Love to Hear Percussion

•May 8, 2020 • Leave a Comment

Today’s blog post comes to you courtesy of Alexandra O’Neale, Membership + Events Manager at The Wolfsonian–FIU in collaboration with Chief Librarian Francis Luca.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Purchase

The COVID-19 pandemic and the isolation it has imposed on all of us, has also provided us with time to listen to music as we work remotely by computer. Alexandra O’Neale has spent some of that time listening to and reflecting on the history and influence of Afro-Cuban jazz. Here is her report:

Lana Del Rey. Rihanna. John Legend.
If you love music—you’re human, aren’t you?!—right now you might be spending more time than normal with these familiar voices. I’ve been thinking a lot about music’s role in our lives as artists like Thundercat, Fiona Apple, and Adele provide the soundtrack to my work-from-home experience. We talk about music as a comfort, an escape, a means of release, or a source of energy, phraseology that is near-spiritual and ascribes a sort of magical power to music. Songs can resonate in deeply personal ways (i.e. mixtapes), but they can also connect people across cultures, generations, classes, and time (Beyoncé is close to a religion, after all).
But even when I’m lost in the moment, jamming out to my favorite singers or bands, I’m struck by contemporary music’s historical roots. I’m sure that part of that comes from my work at The Wolf, a museum that focuses in on the many hidden ways the past influences the present, a theme we’ve teased out specifically through the lens of music in several recent programs like The Wolf on Wax. Through those events, I became more acquainted with the institution’s intriguing music holdings, which include substantial collections of sheet music, phonographs, and even vintage records. The artwork shown throughout this post represents one of our strengths, modernist album covers, which have been popping into my mind lately as a sort of visual backdrop for my latest auditory obsession: Afro-Cuban jazz.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Clues about the genre’s lasting power have been bubbling up in my listening sessions. Certain rhythms arise again and again in today’s Top 40, but it took me a while to recognize them as echoes of old-school hits. The synergies weren’t necessarily hidden, but they were steadily beating just below my perception level, like a bassline you at first don’t notice but then can’t unhear. Armed with earworms and melodies, I decided to tease out how it all relates—cue my evidence board and red thread!

One of the earliest and most popular forms of Latin jazz, Afro-Cuban jazz is a unique blend of clave-based rhythms and harmonies that reflect Cuba’s diverse and vibrant history. Before this genre was banging on the walls of famous clubs during the height of New York’s jazz scene (the 1920s–40s), its origins trace back to the Atlantic slave trade and sugar plantations in the Caribbean, Louisiana, and Brazil.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Plantations in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) produced 40% of the world’s sugar before the slaves rose up in the first successful slave revolt in the Western Hemisphere.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Maria T. Temkin

In the wake of the Haitian Revolution, thousands of French colonists, slaves, and free people of color fled the bloodshed and chaos, seeking refuge and opportunity especially in eastern Cuba and Louisiana, where sugarcane production would eventually rise and eclipse that of Haiti.

Farm Security Administration photo from Louisiana: A Guide to the State (1943)

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Collection

The slave trade continued to bring slaves to Cuban shores long after it ceased adding slaves to the North American mainland, creating a surge of people of African heritage on the island. Slave masters in the United States and Cuba generally held different views about the wisdom of permitting slaves to play and create music; in most U.S. territories, drumming was prohibited for fear that slaves might use drumbeats to transmit plans and messages of uprisings.

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

Cuban slaves, on the other hand, were permitted to play drums and the clave, a hardwood percussion instrument which was used to produce a five-beat pattern that later became the structural foundation of Afro-Cuban jazz. Drawing from the slaves’ strong connection to African drumming traditions and polyrhythmic roots, Cuban musicians layered in this influence with Spanish music to create this entirely new musical genre.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Collection

In the 20th century, musicians from the ports of Havana and New Orleans ferried back and forth between the two cities to perform, resulting in the sharing and blending of musical influences. Jelly Roll Morton, an American jazz pianist from New Orleans, acknowledged the contributions Cuban musicians had made to the city’s sound when he referred to habanera rhythms as “Spanish Tinge,” a component vital to “real good jazz.” He would later incorporate it into some of his own songs, for example “New Orleans Blues” and “The Crave.”

But most music historians trace the true birth of Afro-Cuban jazz to trumpeter Mario Bauzá. Bauzá would play an influential role in bringing Cuban music to the New York jazz scene, and he was the first to blend jazz with clave in his 1943 hit “Tanga,” largely considered the first Afro-Cuban jazz song.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Promised gift of Vicki Gold Levi

While he was a musical director for drummer and band leader Chick Webb, Bauzá met bepop pioneer Dizzy Gillespie and introduced him to Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo, creating a chain of relationships and stylistic influence that forever changed the landscape of Latin jazz.


Pozo and Gillespie co-wrote several famous Latin jazz numbers, such as “Manteca” and “Tin Tin Deo.”

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Promised gifts of Vicki Gold Levi

Bauzá’s brother-in-law, Machito, would also help lay down the groundwork for the genre through his Latin jazz band, the Afro-Cubans, who often collaborated with jazz greats (Charlie Parker, Buddy Rich) and were known for their blend of Cuban melodies with American swing influence. The band’s popularity increased dramatically in the 1950s, when there was a frenzy for mambo in the U.S.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Promised gifts of Vicki Gold Levi

Machito continued to perform with the band which would be known for their blend of Cuban melodies with American swing influence.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Promised gift of Vicki Gold Levi

The band’s popularity increased dramatically in the 1950s as mambo became the most popular dance craze in the U.S.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Promised gift of Vicki Gold Levi

The genre took off from there. From New York to Miami, Americans danced to Afro-Cuban jazz and mambo at clubs and flocked to record stores to buy up sound recordings for home entertainment.

I mentioned the backbone of Afro-Cuban jazz, the clave. The most favored clave rhythm is the son clave, a 3-2 or 2-3 pattern. While the clave was at the center of mid-century genres like the mambo, rumba, and salsa, its beat would continue to pop up as music evolved. In 1955, blues guitarist and singer Bo Diddley’s self-titled song used the son clave 3-2 rhythm. We also see this crossover in The Beatles’ 1964 hit “And I Love Her,” with Ringo swapping the drums for bongos and claves.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Purchase

Another frequent clave rhythm in Cuban music is the tresillo, a Spanish word meaning “triplet,” since three of the same notes are successively played in the timespan normally occupied by two. We also continue to hear clave rhythm in music with island origins, such as dancehall and reggaeton, before it makes its way into the spectrum of contemporary pop, from dance to R&B. Listen to Sia’s “Cheap Thrills,” Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You,” Drake’s “Passionfruit,” and even Taylor Swift’s “Delicate“—notice the triplet notes? The tresillo is so prominent in music today because it lends itself well for layering in a variety of instruments. Its effective rhythm makes it a strong choice for pop artists (who tend toward simple, consistent, melodic beats) and has led to a new wave of clave-based bops that constantly top the Billboard charts.

Here in Miami, Americans danced to Afro-Cuban jazz and mambo at clubs and flocked to record stores to buy up sound recordings for home entertainment. It’s quite a bit easier to enjoy music at will today, of course—although there are plenty of venues in our backyard that continue to be hotspots for live performances. But while we wait for places like Ball & Chain, Lagniappe, and Le Chat Noir to reopen, finding the legacy of early Afro-Cuban jazz is as easy as turning on the radio or turning up the volume on Spotify.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

My own reflections on thinking about this splendid blend of African American and Afro-Cuban musical traditions was that it was only made possible through the pre-1959 ease of travel between the North American mainland and the island nation. Not only did musicians from the United States and Cuba regularly shuttle back and forth between Havana, New Orleans, Miami, and New York, influencing each other directly, but American tourists visiting the most popular of honeymoon and vacation spots also returned stateside with a new-found love for the exotic musical traditions of Cuban entertainers. While Americans packed the Palladium and a host of other dance hall venues in cities across the nation to listen and dance to live Afro-Cuban jazz and mambo, they also flocked to the record stores to buy up sound recordings for home entertainment.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Promised gift of Vicki Gold Levi

As we are all currently limited to “in-house” musical experiences, I can only hope that some of you might be inspired by the musical selections included in this post to listen to some of the music and artists represented to enjoy in your own home while social distancing. Perhaps the more adventurous of you might even try to organize an Afro-Cuban jazz dance party via Zoom.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Collectio

Some Much Needed Theatrical Distraction

•March 28, 2020 • 1 Comment


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Waking up this morning a bit disoriented, it wasn’t until I looked at my phone that I realized what day of the week it is. Routine morning workweek rituals such as shaving, showering, wolfing down breakfast, and bicycling to work having broken down, I could appreciate how unemployed persons during the Great Depression could fall into psychological malaise as one day blurred into the next.

This past Monday evening marked the second time my Florida International University America & Movies: The Great Depression and New Deal Era in Film and History class convened remotely in the wake of the corona pandemic. Instead of meeting in person, discussing the class topics and assigned class readings, and screening and analyzing the films together as a group, we have been talking, chatting, and presenting oral reports via Zoom. Fortunately, the film we were preparing to discuss, Stand Up and Cheer (1934) was available in its entirety online via YouTube. Following our discussions, the students and I watched it “together” as a YouTube Party before reconvening to deconstruct, analyze, and historically contextualize the film via a second Zoom appointment. In the movie, Broadway’s premiere director, Laurence Cromwell, is asked by the president to head a new cabinet position. As the director of a new Department of Amusement, he has been enlisted to help lift Americans’ spirits and literally laugh away the Great Depression. It seemed especially relevant today given the social distancing and isolation associated with the coronavirus pandemic.


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

The film foreshadowed the creation of the Federal Theatre Project and some of the problems that program would face from critics among the political opposition, some of whom would ridicule government-funded public entertainment as a frivolous waste of taxpayer money while others would demonized it as political propaganda. The film’s central theme of keeping culture and morale alive in tough economic times seemed to resonate with some of the challenges posed by the Covid 19 epidemic as Broadway’s theatres have shut down temporarily, with some productions being made available for home viewing via the internet.

Photo courtesy of the New York Post

In the “roaring twenties,” Broadway musicals and theatrical productions had continued to thrive even as live entertainment in general was reeling from the competition provided by an emerging cinema industry.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

After the Crash and the onset of the Great Depression, however, theatre companies struggled to survive the economic crisis. As unemployment soared, those Americans lucky enough to be working tightened their belts and saved their money for necessities. Such parsimony, however, threatened to relegate the country to social and cultural as well as economic stagnation. Only Hollywood appeared to be somewhat immune from the financial crisis as children and adult audiences could lay down “two bits” to watch a double-feature and find temporary escape from their present cares and woes. Stand Up and Cheer is typical of a genre of films borrowing and combining elements of the Broadway musical and dance spectacular with vaudeville humor,  romance, and melodrama.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Live theatre had a difficult time competing with cinema during the Depression. Given the costs of having to pay live actors, singers, dancers, and musicians for each performance, as well as the directors, set and costume designers, stagehands, and other essential (and unionized) technicians working behind the scenes, commercial theatre generally charged between four to eight times the price of a movie ticket. Unsurprisingly, many theatrical production companies went bankrupt, with many large venues going dark and closing their doors. Consequently, many theatrical performers and support staff were pushed into the ever-growing ranks of the unemployed. In the late 1920s, Broadway alone had employed 25,000 theatre workers; by 1933, only 4,000 remained employed in the profession. Into that void stepped Harry Hopkins, director of the Works Progress Administration, and the woman he chose to head the Federal Theatre Project, Hallie Flanagan. In May 1935, Hopkins wryly confessed to her that: “I don’t know why I still hang on to the idea that unemployed actors get just as hungry as anybody else.”

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Within a year of its creation, the Federal Theatre Project was employing approximately 13,000 persons.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, gift of Christopher DeNoon

By the end of its four year existence, the FTP had been responsible for staging 1,200 live theatrical productions which played for free or at minimal cost to an audience of 30,000,000. The productions had been staged in more than 200 rented theaters nationwide, as well as performed in parks, school auditoriums, hospitals, churches, orphanages, and even the CCC camps scattered across the countryside. All of the actors, singers, dancers, and stagehands had been paid and all of these productions realized with a budget of $46 million dollars.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Loan

Much like the Broadway producer featured in Stand Up and Cheer, Hallie Flanagan proved to be an energetic organizer of the projects that consumed nearly her entire waking day. As head of the FTP, Flanagan tirelessly oversaw a wide variety of live theatre, ranging from circuses to marionette puppet shows, from serious tragedies to hilarious comedies, from Shakespearean drama to informative contemporary “living newspaper” productions.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, gifts of Christopher DeNoon

Whereas the Director of the Department of Amusements in the film was attacked by oligarchs profiting from depression conditions and their political lackeys, his real life counterpart’s first obstacles were members of the theatrical community itself. Theatrical unions were understandably concerned about the lower wages paid by the government relief program, though given that there were nearly 2,000 unemployed stagehands in New York City alone, pragmatism prevailed. Hallie was also able to placate and win over some of the theater owners; some had feared that their own productions would be undercut by taxpayer-funded projects; others that the FTP bureaucracy might bring the entire theatrical industry in disrepute by producing amateurish entertainment employing second-rate actors on relief. But Flanagan’s goal of staging “free, adult, and uncensored” theatre would be put to the test almost immediately with the FTP’s very first New York City production.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Flanagan was working with the famous playwright, Elmer Rice on a living newspaper production drawn straight from the headlines of the dailies. She decided they should tackle the growing international crisis as Italian Fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, sparred with Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie and prepared to invade the last independent state in Africa. In 1926, Flanagan had received a Guggenheim fellowship grant that allowed her to travel to England, Europe, and the Soviet Union to “acquire firsthand knowledge of the theatres of the world.” Her three-months in Russia proved to be most influential as she attended Stanislavski’s Moscow Art Theatre and imbibed the revolutionary spirit of the new workers’ theatres “as a place where author, actor and spectator are magically fused.” She had been most impressed by the living newspaper concept she had seen in Germany and Russia, a cabaret-style presentation of current events used by the Communists as an educational/propaganda vehicle. As Director of the FTP, Flanagan had encouraged Rice to adopt the form to inform the public about the developing Ethiopian crisis. When word of the subject matter of this federally sponsored production reached the ears of certain bureaucrats in the State Department, however, the director was told to cease and desist production of Ethiopia the day before its scheduled opening. As a protest against censorship, Rice tendered his resignation, but not before inviting the press to see the last dress rehearsal; the aborted production generally garnered favorable critical mention.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, purchase

If Ethiopia tested the bounds of censorship and lost, the living newspaper concept lived on and was deployed to deal with a number of contemporary domestic issues. Typical of Flanagan’s approach, no contemporary topic or issue was taboo or off-limits, whether dealing with syphilis or slums.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Loan

The Wolfsonian–FIU, gift of Bettijune Kruse

If by concentrating on domestic issues, Flanagan’s living newspaper productions placated concerned State Department bureaucrats, the plays continued to fire the ire of the political opponents of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, who charged that they constituted tax-payer funded, Democratic propaganda. Another living newspaper production titled, Power, delved into the controversial topic of the Tennessee Valley Authority and public versus private ownership of hydroelectric utilities. After seeing the production, Harry Hopkins congratulated Hallie, telling her:

…you will take a lot of criticism on this play. People will say it’s propaganda. Well, I say what of it? It’s propaganda to educate the consumer who’s paying for power. It’s about time someone had some propaganda for him. The big power companies have spent millions on propaganda for the utilities. It’s about time the consumer had a mouthpiece. I say more plays like Power and more power on you.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, gift of Marc Dessauce

If the Federal Theatre Project’s living newspaper productions irritated some Republican critics of the New Deal in Congress, the director’s enlightened racial policies absolutely incensed conservative “Dixiecrats” within the Democratic Party causing some to defect and join the opposition. Given that 50% of the 350,000 African Americans living in New York City had been thrown out of work, Hallie Flanagan established a Negro unit within the FTP, 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 adaption of Shakespeare’s Macbeth set in Haiti during its tumultuous revolution.

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

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Loan

The aptly nicknamed Voodoo Macbeth production featured costumes designed by Nat Karson and executed in the Federal Theatre Project’s own workshop, here rendered for lithography by Albert Carman.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, gift of Christopher DeNoon

As the project’s national director, Hallie Flanagan insisted that black performers be paid the same rate as white performers and mandated that all audiences for the federally funded shows be integrated. When some theaters refused to seat blacks and whites together, she cancelled performances; when a few racist white project managers acted in a prejudicial manner, they were fired or removed from their positions. Such progressive action on her part ensured that her Federal Theatre Project was the first New Deal program targeted, aggressively attacked, and defunded in Congress.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

In closing, I would like to wish all of my readers good health and good humor. If any of you decide to watch Stand Up & Cheer, be forewarned that while entertaining and very funny at times, it is also very much a product of its times, and would doubtlessly have failed to meet Hallie Flanagan’s high standards in its patronizing attitudes towards women and its demeaning depictions of African Americans. 

Charles Lindbergh: From Distinguished Flying Cross to the Dog House

•May 20, 2020 • Leave a Comment


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.

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.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

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.

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.

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.

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.

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).

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.

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.

Celebrating Earth Day 2020, COVID-19 Style

•April 16, 2020 • 1 Comment

Contemplating the approach of the fiftieth anniversary of Earth Day this month, I could not help but be struck by a number of ironies. The first is that the COVID-19 pandemic which has forced the temporarily closure of businesses and factories, which has kept hundreds of millions of cars off the streets and highways, and which has forced much of the human population into isolation indoors has probably done more to reduce pollution and the greenhouse gases posing yet another existential threat to human civilization. But in another ironic twist, though the air quality is unquestionably cleaner and the environment more inviting, most everyone is stuck indoors under a “shelter-in-place” directive designed to flatten the curve of the corona virus pandemic so that we cannot enjoy a stroll on the near empty streets. I do, at least, have the compensating view from the balcony of my Miami Beach condominium which has always offered an enticing scene of natural beauty, though there is nothing, of course, natural about that vista.


That view is dominated by a man-made canal dredged by John S. Collins, a New Jersey Quaker, planter, and South Florida transplant who transformed the barrier island from a mangrove swamp infested with crocodiles, rattlesnakes, scorpions, and swarms of blood-sucking mosquitoes into agriculturally productive farmland.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

The canal behind by condominium was not designed to create a beautiful backdrop or to provide recreation for  kayakers, paddle boarders, and boating enthusiasts, but rather to dredge up land for fill and to facilitate moving barges of produce from field to market.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Subsequent land developers, like the automotive-parts millionaire Carl Fisher, saw Miami Beach’s future in terms of real estate rather than farm produce. In the late teens and twenties, he and other developers sought to transform the island into a winter playground, building mansions and grand hotels catering to the well-to-do.



The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

It was Fisher who came up with the idea of using images of young women in swimsuits to encouraging winter-weary Northerners to spend the season at one of his hotels.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

And that basic formula was worked for more than a century. But today, the beaches are closed, the Spring Breakers told to go home, and the streets of the city virtually deserted but for the occasional bicyclists, stroller-pushers, and dog walkers like my wife and myself. During our daily and nightly walks, I am struck by the clarity of the air and the quiet, broken only by bird song, cricket concerts, and the croaking of frogs as the human population remains shuttered indoors.

It feels odd to be celebrating Earth Day indoors, or, for that matter, at all as a natural pandemic is scything its way across the globe, but this is where we are. The first Earth Day, held on April 22nd, 1970, has been described on an official website as the “birth of the modern environmental movement.” As someone who grew up in that decade, celebrated Earth Day in school, and had my own views shaped by the ecology movement, I recognize the importance of marking the event, and some of the important legislation that followed. But as a historian, I am also wary of focusing so narrowly on a single historical marker. Our own attitudes towards nature have significantly evolved even over the last fifty years with conflicts between the spiritual and scientific, and climate change scientists and deniers. Earlier generations of Americans were also very much shaped by contact with the natural world in battles between pragmatic, “wise-use” conservationists and spiritual-minded preservationists.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

For me, it is the presidencies of the two Roosevelts, Theodore and Franklin, that mark the true beginnings of modern environmental consciousness in America. It was Teddy Roosevelt who first brought environmental issues to the forefront, first by promoting the conservation movement to ensure the “efficient” use of natural resources, and then by dramatically expanding the number and size of the country’s national parks and forests.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Teddy Roosevelt convinced Congress to create the U.S. Forest Service and appointed Gifford Pinchot, a “wise use” conservationist, to head the new department in 1905. After graduating from Yale, Gifford Pinchot’s first professional experience in forestry came in 1892, when he was hired to manage the forests of the Vanderbilt family’s Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina. That same year Pinchot met and fell under the spell of naturalist and Sierra Club founder, John Muir, who would become first his mentor and then his bitter adversary in the contest between forestry preservationists and conservationists. After embarking on a National Forest Commission tour of the West in 1896, Pinchot became a forest agent and later head of the Division of Forestry within the Department of Interior. Pinchot advocated a pragmatic management of forest reserves and natural “resources” guided by a “conservation ethic,” in opposition to his former mentor, John Muir, who thought of “wilderness” and nature in more spiritually-affirming terms and insisted on its preservation rather than exploitation.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

During the Great Depression, unemployment hit record heights, only recently surpassed as COVID-19 has forced a temporary shutdown of virtually all non-essential industries. Back then, the nation was still grappling environmentally with the contest between conservationists and preservationists when Teddy’s distant cousin, Franklin Roosevelt was inaugurated president in March 1933. Not only was the national economy in a shambles, but the southern states were experiencing drought and significant soil erosion and degradation brought on and made worse by many decades of poor farming practices, strip-mining and clear-cutting by short-sighted mining and logging companies, and catastrophic flooding by the Tennessee River.


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

Within months of taking office, President Roosevelt created the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Soil Erosion Service with the goal of addressing some of these serious environmental concerns.


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

The CCC provided immediate employment for 250,000 young men, many of whom had dropped out of school, left home, hitched and ridden the rails to the big cities, and fallen into delinquency after a fruitless search for work.



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

FDR had been a long-time supporter of the Boy Scouts before being elected president and believed that sending these “street kids” to do forestry work in the natural settings of state and national parks and forests would be good for rebuilding their malnourished bodies and spirits.




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

The CCC provided life-saving employment and vocational training and experience to millions of enrollees over the course of its nine-year existence.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

The work these young men did in planting billions of trees, fighting forest fires, engaging in pest and flood control activities, blazing scenic trails, and building roads, bridges, and other park infrastructure not only made the nation’s parks and forests more economically and environmentally sustainable, but also more attractive to domestic tourists.



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

Although many books have been written about the direct impact that Roosevelt’s “Tree Army” had in restoring, developing, and revitalizing our natural resources, few have considered the long-term potential effects this work experience had on the enrollees. Several million young men had been taken from urban centers, trucked out to, housed, trained, and put to work in our parks and forests; one can only assume that many had gained a working knowledge and new sense of appreciation of nature they would carry home with them and instill in their own children.


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

Roosevelt also signed into law the bill that created the Soil Conservation Service (or SCS) in 1935 as severe drought and dust storms rolled across the southern Great Plains. This natural and man-made ecological disaster robbed millions of acres of farmland of its topsoil, sent airborne in black blizzards that suffocated cattle and blanketed farmlands in dust.



The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Not unlike today, the farming families of the Great Plains were often confined inside their homes for days, weeks, and occasionally even months, without even the benefit of a beautiful vista outside their windows. As the dust seeped in through every crack and crevice of their window sills, the black blizzards forced even those indoors to wear wet cloths and bandanas over their faces to ward off choking on fine dust particles that sickened and killed thousands of young and old with dust pneumonia.


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

Folk singer Woody Guthrie wrote and performed songs memorializing the plight of those suffering through those dark days. One such song, Dust Pneumonia Blues,  remains awfully relevant considering the respiratory COVID-19 threatens its victims with today.

FDR’s CCC and SCS employees aimed to reverse the damage of the dusters and desertification where possible by planting a strain of Sudanese grass and sorghum as ground cover, trees as windbreaks, and introducing farmers to contour plowing.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, gifts made by Francis Xavier Luca & Clara Helena Palacio Luca


The Wolfsonian–FIU, gift made by Francis X. Luca in memory of James Findlay (1943-2010), librarian, mentor, and New Deal aficionado

Not unlike the emergency relief package recently passed by Congress to help businesses and individuals hit by the corona pandemic, the Roosevelt Administration did what it could for those farmers living in or forced to leave dust-stricken areas determined to be beyond rehabilitation, like the Joad family of John Steinbeck’s famous novel, The Grapes of Wrath. President Roosevelt’s Resettlement Administration provided some with direct relief and others with assistance while they migrated to more fruitful areas of the country.



The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Even as the Roosevelt Administration wrestled with the serious ecological problems of the era, the National Park Service did its part to boost the economy through domestic tourism by encouraging Americans to vacation in the nation’s public parks. Although railroad interests, Progressive politicians like Teddy Roosevelt, and promoters of 100% Americanization also pushed a “See America First” campaign designed to encourage foreigners and immigrants to experience the essence, and citizens to rekindle their sense of patriotism, under the Franklin Roosevelt Administration, artists created posters for the National Park Service aimed at ramping up visitation.


My final thoughts while being stuck inside on this bright and beautiful day because of corona virus is that Nature appears to be getting the last laugh on humanity during this pandemic. While human-beings have polluted the skies, waters, and soil, and have contributed to the existential threat of climate change and sea level rise, it is somehow reassuring to see none of the usual automobile congestion choking the streets and filling the skies with smog. Perhaps we can enjoy this brief respite from the “rat race” and appreciate the solitude imposed by COVID-19 to take a leisurely walk taking in the natural and cultivated beauty of our surroundings—maintaining, of course, a safe distance from others doing the same.

A Tribute to the Red Cross and Heroic Nurses on the COVID-19 Front Lines

•April 7, 2020 • 3 Comments

Under shelter at home directives and working remotely from my condominium for what feels like months—(though it has only been weeks)—I’ve been obsessing on the COVID-19 virus that has transformed the vibrant tourist mecca of Miami Beach into a virtual ghost town. As a historian, I am always looking for parallels in history that help contextualize our present crises. As yesterday marked the official anniversary of the U.S. House of Representatives vote endorsing President Woodrow Wilson and the Senate’s declaration of war against Germany in 1917, my mind turned to the impact of the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 in bringing an end to that bloody conflict.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Purchase

American history books frequently assert that U.S. military intervention in the war proved decisive to the defeat and capitulation of Germany, while often completely ignoring another important and consequential factor. Ironically, it was the outbreak of the so-called Spanish influenza pandemic that made the combatants on both sides of the trenches too sick to continue killing each other, and one of the reasons the German High Command was compelled to call for an armistice.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Purchase

According to the most conservative tallies of the U.S. War Department, influenza sickened 26% of the Army—(more than one million men)—and killed nearly 30,000 before they even completed the crossing to France.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

While 53,402 American troops were reported to have died in combat, nearly 45,000 of the American Expeditionary Forces and 5,027 naval personnel succumbed to influenza and related pneumonia by the end of 1918. Another 106,000 of 600,000 American military personnel required hospitalization and were rendered temporarily unfit for combat duty. Other estimates suggest that influenza and pneumonia may have killed more American soldiers and sailors than died on the field of battle.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Henry S. Hacker

While much is often made—(and rightly so)—of the heroism of our troops, in light of the terrifying invisible enemy of influenza in 1918 and Corona virus in 2020, I thought that I would include some images that pay tribute to the unsung heroines working under the most dangerous of circumstances: the Red Cross nurses who tended the sick and dying.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Henry S. Hacker

These heroines, like their medical professionals today combating COVID-19 under difficult and dangerous circumstances, are deserving of our profound gratitude.


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

One of the reasons so few persons are aware of the impact of the horrendous disease in bringing the World War to an end was the fact that military censors of the belligerent nations made sure that newspapers minimized the effects of the epidemic on the battlefield and home front so as not to depress morale and embolden the enemy. The reason the pandemic was most often referred to as the “Spanish flu,” was that Spain, as a neutral country, was free to publish accounts of the sickness and to report the staggeringly high death tolls within her borders. While the First World War was responsible for the deaths of some 20 million combatants and civilians by 1918, the influenza pandemic is estimated to have sickened 500 million persons (or 28% of the population world-wide), and killed between 23 and 50 million victims across the globe.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Henry S. Hacker

In the United States, more than 675,000 Americans died of influenza in 1918. Adjusting for present-day population figures, this would have proportionally been the equivalent of 2.16 million deaths today. Like today, persons going out in public in 1918 were cautioned and in many cities required to wear masks over their faces. But whereas the Corona virus appears to be most dangerous and lethal among the older and more vulnerable population, the influenza epidemic of 1918/19 claimed the lives of the relatively young and healthy.

My own family history may be indicative of that unusual and frightening demographic trend, as I remember my grandmother recalling the death of her sister during the 1918 epidemic. Thanks to the incredible sleuthing abilities of Wolfsonian staffer, Lawrence Wiggins III, I was able to piece together the contours of her life and premature death. Born in Italy on April 5, 1896, Jennie Mazzei was nine when she and her mother and sister Maria arrived in America in 1905; her father, Vincenzo, was already living in Watertown, Massachusetts, and paid for their passage. Just a few months shy of sixteen years, Jennie married James Micela on January 16, 1912, and bore him three children. While living with her husband and children in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the twenty-two-year-old housewife took ill on September 25 and died of influenza on October 3, 1918. She was survived by her husband and three children, Bruno, Teresa, and Angelina.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Henry S. Hacker

I hope that my readers and their families are spared such losses of loved ones during the current COVID-19 crisis. Stay indoors and stay healthy.

Federal One: Depression Relief through An Art Attack

•March 7, 2020 • Leave a Comment

Earlier this semester, twenty-one students enrolled in my America & Movies: The Great Depression and New Deal in Film and History course came to The Wolfsonian–Florida International University museum for a Saturday afternoon class meeting. There, the students had the opportunity to see relevant historical artifacts included in Radicals and Reactionaries: Extremism in America, a library installation curated by four FIU undergraduate students from the previous semester.

Because The Wolfsonian holds one of the strongest collections of New Deal Era mural studies, art, books, and political pamphlets, the students also had the chance to peruse a presentation of primary source materials related to the Depression. The items from the rare book and special collection library included artifacts expressing popular discontent with President Hoover’s handling of the economic crisis and the hope inspired by Franklin Roosevelt’s “alphabet soup” New Deal remedies. After the guided tour and presentation of ephemera—many of which dealt with the infamous Scottsboro, Alabama race trial—the students watched the classic film, To Kill A Mockingbird, likely inspired by that and other racially-charged events in 1930s Alabama.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Purchase

Several of the students stayed on after the class to participate in another curatorial project: selecting and curating an exhibition of artifacts documenting the New Deal effort to keep culture alive and artists from starving with WPA-funded art projects. Their efforts will result in an exhibition of Federal Art, Music, Theatre, and Writers’ Project items in an installation that will be displayed at the Green Library at Florida International University.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

The self-made millionaire and man once lauded as the “boy wonder,” the “Great Engineer,” and the “Great Humanitarian,” Herbert Hoover had once publicly boasted that “We in America today are nearer to the final triumph over poverty than ever before in the history of any land.” Those words and quotes of a similar nature made before the Stock Market Crash of 1929 would come back to haunt the president whose nicknames would be used ironically during the Great Depression.  

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Purchase

Three-years into the economic crisis, even as he began an unwinnable campaign for re-election, the president’s name became inextricably linked to the “Hooverville” shanties and homeless squatters’ camps sprouting up across the nation.

Illustration by Lynd Ward

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Not only were Communist critics and Democratic opponents ridiculing Hoover’s “hands off” approach to the economic crisis, but even progressive members of his own Republican Party, including Harold Ickes and Senator George Norris, defected and threw their support behind the Democratic frontrunner.

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

While Hoover addressed the nation to defend his policies in the leadup to the 1932 presidential elections, the incumbent proved to be a less-than dynamic speaker and no match for the oratory of his Democratic challenger, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

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

If Hoover’s “apologia” reelection campaign failed to excite a depression-weary public, the President’s (mis)handling of the “Bonus Army” crisis created a public relations nightmare that ultimately turned the entire nation against him. Tens of thousands of desperate veterans—some traveling with their families in tow—had marched, hitchhiked, and hopped trains to Washington, D.C. to lobby their congressmen to pass a veterans’ compensation bill. After the Bonus Bill was voted down in the Senate, President Hoover authorized General Douglas MacArthur to quell and evict the demonstrators deploying tanks, cavalry, and soldiers armed with bayonets and gas. Exceeding his orders, MacArthur’s soldiers afterwards crossed the river to the Anastasia Flats where they burned down the veterans’ squatter camp before most had returned to retrieve their meager belongings.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, purchase

While Hoover initially claimed without any evidence that “red” infiltrators had provoked the rioting and forced the Administration to call out the army, veteran’s groups and the public castigated the president for his actions and his hollow justification. Given President Hoover’s unpopularity, even some of the pro-Republican campaign literature chose to focus on the Party’s “mascot” rather than Hoover’s name or likeness in the 1932 elections.

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

Not surprisingly, the Democratic challenger, Franklin Delano Roosevelt soundly defeated the incumbent Republican president in a landslide, winning in all but six of the forty-eight states. During his inaugural address made on March 4, 1933, the new president recognized that his “greatest primary task is to put people to work” and promised the American public that he would “act and act quickly.” Within the first hundred days of taking office, his Administration closed down and reorganized the entire banking system under the Emergency Banking Act; created the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) to provide immediate assistance to the poor; inaugurated the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and immediately enrolled 250,000 unemployed rural and urban youths in his “Tree Army”; established the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA); and oversaw the creation of the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA), the National Recovery Administration (NRA), and the Public Works Administration (PWA). Editorial cartoons expressed the concerns and fears that some conservatives had that these new government projects would forever alter and expand the federal government’s power and influence.

Illustrated by Will H. Chandler and Alden Turner

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

Some labor leaders and critics on the left feared that the Civilian Conservation Corps (popularly known as Roosevelt’s “Tree Army”) might establish a low minimum wage standard, or else be perverted into European-style fascist labor camps preparing young men for war.

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

To reassure organized labor and the general public, Roosevelt appointed the respected labor leader Robert Fechner as Director of Emergency Conservation Work in charge of the CCC program, who was also vocal in his opposition to military training and drill in the camps. Ultimately the CCC proved to be particularly popular with the American public as millions of destitute and homeless youths were taken off the city streets and out of hobo camps and enrolled in his “Tree Army.”

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

Roosevelt had been a great supporter of the Boy Scouts, and that organization inspired his Civilian Conservation Corps. Enrollees were relocated to camps situated in state and national parks and forests where the CCC boys were fed, housed, and clothed in khaki uniforms at government expense.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

The enrollees were provided with physical labor and work in the great outdoors designed to restore malnourished bodies, and with paychecks to build their self-esteem as they found themselves able to help support their families back home. Between 1933 and 1942, the Civilian Conservation Corps boys planted billions of trees; fought forest fires, pests, and soil erosion; and cleared paths, built roads and bridges, and otherwise improved park facilities across the nation.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) was placed under the direction of Republican Senator George Norris, who oversaw an ambitious project that put tens of thousands of engineers and construction workers back to work building a series of large hydroelectric dams.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, The Christopher DeNoon Collection for the Study of New Deal Culture

The dams were designed to end the frequent and disastrous flooding of the Tennessee River and its tributaries, combat soil erosion, create new recreational lakes and reservoirs, and generate electricity for neighboring rural communities.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, purchase

Another Republican, Harold Ickes, was placed in charge of FDR’s Public Works Administration.

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

Ickes was both a progressive and a champion of civil rights, though he also had a reputation of being a careful and cautious spender in a way that limited the re-employment potential of his public works projects.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, The Christopher DeNoon Collection for the Study of New Deal Culture

By far the two most controversial programs of the early New Deal were the two considered most important to the goal of helping to revivify the fortunes of industry and Agriculture. The National Recovery Administration (NRA) was placed under the oversight of General Hugh Johnson, an energetic, but cantankerous managerial wizard who publicly voiced admiration for dictator Benito Mussolini’s fascist reorganization of the Italian economy. Johnson’s former business partner, George Peek, also having the reputation of being a combative individual, was put in charge of the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) under Secretary of Agriculture, Henry Wallace.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, The Christopher DeNoon Collection for the Study of New Deal Culture

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

The NRA attempted to jumpstart business by imposing voluntary regulatory codes over all of the major industries to protect the employer, consumer, and worker.

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

Johnson used the carrot and the stick to push for compliance: those industries following NRA rules would be allowed to display the blue thunderbird NRA logo on labels and in display cards placed in shop windows, while unwilling or recalcitrant businesses might find themselves subject to boycotts or strikes.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Detractors of the NRA, and there were many on both the left and right, attacked the program often parodying the “blue eagle” logo and motto in the process.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

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

The Agricultural Adjustment Administration, (or Triple-A), aimed to help farmers fend off foreclosure.

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

Towards that end, the federal government began paying subsidies that encouraged large-scale farmers to leave their fields fallow, thus conserving the soil and preventing future overproduction of food and cotton crops.

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

As incredible as it seems in an era when many Americans were going hungry and reduced to wearing rags, the AAA also recommended slaughtering millions of swine and piglets and plowing under existing cotton crops to prop up agricultural prices. Critics on the left attacked the program as a crazy and unconscionable policy that benefitted large commercial farmers at the expense of sharecroppers, tenant farmers, and consumers.

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

Ultimately the conservative justices on the Supreme Court weighed in and pronounced both the AAA and the NRA as unconstitutional overreaches. The Roosevelt Administration scrambled to rework Triple-A rules and regulations to bring it into compliance, and decided to scrap the NRA entirely.

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

With the death of the NRA, President Roosevelt reluctantly threw his support behind Senator Robert F. Wagner’s National Labor Relations Act as a means of salvaging some of the NRA’s most important provisions. These included recognizing labor’s right to organize unions, to engage in collectively bargaining, and to take collective action including strikes.

As the 1936 presidential elections approached, President Roosevelt was compelled to inaugurate a second New Deal to stave off challenges from ambitious political rivals and detractors. Louisiana governor and presidential hopeful Huey Long proposed a “share the wealth” program, even as leftists claimed that conditions in his home state amounted to robbery of the poor to benefit the wealthy.

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

Another Roosevelt critic, Dr. Francis Townsend, argued in favor of a providing retirees with a government pension, while his own critics claimed the Townsend Old Age Pension resembled a chain letter pyramid scheme.

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

FDR’s response was to create the Works Progress Administration (WPA) to provide jobs for millions more Americans, and the Social Security Administration to provide unemployment compensation and pensions for handicapped and retired persons.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Like the Public Works Administration, the WPA was designed to put people back to work on infrastructure projects that would benefit the nation.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

FDR placed Harry Hopkins, his former FERA administrator in charge of the WPA and provided him with substantially more funding and a mandate to spend fast and furious to absorb the unemployed. While much of the work was on infrastructure projects, Hopkins made sure that federal fund were also deployed to support the arts through the Federal Arts Project (FAP), the Federal Theatre Project (FTP), the Federal Music Project (FMP), and the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP).

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Loan

This semester’s student curators will be focusing on these four Federal Arts Projects as they grapple with the New Deal’s attempt to keep morale up and culture alive during hard times. Painters, graphic artists, poster designers, sculptors, and art teachers were employed by the FAP.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

The FMP provided work for musicians, choral groups, and orchestras, while subsidizing free or inexpensive public concerts, and producing sound recording that could be aired on radio stations.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Live theatre, which had suffered greatly during the Depression, was given a boost by the FTP, which provided paychecks for ushers, actors, stagehands, and set and costume designers, and produced free theatrical performances.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

The Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) provided work for thousands of unemployed authors researching, compiling statistics, and writing government pamphlets and booklets on a host of Depression problems alleviated by New Deal solutions. They also published pamphlets preserving folklore and children’s educational books on a wide variety of subjects.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

The project director also devised a guidebook series to describe the history and culture of all forty-eight states of the union and to stimulate domestic tourism.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Ironically, even though the Federal Arts Project made up the smallest portion of the WPA budget, it was the first program to come under attack in Congress. Artists rallied to the defense of the projects, but the Federal Theatre Project was the first WPA project to be defunded.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Stay tuned to hear more about the students’ installation on the Federal Arts Project.

Havana, Cuba: America’s Former Premier Tourist Destination

•January 15, 2020 • Leave a Comment

Earlier this month and week, the Wolfsonian museum was visited by two groups making a stop-over in Miami on route to Havana, Cuba. The first was a handful of university students led by Tim Hossler, former Wolfsonian art director and present-day assistant professor in the School of Architecture & Design at the University of Kansas.

The second were members of the Art Deco Society of New York led by Roberta Nusim.

Although the current administration in Washington has been making holiday travel by Americans to the island nation ever more difficult, exceptions are still made for educational and cultural activities. Both group leaders were interested in visiting our museum before crossing over to Cuba to experience a guided tour of our Cuban Caricature and Culture: The Art of Massaguer and Caricaturas installations, and to peruse some items from our library collection related to architecture, tourism, hotels, casinos, nightlife and attractions, and Hollywood depictions of Cuba during the golden age of tourism.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Collection

I guided both groups through the fifth floor galleries to the installation celebrating a recent gift by Vicki Gold Levi of a host of materials documenting the caricatures, artwork, and influence of Conrado Walter Massaguer, Cuba’s premier publisher and tastemaker in the era of the Republic.

Long before other Cubans championed the idea of enticing wealthy Americans to visit and vacation in Havana, Conrado was providing cover artwork for El Figaro caricaturing American tourists.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Promised gift

Soon after, he and his brother Oscar launched their own set of Cuban magazines, including the short-lived Grafico, Pulgarcito, before hitting a responsive chord with the highly influential Social (1916–1933, 1935–1937) and Carteles (1919–1960). As its name suggests, Social was published for an elite audience, and contained articles on the arts, culture and high society events, provided caricatures of politicos and socialites in its “Ellos” [Them] section, and promoted modernist artists and aesthetics in Cuba.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Loans

Conrado also served as the art director of Carteles and frequently contributed his own and his protégés’ artwork to the covers of this more popular magazine.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Promised gift

Conrado Massaguer became an early, active, and tireless promotor of his island homeland as a tourist destination for Americans immediately after the First World War and up until relations soured soon after the Castro-led revolutionaries took power in 1959. Towards that end, Massaguer printed advertisements and even published an English-language magazine for American visitors printed exclusively during the winter season of the 1920s.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Collection

Loan, Emilio Cueto, private collection

Even as the Great Depression and internal political unrest on the island in 1933 choked off tourism considerably, the ever optimistic Massaguer continued to provide posters and other promotional artwork for the Cuban Tourist Commission, and even created a brochure for distribution and a short-lived mural at the Cuban pavilion at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. After assuming power by coup, President Fulgencio Batista decided to diversify the economy and to encourage tourism by promoting Havana as the Monte Carlo of the Western Hemisphere. Conrado Massaguer was named director of public relations for the Cuban Institute of Tourism and served as a goodwill ambassador, greeting and making instantaneous caricatures of VIP celebrities and Hollywood stars visiting the island, even as he continued to contribute artwork for promotional materials.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Promised gift

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Collection

Although Massaguer published the first book of sympathetic caricatures of the bearded revolutionaries after Batista fled the country and Castro’s forces assumed power, Conrado’s influence soon waned.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Promised gift

As relations between Castro and the U.S. government grew strained, the American tourist industry Massaguer had done so much to promote dried up and by 1960 even his most popular publication, distribution of Carteles ceased.

Following the guided tour of Cuban Caricature and Culture, the groups were taken to see the complementary Caricaturas library installation to view some more of Massaguer’s work, as well as the satirical artwork of some of his contemporaries. Cuban politicos were notoriously thin-skinned, and all of the caricaturists who dared lampoon political figures found themselves arrested, jailed, or forced into temporary exile at one point or other during their careers. After penning both signed and anonymous caricatures of President Gerardo Machado, Massaguer had to flee the island, spending months in Europe before living in New York City for several years in the 1930s as a political refugee.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Promised gift

Similarly, the political lampoons of another Cuban caricaturist, Arroyito (Ramon Arroyo Cisernos) earned him the displeasure and ire of both Cuban Army Commander and President Fugencio Batista and the Castro-led revolutionaries who overthrew him.

Loan, DiazCasas Collection, New York City

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Promised gift

Finally, both groups entered the main reading room of our library to see a display of materials drawn primarily from the Vicki Gold Levi Collection covering the themes they had expressed interest in. The first significant surge of American tourists to Cuba arrived in the period between 1919 and 1933. In the aftermath of the devastation wrought by the Great War, wealthy Americans accustomed to taking a grand European tour needed to look elsewhere for vacation venues. At the same time, the Cuban government desperately needed to diversify their economy as sugar prices fell precipitously after the war’s end, and passed a tourist bill designed to entice well-to-do Americans to the island by promoting gambling and reminding their Northern neighbors that while the United States had passed Prohibition, rum would always flow like water in the island republic.

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

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Collection

There were relatively few hotels ready to accommodate the earliest tourists to the island, though in anticipation of Prohibition’s effects on the profitability of the Biltmore Hotel chain, John McEntee Bowman and Charles Francis Flynn purchased the Moorish-revival Sevilla Hotel on Calle Trocadero on the Paseo del Prado. The New York architects Schultz & Weaver were hired to renovate the new Sevilla-Biltmore, adding a ten-story tower addition complete with a rooftop ballroom in 1924.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Collection

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

The massive Hotel Nacional de Cuba, designed by another New York firm, McKim, Mead and White, was built to accommodate the growing number of American tourists visiting the island, opening to the public in the winter season of 1930. So many Americans stayed at this hotel that it earned the nickname “la embajada americana” (the American embassy).

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Collection

Ironically, just three years after opening, the Hotel Nacional de Cuba served as the focal point of the political strife gripping the island nation that choked off the first wave of tourism. In the aftermath of the overthrow of President Gerardo Machado by officers of the Cuban Army, Sergeant-stenographer Fulgencio Batista led a coup of non-commissioned soldiers against the transitional government in September 1933. When the high-ranking officers took refuge in the hotel, Batista’s forces first laid siege to, and then shelled and attacked them, causing extensive damage to the building.

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

Coupled with the repeal of Prohibition and the worsening of the Great Depression in the United States, the news of revolution in Cuba reduced American tourism to the island to a trickle. Ironically enough, the tourist trade was revived decades later by Fulgencio Batista after he took the presidency by coup in 1952. Looking to promote Havana as the premier American vacation destination again, Batista offered his friend Meyer Lansky and other gangsters an offer they couldn’t refuse—gambling concessions for anyone spending a million or more in new hotel construction or renovation. Batista’s strategy bore fruit with such iconic glamorous hotels as the Comodoro (1955), the Riviera (1957), the Capri (1957), and the Habana Hilton (1958).

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

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Promised gifts

Hollywood movies and musicals set in Havana and featuring Cuban musicians and performers lured American honeymooners and tourists back to Cuba, as did highly publicized visits to the island by celebrities and stars.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Promised gift

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

Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner Honeymoon in Havana

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Promised gift

Cuba’s capital city became a mecca for American tourists and honeymooners—a place where they could let loose and dance to popular Cuban rhythm and percussion, beat the heat drinking frozen daiquiris, and try their luck at the slot machines, roulette wheels, and card tables in the casinos, and catch a spectacular cabaret show.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Collection

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Promised gifts

Few imagined that the Castro-led revolution in 1959 would bring a dramatic end to Havana’s famous nightlife. Two movies filmed in Havana in the immediate aftermath of the revolution and foreshadow the fate of the tourist trade. Our Man in Havana, was a major British production starring Alec Guinness as a comedic vacuum-cleaner salesman-turned-spy and includes scenes in some of Havana’s quintessential tourist haunts, including the Tropicana nightclub’s Arcos de Cristal.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gifts of Francis X. Luca & Clara Helena Palacio Luca

A low budget, gritty film noir, Pier 5 Havana, was set in Havana and starred Cameron Mitchell as an American determined to find his friend who had gone missing and ends up thwarting a sinister plot by Batista counterrevolutionaries to overthrow the “newly-freed Cuba!”

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Promised gift

As relations between the United States and Cuba quickly disintegrated, this movie, with its pro-Castro regime plot line, was consigned to the shelves to collect dust for nearly fifty years. It suffered the same fate as Massaguer’s book of caricatures in Cuba since images of the “bearded” revolutionaries hawking American products like Coca-cola made it taboo after diplomatic ties and trade between the countries were severed.

From Birthday Bash to Art Basel

•December 21, 2019 • Leave a Comment

These last two months of 2019 have been busy at The Wolfsonian–FIU, with an exhibition opening and other events set to mark our founder’s 80th birthday, followed by an open house party for VIP visitors here in Miami Beach for Art Basel. Museum founder, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. arrived in town in mid-November in time for the opening of A Universe of Things: Micky Wolfson Collects, an exhibition celebrating his decades-long obsession with collecting the rare books, paintings, posters, printed ephemera, furniture, stained glass, sculpture, and decorative art objects that form the basis of the museum’s holdings.


Organized by Micky’s long-time collections development person, Lea Nickless, and curator Shoshana Resnikoff, A Universe of Things was designed to highlight the founder’s life-long quest to find and preserve objects and artifacts that tell us something about the times and people who made, used, and were influenced by them.


To heighten public awareness, images of some of the objects selected for the exhibition were printed on vinyl and adhered to the vertical architectural elements of our historic building’s façade.


In order to convey a sense of the depth and breadth of the museum’s collection and to accommodate a large selection of objects in the galleries, Wolfsonian exhibition designer, Richard Miltner included wall-sized photographic images of our annex storage facility and also specially built casework reminiscent of the original shelving used in our historic building in its former incarnation as the old Washington Storage Company. The exhibit also includes a digital component designed to permit patrons to learn more about the objects on display and their historical timeline.


On the evening of the exhibition opening, VIPs and the public had the opportunity to tour the exhibits before participating in a block party tribute to the founder. Festivities included food truck concessions, music by FIU’s marching band and the Nu Deco Ensemble, lighting displays by Lutron Electronics, Inc. in an air-stream trailer and the museum’s bridge tender’s house, and speeches by city officials, FIU President Mark B. Rosenberg, and, of course, Micky himself.


Art Basel followed quickly on the heels of Micky’s birthday celebrations, and The Wolfsonian Library created a display in our cases celebrating some of the recent acquisitions to our holdings, including a number of items gifted in honor of Micky’s 80th birthday.


Some of the items showcased included materials donated by Jean S. Sharf from the private library of her late husband and long-time Wolfsonian supporter, Fred. While some pieces highlighted the rise of the Japanese Empire in the early twentieth century, others documented the twilight of the British Empire in the wake of the two world wars.


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

Recent gifts made by Leonard Finger and Lou Miano added to and complemented our holdings related to U.S.-Cuba travel and tourism. In addition to many rare photographs and ephemera donated by Mr. Finger over the years, the Art Basel VIPs had the opportunity to see two rare printed items from his gifts: a 1920s-era guidebook with a cover illustration of the Malecon in Havana, and a bound copy of the Havana Chronicle for the fateful years 1958-1959.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Leonard Finger

Originally published in the Cuban capital, the magazine devoted to leisure travel to the island nation was moved to Miami in the wake of the Castro-led revolution, but continued to promote the tourist trade until relations between the countries further deteriorated.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Leonard Finger

Lou Miano added to our Cuba theme two souvenirs he collected in his travels: one, a program from the Follies Bergere, a burlesque theatre, and the other, a souvenir viewbook from the Tropicana, the most famous nightclub venue in Havana in the 1950s.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Louis Miano

Also on display was a Miami yearbook published for members of the 36th Street Army Air Base in Miami, Florida gifted by Judith Berson-Levinson. This book, documenting the transition of Miami and Miami Beach from a seasonal vacation destination to an Army Air Forces training center and base during the Second World War, is one of more than a dozen items added to our “Sand In Their Boots” archive given to us year’s ago by that same donor.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Judith Berson-Levinson

Another entire display case was devoted solely to exhibiting some stunning illustrated books and periodicals dating from the Harlem Renaissance.


The case included books of poetry of Countee Cullen illustrated with dust jacket designs and decorations by Charles Cullen.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gifts of Historical Design

The cover designs and illustrations of Aaron Douglas were also available for visitors to see.


The display also featured some dust jacket designs by Miguel Covarrubias, the Mexican ethnographer, muralist, illustrator, and caricaturist whose artwork captured the spirit and provided portraits of important African American figures associated with the movement.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gifts of Historical Design

These items were part of the most substantial gift made this year to our library by Daniel Morris of Historical Design gallery in New York City. Our librarians are just now finishing up the process of accessioning and starting to catalog the thousands of rare books from this donation.

The final case on display for our Basel visitors included gifts made to The Wolfsonian Library in honor of Mitchell Wolfson, Jr.’s 80th birthday. These items included a rare invitation gifted by Roger Arvid Anderson to a preview of the buildings and grounds being erected and landscaped in Chicago in anticipation of the opening of the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Roger Arvid Anderson

From our former curator, Marianne Lamonaca, who presently serves as the chief curator and associate director of the Gallery at the Bard Graduate Center in New York, we received and displayed a playful handbook titled: Kritters of the Kitchen Kingdom and How to Make Them, open to a page of a militant suffragette made from an ear of corn!


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Marianne Lamonaca

Another close friend of the founder, Saville Ryan, donated a book to our library in honor of Micky’s birthday, titled Manhattan Oases: New York’s 1932 Speak-Easies.


Always on the hunt for materials about the era (error?) of Prohibition, this book features by caricatures by Al Hirschfeld of the bars, barmen, and patrons of the Big Apple’s secret drinking establishments published a year before the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Saville Ryan

Another Micky friend, Jame Garmey, gifted several rare issues of Stroitel’stvo Moskvy to The Wolfsonian Library in honor of Micky’s birthday as well, helping us to fill in gaps in our run of this important Soviet architectural periodical.


Lastly, there were a few gifts in the case made in honor of Micky’s birthday that highlight the artwork of American illustrators, such as Hugo Gellert, his wife, Livia Cinquegrana, and Rockwell Kent, who put their talents to use in the service of their leftist political causes.


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

Many of the items on display for Art Basel have been loaded into our digital catalog where they are made globally accessible to those unable to visit our museum library in person.

France’s Overseas Empire on Display

•November 27, 2019 • Leave a Comment

This past Saturday, eighteen French conversation and grammar students from Florida International University arrived at The Wolfsonian for a guided tour of the galleries and a special presentation of French-language materials in the library. The group of Francophiles, organized by Professor Maria Antonieta Garcia, was led by Gaby Ibanez and Saniya Pradhan, the presidents of the FIU French Club and the French Honor Society.

Once the group gathered, we first deconstructed, critically analyzed, and historicized some artifacts representing French colonialism in the fifth and seventh floor galleries. These works of art included a painted plaster maquette for a sculpture created by Arthur Dupagne to adorn the Belgian Congo Pavilion at the Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques held in Paris in 1937. The scale model, La barre à mine (Mining bar) depicts an African wearing only a loincloth as he is using a primitive iron bar to break rock. While the mock up celebrates the musculature and physical strength of the native miner (whose hands and feet were deliberately enlarged to emphasize his role as manual laborer), the artist shrunk the head of his subject ever so slightly so as to imply that while the colonial peoples supplied the brawn, the colonizers would need to supply the brain power.


A painting from the same fair hangs on the wall behind this figure depicting colonial pavilions built along the Seine to represent France’s overseas empire. These modern architectural interpretations drew upon the vernacular vocabulary of the indigenous colonial peoples to demonstrate and celebrate France’s super-national dominions. Hundreds of thousands of visitors to the fair would have been exposed to these and other artifacts of colonial propaganda created to justify European colonialism and cloak their political and economic designs under the guise of humanitarian “civilizing” missions.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

A painting from another gallery also generated lots of excitement and discussion, as the students examined a Parisian portrait painted by Anja Decker in 1934. Many colonial troops from Africa were brought to Europe to fight alongside the French in the First World War, and some of them—along with a number of African-Americans remained in France after the war. The student visitors pondered the significance of the title and the depiction of the Strange Couple, and debated whether the artist was sympathetic towards the interracial pair, or was implying something more ambivalent or sinister about the power dynamics of their relationship.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

The group made a quick foray into the Art Deco exhibition on our seventh floor gallery to look at a poster designed for the 1925 Exposition internationale des arts decoratifs et industriels modernes in Paris that represented a beautiful nude indigenous woman lifting a curtain to reveal herself and the backdrop of a North African city.


After discussing the colonial and gender implications of this poster, the students regrouped in our rare book and special collections library to view a display and presentation of rare materials related to France’s overseas possessions and colonies. Thanks to the generosity of our founder, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr., who resides in Paris for much of the year, the Wolfsonian Library possesses an extraordinarily rich collection of rare books, periodicals, portfolios, pamphlets, postcards, and other printed materials. Many of them document France’s 19th and 20th colonial adventures or relate to the representation of their colonies at various world’s fairs.


The library, for example, holds a bound edition of supplements published by Petit Journal during the Exposition universelle celebrations in Paris in 1900. Many of the issues have color chromolithographic illustrations depicting some of the indigenous peoples who were transported to the fair. These natives populated “human zoo” exhibits designed to educate Parisians and other fair-goers of the races, cultural traditions, handicrafts, and natural products brought under France’s global sphere of influence.



The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

The collection holds some important items from the Exposition coloniale de Marseille in 1922, including this poster picturing indigenous women from across the globe intended to represent France’s far-flung colonial empire.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

The vast majority of our French colonial collections, however, were published and printed to document the 1931 Exposition coloniale internationale de Paris. The library holds numerous books, portfolios, postcards, pamphlets, souvenir viewbooks, and even a children’s coloring book describing the fair and the importance to the metropole of her far-flung colonies.

Several of the portfolios provided images of a pavilion designed by architects Albert Laprade and Jaussely, and decorated with bas relief designs by Alfred Janniot.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Loan

Details of the bas relief sculpture on the side of the building presented the millions of visitors to the fair with images of the flora, fauna, and natural resources of French colonies around the world, as well as exoticized and eroticized images of the native inhabitants.




The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Loan

The Musée Permanent des Colonies still remains, though it has since been rechristened, Palais de la Porte Dorée. Other buildings representing the indigenous architecture of French colonies were built and positioned in the fairgrounds to reinforce the contrast between native “primitivism” and metropole “modernism.”


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection


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

The temporary and ephemeral examples of native buildings were always intended to give way to the more durable “sophisticated” structures of the Parisians.


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

 Perhaps the most interesting image published in a portfolio for the 1931 colonial exposition is a photographic image of a group of indigenous women, presumably brought to the fair to show off their native dress and customs to the visitors. A photographer captured an image of three such women wearing an innovative and beautiful blend of African and Parisian haute culture perhaps as they prepared to leave the fairgrounds for a night on the town.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

We hope our virtual visitors enjoyed their tour as much as our FIU francophile visitors did.

Radicals and Reactionaries: Extremism in America

•October 30, 2019 • Leave a Comment

Earlier this month, twenty-four students enrolled in my America & Movies course focusing on radicalism in America came to The Wolfsonian–Florida International University museum for a presentation of primary source materials about some of the extremists we have been learning about in class. This particular class session was focused on left- and right- wing extremist groups and individuals in the early decades of the 20th century. The Wolfsonian Library holds an important collection of materials produced by and about the Communist Party U.S.A., the Ku Klux Klan and its splinter group, the Black Legion, as well as works celebrating figures, such as African-American poet, Langston Hughes, or lampooning others, such as publishing magnate, William Randolph Hearst and the “Radio Priest” Father Charles Coughlin.


Four of the students, (Nathalie Mattas, David Santos, Javier Penarredonda, and Marlow Marimon), had elected to participate in a curatorial project on the topic. They had the opportunity to talk to their fellow classmates about how they had formulated their ideas for the installation and made their selection of materials to be exhibited.


In focusing on the ideological battles waged between the left and the right, the students looked at how extremist groups used politically loaded imagery and caricature to recruit new members, to demonize their enemies, and to promote their “cause.” The library holds several books and pamphlets produced by the Ku Klux Klan attacking minorities, immigrants, and Catholics, even as they presented themselves as chivalrous white-robe knights and “guardians of liberty.”


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Long-term Loan

While Ku Klux Klan membership peaked in the 1920s and was in serious decline in the 1930s, a splinter group known as the Black Legion emerged in the Midwest to carry on the WASPish struggle against immigrants until the secret society’s political corruption and criminal activities came to light. Actor Humphrey Bogart’s Hollywood exposé, Black Legion helped topple the sinister organization.


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

The class also examined some materials that provided evidence of the Communist Party’s strategies for indoctrinating youth and courting African Americans in their membership drives. In focusing their propaganda efforts on the young, the CPUSA were heeding the advice of their late comrade and leader of the failed Spartacus uprising in Germany in 1919, Karl Liebknecht, who wrote: “He who has the youth has the future.”


The Wolfsonian–FIU, purchase

The American Communist Party leadership published pamphlets, books, and periodicals aimed at children and young adults with stories they could relate to and also encouraged socially-conscious parents to send them to “young pioneer” summer camps.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, purchase


The Wolfsonian–FIU, gift of Francis Xavier Luca & Clara Helena Palacio Luca in honor of Mitchell Wolfson, Jr.’s Eightieth Birthday


The Wolfsonian–FIU, purchase

The CPUSA also worked hard to recruit African Americans to the cause during the 1930s. Between 1910 and 1930, two million African Americans had migrated North in search of a better life, but in the wake of the 1929 Stock Market Crash and onset of the Great Depression, racist attitudes had flared up so that Blacks tended to be the “first fired and last rehired.” By 1932, half of the African American population was unemployed, and in New York City many of the achievements of the “Harlem Renaissance” had been erased and property gains by the black middle class had been lost. To demonstrate their sincerity and solidarity with the African American community, the Communists organized the “Upper Harlem Council of the Unemployed” and staged integrated demonstrations and marches aimed at stopping evictions. They were also actively involved in fighting “Jim Crowism,” promoting “Negro” civil rights, and championing Federal anti-lynching legislation; and highlighting the exploitation and plight of poor sharecroppers and tenant farmers facing Ku Klux Klan terror and their own push for “Negro self-determination” in the South.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, gift of the August Mecklem Estate

The Party was also the first to nominate an African-American Vice Presidential candidate, James W. Ford.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, gift of Francis Xavier Luca & Clara Helena Palacio Luca in honor of Mitchell Wolfson, Jr.’s Eightieth Birthday

Attacking the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples (NAACP) leadership as both elitist and subservient to white interests, the CPUSA competed with them for the hearts and minds of the Black intelligentsia as well as the oppressed African American “underclass” of the “Blackbelt.”


The Wolfsonian–FIU, gift of Francis Xavier Luca & Clara Helena Palacio Luca in honor of Mitchell Wolfson, Jr.’s Eightieth Birthday


The Wolfsonian–FIU, purchase

Prominent Black intellectuals such as W. E. B. DuBois and the poet Langston Hughes were recruited to the cause. In a collection of works by Hughes published by the Party in 1933, the editor made much of the fact that even as a famous bard and promoter of American poetry was reciting several of Hughes’ poems at a gathering of political elites in the dining room of the Wardman Park Hotel in Washington, D.C. in 1925, the distinguished poet was in the room, not as a celebrant in that segregated venue, but invisibly clearing tables as a busboy.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, gift of Francis Xavier Luca & Clara Helena Palacio Luca in honor of Mitchell Wolfson, Jr.’s Eightieth Birthday

In an attempt to court conservative Blacks to the cause in the South, the International Labor Defense, the legal arm of the Party, took up the defense of the Scottsboro Boys, nine African American youths being “railroaded” in the Alabama courts. In their quest for work, the nine boys had hopped a freight train, only to be hauled off in Scottsboro, Alabama in March 1931, after having gotten into a scuffle with some white hobos. To avoid being charged with vagrancy, two white girls also discovered on the train concocted a story that they had been gang raped by the “brutes.” After narrowly avoiding a lynching, the boys, whose legal defense was a real estate lawyer who encouraged them to plead guilty, were convicted by an all-white jury and all but the youngest sentenced to death. The ILD secured the permission of the parents of the defendants to represent the boys and to demand a retrial, and the Party also organized demonstrations in cities across the globe in support of their clients. As part of their propaganda media campaign, the Party also prepared for publication a lino-block book providing the historical context for the trial lampooning KKK justice in the South.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

The Great Depression decade became the Party’s “We told you so” moment for their argument that capitalism was on its last legs and Socialism on the ascendancy. It was also a period of unprecedented popularity for the Party and its Popular Front organizations.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, gift of Francis Xavier Luca & Clara Helena Palacio Luca in honor of Mitchell Wolfson, Jr.’s Eightieth Birthday

The unforeseen rise of Fascist and Nazi totalitarian regimes presented the CPUSA with a new challenge and opportunity. Organizing Communist Front organizations like the American League Against War and Fascsim, the Party presented themselves as the most progressive organization in America arrayed against the forces of “social fascism” at home, and fascist dictatorship and military aggression abroad.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, gift of the August Mecklem Estate

William Randolph Hearst, whose media empire controlled a third of the nation’s news outlets, became a target of the labor groups and the left.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, purchase

Hearst was particularly despised for visiting Adolf Hitler soon after his seizure of power, at which meeting he negotiated a lucrative deal in which he agreed to print Nazi propaganda in his newspapers and help rehabilitate the dictator’s reputation in America. The CPUSA artist Hugo Gellert produced several scathing caricatures of the media mogul.


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

Other leftist pamphlets attacked Hearst as a Nazi sympathizer, variously depicting him hiding behind the flag and his 100 percent Americanism slogans, as a Nazi rat enemy of labor, and as a vampire bat in league with Hitler.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, purchases


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

The American League Against War and Fascism even organized a mock trial of Hearst before a packed house at the Hippodrome in New York City in October 1936.

Other targets of the left included Father Charles Coughlin, the “Radio Priest” who used his national broadcast to 30,000,000 listeners to rake in $50,000 a week during the depression as he attacked the Godless Communists, preached Anti-Semitism, and lauded the fascist regimes of Europe. Gellert published several caricatures of the priest.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection


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

These are but a few examples of the holdings of extremist materials in The Wolfsonian Library and a small sampling of some of the items that will go on display in our next library installation which will open on January 30, 2020.