When Uncle Sam Played Patron Of The Arts: Memoirs Of A Wpa Painter


I went to him with two suggestions for subject matter or theme: first, a series of four American literary masterpieces—perhaps The Scarlet Letter, Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn , and An American Tragedy ; second, the story of the recorded word—Moses and the graven tablets of the law, the medieval scribe and his manuscript, Gutenberg and the printing press, and Mergenthaler and the Linotype. Stokes immediately rejected the first as lacking in dignity, and enthusiastically approved the second. I proceeded to make sketches in crayon and wash, and he approved these without change. What he haggled over was the terms of the agreement between the library and the Art Project. I carried these papers back and forth time after time. The project supervisors were worn out before Stokes finally decided that the details of this agreement were ready for submission to the board of trustees. He told me to put my sketches under my arm and meet him in Wall Street on a certain day in front of the Bank of New York. “I want you to be there on the sidewalk at the curb in front of the bank’s entrance, facing east. Be there at exactly 2:45. At 2:50 I’ll approach from the east and will turn into the bank. When you see me go in, I want you to follow me. I’ll go directly through the bank and open the door to the Directors’ Room. Follow immediately behind me into that room.”

All went according to plan. Mr. Stokes appeared—tall, gaunt, and elegant in a gray suit and gray coat. Without glancing at me, he turned into the bank, and I followed. He closed the door to the Directors’ Room. This was where the executive committee of the library board met once a month. It was a big room, panelled in dark wood from floor to ceiling. Stokes pointed to an enormous Renaissance table at the end of the room and said, under his breath, “Put the sketches there.” I lined them up; he nodded and murmured, “Go along now and call me at home precisely at five o’clock.” He wanted me well out of the way before Mr. Morgan, Mr. Root, Mr. Polk, and the other members of the committee arrived. I wandered about the financial district until five o’clock, unable to concentrate on anything but the meeting in Wall Street. At five I called Mr. Stokes from a public phone and was told that the committee had approved and would submit the project to the library board at its next meeting. He told me to call at the Bank of New York the next morning to pick up my sketches and to take them to the office of Dr. Harry M. Lydenberg, the director of the library, at a certain hour on a certain day.

Dr. Lydenberg was a little dry old man who had been helpful to me in my research. When I reached his office, he proceeded toward a big door, which he unlocked. He led the way into what must be one of the most splendid rooms in America: richly panelled walls, a great carved marble fireplace, and paintings by Gilbert Stuart and others, including Du Plessis’ portrait of Benjamin Franklin and Rembrandt Peak’s “Porthole” portrait of Washington. Again I was directed to set up my sketches and to disappear. As I turned to go, Dr. Lydenberg whispered, “I hope you get what you want!”

Under Mr. Stokes’s sponsorship the sketches were approved by the full board, and the project was launched. A few days later the project office called me in and explained that in drawing up the agreement—that agreement over which Stokes had pored with such concentration on detail—a slight clerical error had been made. According to the usual procedure, the institution receiving a mural painting was to pay the cost of materials; the artists were paid a weekly wage by the project. In the case of the library, the cost of materials was estimated at four hundred dollars, two hundred for canvas and two hundred for paints, brushes, etc. Through some oversight only two hundred dollars had been indicated—enough for canvas or for paints and brushes, but not for both. I was told to return to Mr. Stokes and ask him to increase the allotment by two hundred dollars.

I called at his apartment and explained the difficulty. He looked more solemn and grave than I’d ever seen him. He sat in silence for a long time and then said quietly, “If I had the two hundred dollars, I would put it up myself. But I don’t have it. I would go to Mr. Baker for it, but unfortunately Mr. Baker is dead. I would ask Mr. Harkness, but Mr. Harkness is dead. I would ask Mr. Morgan, but Mr. Morgan was one of a minority on the board who weren’t very favorable. Mr. Morgan said, ‘Those wall spaces have been vacant all these years. What’s the hurry? If we wait, maybe someone will give us some murals.’ I don’t want to go back to the board about this. We have their approval now, and if we reopen the question there’s always the possibility they may reverse themselves. No, I don’t think there’s anything that can be done about it.” I took this word back to King Street, the Art Project found the two hundred dollars, and we went ahead.