Bob Koke leaning against a palm tree with one hand and legs crossed

Bob Koke

The Kokes in Bali and Beyond

I began my internship in the Freer and Sackler Archives in late January of 2020. Since then, my responsibilities have included processing the collection of Robert “Bob” and Louise Koke, which consists of over four hundred items of correspondence, almost ninety photographs, a travel diary, and some financial documents and assorted paraphernalia from the Kokes’ time in Asia between 1935 and 1949.

File boxes on a table.
The original boxes the collection came in—not at all safe storage. Photo by Ryan Murray.

Processing this has involved creating an extensive inventory; organizing the documents and filing them accordingly in different, safer boxes; creating a narrative of the process and a bibliography of the couple; and finally, a finding aid for future researchers.

Top: Logo for Kuta Beach Hotel with a silhouette of a person surfing a wave. Bottom: Bob Koke on the front lawn of Kuta Beach Hotel leaning his arm against the trunk of a palm tree.
Top: Logo for Kuta Beach Hotel. Bottom: Bob Koke on the front lawn of Kuta Beach Hotel. Photo by Louise Koke.

Bob and Louise met in the early 1930s when Bob, who worked in MGM’s production department, began modeling for Louise, a painter. Shortly thereafter, they began having an affair. Louise had been married to another man, Oliver Garrett, but proceeded to divorce him for his multiple infidelities and ran off to Asia with Bob in 1935. They began their travels in Japan before visiting China, Singapore, and Indonesia. Upon reaching Bali in 1937, they fell in love with the island and decided to stay, opening a beachfront hotel called Kuta Beach Hotel.

Bob and Louise flourished in Bali for five years, becoming acquainted with the local Balinese traditions and people and slowly growing their business. They also introduced surfing to the island. There is one anecdote in their letters about a guest, an older Dutch noblewoman, who insisted on learning to surf despite Bob and Louise’s protests and who ended up having to be saved from drowning. The Kokes were forced to flee back to the US in 1941 due to the imminent Japanese invasion. At this point, Bob joined US Army Intelligence and was stationed in Sri Lanka (then called Ceylon) where he trained operatives to go undercover in Japanese-controlled Indonesia. He joined the CIA after the war in 1947 and was stationed in Shanghai, where he was reunited with Louise. They spent two years there before being forced out again, this time by the Chinese Communist Revolution. They lived the rest of their life in Washington, DC, where Bob was based in the CIA.

Archival boxes on shelves.
Archival Boxes used to rehouse collections such as the Koke Collection.
Photo by Lisa Fthenakis.

Throughout their time in Asia, from their arrival in Japan in 1935 to their departure—also from Japan—in 1949, they kept up steady communication with Bob’s parents and sister (affectionately nicknamed Dodo). These letters document Bob and Louise’s lives and the events going on around them, giving an insight into what it was like to live in Asia as an American in the 1930s and 1940s. Neither of them were ones to mince their words, so their letters are frank, informative, and sometimes quite funny. Alongside this correspondence, numerous photographs were taken by Bob of the local sites, peoples, and traditions of each place they visited. It was quite neat to be able to put together the events mentioned in a letter with one of Bob’s photographs. Although I will not be able to fully finish this project due to the coronavirus (it is quite difficult to organize and sort photographs when you cannot enter the building they are held in!), I have been able to complete about 80 percent of the project.

Black and white photographs taken by Bob Koke in a cardboard box.
Photographs by Robert Koke in their original box prior to rehousing, mid-20th century, Freer and Sackler Archives.

Alongside learning about best practices when processing collections, I have had the opportunity to learn about day-to-day life in archival collections and museum culture as a whole. Through interactions with my supervisors and their colleagues, I have also learned about collection management, registration, curation, education in museums, the collaboration and coordination across the museum, and so much more. It has been particularly fascinating to observe how the Freer and Sackler is handling the coronavirus crisis, such as the work that can be done at home, the steps being taken by the administration to encourage everyone and to keep the staff safe and informed, and the efforts made to retain—and grow—the sense of community. These past few months with the Freer and Sackler have been truly amazing and informative as well as full of fun stories and experiences, fantastic people, and superb learning opportunities. I will miss it.

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