Michel (“Mike”) Bouvier Mathews (September 15, 1955–March 26, 2021)

•March 31, 2021 • 1 Comment

A little more than a month ago, I tagged along with museum founder Mitchell (“Micky”) Wolfson, Jr. and research curator Lea Nickless on a visit to Michel (“Mike”) Bouvier Mathews. Lea had been interested in arranging a meeting with Mike as the son of James F. Mathews, III, the man who in 1985 had sold Micky the Washington Storage Company building, since renovated and transformed into a state-of-the-art museum facility.

Lea had been mining through the Washington Storage Company Archive housed in our rare book and special collections library and hoped that Mike might be willing to share his recollections of the company and his family history. For an entire afternoon, Mike generously and enthusiastically recounted his memories of his father “Jim” Mathews and the company, but also offered us numerous old photographs, ledgers, letterhead, and other ephemeral items in his possession to be added to the archive.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mike Mathews Washington Storage Archive

Lea was especially excited by a small pastel illustration that Mike believed had been exhibited in the Washington Storage galleries she had been researching.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mike Mathews Washington Storage Archive

Among the items Mike donated to The Wolfsonian was a photograph album/scrapbook from July 31, 1989 of the party for Mr. Mathews and the Washington Storage Company employees. I must confess that I have been with the Wolfsonian long enough to have been able to easily identify many of the employees—including Mary Hawk, Dennis Curley, Velta GrosJean, Betty Gutierrez, Coman Leonard, Danny King, Sarah King, Steve Forero-Paz, and others.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mike Mathews Washington Storage Archive

Many stayed on during the transformation of the company into the Wolfsonian Foundation tasked with turning Micky’s private collection and the storage building into a public institution.

Mike shared with us lots of tales from the Washington Storage era in the days before Micky’s own rapidly growing private collection had crowded out most other customers. At one point in our conversations, Micky recalled the day in which Mr. Mathews (Mike’s father) had called him in and told him to either “buy it (the building and the company) or get out!” Both Mike and Micky laughed heartily over the business ultimatum that resulted in the historic building’s new beginnings.

Soon after the visit, Lea received an enthusiastic email from Mike Mathews. “Very happy and grateful concerning the visit and interest in the family’s history. The simple fact of Micky’s personal interest, enthusiasm and participation cannot be understated as an extreme motivator for me.” He went on to express his interest in being involved with our efforts at The Wolfsonian. 

On March 18, Lea and Micky co-hosted a virtual presentation for a special museum Members Only event on March 18: “Micky’s Musings: Storage Company to Treasure Trove.” We were delighted to learn that other members of the Mathews clan had also viewed and listened in on the Webcast and virtual tour.

We subsequently learned from the Mathews family that one month to the day of our visit with Mike, he had passed away. It was a shock to all of us here at The Wolfsonian–FIU. We had been looking forward to further conversations with him, tapping his memory to identify persons in the photographs, and sharing his unique perspective on the Washington Storage days.

Our condolences go out to his entire family. Mike will be missed.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mike Mathews Washington Storage Archive

A Brief Sketch of Portrait Artist, Neysa McMein

•March 24, 2021 • Leave a Comment

In honor of Women’s History Month this March, I thought that it appropriate to celebrate the life and artwork of the American illustrator and portrait painter, Neysa Moran McMein (1888–1949). This tribute seems especially timely as just this month our library received a few of her Saturday Evening Post and McClure’s magazine cover designs as a donation from long-time supporter, Vicki Gold Levi.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Vicki Gold Levi

Neysa McMein was born Marjorie Frances McMein in Quincy, Illinois to a family whose business interests were wrapped up in the McMein Publishing Company. Endowed with gifts in music, acting, and art, she attended The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, before moving to New York City and studying at the Art Students League of New York shortly before the outbreak of the First World War. An ardent suffragist dedicated to full social, economic, and sexual emancipation, she starred in several theatrical productions before deciding to pursue a career in graphic and commercial art. On the advice of a numerologist, she dropped her birth name and adopted Neysa as her new professional name.

In 1914, Neysa sold her first drawing to the Boston Star, and the following year her illustrations graced the coveted covers of the popular magazines, The Saturday Evening Post and Puck, with depictions of “All American Girls.” By 1917, her portraits were appearing with some regularity on the covers of McClure’s magazines.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gifts of Vicki Gold Levi

When the United States entered the war in 1917, Neysa traveled to France to entertain the American Expeditionary Forces along with Anita Wilcox and Jane Bulley. She also designed posters in support of war work for the French and American governments and the American Red Cross. In recognition of her contributions, she was made an honorary non-commissioned officer in the U.S. Marine Corps.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gifts of Henry S. Hacker

In the postwar period, Neysa McMein and Jessie Willcox Smith became the nation’s two foremost women magazine illustrators; and while Smith more often depicted children in her artwork, Neysa’s illustrations typically depicted the “modern woman” with portraits exuding grace and confidence. Neysa’s portraits regularly decorated the covers of The Saturday Evening Post, McClure’s, McCall’s, Collier’s, Woman’s Home Companion, Ladies World, Good Housekeeping, National Geographic, Photoplay, and Liberty magazines.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gifts of Vicki Gold Levi

Between 1923 and 1937, McMein designed all the covers of McCall’s and was estimated to be earning as much as $2,500 ($32,777 in today’s currency) for each cover illustration. Neysa’s artwork could also be found between the covers, as she was producing advertising artwork for companies like Colgate, Palmolive soap, Lucky Strike cigarettes, Coke, and Cadillac. In December 1929, Neysa did consultant work with Helen Dryden and other women artists and decorators contributing to Studebaker’s design department.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Neysa was also responsible for creating “Betty Crocker,” the 32-year-old fictional housewife for her client, General Mills. Her never-aging Betty Crocker portraits continued to be used by the company into the mid-1950s. By 1938, McMein lost her contract for illustrating McCall’s covers as new technology enabled publishers to substitute color illustrations with color photographs. McMein continued to use pastels and paint portraits of politicians and celebrities until her death in New York City on May 12, 1949.

The Streets and Faces of Chas Laborde (1886–1941)

•February 28, 2021 • Leave a Comment

A few evening’s past, I received a frantic nocturnal call from museum founder, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. concerning a unique item by Chas Laborde being sold by the proprietors of Librairie Walden, Hervé and Eva Valentin, via a virtual book fair. The item in question is the artist’s earliest known travel notebook, entirely handwritten, and including sixty pencil sketches and a dozen pen drawings made during his first visit to England in 1905. As The Wolfsonian Library has a significant body of books, portfolios and ephemera illustrated by this important French artist, Mr. Wolfson was eager that we acquire the sketchbook and add it to our holdings.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Purchased with funds provided by Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

At his boarding school at Pau, young Charles Laborde spent much of his extracurricular time drawing his schoolmates and making landscape painting excursions. In 1903, Laborde took up residence in Paris and pursued his love of art, enrolling in some courses at the École des Beaux-Arts and the Academie Julian. Over the summer break of 1905, Laborde made his first trip to London with another artist friend, where he made many studies, sketches, and drawings of the persons, structures, and landscapes he encountered. The sketchbook contains portraits and illustrations of dwellings and pastoral scenes made during his visit to the capital city, the fishing village of Selsey, Bosham, and Sussex, and then to the Basque region on his return to France.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Purchased with funds provided by Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Laborde was so impressed by his visit to England that he adopted the English abbreviated nickname, “Chas,” and made annual pilgrimages there until the outbreak of the First World War.

Before the war intervened, Laborde had begun associating with other artists, including the novelists Francis Carco (1886–1958) and Pierre Mac Orlan (1882–1970), and fellow illustrators Pierre Falké (1884–1947), and Gus Bofa (1883–1968). Laborde also began submitting illustrations to such important French social satire publications as Le Rire [The Laugh] and L’Assiette au Beurre [The Butter Plate]. His work was also frequently exhibited at the Salon des Artistes Humoristes as well as the Societe des Dessinateurs Humoristes. When the war began in 1914, Laborde volunteered and served as a machine-gunner, while continuing to make pen and ink drawings of life from the front lines and submitting satirical illustrations to Le Rire Rouge [The Red Laugh] and La Baïonnette [The Bayonet].

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Sickened in a poison gas attack in 1917, he was medically discharged from the army. Chas’ nephew, Guy Laborde, posthumously published École de Patience [School of patience], using his uncle’s pen and ink wartime sketchbook as illustrations of life during wartime, at and behind the front lines.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Returning to civilian life, Chas Laborde resumed his work as an illustrator, producing satirical views of café life, the promenade of the famous Folies Bergeres review, and the streets and faces of Paris at the war’s close.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

In the post-war period, Laborde studied and mastered the art of engraving and etching and earned a decent living in the 1920s as an illustrator of deluxe edition books published by his friends Carco and Mac Orlan, as well as by Colette, Paul Morand, Valery Larbaud, and Jean Giraudoux. Often these limited editions included an extra suite of progressive proofs of the illustrations suitable for mounting or framing.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Much of Laborde’s witty artwork in this period satirized bourgeois life, values, sexual mores, and class relations, and exposed the denizens who lived on the fringes of respectable society.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

But Laborde’s illustrations also captured the hectic tempo of modern city life with its bustling subways and airports, crowded streets and commercial boulevards, opera and theatre, restaurants and café culture, and the proliferation of leisure, entertainment, and nightlife venues.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Chas Laborde continued to frequent outdoor cafés with his coterie of Parisian artist friends, hiding his notebook on his knee under the table to furtively capture a scene or an oblivious subject’s face and gestures. Returning to his studio after an evening spent in this manner, he would transfer his fresh impressions and sketches to a larger piece of paper or canvas.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Laborde’s portfolio of twenty etchings, titled Rues et Visages de Paris was published in 1926 to such considerable acclaim, that he decided to follow up that venture by similarly highlighting the streets and faces of other famous metropolises. After two trips to London in the spring and summer of 1927, Laborde published an album depicting the public parks and cityscapes of the British capital the following year.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

A portfolio of etchings focusing on the restaurants, cafés, and crowds strolling the boulevards of Berlin followed in 1930.

Invited by Condé Nast publishers to visit New York City, he published 15 plates in Vanity Fair before returning home laden with a dozen sketch books which supplied the inspiration for his final streets and faces series. In it he captured the class divisions and ethnic diversity of the city and documented the nightlife of the theatre district’s “Great White Way” on Broadway.

Although Laborde produced some of his best work in the 1930s, the onset of the Great Depression at the start of the decade dried up the market for the limited edition illustrated books that had been his bread and butter in the “roaring twenties.” Although he could still count on the income of his weekly drawing for the satirical Paris-Midi, he struggled to support himself. In the middle of the decade, Laborde traveled to Moscow to do some drawings for a modest periodical, La Chronique filme du mois, and then visited Madrid to record his impressions of very different street scenes playing out at the start of the Spanish Civil War in 1936.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

When the Germans invaded France at the start of the Second World War, Laborde joined the editor of the Paris-Midi at the Maginot Line, publishing drawings of the short-lived French resistance in the spring of 1940. Plagued by poor finances, material want, and failing health under the German occupation, Chas Laborde died on December 30, 1941, though his keen wit and quick eye and hand remain with us in the wonderful sketches, etchings, and illustrations that endure.

Lynd Ward’s Graphic Novels of the Depression Decade

•January 23, 2021 • Leave a Comment

Earlier this week I was invited by Professor Gretchen Scharnagl to share some material from The Wolfsonian Library relating to sequential art storytelling and the origins of the graphic novel in the United States. My presentation focused on the work of the American artist, Lynd Ward (1905–1985), his mentors and influences in Europe in the interwar era, and the “wordless novels” he published during the Depression decade. Today’s post will share some of Ward’s woodcut and wood-engravings with my readers.

Lynd Ward self portrait (1930)

Lynd Ward was born in Chicago in 1905, the same year that two hundred socialist, anarchist, and labor organizers converged on the city at a convention that led to the founding of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). His father, Harry F. Ward, was a Methodist minister of the Social Gospel tradition, and at the time of Lynd’s birth was serving as a social worker at a settlement house in a working-class barrio. Reverend Ward ministered to the immigrant laborers living in squalid tenements and working for poor wages in the filthy and dangerous stockyards and meat-packing industries and was likely radicalized by that experience. Young Lynd Ward imbibed and adopted his father’s socialist political views and penchant for social justice activism. As an adult he would integrate social criticism into the graphic novels he published throughout the 1930s.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

From an early age, Lynd Ward gravitated to the arts and book illustration, learning linoleum-block printing in high school. After graduating from the Columbia Teacher’s College in New York with a degree in fine arts in 1926, Ward married and spent his honeymoon in Europe. The young couple set up house in Leipzig, Germany where Lynd spent a year studying printmaking and book design at the prestigious Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst. Ward learned the intricacies of woodcut, etching, engraving, and lithography from the German masters: Hans Alexander Mueller, Alois Kolb, and Georg A. Mathéy.

From Woodcuts of New York / by Hans Alexander Mueller (1938)
[Beethoven’s Head and Pair of Lovers] print by Alois Kolb

From Georg A. Mathéy, Junge Kunst, (1929)

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Though he learned the techniques of book illustration inside the classroom, Ward’s artistic sensibilities and interest in the “wordless novel” were inspired by his extra-curricular activities. Ward appears to have been greatly influenced by German expressionism and the moving images he saw in such popular silent films as Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari.

While browsing the book stalls, he also encountered a series of graphic novels by a Belgian engraver. Frans Masereel was a socialist who had opposed the war and fled to neutral Switzerland rather than participate in the mass slaughter. The dark graphic novels Masereel published during and after the First World War reflected the general disillusionment and cynicism of the era; they also encouraged Ward to produce his own wordless novels upon his return to the United States in September 1927.

From My Book of Hours / Frans Masereel

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Purchased with Founder’s Fund

After providing illustrations for several other authors, Ward published his first wordless novel, God’s Man the same week that the Stock Market crashed in October 1929. Considered to be the first American graphic novel, the book includes nearly 150 woodcut images to tell the story of a young man who unwittingly strikes a Faustian bargain with Death to achieve success as an artist.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

The protagonist of God’s Man learns that money, urban life, and bourgeois values are anathema to art, truth, and beauty. Fleeing to the countryside, he finds true love and artistic freedom before his deathly patron collects on his debt.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

The black and white images and dark theme of the corrupting influence of money struck a chord with many ordinary Americans still reeling from the repercussions of the economic crisis. Over the next four years, God’s Man sold more than 20,000 copies.

During the decade-long Depression, Ward published five more graphic novels. All of these wordless novels provided biting pictorial commentary about such burning social issues as capitalist greed, starvation wages, chronic unemployment, homelessness, lynching and racial injustice, the repression of labor, and the violent suppression of protesters by police and national guardsmen.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Lynd Ward’s next novel, Madman’s Drum (1930) told the story of a man who amassed a fortune by participating in the trafficking of African slaves. Returning with a stolen drum, the slave-trader finds his personal relationships poisoned and his heirs cursed by his valuing of profit over human life. In focusing on slavery and the enduring legacy of racism, Ward was also providing an implicit critique of segregation and prejudice in “Jim Crow” America.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Ward’s next wordless novel, Wild Pilgrimage (1932) was set in depression-era America and included illustrations that used many of his typical tropes, (human-beings dwarfed by skyscrapers and industrial smokestacks), and touched on a wide variety of social problems.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

The ironic title and images referenced the wanderings of millions made homeless by the economic crisis. More than half a million youth dropped out of school, hitchhiking across the highways or hopping freight cars and riding the rails in a desperate search for work. Word’s protagonist, a rootless wanderer searching for love and meaning in his life, instead encounters only violence, indifference, and injustice on his own “pilgrimage.” In this gritty graphic novel, Ward alternated between orange and black inks to contrast the heroic dreams and fantasies of the protagonist with the bleak and harsh reality he experiences.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

In one instance, the would-be hero of the story witnesses, but only dares to dream of stopping the lynching of a Black man in the woods.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

At the climax of the novel, the young man enters a company town populated by unemployed or striking workers who resemble the walking dead.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Finally impelled to action by an attack of baton-wielding police on a group of picketers, the wanderer imagines himself David slaying Goliath, but is killed in the melee.  

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Published at the nadir of the Great Depression, Ward’s Prelude to a Million Years (1933) is a dystopian tale of the fate of art and civilization.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

The protagonist of this illustrated tale is an artist obsessed with beauty, who, against his will and inclination, is forced to recognize the ugliness and brutality of modern urban life. The disillusioned sculptor is robbed at gunpoint, witnesses the violent repression of striking workers by the police, is forced to kiss the flag by chauvinistic American legionnaires, and sees his idealized vision of female beauty reduced to drunken prostitution in this profoundly pessimistic tale.  

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Composed of twenty-one wood engravings, Song Without Words (1936) was the fifth and briefest of the six wordless novels Ward published during his lifetime. The novel centers on the anxieties of an expectant mother terrified by the prospect of bringing a child into the nightmarish world dominated by starvation, rising fascism, and the looming threat of war.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

The most intimate and personal of his graphic novels, Ward’s engravings were made while his wife, May, was pregnant with their second child, Robin.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Vertigo (1937) was Ward’s longest and most ambitious wordless novel, deploying 230 wood-engravings to relate the intertwined stories of three central characters: a young woman, a young man, and a dying captain of industry.

The story follows the fate of a young couple whose musical talents, career ambitions, and matrimonial aspirations are thwarted by the Crash and subsequent Depression. Even as the novel focuses on the personal plight of the protagonists, it includes images of: demoralized people standing in relief lines; vigilante thugs beating union organizers; and National Guardsmen in gas masks bayoneting striking workers.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Lamenting the squandering of youthful talent and potential, Vertigo symbolically ends with the dying capitalist being kept alive by a vampire-like infusion of the young man’s blood, followed by the terrified couple clinging tightly to one another while riding the rollercoaster that was the Great Depression.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Despite his contributions to the development of the graphic novel in the United States during the Great Depression, Lynd Ward has not become a household name. But given the social unrest and police and vigilante violence against contemporary Black Lives Matter protesters and demonstrations, Ward’s social conscience-driven graphic illustrations may yet again be rediscovered for their enduring emotive power and relevance.

Conrado Massaguer Exhibition on Google Arts and Culture

•December 22, 2020 • Leave a Comment

Just in time for the holidays, The Wolfsonian–Florida International University has added another virtual exhibition to the Google Arts and Culture website, this one celebrating the artwork and caricatures of Conrado Walter Massaguer, Cuba’s most celebrated publisher and art director in the era of the Republic.

Conrado with his eight-year-old daughter, Conchita, Havana, 1935

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi promised gifts

The original exhibition titled, Cuban Caricature and Culture: The Art of Massaguer, had been organized to celebrate the gift of a large number of works by Massaguer by long-time library supporter, Vicki Gold Levi. The installation was on view in our fifth floor galleries from June 7, 2019 through March 10, 2020, and included far more materials than the new virtual exhibition could accommodate. Consequently, I thought that I would use this post to present some photographs, illustrations, and caricatures that were culled due to limitations of space.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi promised gifts

Conrado Walter Massaguer was born in Cárdenas, Cuba in 1889, although his family fled to Mexico during the tumultuous period of the War of Independence and remained there during the subsequent U.S. military occupation until the creation of the Cuban Republic in 1902. Believing that Conrado would benefit from an American education, his parents sent him to upstate New York where he attended the Military Academy of New York, from where he wrote home letters illustrated with original doodles.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi promised gift

Conrado returned a few years later, moving freely between Cuba and Merida, where he became enchanted with the publishing industry that would become his life-long obsession and all-consuming career as an internationally recognized caricaturist, illustrator, art director, editor, and publisher. Together with his brother, Oscar, Conrado co-founded the short-lived Grafico (1913–1918) and two of Cuba’s most influential magazines. Social, published from 1916 to 1933 and from 1935 to 1937, was his vehicle for introducing modern and avant-garde art to and shaping the cultural tastes of the island nation’s elites; the longer-lived Carteles published from 1919 through 1960 was directed towards a more popular audience.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, gift of Vicki Gold Levi

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Loan

On and between the illustrated covers of his flagship publication, Social, Massaguer promoted a modernist aesthetic with his own artwork and with that of the other artists he mentored and promoted as art director and publisher. During his early stays in the United States, he had come to appreciate the work of Charles Dana Gibson, who won notoriety and name recognition with his illustrations of late Victorian socialites and debutantes.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Loan

Conrado sought to emulate his success by introducing the new modern woman. The bobbed-haired, liberated flappers of the 1920s featured prominently on the covers of Carteles and Social, but also in a section of the later magazine, wryly titled, “Massa-Girls.”

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi promised gift

The Wolfsonian–FIU, gift of Vicki Gold Levi

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Loan

Massaguer also assumed a leading role in the Cuban Tourist Commission’s promotion of the island as the premier tourist destination for American vacationers from the 1920s through the late 1950s.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, gift of Vicki Gold Levi

As Cuba’s semi-official cultural ambassador, he was regularly on hand to greet and mingle with a host of visiting Hollywood movie stars and celebrities.

Actors Erol Flynn and Lili Damita (seated) with Massaguer (standing, to the right)

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi promised gift

Massaguer become especially renowned for his caricatures of movie stars, international celebrities, and world leaders. Unsurprisingly, he adopted a modernist approach to caricature, believing that a simple, fine line and a spontaneous, secretive hand better captured the essence of a subject than a studied and highly edited portrait made of a posed or posturing subject. Many of his more fleshed out caricatures were printed in the “cine” and “ellos” sections of Social, but tens of thousands were also published in syndicated newspapers and magazines distributed across the globe.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Loan

Conrado’s caricatures of local politicians, however, ruffled the feathers of many thin-skinned Cuban politicos. Like so many of his contemporary political caricaturists and cartoonists on the island, he endured arrest, harassment, and exile after he incurred the wrath of President Machado with cartoons like this one.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi promised gift

During his exile in the early 1930s, the Cuban publishing magnate struggled to maintain his social standing as the Great Depression and political repression at home caused the suspension of his beloved Social. Not one to be easily discouraged, Massaguer contributed artwork to American magazines and advertising campaigns, including this cover illustration for Collier’s and this ad celebrating the end of U.S. Prohibition.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi promised gifts

It was during this exile period that Massaguer had his first and only exhibition of work in the United States in his lifetime, held at the Delphic Studios in New York City.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Loan

When Massaguer returned to his homeland in the late 1930s, he continued to promote the tourist industry, even providing the cover art for the brochure distributed at the Cuban pavilion at the 1939 New York World’s Fair.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, gift of Vicki Gold Levi

Once the outbreak of the Second World War cut off the flow of all but American military personnel to the island, Massaguer did his part for the war effort by producing biting anti-Axis caricatures of the enemy and lighthearted images of the Allies.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi promised gifts

Soon after the end of the global conflict, Cuba reprized its role as a vacation destination, with Massaguer once again contributing his artwork for the cause.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, gift of Vicki Gold Levi

When the Castro-led guerrillas seized control of Cuba in 1959, Massaguer tried to curry favor with the new regime by publishing a lighthearted book of caricatures of the triumphant bearded revolutionaries. Advertisements promoting Coca Cola and other American products, however, guaranteed the publication a short shelf life as relations between the Castro regime and the United States strained to the breaking point.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi promised gift

By 1960, the last of Massaguer’s popular magazines, Carteles, had ceased distribution, and the publisher finished out his days quietly working in the Archivo Nacional de Cuba.

Giving Thanks and Debunking Myths

•November 24, 2020 • 3 Comments

As we prepare as a nation to celebrate Thanksgiving, I’ve been reflecting on how much this holiday draws upon the historical myths associated with the meal shared between fifty-three Pilgrim colonists and ninety Wampanoag Indian allies. According to two relations and memorials penned by Pilgrim leaders who traveled to “the new world” aboard the Mayflower, the original feasting and festivities associated with their harvest celebration in 1621 lasted three days.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, gift of Francis Xavier Luca

The menu included turkey and wildfowl; cod, bass, and other fish; maize and possibly barley; walnuts, chestnuts, plums, strawberries, gooseberries, raspberries, and other nuts and berries. Wampanoag hunters provided several deer for the feast and participants likely also dined on eels and lobsters, mussels and oysters, and other local delicacies. Illustrated children’s books in The Wolfsonian Library published in the 1930s perpetuated the idealized myth of the Pilgrims and Indians harmoniously breaking bread.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, gift of Francis Xavier Luca & Clara Helena Palacio Luca

The Wolfsonian–FIU, gift of Francis Xavier Luca

One illustrated children’s book even correctly credits the Indian, Squanto, (patronizingly referred to as a “friendly redskin” in the accompanying text), with helping the newcomers stave off starvation by showing them how to plant maize and find sustenance in a foreign environment. The text ignores the fact that Squanto also served as their interpreter, having learned English after having been kidnapped by an English sea captain some years earlier.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, gift of Francis Xavier Luca

Although often rosily depicted as an example of native and newcomer reciprocity, the decision of the governor of the Plymouth Bay Colony and the Massasoit of the Wampanoag to establish a treaty of peace and mutual protection had been borne of necessity more than altruism on the part of either people. The original band of Pilgrims had barely survived starvation during their first winter, while the Wampanoag had recently been devastated by an outbreak of the plague and feared subjugation by their Narragansett neighbors to the south.

Alas, this first interracial harvest celebration was not a ritual repeated with any regularity in the colonial era, especially as relations between the natives and newcomers worsened as more English settlers began to crowd, covet, and encroach upon their Indian neighbors’ lands. While the Pequots of the Connecticut River valley were the first to be humbled militarily, the Massasoit’s sons and heirs did not fare much better. After the conflict known as Metacom’s or King Philip’s War in 1676, the Wampanoag and allied tribes were killed, enslaved, or forced to abandon their homelands.

The remainder of this post will focus on the representation of Native Americans at various world’s fairs and international exhibitions held in the United States from the late nineteenth through the early twentieth centuries. These expositions, much like the Thanksgiving holiday, reinforced myths about Indians, promoted stereotypes, and perpetuated a false dichotomy between supposed “savage” and “civilized” peoples. Although Native peoples occasionally protested and/or participated in these expositions, their voices were too often ignored and their presence relegated to the Midways or entertainment sections of the fairs.

The Centennial International Exposition celebrated the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia. Opening on May 10th, 1876, the fair was attended by 10 million spectators and witnessed the participation of 37 nations before closing six months later. Native Americans appeared in the imagery used to promote the fair as kneeling Indian and Africans demonstrate their subservient position vis-à-vis Miss Columbia, a white female figure representing the nation.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, gift of Ideal Gladstone, in memory of her husband, John.

Ironically, in the midst of the fair celebrations, word came in late June of the humiliating defeat of General George Armstrong Custer’s Seventh Cavalry regiment by a combined band of Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho Indians unhappy at their forced confinement on reservations. The “rebellious” northern Plains Indians were subsequently subjugated or driven from their lands into Canadian exile.

Celebrating the four-hundredth anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ “discovery” of America, the city of Chicago organized the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. British artist and bookmaker, Walter Crane (18451915) designed and published Columbia’s Courtship, a history in verse and pictures of the United States in time for the fair. Crane represented the young republic in a series of twelve plates in which “Miss America” was symbolically transformed from “la belle sauvage”—a “wild,” “brown and fearless Indian maid”—into a fair-skinned, civilized Miss Columbia.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Some of the admittance tickets printed for the fair used the likeness of Plains Indians, only recently subjugated and herded onto reservations.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, anonymous gift

Sculpture displayed on the actual fair grounds also included romanticized images of Native peoples, including a set of monumental equestrian plasters by Alexander Phimister Proctor (1860/21950), in which “The Indian” faced off against “The Cowboy” outside the Transportation Building.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Such stereotypes of Native Americans did not go unchallenged. Simon Pokagon, a chief of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians of the Great Lakes region, chastised the fair organizers for ignoring his people’s contributions “as if nothing that we had done—or given or given up—had contributed to America.”

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Pokagon even published a scathing pamphlet titled Red Man’s Rebuke, which reminded fair-goers that his own people had “no spirit to celebrate…our own funeral, the discovery of America” with the “pale-faced race that has usurped our lands and homes.” Pokagon’s fiery rebuke was afterwards reprinted on the bark of a white birch tree and distributed as Red Man’s Greeting. It included the author’s poetic lament to his people and their traditions, which, he noted, were “vanishing from our forests” like this tree.

To deflect possible negative publicity, Chief Pokagon was invited to speak at the fair on October 9, 1893. Although dressed in a modern suit, he wore a feather headdress in tribute to his native heritage as he addressed a crowd of 75,000. After handing the mayor of Chicago a copy of the deed to the city wrapped in birch bark, Pokagon spoke of the devastating effect of alcohol on his brethren and encouraged them to pursue U.S. citizenship even at the expense of clinging to tribal identities. After serving as the umpire for a game of lacrosse played by Iroquois and Potawatomi athletes, he was carried off on a History of Chicago float alongside a replica of a statue of another Potawatomi chief, Black Partridge. This chief had shielded settlers from harm after the fall of Fort Dearborn in the War of 1812. The original outdoor sculpture by Carl Rohl-Smith (18481900) had been cast in bronze in 1893 and portrayed the rescue of the wife of an army officer by Black Partridge.

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Ironically, when Chief Black Partridge returned to his own village, he found it had been burned and his own daughter and grandchild massacred by a company of Illinois Rangers.

An “ethnological congress” of aboriginal peoples was organized for the Midway Plaisance (or entertainment venue) of the World’s Columbian Exposition.  

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

So many Indian tribes were ultimately brought to the fair that some of their recreated villages spilled over into other sections of the fair grounds.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Just outside of the fair grounds, four million spectators also flocked to Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show to see “authentic” entertainment featuring “real” (unassimilated) Indians.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

The 1898 Trans-Mississippi Exposition held in Omaha, Nebraska, continued the tradition of displaying Native American peoples much in the way that European fair organizers included human “specimens” from their overseas empires and colonies. Alongside images of the buildings, pavilions, and Midway entertainment, a souvenir viewbook included photographs of Santa Clara, Apache, Ute, and Sioux tribesmen brought to the fair as “exotics” to be gawked at and photographed by curious spectators.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Promised Gift

Mounted Plains Indians also made an appearance at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in 1904 both as statuary making a mute protest, and as live action entertainers, whooping war cries to delight the crowds.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Promised Gift

The Jamestown Exposition of 1907 was organized to memorialize the three-hundredth anniversary of the first permanent English settlement established in North America. Far from authentic, much of the memorabilia produced for the fair made use of images of Indians wearing the feather headdresses worn by the native peoples of the Great Plains.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Other souvenirs and keepsakes eulogized and perpetuated the myth of Pocahontas’ rescue of John Smith, with her idealized image appearing in statues on the fair grounds and even on the seal designed to promote the fair.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, gifts of Francis Xavier Luca

While the daughter of the leader of the Powhatan Confederacy did, in fact, entreat her father to spare the English captive’s life, it is doubtful Smith was ever in any real danger. What Smith, most early historians, and Disney animators perpetuating the myth all failed to recognize was that the nine- or ten-year-old Indian maiden was not motivated by romantic love for the twenty-seven-year old mercenary. Rather, she was likely playing her part in a native “death and rebirth” ceremony—a ritual intended to foster his adoption and assimilation, and to transform the English colonists from foreign adversaries into tributary tribesmen.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, gift of Francis Xavier Luca

Ironically, Pocahontas would later be kidnapped by the English colonists, baptized into the Anglican faith, and married off to another colonist, John Rolfe, to force her father to sue for peace. She was afterwards carried to England for a royal audience as a publicity stunt by the Virginia Company to counter the bad reports about conditions in the colony and to raise the profile of (and funds for) the fledgling colony.

The Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition held in Seattle, Washington in 1909 also integrated Indian peoples into the fair, exhibiting romanticized paintings of Custer’s last stand and depictions of native life by Western artist, Charles Marion Russell (18641926).

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

But the organizers of the A-Y-P Expo also imported living Indians from local reservations to the fair. Treated like specimens in a “human zoo,” they were expected to show off their traditional costumes even as the Anglo-Americans congratulated themselves on their assimilation programs aimed at eliminating their cultural heritage.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

A less-than-tactful photo board allowed guests at the fair in Seattle to add their faces to a cartoonish depiction of an “Indian outbreak.”

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

At the Panama-Pacific International Exposition held in San Francisco in 1915, native peoples again made an appearance in the statuary erected for the fair. Although the last of the “wild” Indians had long since been “tamed” and herded onto reservations, a statue by Edward Henry Berge (1876–1924) depicted a Native American giving a triumphant shout after taking an enemy’s scalp.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

A popular attraction at the fair was a large statue depicting an Indian on horseback. The sculptor, James Earle Fraser (1876–1900), had grown up in the Dakota Territory where he had absorbed the popular “Manifest Destiny” view that the Indian, pressed ever Westward by the inevitable forces of “civilization,” was doomed to extinction and would “someday be pushed into the Pacific Ocean.” Fraser’s “End of the Trail” statue depicts a despondent Indian warrior slumped over a weary horse standing “at the edge of the Pacific.”

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Such pessimistic predictions seemed borne out by U.S. census bureau reports which recorded the decline to a mere 250,000 Indians remaining on reservations between 1910 and 1920.

Chicago’s “A Century of Progress” Exposition, which opened to the public in 1933, marked the one hundredth year anniversary of the forced removal of native peoples from the region. President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act was a form of “ethnic cleansing” that required the native inhabitants to move west of the Mississippi River. The exposition included a replica of Fort Dearborn, established by the Americans in 1803 and implied that progress from Indian village to thriving city would not have been possible without the removal of the native peoples.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, gift of Francis Xavier Luca

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Little had changed in attitudes towards the Indian from the World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893 to the Century of Progress fair of 1933. Promotional literature from the later fair also used stereotypical images of Native Americans, with their visages pushed into the background by a triumphal Miss Columbia.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

The Wolfsonian–FIU, gift of Charles L. Marshall, Jr.

Ironically, few if any of the attendees of the fair ever learned that Native Americans played a major role in the construction of some of the most iconic skyscrapers ever erected in America’s greatest cities. Iroquois recruited from reservations in New York and Canada made up a large percentage of the iron-worker and riveter construction crews that helped erect the Empire State Building, Rockefeller Center, the Chrysler Building, and the Time Warner Building.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, gift of Edward E. Post

This post is dedicated to those very real Indians who, in spite of being reduced and relegated to reserves and subjected to assimilation programs, nevertheless actively and significantly contributed to the development of American society.

Historical Horrors for Halloween

•October 30, 2020 • Leave a Comment

As cases of Covid-19 spike in numerous states, it seems likely that more Americans will (or should) be wearing facial masks that will likely trump the disguises and makeup traditionally donned during the Halloween holiday.

In fact, in the wake of concerns over the spread of the pandemic, many parents have decided not to take their children “trick or treating” around the neighborhood and will instead host Halloween Zoom parties. To set the right mood, some companies have generously provided Zoom backgrounds that can be downloaded free of charge.

I have been working at The Wolfsonian for a good many decades, and remember some of the costumes worn by those attending the museum’s first Halloween party gala held just a little more than a week before our official opening to the public on November 11, 1995.

I had been assigned elevator duty at that time, and had been provided with a Bellboy uniform similar to that worn by Jerry Lewis in the 1960 film, The Bellboy. I can only hope that there was not too great a resemblance.

As the raging pandemic has precluded any such institutional party plans for the coming holiday, I thought that I might play Dr. Frankenstein myself and use this blog post to revivify some frightful specters and beasts from the past. Traditionally, Halloween costumes have more often been inspired by imaginary monsters created by the masters of horror literature. The Wolfsonian collection, does, in fact, include a few illustrated books and even a commercial poster that included Frankenstein, vampires, and others ghoulish figures.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection
The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

This post, however, will focus on some haunting images from the collection that were created by propaganda artists as critiques of all-too-real evil and despotic leaders. In the twentieth-century clash of nations, ideologies, and armies, war propaganda artists frequently associated enemy leaders with images of skeletons, skulls, grim reapers, devils, and demons. During the First World War, American propagandist Barron Collier created a series of broadsides in red, black and white. All of them depict Kaiser Wilhelm II as being in league with or even more ruthless than Satan.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Promised Gifts

French propagandists were slightly more subtle, accusing the Kaiser of being a sacrilegious and satanic monster, but transforming him visually into a brooding stone-faced gargoyle staring down from atop the Notre-Dame cathedral.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Francis Xavier Luca & Clara Helena Palacio Luca

Of course, German artists were just as intent on associating their enemies with demonic figures. Adolf Hengeler, for example, illustrated a seven volume portfolio of plates that included an illustration of an Englishman signing a pact with the Devil and another showing the Grim Reaper as the prime beneficiary.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Even though The Netherlands remained neutral during the First World War, outraged by the German invasion and occupation of Belgium the Dutch illustrator Louis Raemaeker became one of the most prolific and celebrated anti-war cartoonists. Many of his biting satires were widely distributed as editorial cartoons and helped shift sentiment against the Germans. Forced to flee his native land with a price on his head, Raemaeker was not deterred from continuing to vilify the German Emperor, as does this original illustration in our collection depicting the Kaiser as a creepy spider.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Promised Gift

As recollections of the horrors of the Great War had just begun to fade in the mid-1930s, Spain became the new battleground between the forces of Fascism and Nazism and Communism. The combatants on both sides waged a propaganda battle for the hearts and minds by deploying images of the enemy and their ideologies as deadly monsters.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection
The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection
The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Even as the Spanish Civil War came to an end in 1939, the National Socialists in Germany and the Soviet Socialists in Russia signed peace pacts that left many anti-fascists wondering whether there was much of a difference between the “CommuNazis.” In a plate titled, “Fellow Travelers,” Paul Frederick Berdanier, Sr. showed his disgust for the Fascists, Nazis, and Communists by picturing them as identical King Kong beasts taking their directions from Death.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

By the time the Second World War began in late 1939, war artists had become proficient at recycling tropes of giants, ogres, monsters, and skulls with the aim of picturing the enemy in the worst possible light. The Fascists and Nazis lampooned the British Empire by depicting John Bull as an ogre intent on crushing innocents underfoot and swallowing up the entire world.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

After breaking the peace pact with Stalin, Hitler’s propagandists and their Fascist allies in Italy resumed depicting the Communist enemy as beasts. One poster depicts Communism as a giant grasping hand intent on destroying Western civilization.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

After the United States entered the Second World War, the Russian-born American artist, Boris Artzybasheff also depicted the enemy as grotesque and frightful creatures . His illustrations lampooned Japanese militarists and made monsters of the Nazi aggressors.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Annella Brown

But perhaps the most powerful image projecting the evils of the Nazi leader and his impact comes from a poster titled “Guilty!.” Designed by Jürgen Freese and printed during the Nuremberg trials of the war criminals, the poster depicts a ghostly image of Adolf Hitler, revealed in an x-ray-like image to be a grinning skull.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Purchase

It is difficult, for me at least, to conjure a more frightening and ghoulish image for the Halloween holiday.

When Funding Art Was the Federal Response to Economic Crisis

•October 7, 2020 • 1 Comment

It seems only fitting that one of the first installations that will open to the public at The Wolfsonian–FIU in the wake of the Covid pandemic and the resultant economic distress will be an exhibition celebrating President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Federal One program. The germ of the exhibition grew out of a history course I taught at the university last spring in which five undergraduate students explored how FDR created the largest federally funded arts program in U.S. history. Not only did the Federal Arts, Writers’, Music, and Theatre Projects keep the nation’s cultural producers employed during the hardest of hard times; the programs also provoked a renaissance of American art and culture that helped to entertain and maintain the morale of depression-weary citizens.

This exhibition will come to fruition ten years after The Wolfsonian Library received a major gift of New Deal era books and ephemera amassed by Christopher Denoon.

Mr Denoon authored one of the most important books on posters produced under the auspices of the Federal Arts Project, Posters of the WPA (1987) and wrote the foreword to Posters for the People: Art of the WPA (2008), published on the occasion of the 75 anniversary of the New Deal.

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I flew out to meet with Mr. Denoon in late September 2010 and made arrangements there and then to help him pack up and ship his collection to our institution. Not only did his generous donation substantially augment our own vast collection of New Deal materials; it also inspired further gifts and acquisitions that make our holdings of New Deal art and propaganda among the finest in the nation.  

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Christopher Denoon
The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Francis Xavier Luca & Clara Helena Palacio Luca

The FIU undergraduate student curators putting together our latest exhibition made selections from the rare book and special collections library. Our own curators have supplemented these works with pieces from the objects collection, including ceramics and posters.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection
The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

One of the student curators, Claudia Mendoza, examined how Federal One made art accessible for children growing up during those lean and hungry days. Of the four arts-related projects, the Federal Art Project was the most ambitious and well-funded. Not only did the FAP provide financial support for mural and easel artists, ceramicists and sculptors, poster- and printmakers; the project also created hundreds of community art centers across the nation and funded art teachers and art education curricula in public schools.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

As budgets were tight and the Administration desirous of demonstrating their frugality, many of the projects utilized inexpensive materials and techniques. As scrap wood and surplus linoleum tiles were almost universally accessible even in the poorest communities, woodblock and linocut books and prints were encouraged and mimeographed reproduction over expensive printing presses and processes.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection
The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Christopher Denoon

While some schoolteachers utilized new plastic binders, or created simple decorated board portfolios to house student work, others made use of wood and wire to fashion cheap and creative bindings.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

In Pennsylvania, Federal Arts Project workers teamed up with Federal Writers’ Project workers to create an entire series of illustrated children’s books to educate the state’s schoolchildren. In this instance, the publication and printing of this series was farmed out to professional presses, as the federal government wanted to generate work for private industry.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gifts of Christopher Denoon

Two FIU students, Benjamin Messier and Kathleen Dowling worked together to select materials further documenting the work of the Federal Writers’ Project. In addition to publishing educational books for children, the FWP employed authors in a variety of publishing projects, the most ambitious being the American Guide series that covered every state in the union.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Intended to encourage domestic tourism, stimulate local pride, and document local lore and legends, the state and city guides also detailed the often complicated and controversial histories of immigrants, minorities, and social strife in those localities.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection
The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Another of the students, Giovanni Bombace focused on the Federal Music Project, designed to provide employment to musicians unable to support themselves during the Great Depression. FMP Director Nikolai Sokoloff, a former conductor of the Cleveland Symphony, also aspired to share his own passion for classical and other musical forms with the entire nation. The FMP supported orchestras, a capella and choral groups, jazz bands; encouraged public schools to incorporate music in their curricula; and employed many scores of musicians as music teachers. In addition to creating live music in public performances and concerts, the project also aimed to preserve the myriad music traditions of the nation, celebrating the diversity of folk and regional musical heritage.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection
The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Christopher Denoon

In addition to sponsoring free or subsidized musical concerts, the Federal Music Project also recorded and provided sound recordings of the same for free distribution to radio stations to help spread a love for classical music.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

The student curator noted that there was always a tension within the FMP between advocates of classical and “uplifting” musical experiences and those who championed more popular music appreciation.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Live theatre, vaudeville, and Broadway musicals experienced a catastrophic drop in audiences and revenue during the Great Depression with many theatre companies going bankrupt and laying off staff. Another FIU student curator, William Sam, researched and selected materials to reflect the fact that the Federal Theatre Project rehired thousands of unemployed theatre workers and reopened venues, offering free or at-cost productions.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Between 1935 and 1939, the FTP was responsible for employing 13,000 professional theatre workers, producing 64,000 performances, and reaching an audience of 15,000,000 people.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Christopher Denoon

The economic depression combined with racist hiring practices of the Jim Crow era ensured that half of the 350,000 African Americans living in New York City were thrust into the ranks of the unemployed. FTP Director Hallie Flanagan established a Negro unit within the Federal Theatre Project, becoming within a few weeks the largest single employer in Harlem. Harnessing the talents of producer John Houseman and director Orson Welles, the Negro Theatre of New York staged an innovative and highly acclaimed adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth set in Haiti during its tumultuous revolution.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Promised Gift

Voodoo Macbeth played to sold out audiences for ten weeks before touring the country. It also launched the career of Canada Lee, who also played the lead in another FTP production, Haiti, where he starred as the slave-turned-emperor, Henri Christophe.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Christopher Denoon

In staging “Living Newspaper” productions modeled on revolutionary Soviet theatre, and by not shying away from controversial subject matter, the FTP incurred the wrath of conservative congressional opponents. While socially-conscious and left-leaning artists rallied to its cause, the FTP was the first of the art project defunded by Congress in 1939.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Be sure to visit this installation at The Wolfsonian museum once we welcome the public back in new spaces designed for physical distancing.

It Must Not Happen Here

•August 28, 2020 • 4 Comments

While being confined to my condominium by COVID-19 has felt a bit like being placed under house arrest—not that I personally have had any experience along those lines—it has had some unanticipated benefits. Having no outside distractions or entertainment these past months has allowed me to focus in my off hours on completing a novel begun in the wake of the November 2016 presidential election. Inspired by Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here (1935), a novel about a fascist take-over of America,I wrote my own satirical alternative history of depression-era America with some obvious parallels to present day events. Having completed my final revisions, I am currently shopping it out to some publishing houses.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress, public domain, photoshopped by the author

The plot of It Did Happen Here turns on a true event—a failed assassination attempt against President-Elect Franklin Delano Roosevelt here in Miami. By changing the trajectory of the bullet to find its intended target, I tried to re-imagine Depression-era America in the absence of FDR’ New Deal, when there were plenty of proto-fascist cockroaches on the scene.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Francis Xavier Luca & Clara Helena Palacio Luca

In this age of “alternative facts,” “fake news,” and rampant internet conspiracies, I wanted to challenge my readers to play detective and to wrestle with who and what were real, and where they should draw the line between fact, interpretation, and just plain fabrication. While I decided to focus primarily on actual historical individuals, I chose to follow Lewis’ lead and to alter their names and superficially mask their true identities behind satirical pseudonyms. This was done not so much to protect the innocent (or guilty), or even to protect myself from defamation suits from potentially litigious heirs—the dead rarely coming back from the grave to complain about historians’ interpretations and mischaracterizations. Some names came to me courtesy of the hilarious misnomers that arrived on actual student papers I graded over the years. Most, however, were deliberately contrived to suggest some parallels between historical actors of the past, and present-day personages behaving (or misbehaving) in a similar manner.  

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Years spent working at The Wolfsonian was another important impetus to this project, as the collection introduced me to several historical personages included in my book, particularly the artists Hugo Gellert and Lynd Ward.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

The museum’s collection provided me with the visual language so critical for this project. With the encouragement of the founder and kind permission of the last two directors of the institution, I will be including a generous sprinkling of images from the collection to reanimate and revivify and help bring the distant world of the 1930s back to life, if in a distorted and Dr. Frankenstein style.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Like Lewis’ popular novel and its dramatic adaptation for the Federal Theatre Project stage, I hope that my own satire will remind Americans to be vigilant in the defense of our Constitution, democratic institutions, free and fair elections, and ensuring that it does not happen here.

Charles Lindbergh: From Distinguished Flying Cross to the Dog House

•May 20, 2020 • Leave a Comment

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf

In the early morning hours of May 20, 1927, a twenty-five year-old American air mail carrier piloted his single-engine airplane on a solo flight across the Atlantic that would catapult his name (and that of his plane) into history. Some 33½ hours and 3,600 miles later, an exhausted Charles Lindbergh landed his Spirit of St. Louis on an airstrip outside of Paris, where he was pulled from the cockpit and carried aloft on the shoulders of a crowd of 150,000 spectators. The French President awarded Lindbergh the Légion d’honneur, and upon his return to the United States (via a naval cruiser), U.S. President Calvin Coolidge bestowed the Distinguished Flying Cross on the world’s most famous airman. Flying back to New York City from the nation’s capital, Lindbergh was greeted by the mayor and governor and treated to a ticker-tape parade and ceremonies attended by 200,000 well-wishers, with crowds of as many as four million straining to catch a glimpse of the flier.

In the aftermath of the flight, the Post Office issued a special stamp and printed special airmail envelopes commemorating his historic flights.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Collection

Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight so fired the imagination of the public that it was memorialized in everything from crystal tableware to tapestries to sheet music.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Francis Xavier Luca & Clara Helena Palacio Luca

An autobiographical book deal and lucrative contracts followed, so that the shy aviator soon became wealthy as well as an internationally recognized celebrity.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Finlay Matheson

But fame and fortune can sometimes bring unforeseen consequences. In March 1932, Charles and Anne Lindbergh’s firstborn infant son was abducted from their mansion in the dead of night, the kidnapper leaving a note demanding $50,000 in Charles, Jr.’s crib. The event captured the attention of the nation as the sensationalist press led with headlines calling it the “Crime of the Century” and even pulp magazines exploited the notorious crime.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Francis Xavier Luca & Clara Helena Palacio Luca

Though the Lindberghs paid the ransom, the lifeless body of their child was discovered in the woods not far from their home. The arrest and trial of the presumed kidnapper and killer a couple of years later created a circus-like atmosphere, so that once again the shy aviator and his wife found themselves dogged by reporters, newshounds, and paparazzi, and the recipients of a barrage of letters from sympathetic and psychotic strangers. Seeking refuge from media-mad America, the Lindberghs moved to Europe for a few years in the late 1930s. In 1936, Charles and his wife visited Nazi Germany at the invitation of an American attaché stationed in Berlin who was eager for Lindbergh’s assessment of the strength of Germany’s Luftwaffe. The couple attended the Berlin Summer Olympic games as the special guests of Adolf Hitler’s Air Marshall, Hermann Göring.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Nicholas Blaga

Afterwards Charles was provided with a tour of Germany’s civil and military airplane production lines and even allowed to pilot one of their bombers. Lindbergh was duped into believing the greatly inflated factory production statistics he was fed and believed that Nazi Germany had or would soon achieve air supremacy sufficient to defeat the combined air forces of the rest of Europe. Given his own white supremacist and anti-Semitic views, Charles Lindbergh seriously contemplated taking up residence in the German capital of this revived and orderly Reich. He was dissuaded from doing so by the horrors of Kristallnacht, when Nazi thugs shattered the windows of 7,500 Jewish-owned businesses and burned 267 synagogues, and afterwards deported Jews to concentration camps.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Convinced that another European war was imminent, Lindbergh moved back to the United States in 1939 and, uncharacteristically, actively sought out the press and used his celebrity status to advocate for military aviation production and war readiness at home. It was imperative, he told the press, that America “build a wall of race and arms” to defend itself against her enemies. When the European war erupted, Lindbergh opposed any entangling alliances with the “doomed” nations of Europe, including Great Britain, and even publicly resigned his commission in the U.S. Army Air Forces after President Roosevelt rebuked him. In September 1941, Lindbergh was making public speeches for the America First Committee, claiming that Britain, the Jews, and the Roosevelt Administration were determined to draw the nation into a war for which it was woefully unprepared. The Wolfsonian Library holds a copy of a children’s propaganda book from the period, The Ordeal of Oliver Airedale, or To the Dogs and Back, which imagines a civilization of dogs threatened by the rise of a mustachioed hound named Der Pootsch (Hitler).

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Francis Xavier Luca & Clara Helena Palacio Luca

The book’s hero, an airedale loosely modeled on President Franklin Roosevelt, recognizes the threat posed by the hound and his henchmen, but is hampered by isolationists and pacifists and most especially by the speeches made by a Skye Terrier (Lindbergh) who sympathized with the cause of Der Pootsch.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Francis Xavier Luca & Clara Helena Palacio Luca

Much like the Skye Terrier in the children’s story, Lindbergh’s anti-interventionist and anti-Semitic statements in the press transformed him from the darling of the press and landed him in the doghouse.

Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Lindbergh quickly shifted gears and requested to be recommissioned. Under White House orders, that request was denied, and so Lindbergh served instead as a consultant for Ford and United Aircraft where he helped resolve early bomber production line issues. In 1944, Lindbergh spent six months in the Pacific Theater and, though technically a civilian, flew in 50 combat bombing missions against the Japanese. While his war service helped remove some of the tarnish from his name, he continues to be a controversial figure.
In an extremely well-written alternative history written by Philip Roth, The Plot Against America, the author imagines a very different fate for the United States had Charles Lindbergh been elected president in 1940. HBO has recently aired a dramatic limited series version of the novel.