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Virna Harman Walker Johnston papers

Identifier: Dance-MS-JohnstonV

Scope and Content of the Collection

Correspondence, programs, report cards, and clippings from 1903 to 1959 relating to Chicago dancer and dance instructor Virna Harman Walker Johnston.

The bulk of the collection are 1918-1919 courtship letters between Virna Harman Walker and Arthur Oliver Johnston while he served in the Canadian Army in England and France during World War I. Includes the first letter Arthur wrote to Virna, in which he describes what happened in his life since he first met her in 1914, his decision to enlist in the army, and his living conditions and assignments in the army. The collection also includes letters between Virna and Arthur after their marriage when Arthur was away for work and school in Canada and California. The bulk of the letters are from Virna and detail her everyday life in Chicago: her work, attendance of theatrical and dance performances, parties, books she read, health, explorations of her spirituality, housework, management and sale of property, house fires, and missing Arthur and her son. She discusses the Spanish influenza in Chicago and World War I and World War II homefront activities. Other noteworthy letters from Virna detail her experiences in a hospital after giving birth to her son, Robert, in 1920. Other correspondents include Robert Johnston writing to his parents, cousin Belva Harman Wise congratulating Virna on her marriage, and Ollie Rossner writing about the illness and death of Lillian Harman in 1929.

Report cards document Virna’s education at Emerson School from 1903 to 1904 and McKinley High School from 1905 to 1908, and her stepbrother George Harman O’Brien’s education at Spencer Elementary School in 1918. Programs document a 1922 exhibition by her dance studio and a performance by Sir Henry Lauder that she attended. An undated newspaper clipping describes a Woman’s Club home economics section luncheon at Virna’s home.


  • Creation: 1903-1959
  • Creation: Majority of material found within 1918-1930



Materials are in English.

Conditions Governing Access

The Virna Harman Walker Johnston papers are open for research in the Special Collections Reading Room; 1 box at a time (Priority III).

Ownership and Literary Rights

The Virna Harman Walker Johnston papers are the physical property of the Newberry Library. Copyright may belong to the authors or their legal heirs or assigns. For permission to publish or reproduce any materials from this collection, contact the Roger and Julie Baskes Department of Special Collections at

Biography of Virna Harman Walker Johnston

Chicago area dancer and dance instructor.

Virna Harman Walker Johnston was born to Lillian Harman and Edwin Cox Walker in Massachusetts in 1893. She lived in Chicago with her mother and grandfather, Moses Walker, by 1900. She attended Emerson School and McKinley High School in Chicago. By the 1910s, she lived with her mother, stepfather, George Robert O’Brien, and stepbrother, George Harman O’Brien. While working at Chicago schools in the mid-1910s, she developed an interest in dance as a form of exercise and artistic expression. She studied dance in Chicago and New York. Her first major performance was at the Congress Plaza Hotel, Chicago, in 1916. She gradually taught dance outside of her regular school jobs until she could focus on dance full-time. She opened the Virna Harman Walker Studio of Dancing in the Chicago Loop in 1917. She taught ballet and ballroom dancing to children and adults.

Virna met her future husband, Canadian Arthur Oliver Johnston, in Chicago in 1914 while he attended medical school. He left school to return to farming in Manitoba, Canada. He enlisted in the Canadian Army on December 12, 1917 and was deployed to England in February 1918. He served as an artillery driver. He wrote Virna to reconnect in July 1918. Arthur returned to Chicago in the summer of 1919. Virna and Arthur married on August 20, 1919. Virna gave birth to their only child, Robert Harman Johnston, on September 26, 1920. Arthur and Virna were frequently separated during their marriage as Arthur moved around for work. Arthur returned to medical school in Los Angeles, California, in the late 1920s. Virna and Robert moved from Chicago to Florida in June 1929. They lived in Florida until at least September 1930. Virna and Robert moved to southern California by 1939, when Virna opened a dance studio. She identified as agnostic and explored astrology, telepathy, spiritualism, theosophy, and Christian Science during her life.

Virna died on October 10, 1963 in Fair Oaks, California.


0.4 Linear Feet (1 box)


Correspondence, programs, report cards, and clippings relating to Chicago dancer and dance instructor Virna Harman Walker Johnston.


Correspondence is arranged chronologically with undated correspondence at the end.

Programs, report cards, clippings, and other items follow the correspondence and are arranged chronologically with undated items arranged alphabetically at the end.

Collection Stack Location

3a 53 1


Purchase, Bolerium Books, 2018.

Processed by

Hannah O'Daniel McCallon, 2018.

Inventory of the Virna Harman Walker Johnston papers, 1903-1959, bulk 1918-1930
Hannah O'Daniel McCallon
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description

Repository Details

Part of the The Newberry Library - Modern Manuscripts and Archives Repository

60 West Walton Street
Chicago Illinois 60610 United States