Not every memorable historic moment is on a grand scale. Here, a look at some of the bizarre, true sidelights that add sparkle to the larger picture.
I like to think that had I been born in an earlier time, I would have been a great historical painter. I have a real gift for composing epic scenes, I enjoy rendering minute detail, and I would have had no moral conflicts about portraying people as handsomer than they really were. How I would have loved to paint the coronation of Napoleon, or an allegorical homage to the opening of the Erie Canal with joyous angels looking down from the heavens. Ah, well...
The truth is, the world no longer needs artists to record its momentous events. It has the camera. The camera does an adequate job, I suppose. It certainly produces pictures faster than an artist can—even an abstract expressionist needs more than a tenth of a second to complete a painting—but the camera has one serious limitation; it can only record what appears before its lens.
The creative artist, on the other hand, can reproduce anything he can imagine. His mind’s eye can see through brick walls and closed doors, and can even travel back through time. Of course, not every creative artist can conjure up the past convincingly. It takes someone with enthusiasm for pictorial research, biography, and history, and an understanding of the human psyche. It also takes someone who owns at least one book on How to Draw Hands.
I own three.
In 1898 Theodore Roosevelt, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, acting without any authority from his superiors, gave orders to Commodore George Dewey that resulted in a decisive naval victory over the Spanish fleet at Manila Bay. With the Spanish-American War now under way, TR resigned his post to raise the volunteer cavalry regiment he called the Rough Riders. Before setting off for Cuba, the badly nearsighted adventurer carefully packed many extra pairs of his pince-nez eyeglasses and had others sewn into the lining of his uniform.
Enrico Caruso managed to sing one performance of Carmen before the 1906 earthquake cut short the San Francisco opera season. The tenor was in the St. Francis Hotel when the first shock hit, and he ran terrified into Union Square with a towel around his neck for protection while drawing spiritual sustenance from a signed portrait of Theodore Roosevelt that he cradled in his arms. “Give me Vesuvius!” he cried, and on checking out of the hotel Caruso vowed never to return to San Francisco. He never did.
The troops loved Bill Mauldin’s weary, messy GIs Willie and Joe. Not so Gen. George S. Patton, who ordered the cartoonist to 3d Army headquarters in Luxembourg’s royal palace to “talk it over.” The general wasted no time: Willie and Joe were goddamn bums. Was he trying to incite a goddamn mutiny? Mauldin defended his work, only to set off a new barrage against characters who “bitch and beef and gripe.” Finally Mauldin was dismissed, taking with him several new ideas for cartoons about the military.
When housing was needed at Oak Ridge in 1942, Frank Lloyd Wright was summoned to the White House. He showed up in his plaid cloak and soft fedora—which he never removed. Booming out “I would rather be Wright than President!” he strolled over to FDR’s desk and said, “Frank, you ought to get up out of that chair and look around at what they’re doing to your city here, miles and miles of Ionic and Corinthian columns.” The buildings at Oak Ridge were not designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
When Richard Nixon ran for governor of California in 1962, his campaign went badly from the very beginning, in large part because a secret $200,000 loan from the defense contractor Howard Hughes to Nixon’s brother Donald was no longer a secret. Everywhere the candidate went he was asked about it. His nerves were already taut when he arrived in San Francisco’s Chinatown to do more campaigning, and he nearly unraveled when he opened a fortune cookie to discover the message “What About the Hughes Loan?” It had been placed there by the Democratic political prankster Dick Tuck.
In 1871 the natty and lethal James Butler Hickok—“Wild Bill”—moved to Abilene. He planned to make a living at poker, but he also took the job of marshal. One night at the poker table in the Alamo saloon he heard gunshots in the street. Furious at the interruption, Hickok rushed into the darkness and shot an innocent bystander. Then, hearing someone behind him, he spun and killed his own deputy. Abilene decided it needed a more discriminating lawman.
George Washington sat for three portraits by Gilbert Stuart. The last, commissioned by Mrs. Washington, is the painting we all know—unfinished. That was so Stuart could honestly tell Martha he hadn’t quite finished her husband’s portrait, while he made copies of it that sold for one hundred dollars each. He turned out at least seventy while the Washingtons waited with mounting impatience. Finally George showed up at the studio and demanded it, but to no avail. The portrait was still unfinished when Stuart died in 1828.
Sylvester Graham, inventor of the eponymous cracker in the 1830s, believed that excessive sexual desire heightened by “rich dishes [and] the free use of flesh” led to insanity. But what got him into trouble, were his lectures on the evils of store-bought bread and red meat. The talks did not sit well with butchers and bakers, and they held a demonstration in Boston against Graham that turned into a riot.
MRS. FISH IN LOW COMPANY
During the 1890s the balls and parties of the supreme social arbiter Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish were covered on every society page, and aspiring hostesses studied her reception lists enviously. One morning after a particularly glittering gathering in her mansion, Mrs. Fish eagerly opened the New York Herald and discovered that the paper had inadvertently switched her reception list with the names of those who had held ringside seats at the previous night’s prize fight.