are college graduates. Their shapely, supple young bodies bear the stamp of health and training. Their faces are fresh and girlish. The beautiful toe dancer, whose golden hair fell about her like a shower in the last dance, is a Vassar graduate. The interpretive dancing was a part of their college training, so well mastered, they are now in the professional class. Even in bluestockinged Boston this group of dancers was received without criticism."

She added that she did not have the city's censor statute in hand, but her understanding was it called for a panel of six censors, three men and three women. These censors had a legal as well as a moral duty. Legally, if the majority of censors agreed an act was unfit, they must refer it to the city police committee for final disposition. The censors themselves were not to order acts cut or dancers re-dressed.

"If this be the law, and if, as is charged by some, one censor has many times done the censoring in Little Rock, then this required service has been outside the bounds of both the letter and the spirit of the law," she wrote.

As to the censor's moral duty, it was morally wrong to call beauty bad. The suggestion that all bare legs were "bad" was prurient thinking, the very thing the honest but overzealous censor wanted to prevent.

"More bare legs can be seen on one Sunday afternoon at our bathing beaches than can be seen in ten seasons at any local playhouse; more bare backs -- and more of them — can be seen at any formal ball than will be seen on all the Grecian dancers that ever came to Arkansas, while for the 'genus homo' as near naked as he gets this side of a gee string, go to a track meet where the school boys run."

She ended her letter with a request that "the efficient and willing police powers of Little Rock" should devise a way of protecting the public against "such influences as tend to produce immorality and crime" while at the same time "saving the capital city of Arkansas the humiliation of being a laughing stock."


I wondered how frequently Babcock was then writing letters to the Democrat. So I popped open the digital archive and looked back through 1922. A sizable ad caught my eye. It was a Democrat house ad announcing that the newspaper had obtained the rights to publish a serial love story of Babcock's. The first installment of "Billy of Arkansas" would appear in the paper Feb. 12.

"February 12," thought I. "That's the week I'm writing about next week. Old News must read this love story."

I searched the 1923 Democrats, beginning with Feb. 12. No Billy.

Perhaps a pamphlet had been bundled into the editions? Switching to Google, I quickly found the story mentioned in the finding aid for the Bernie Babcock Collection at the UALR Center for Arkansas History and Culture,

The center is at 401 President Clinton Ave. upstairs in the Central Arkansas Library System's Roberts Library.

Assistant director Laura McClellan answered the number on the website, (501) 320-5780. She explained that anyone could look into archival holdings they were interested in by making an appointment two days ahead. A video on the website explains how to behave in the research room: We settled on 10 a.m. on a certain Tuesday. I would not need to wear white gloves.

It was such a pleasant conversation I hopped around in my house for a while, rejoicing. Then I plopped down on my Swiss ball chair, bounced a bit and opened the digital Democrat to the page with that ad and ... uhhh ... noticed the year was not 1923. D'oh!

The 1922 Democrat promptly served up "Billy of Arkansas," all 20 installments, ready to read at my convenience.

But still I had my heart set on holding whatever copy of "Billy" was in the UALR center.

At 9:58 a.m. on the appointed day I stood on the sidewalk outside the doors of the lovely and doomed Bookstore & Galleries at Library Square, gripped a door handle and pulled. It didn't budge. The front door doesn't open until 10 on the nose. On the nose of 10, unseen electricity bridged some synapse and the lock set clicked. Sesame.

I won't bore you by counting my steps, not today. Next week is soon enough for that, and we can read a bit from "Billy of Arkansas" then as well.

In the meantime, know this: Babcock's story had nothing whatsoever to do with a bird dog named Billy of Arkansas that was owned by Mary Oliver of Little Rock in the 1950s. A liver-and-white pointer, Oliver's Billy won 15 major titles on the huntin' dog circuit and was a stud. The Billy of Babcock's story is a vivacious and adorable young teetotaler.

In case anybody wondered.

[This is a series. See part 2 at]


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 Gallery: Bernie Babcock

Print Headline: Finding Babcock’s ‘Billy of Arkansas’


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