- Historic Sites
The Sad End Of George And Martha
A true story of their final days on the Florida seashore
February/March 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 1
While waiting for HAZMAT’s white response truck to make the twenty-minute drive from Bradenton, the proper authorities of Holmes Beach kept an eye on the package. From the window of the station they could see it lying there, exactly where Gebhardt had gently placed it, against a cinder-block wall, among the Public Works Department’s brown plastic recycling boxes. The secret of its origin, its ownership, and its inexplicable appearance in Patricia Comkowycz’s station wagon remained tantalizingly obscure. As Chief Romine told a reporter from the daily newspaper in Bradenton, suspicious-looking packages need to be handled “properly,” and this was a package that certainly warranted suspicion. What was it? Who had put it there? And why?
In truth, the owner of the package—or of its contents, at any rate—was at home that day in San Francisco, where she has lived for many decades without participating in a bomb plot, an armed insurrection, or even a minor disturbance of the peace. Leone Baxter, a woman of prominence, respectability, and conservative inclination, is the widow of Clem Whitaker, Sr., a masterful lobbyist and political strategist, with whom she founded the firm of Whitaker and Baxter—also known as Campaigns, Inc.—the first public relations firm devoted entirely to politics and the first to manage every aspect of a political campaign. The late Carey McWilliams, a former editor of The Nation who wrote about California politics, said of Campaigns, Inc.: “Its slogans are works of art, and its manipulation of public opinion is something to excite wonder and amazement.”
Miss Baxter would have been chagrined to know that a parcel belonging to her was terrorizing the authorities of Manatee County, Florida, and she would have been appalled to learn what the authorities were planning to do about it, for the brown paper package did not contain a bomb but an exquisitely framed pair of miniature portraits of George Washington and his wife, Martha, presumed to be the work of the celebrated American painter Gilbert Stuart, whose best-known likeness of the first President adorns the one-dollar bill.
The pictures, only 3 1/8 by 4¼ inches, painted in watercolor mixed with a tiny amount of adhesive on whalebone ivory, had once belonged to Joseph E. Davies, a millionaire lawyer and Democratic party functionary, whom President Franklin Delano Roosevelt appointed ambassador to the Soviet Union in 1936. During Davies’s two years in Russia, the pictures hung side by side in Spaso House, the U.S. ambassador’s residence in Moscow, and were widely admired. Although their provenance was not documented, they were taken on faith to be one of six pairs of miniatures of General and Mrs. Washington believed to have been painted by the prolific Stuart, the other five pairs having been identified in museums and private collections.
After Davies’s death, in 1958, the miniatures passed to a nephew who gave them to Miss Baxter in settlement of a debt. She hung them proudly in the lobby of her office, Whitaker and Baxter’s world headquarters, in the penthouse of the Fairmont Hotel on Nob Hill in San Francisco. Like Miss Baxter’s well-polished 1959 Silver Cloud Rolls-Royce, the paintings went with her to Republican cocktail parties and fundraisers up and down California, and she occasionally lent them out to give cachet to public events sponsored by worthy causes. (As McWilliams observed, Whitaker and Baxter had run so many “fabulously successful” campaigns over such a long period of years that they had built a vast network of friendly alliances, contacts, feeders of information and even patronage. Miss Baxter came to believe that her pictures contributed significantly to the financial and social success of innumerable gatherings.)
Among the acquaintances whose public service Miss Baxter supported was her friend Fred Burrous, a former CaIifornian who now maintains an office and vacation hideout in a trailer park in Bradenton Beach. Burrous too is a patron of worthy causes, including Earth Day International, an organization seeking efforts to free the world of poverty, pollution, and violence. It occurred to Miss Baxter that Burrous might find a buyer for the portraits and use the proceeds for his charities, and she entrusted George and Martha to him when he was in California several years ago.
Lieutenant Harris got out a water cannon, stood at a safe distance, and aimed.
The results of his effort were disappointing. Although the pictures have since been convincingly attributed to Stuart and valued at forty-five thousand to sixty thousand dollars by accredited fine arts appraisers, Burrous could not find a buyer. In moving to Florida, he lost track of them, found them tucked into a box of dish towels, and decided at that point that he had better send them back to Miss Baxter.