Frankenstein’s Monsters

•October 22, 2021 • Leave a Comment

As you contemplate costumes for this coming Halloween holiday, conjure in your imagination, if you will, the Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley gothic novel, Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus. Now think of that classic tale in combination with two fiendishly updated stories of science-gone-mad penned in the 1930s by Alexander Laing: The Cadaver of Gideon Wyck and The Motives of Nicholas Holtz. Though separated by more than a century of time, all three stories grappled with the notion that “mad,” or even well-meaning scientists, might unwittingly unleash deadly and terrifying monsters and scourges on humanity. Another common thread tying together all three stories is the fact that America’s first graphic novelist, Lynd Ward, provided the illustrations for three rare editions of these works published in the Great Depression era.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) requires no introduction as the story has been reanimated (excuse the pun) by filmmakers since the early 1930s. Horror film actor Boris Karloff played the monster in the classic black and white pre-code film, Frankenstein (1931) and he reprised the role in the popular sequels, Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and Son of Frankenstein (1939)—with Bela Lugosi making an appearance as the hunchbacked Ygor in the latter film. A slew of Frankenstein films would follow in their wake, with Lon Chaney Jr. and Bela Lugosi assuming the monster mantle and Karloff playing the “good doctor” in films released as late as 1970. Four years later, director Mel Brooks would satirize the Frankenstein franchise with his hilarious parody, Young Frankenstein, starring Gene Wilder as the good doctor, Marty Feldman as Igor, and Peter Boyle as the monster.

Even as depression-era movie versions resuscitated an interest in Shelley’s nineteenth- century gothic novel, other philosophical and moral concerns also invested the tale of the mad scientist playing God and tampering with the forces of life and death with new relevance in the 1930s. Its republication was likely intended as a cautionary morality tale for American advocates of eugenics and modern scientists experimenting in the new fields of embryonic and genetic engineering. When Harrison Smith and Robert Haas planned to publish a new edition of the classic, they turned to Lynd Ward to supply the wood-engraving illustrations.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

After mastering the art of book illustration with a year-long apprentice at the National Academy of Visual Art in Leipzig, Germany in 1927, Lynd Ward had returned to the United States and soon after introduced the graphic novel to an entranced American audience. Beginning in October 1929, just before the Wall Street Crash that ushered in the decades-long depression, Ward began producing a series of well-received wordless novels. But Ward was also amenable to providing illustrations for classics and newly-released books. Two new novels focusing on the dangers of biotech experimentation were penned by Alexander Laing and published in quick succession in the mid-1930s; Lynd Ward provided the images for the jackets and frontispiece illustrations of both works.

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

Laing’s first biotech novel, The Cadaver of Gideon Wyck (1934), takes a swipe at embryologists and includes the obligatory “mad scientist.” Gideon Wyck, an idealist eager to create a race of disease-resistant super-children, degenerates into an immoral monster willing to impregnate, torture, and experiment on women and their fetuses in his quest to create genetically-superior human-beings. The story provides a dramatic counterpoint to the influence of American eugenicists bankrolled by the Carnegie and Rockefeller foundations, which in the 1920s and early 1930s anticipated the Nazis in their desire to “better” the human race by advocating sterilization of “undesirables” and otherwise interfering in natural reproduction. Although the plot—with its creation of mermaid-like embryonic creatures—reads like the sensationalist stories published in the popular pulp fiction magazine Weird Tales, the author was attentive to the latest trends in genetic modification. He scrupulously provided footnotes for his novel derived from the cutting-edge medical journal, Genetics. As the narrator in The Cadaver of Gideon Wyck noted, the protagonist, a researcher working in a New England medical school, had begun:   

…with the highest motivations of a geneticist. He wanted to anticipate curative medicine and throw us [medical professionals] all out of our jobs by having the human infant born already vaccinated and inoculated, immune to all known ills, and preconditioned against all known aberrations. Only he went mad while he was about it… (p. 249)

The plot of Laing’s second novel is the more realistic, prescient, and terrifying of the tales. The Motives of Nicholas Holtz: Being the Weird Tale of the Ironville Virus (1936) reflected the scientific shift from embryology to genetics. It also captures the extremist political divisions of the day with an attack both on corporate greed and the Communists’ commitment to violence and the “ends justify the means” tactics.

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

The story centers on the actions of a couple of altruistic—if hopelessly naïve—bacteriologists, lured away from academia and the humanitarian work of fighting disease by Nicholas Holtz. A titan of the munitions industry, Holtz can afford to pay better wages and provide the best laboratory equipment money can buy even at the nadir of the Great Depression. The scientist and his protégé work on a project aimed at creating new bacterial life in a laboratory test tube. After they unwittingly unleash a rapidly reproducing viral plague that threatens all of humanity, their patron intervenes. Under the guise of stopping the spread of the virus, Holtz firebombs their lab, but only after secretly arranging for the preservation of some specimens for his own sinister purposes.

Holtz is revealed to be a eugenically-minded industrialist who advocates forced sterilization of “unemployables” as a solution to the Great Depression. The evil capitalist is even willing to test the virus on the poor, unemployed denizens of a few Pennsylvania coals towns before planning to patent and sell the virus as a profitable biological weapon. Holtz’s capacity for evil is matched only by the ruthlessness of his Communist adversaries, one of whom is willing to deliberately infect the industrialist’s son, thereby unleashing the plague on the public. Only the heroic efforts of the lab researcher staves off disaster as he successfully races to manufacture a vaccine. The story ends ambiguously, however. The evil capitalist has been thwarted in his designs, injected with something other than the life-saving antidote, and has succumbed to the plague; the Communists, too, are either dead or in retreat. But it is hinted by the narrator that no one remains safe as long as the rich, the powerful, and the ruthless remain determined to wrest control over scientific discoveries and to pervert and redirect them against their enemies.

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

The Motives of Nicholas Holtz is proof enough that it is not necessary to invent “mad scientists,” ghosts, goblins, monsters, or zombies to create a compelling tale of horror. The mundane work being done by well-meaning or morally-indifferent lab technicians today in biological and viral labs across the globe should be enough to convince us of the “banality of evil” and send a chill down the spine of all of us living in the new world ushered in by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Happy Halloween!

Once More, The Lights Are Bright On Broadway

•September 15, 2021 • Leave a Comment

Just this week, the ultra-popular Broadway productions of The Lion King, Hamilton, and Aladdin reopened to the public after an eighteen-month hiatus occasioned by the coronavirus pandemic.  The financially ruinous closings and hopes for a revival in the fortunes of Broadway are not unique to our times. They are, in fact, reminiscent of earlier struggles endured by the producers of live theater, vaudeville, and Broadway musicals.

It was during the last decade of the nineteenth century that Oscar Hammerstein first opened the Olympia theater even before streetlights had been installed on Broadway.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

In illuminating the façade and marquee of his grand theater with brilliant electric lighting, Hammerstein started a trend taken up by so many other theatrical producers that the area gained international fame as the “Great White Way.”

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

The Broadway theater district would flourish in the decades that followed. As America entered the First World War, war-themed musicals and plays swept Broadway, with even the Ziegfeld Follies patriotically wrapping themselves in the flag.

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

The simultaneous spread of the dread Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918/1919 forced the closure of theaters and public entertainment venues across the nation, with one exception. New York’s commissioner of health adopted a “keep calm and carry on” approach. He defiantly (and dangerously) refused to shutter the city’s theaters, vaudeville shows, playhouses, and cinemas, believing that they were critical to maintaining morale in time of war and epidemiological crisis. The only concessions to the contagion were orders to stagger curtain times to cut down on crowding and to authorize ushers to remove (by force if necessary) “sneezers, coughers and spitters” from the audience!

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Vicki Gold Levi

Not surprisingly, Broadway venues experienced lots of empty seats in the worst days of the crisis and the city witnessed steep spikes in new cases of the deadly flu. More than 20,000 New Yorkers would succumb to the influenza epidemic, though admittedly that number remained lower than rates in other large East Coast cities; more than 600,000 Americans would die from influenza or pneumonia nationwide.   

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Vicki Gold Levi

The October 1929 Stock Market crash had a far more devastating effect on Broadway than the 1918/1919 pandemic, bringing down the curtains of many major playhouses. During the decade long depression that followed the crash, ticket sales dropped precipitously, leading to mass layoffs of actors, set designers, costume-makers, directors, and ushers, and to the bankruptcy and closure of many theaters. An indication of hard times, even the New York publishers of Theatre Magazine ceased printing their monthly in 1931.

With so many theaters being shuttered up and turning off their lights, the Great Depression threatened to stamp out culture before Present Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Federal Theatre Project came to the rescue.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gifts of Vicki Gold Levi

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Christopher DeNoon

Between 1935 and 1939, the FTP reopened numerous theaters and employed 13,000 professional theater workers while producing 64,000 performances that reached an audience of 15 million. Overnight, the FTP’s negro unit became the single largest employer in Harlem, where African Americans typically suffered a staggering fifty percent unemployment rate.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Christopher DeNoon

FTP productions included such diverse public events as circuses and marionette performances for children; popular Gilbert and Sullivan musicals; serious dramatic adaptations for adults by ancient and contemporary playwrights such as William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, George Bernard Shaw, Eugene O’Neill. The legendary Orson Welles cut his teeth directing and performing in Federal Theatre Project plays.

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Broadway survived the Great Depression and flourished once more in the post-war era.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

As it had during the First World War, Broadway adapted to its sequel, producing a battery of patriotic musicals during the Second World War.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Vicki Gold Levi

The Wolfsonian–FIU, From the Estate of Katherine Orfanedes McCartney

In the post-WWII period, Americans and tourists flocked once more to New York’s most celebrated theater district, and Broadway even served as the setting and backdrop for salacious pulp fiction paperbacks.

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The corona virus pandemic has posed the latest challenge to Broadway. Even as the live theaters and musical venues are beginning to reopen to the public, theatrical producers, performers, and the public are keeping an eye on the fast-spreading Delta variant. We can only hope that the newest mutation of the virus does not derail and undo much of the progress made by adopting physical distancing, wearing personal protection, and getting vaccinated.

The Panama Canal as the Thirteenth Labor of Hercules

•August 15, 2021 • Leave a Comment

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

On this day in 1914, the Panama Canal was inaugurated as the cargo and passenger ship Ancon completed the first passage through the waterway’s complex system of reservoirs, dams, and locks—a journey only possible due to a true marvel of modern engineering.

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

Ferdinand de Lesseps, the French engineer responsible for completing the Suez Canal in 1869, had been the first to investigate and attempt to connect the Atlantic and Pacific oceans across the narrow Central American isthmus, and other schemes had envisioned opening a passageway through Nicaragua. Plagued by malaria and yellow fever that killed some 22,000 workers, poor planning, and financial woes, the French company went bankrupt. The Americans, eager to expedite commerce with their newly won colonial possessions in the Caribbean and Pacific, continued what Lesseps had begun. Congress authorized the purchase of the French canal company in 1902, and after negotiating treaties with Colombia—and afterwards instigating a Panamanian independence movement—the United States began a campaign of mosquito eradication and construction to complete the canal.

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

Between 1909 and 1914, U.S.-directed engineers and tens of thousands of workers shifted nearly 720 million cubic feet of earth, blasting, dredging, and building locks along the 40- to 50-mile-long canal at a cost of $400 million—the largest construction project of the era.

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

While Afro-Caribbean islanders provided much of the hard physical labor, one of the most popular illustrations celebrating their Herculean efforts used an image alluding to the hero of Greek mythology. In 1915, the fair organizers at the Panama Pacific International Exhibition in San Francisco promoted the fair with Perham Wilhelm Nahl’s design depicting a nude, muscular Hercules opening the colossal canal at Culebra Cut. Nahl’s prize-winning illustration was reproduced as a poster, was included on maps, and on book and exhibition catalog covers such as this one.

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

On this day in history, 1932: The Bonus Marchers Are Driven Out of Washington, D.C.

•July 28, 2021 • Leave a Comment

The scene: In the summer month preceding a presidential election, demonstrators peacefully protesting in the nation’s capital are dispersed with tear gas and routed and cleared from the area by armed, uniformed men. When the air cleared and the news media questioned the Republican incumbent as to the necessity of the use of force, the president states that he was acting in defense of law and order and denounced the protestors as a violent and dangerous rabble.

You might be surprised to learn that this describes an event from almost 90 years ago today—and not the clash between racial justice activists and police at Lafayette Park on June 1, 2021. An eerily similar incident occurred on July 28, 1932, when President Herbert Hoover ordered the Army to disperse the depression-strapped WWI veterans who had gathered from across the nation to ask Congress to pass legislation aimed at compensating their wartime service. The extreme use of force, the president’s characterization of the veterans as “red” radicals bent on the overthrow of the government, and the burning of the veterans’ “Hooverville” (or shanty town) on the Anacostia Flats outskirts of the city did not help Hoover’s bid for re-election.

The men who had either volunteered or been drafted into the American Expeditionary Forces in Woodrow Wilson’s “War to End All Wars” had received considerably less compensation for their heroic service than was earned by men working in the war industries on the home front. In 1924 Congress passed the World War Adjusted Compensation Act aimed to provide veterans with a “bonus” based on their service records. There was only one catch. The bonus certificates would only mature and be redeemable in full on each veteran’s birthday in 1945, deriding nicknamed by vets the “Tombstone Bonus.” As tens of thousands of veterans lost their jobs and were evicted from their farms and homes as the Great Depression dragged on, many began to sign petitions pressing for an early payment of the bonuses. After President Hoover vetoed the Patman Veterans Bill in 1931, one unemployed vet, Walter W. Walters, living in Portland, Oregon, rallied local veterans and organized a trek to the nation’s capital to lobby Congress directly and press for immediate disbursement.

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

Dubbed the “Bonus Army” by the press, Walter’s group inspired many thousands of ex-servicemen from across the nation—some accompanied by their families—to join his Bonus Expeditionary Forces, hop trains, hitchhike, and join the caravans descending on Washington.

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Arriving in Washington, D.C. in July 1932, the veterans camped out on the grounds of the Capitol building.

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

As their ranks swelled into the tens of thousands, they established a makeshift camp on the Anacostia Flats.

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

While the House of Representatives passed a bonus bill, it looked unlikely that the Senate would approve it. On June 17, 1932, thousands of veterans gathered on the grounds of the Capitol building to maintain a vigil as the Senate was scheduled to vote on the legislation. The chants and an ironical rewording of a WWI tune “The Yanks are Starving” could be heard in the Senate chamber even as that body overwhelmingly voted the bill down, with members beating a hasty retreat through back doors and underground tunnels under Congress to avoid facing the thousands of ex-servicemen loitering outside. Rather than greeting the disappointing news of the defeat of the bonus bill with rioting, Walters led the veterans in singing “America the beautiful” before peacefully disbursing.

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Hoover expected and encouraged the veterans to vacate their squatter’s camp and “go home,” and while many did pack up and go, many thousands of veterans and their family members remained, being jobless and homeless and without better options. Walters and other veteran leaders also encouraged them to stay and continue to press for their bonus until the adjournment of Congress in July. Retired Major-General Smedley Butler visited the Bonus Compensation Army camp and had been impressed by the comradery of the campers and the orderliness of their tent and shack “city” accommodating more than 11,000 persons and democratically arranged in streets and blocks without regard to rank or race. Addressing the veterans, he told them that “It makes me so damned mad that a whole lot of people speak of you as tramps. By God, they didn’t speak of you as tramps in 1917 and 1918. Telling them that they had “just as much a right to lobby here as any steel corporation,” he assured them that they had the “sympathy of the American people” and admonished them to remain positive and refrain from any actions that might lose it.

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

But following Congress’ adjournment on July 16, President Hoover ordered the evacuation of the veterans from downtown Washington. As the police tried to forcibly evict veteran squatting in half-demolished buildings on July 28, bricks began to fly; two police officers shot into the crowds leaving one veteran dead and another mortally wounded.

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Hoover ordered General MacArthur and the Army to clear the city, deploying 200 saber-wielding cavalrymen, 400 infantrymen with bayoneted rifles, and backed up by tanks and armored vehicles. After someone threw a stone, the troops donned gas masks and hurled smoke bombs and tear gas grenades, driving the choking veterans and their families from the streets. Numerous marchers were wounded and one malnourished four-year old died in the clash; a 3-month-old child caught in the gas attack succumbed some days later.

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Although Hoover sent orders to General Douglas MacArthur telling him not to advance on the veteran’s camp across the Anacostia River, the general disregarded the order, crossed the bridge, and ordered the troops to burn down the shacks even as vets and their families rushed to salvage their meager belongings. According to one account, a soldier stabbed a boy in the leg as the child was trying to return to his burning shack to save his pet rabbit.

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

Newsreels showing the burning of the veteran’s squatter camp on the outskirts of the capital shocked and horrified the American public. Attempting to justify the military action, President Hoover claimed without substantiating evidence that the remaining veterans had been manipulated and misled by Communist provocateurs intent on overthrowing the Republic. But the press and public rallied to the defense of the B.E.F. Upon learning of the firing of the Bonus Army encampment, General Butler officially declared himself a “Hoover-for-Ex-President Republican.” The Washington Daily News also condemned the military action, editorializing that “If the Army must be called out to make war on unarmed citizens, this is no longer America.”

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

The plight of the Bonus Army entered the American consciousness in two films released just before and after the 1932 presidential elections. The Washington Merry-Go-Round (1932) told the story of a newly elected representative who arrived in the capital city determined to smash the political machine that put him in office and to expose and turn out the corrupt politicos beholden to powerful lobbyists. Publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst also jumped on the Hollywood carousel, contributing much of the financial backing and editorial rewrites of another screenplay intended to turn Hoover out of office. In dramatic contrast to President Hoover’s refusal to meet with Bonus Army leaders, the president in Hearst’s film, Gabriel Over the White House, intercepts the veterans on their march on the capital, wades into the crowd against the advice of his Secret Service detail, and offers the vets jobs rather than handouts, promising to transform them from an “Army of the Unemployed” into an “Army of Construction.” Hearst had hoped to produce the film in time to sway the voters in the 1932 presidential elections against Herbert Hoover and towards his own nominee, John Nance Garner, but the film was not released until the early months of 1933. The public did not need Hearst’s prodding, however, as they overwhelmingly went to the polls and voted out Hoover and his party in a landslide election.

First Among Photographers, Margaret Bourke-White

•June 14, 2021 • 1 Comment

The life and career of American photographer, Margaret Bourke-White (June 14, 1904–August 27, 1971) might best be summed up with a list of firsts in a male-dominated field. In 1930, the Bronx-born professional photographer became the first foreigner permitted to shoot Soviet workers and industrial production under Comrade Stalin’s Five-Year Plan.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Bourke-White was the first photographer to receive prominent name credit and she photographed the main article in Fortune’s first issue. Later in the decade she became one of the first four staff photographers and the first women photographer hired by Life and her iconic photograph graced the cover of the magazine’s very first issue.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Leonard Lauder

During the Second World War, she and her husband were the first Americans on the scene and first to send home photographs and dispatches describing the German surprise offensive on the Russian front.

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Once the United States entered the war, Bourke-White became America’s first female war photojournalist accredited by the military and the first woman to fly on a combat mission with the U.S. Air Force.

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

She later accompanied U.S. General George Patton’s Third Army into Germany and was among the first to photograph the “Living dead” at the liberated Nazi Buchenwald concentration camp. A restless soul, over the span of a 35-year career, she achieved international renown as she traveled more than a million miles and worked in 45 countries documenting the industrialization of urban centers and the living conditions of the rural poor; covering floods and dust storms; civil unrest and world war; and, photographing anonymous Southern sharecroppers and Russian proletariat, and infamous heads of state.

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Margaret’s lifelong fascination with industrial machinery and photography likely stemmed from her childhood experiences. At the age of eight, she accompanied her father to work to witness the molten iron being poured to make the printing presses, and she regularly joined him on his photographic outings and helped him develop his pictures in the family bathtub. Although she attended Columbia University in New York City with other academic interests, during her second semester, she registered for a photography class with Clarence H. White (no relation) and became hooked on photography the same year her amateur photographer father passed away. After her mother bought her a second-hand camera, Margaret made a hobby of printing and selling photographic postcards. But she did not embark on a full-fledged career as a professional freelance industrial and architectural photographer until 1927.

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

Adding photos of the Cleveland Terminal Tower and the Otis Steel mill to her portfolio, she met with and so impressed publisher Henry Luce in May 1929, that he hired her as a staff photographer for his soon-to-be launched, Fortune magazine. To sweeten the deal, Luce even offered Bourke-White the freedom to spend half the year working on her own freelance work for advertising agencies and corporate clients. Even after the Stock Market crashed in October 1929 and ushered in a decade-long depression, Margaret began her new career. She arrived in New York City that winter to photograph the Chrysler building, establishing a studio in the building, and audaciously photographing the city below from one of its gargoyles.

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

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

The following year, she participated in the “Men and Machines” exhibition sponsored by the Museums of the Peaceful Arts in New York City, believing that “Any important art coming out of the industrial age will draw inspiration from industry, because industry is alive and vital.” When Fortune sent her to Germany to photograph the Krupp Iron Works in 1930, she traveled on her own to the Soviet Union and secured permission to photograph the burgeoning industrial plants and the workers dragging the backward agrarian state into the 20th century under Stalin’s Five-Year Plan.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Bourke-White published her photographic and prose impressions of the Soviet Union the following year in Eyes on Russia. The book provided Americans with a glimpse into the gearing up of Stalin’s industrializing Socialist state even as their own capitalist economy appeared to have ground to a stand-still.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

The trip and the book appear to have expanded Bourke-White’s interests from architectural and industrial photography to capturing the people interacting with the machines and working in this “brave new world.” Her experiences in Russia introduced a more human and humane element as her hard focus on factories, gearing, and machine forms gave way to a wider angle lens that included the human heads and hands working those machines.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

She even dabbled with the briefest of experiments with motion pictures, creating two brief films about her travels in Russia. Back in the U.S.A., photojournalist assignments took Margaret to the American South and Midwest as depression-weary sharecroppers and tenant farmers struggled to feed their families and fend off eviction in the wake of boll weevil infestations, severe drought, soil erosion, and deadly dust storms.

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

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Francis Xavier Luca

But her initial attraction to architectural photography and obsession with modern machinery remained, reflected in the photographs she made for Fred C. Kelly’s book about the chemical solvent industry, One Thing Leads to Another: The Growth of an Industry (1936).

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

In 1935, Bourke-White met and began a clandestine relationship with a married man, Erskine Caldwell, a native Georgian and author of Tobacco Road (1932) and God’s Little Acre (1933). Even as Margaret continued to contribute work to Life magazine, the couple collaborated on a few photo-illustrated books. The first one, You Have Seen Their Faces was published in 1937.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Francis Xavier Luca

The culmination of eighteen months of travel through the Deep South, the book documented the desperate poverty and deplorable living conditions of the rural underclass.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Francis Xavier Luca

The couple also documented the extreme racism that persisted in the South, photographing exploited and debt-bound black sharecroppers as well as those condemned to hard labor on Southern chain gangs.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Francis Xavier Luca

Defenders of the Southern status quo attacked the photographic picture book’s unflinching focus on poverty and racism, while even sympathetic critics and competitors found Caldwell’s “first person” caption quotes patronizing, and Bourke-White’s portraits unflattering.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Francis Xavier Luca

Nonetheless, You Have Seen Their Faces proved to be a popular venture, the Viking hardcover edition being quickly followed up with an inexpensive Modern Age Books paperback edition that sold well. The book achieved its goal of raising consciousness about the plight of Southern agrarians and inspired (or provoked) other such collaborative works as author James Agee and Farm Security Administration photographer, Walker Evans’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941).

Even as You Have Seen Their Faces hit the bookstores in 1937, Bourke-White’s photographs of drought and dustbowl regions, flood victims and refugees, and impoverished Americans standing in soup and breadlines also pricked Americans’ consciences from the pages of Life magazine.

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

The previous year, Henry Luce had hired Bourke-White as one of four staff photographers for his new picture magazine publishing venture. Bourke-White’s photographs of the construction of Fort Peck Dam under the Roosevelt Administration earned her the inaugural cover and lead story.

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Like many socially conscious artists of the 1930s, Bourke-White flirted with leftist causes, forging associations with organizations promoting racial and class equality at home and supporting anti-fascist coalitions abroad. She was alleged to have subscribed to the Daily Worker and her name supposedly appeared on membership or sponsor rolls for Popular Front organizations such as the Artist Union, the National Advisory Board of the American Youth Congress, and the American League for Peace and Democracy.

In 1938, her work turned from domestic woes to foreign concerns as the editors of Life dispatched Bourke-White and Caldwell to Hungary and the Czech Republic, targets of Adolf Hitler’s saber-rattling demands for Liebensraum, or German territorial expansion into Central Europe.

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The correspondent and photographer couple documented life in the contested region even as Hitler and the Nazis schemed to annex and occupy important swaths of Czechoslovakia, publishing the timely North of the Danube in 1939.

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After Caldwell’s divorced his first wife, he and Bourke-White married in 1939, publishing two more photographic picture books as a couple. After a brief honeymoon, Life dispatched Bourke-White to England to document their war preparations, and then through Central Europe, Turkey, and the Middle East. When she returned to the States, Margaret and her husband set off on a cross-country excursion together, once more documenting the American scene. Many of Bourke-White’s photographs evidenced her focus and concern with people and culture, and racial and ethnic identities. Her photos did not shy away from making bold social statements regarding the promise of America and her shortcomings. Always, though, her work expressed an empathy for working men and women and neglected ethnic and racial minorities.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

When Life declined to publish some of her photographs, Bourke-White and Caldwell compiled and published them in Say, Is This the U.S.A.? (1941).

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

In the summer of 1941, the couple were on assignment in Russia when Hitler betrayed the non-aggression pact he had signed in 1939 and invaded the Soviet Union. From their unique position, Caldwell and Bourke-White were able to send out the first radio broadcasts, newspaper articles, and photographic images to America describing the Russian front. When the Germans bombed Moscow, Margaret captured some of the only photographs of the air raid, including a famous shot of the Kremlin illuminated by exploding bombs. Caldwell and Bourke-White’s final collaboration as a couple, Russia at War would be published in 1942.

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Bourke-White not only made sympathetic prints of the Russian people and soldiers at war, but also documented such controversial and taboo topics as the Soviet state’s anti-religious museums.

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Margaret’s many overseas assignments strained their marriage, however, and in 1942 Caldwell filed for divorce. Liberated from her “personal problems,” Margaret was now free to travel at will. Her photographs documenting the contributions of the myriad of “Rosie the riveter” (women war workers on the home front) were published in Life magazine.

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

Bourke-White also traveled with U.S. Armed Forces to the battle fronts as an official war photographer. Surviving the torpedoing of a ship bound for North Africa, it is rumored that her adventures might have loosely inspired a character in movie director Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat (1944). Margaret was renown for always dressing smartly, and early in the film a female journalist took the time to salvage her mink coat and makeup while abandoning the ship. There the comparison ends, as Hitchcock’s journalist excitedly boasts to a fellow survivor of having captured on film the dramatic sinking of the ship and other victims of the U-Boat attack with a cold and callous indifference to the loss of human life that was very unlike the way Margaret approached her subjects.

After arriving in North Africa, Bourke-White became the first woman to accompany U.S. Army Air Forces on a combat mission. Her experiences as a war correspondent and photographer were also documented in two more books: They Called It “Purple Heart Valley” (1944) and Dear Fatherland, Rest Quietly (1945).

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

Bourke-White remained very active as a Life photographer in the postwar period. In the late 1940s, she interviewed and photographed Mahatma Gandhi on several occasions before his assassination. She also traveled to South Africa and documented the injustices of the apartheid government. But Bourke-White’s commitment to social equality and racial justice causes had also left her open to targeting by anti-Communist crusaders who deemed any criticism of the status quo as subversive. In 1944, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) cited Bourke-White 13 times on account of her alleged associations with Communist front organizations in the 1930s. At the height of McCarthyism and the Second Red Scare “witch hunt” hysteria in the United States in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the Federal Bureau of Investigation targeted her as a person worth watching. Aside from a few fragmentary and hearsay accusations and guilt by association “evidence” compiled in her 209-page dossier, F.B.I. investigators ultimately exonerated her from charges of being a member of or active in the Communist Party. Around the same time that Bourke-White covered the conflict in Korea, she began to experience the first symptoms of Parkinson’s, a debilitating disease that hindered her work and ultimately ended her life eighteen years later. If slanderous attacks by McCarthyites and hysterical Communist witch hunters tarnished her reputation in the McCarthy era and the onset of her debilitating illness pushed her from the limelight in her later years, her photographic prints of the machine age, the social strife of the thirties, and military conflicts of the forties remain behind to ensure her lasting legacy.

CCC Reboot

•May 20, 2021 • Leave a Comment

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

This morning as I followed my usual routine of listening to NPR while shaving and getting ready for work, I heard a story about President Biden’s plans to revivify President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s CCC program.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

The original CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) had been designed to deal with the growing delinquency problem as hundreds of thousands of youths dropped out of school and hit the highways and rode the rails in a desperate (and usually fruitless) search for work at the nadir of the Great Depression. A long-time advocate of the Boy Scouts, President Roosevelt believed that rounding up these street urchins and employing them in conservation work in the nation’s state and national parks and forests would not only provide them with pride in being able to support themselves and their struggling families (the majority of their pay went directly home) but would also address serious environmental threats including deforestation, soil erosion, flooding, forest fires, and insect infestations.

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

Biden’s CCC (renamed the Civilian Climate Corps) also aims to enlist and employ thousands of young Americans to address the threats posed by climate change. Towards that end, Biden not only appointed someone who advocated revivifying the CCC as his Secretary of the Interior, but one of his first executive orders explicitly called for the creation of a modern and more inclusive CCC to “mobilize the next generation of conservation and resilience workers and maximize the creation of accessible training opportunities and good jobs.”

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

The Wolfsonian Library possesses a fine collection of historical artifacts documenting the work of the original Civilian Conservation Corps created by FDR in 1933. Roosevelt’s CCC program, affectionately nicknamed “Roosevelt’s Tree Army,” immediately enrolled 250,000 young men. Over the course of its nine-year existence, the CCC put three million young men to work planting billions of trees and building roads, bridges, trails, and improving recreational facilities and campgrounds to make the country’s state and national parks and forests more accessible to nature-loving tourists.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

The CCC enrollees also shouldered the difficult and dangerous work of logging trees, clearing underbrush, and fighting forest fires; building dikes and dams and participating in flood control, rescue, and recovery efforts; and suppressing underground coal fires before the program ended in 1942 when all available manpower was diverted to the war effort.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

While Mrs. Roosevelt reminded her husband not to forget the ladies, comparatively few camps were established for a few thousand unemployed women. Derisively described as She-She-She Camps, the work and training in those wilderness camps centered on home economic skills like sewing and cooking.

The original CCC camps were organized and established under the discipline and leadership of U.S. Army officers. Though clothed in military-style uniforms, housed in barracks, fed in communal mess halls, and roused by Reveille, the enrollees did not participate in military drill or training.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Most CCC enrollees were undernourished urban youths between the ages of 18 and 25, whose parents had lost their jobs during the economic crisis. Enrollees typically enlisted for a six-month stint (although they could, and many did, reenlist). Although camps were established in every state of the union, joining the CCC often afforded these disadvantaged youths the opportunity to travel and see other parts of the country and to immerse themselves in the wilderness experience as there was often much work to be done in the Western parks and forests.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

To commemorate their conservation work, many of the camps published annuals and other materials akin to high school yearbooks, leaving space for diaries, journal entries, and autographs.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Purchase

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

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

While it was assumed that laboring in conservation and natural resource development projects in the “great outdoors” would help restore the bodies and spirits of the enrollees, they were encouraged in their off hours to pursue educational and vocational opportunities that might make them more employable and better citizens after they left the camps. Because literacy was a serious issue for many high school dropouts, teachers were hired and sent to the camps and the CCC’ers were encouraged to publish camp newsletters churned out on simple mimeograph machines.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Not only did the original Civilian Conservation Corpsmen help support themselves and their families during the Great Depression, but many gained important skills that would help them find careers and an appreciation for nature that undoubtedly spawned the post-war environmental movement in the United States. Let’s hope that the latest incarnation of the CCC has an equally profound impact on shaping our environmental response and resilience to the challenges of global warming and climate change.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Unhappy Anniversary: The Hindenburg Disaster and the Demise of the Zeppelin

•May 6, 2021 • Leave a Comment

When most of us travel long distances, we almost invariably take flight as passengers in winged airplanes. But despite the ancient legend of Icarus and Leonardo da Vinci’s inventive dreams of winged flying machines, the earliest aircraft that enabled human beings to ascend into the skies were balloons and their successors, Zeppelins. Before the fiery crash of the L.Z. Hindenburg was captured by a radio announcer and film crews at Lakehurst, New Jersey, lighter-than-air zeppelins (rather than airplanes with their limited flight range) were expected to be the primary mode of speedy, comfortable, safe, and luxurious long-distance air travel in the future.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

A hot-air balloon created by the Montgolfier brothers and manned by Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier and François Laurent d’Arlandes went aloft from Paris on November 21, 1783 in the first untethered free flight. While balloons pioneered the conquest of the air and were used for military reconnaissance in military battle as early as 1794, aside from the popularity of tethered balloons at expositions and world’s fairs, their commercial use was limited by the small gondolas and the fact that they were subject to the whims of the winds.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Born in Konstanz, Baden in Germany in 1838, Ferdinand, Graf von Zeppelin became fascinated by aerial flight. Having received a military commission in 1858, the count took a leave of absence in 1863 to travel to America and act as a military observer for the Union Army during the Civil War. He visited the balloon observation camp during the Peninsular Campaign and afterwards traveled to St. Paul, Minnesota. There he met with the German-born balloonist John Steiner, made his first balloon tethered ascensions, and became a life-long advocate of lighter-than-air travel. Even as he rose in the ranks of the German military command, Zeppelin remained obsessed with the possibilities of flight, expressing in his diary his ideas for large-scale airships as early as March 25, 1874. After Charles Renard and Arthur Krebs successfully created and tested their own non-rigid airship, La France, for the French Army a decade later, Zeppelin sent a letter to the King of Württemberg insisting on the military necessity of dirigibles and warning of the dangers of falling behind.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Resigning from the army in 1891, the 52-year-old count decided to devote the rest of his life and much of his family fortune to developing airships along the lines of his original idea. He conceived of an exterior rigid duralumin envelope covered in fabric; a modular internal frame containing several cells filled with hydrogen gas; and external engines, a command control, and a gondola protruding from the underbelly.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Because of the spatial and airlift requirements for his airship, Count Zeppelin built a huge floating hanger built on Lake Constance, tethering it by a single anchor to ensure the entrance was always lined up with the wind.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Zeppelin’s first airship, the LZ 1, ascended into the air and hovered over Lake Constance for 20 minutes on July 2, 1900—nearly 3 1/2 years before the Wright brothers made their ground-breaking flights in a powered winged airplane. Larger and more refined models of the first zeppelin soon followed. In October and November 1908, successful test flights of the LZ 3 included the Kaiser’s brother and crown prince as passengers. The German government awarded Zeppelin the Order of the Black Eagle and placed orders for a refined L II design for military service. The zeppelin, however, was not without competitors, as August von Parseval had designed a non-rigid alternative aircraft, and produced 22 of these hydrogen gas-filled aircraft between 1909 and 1919.  

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Although Zeppelin’s military contract kept his airship company afloat, before the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, the business manager of the Luftschiffbau-Zeppelin firm capitalized on the popularity of the airships by establishing a civil and commercial passenger service. As many as 37,250 passengers embarked on more than 1,600 flights aboard airships before 1914, without a single incident or accident, dominating the skies and delivering the promise of fast and comfortable travel through the air.

At the start of the First World War, the German Army deployed its zeppelins on reconnaissance missions. But as the Western Front’s trench warfare created a stalemate, the German military command used the aerial juggernauts to strike fear in their enemy, accomplishing what the limited range biplanes could not. Able to travel at speeds of 85 miles per hour, easily cross the Channel, and carry and drop tons of bombs on English towns and cities, the zeppelins brought the war to their English enemy’s homeland. Beginning in January 1915, zeppelin raids over southeast England encountered virtually no resistance. By the war’s end, the airships had bombed and burned numerous buildings and structures, killed a total of 500 civilians, and injured over a thousand more before the British met the Zeppelin threat by exploiting the airships’ vulnerability, firing explosive bullets into the behemoths filled with flammable hydrogen gas. The Germans discontinued the zeppelin raids in 1917—the same year that Graf von Zeppelin died, after 77 of the 115 military airships had been downed, destroyed, or disabled. The Royal Air Force was formed the following year to engage in dogfights and duels to the death with the German heavy bomber airplanes that were supplanting the airships. After the war, the Treaty of Versailles forced a provisional cessation of the zeppelin program.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

At the war’s end, Dr. Hugo Eckener assumed control of the zeppelin’s airship company.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Although limited by the Versailles Treaty from building large airships, Eckener persuaded the American government to permit him to build the LZ 126 for delivery to the U.S. Navy as part of German reparations. Eckener captained and delivered the airship (rechristened the USS Los Angeles) to Lakehurst, New Jersey. It remained the Navy’s longest operating rigid airship and was memorialized in such decorative arts objects as a hanging lamp.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

As postwar Germany’s Weimar government lacked the funds to revive the zeppelin, Eckener promoted the construction of the LZ 127 with a national lecture tour. Eckener’s dream of creating a luxury airliner came to fruition and the great airship was christened, appropriately enough, the Graf Zeppelin.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Eckener captained the airship on its first flight to the United States, during almost all its record-setting flights, its 1928 intercontinental passenger flight, an around the world flight in 1929, and a flight to the Arctic in 1931. Eckener’s insistence on “safety-first” resulted in a record in which not a single passenger sustained a serious injury over the course of more than a million miles flown.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

The zeppelin became a source of German pride and the giant airship was reproduced on everything from cigar box labels, porcelain dinnerware, to children’s books, and as toys.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Eckener became a national hero and seriously considered running for president in 1932. Because he was an outspoken critic of the National Socialists, after Adolf Hitler took power in 1933 the Nazis nationalized the zeppelin industry and diminished Eckener’s influence by appointing party loyalists as managing directors and air pilots. In 1936, the Nazis completed construction and testing of the LZ-129 Hindenburg, the largest hydrogen-filled airship ever entered into service.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

After 62 trial and publicity flights, the 13-story tall, ocean liner-sized zeppelin made 20 successful crossings of the Atlantic in a single year.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Designed for commercial service, the Hindenburg offered its passengers all the comforts one might expect aboard a luxury liner. In addition to private staterooms, the zeppelin included a dining area, reading room, and a bar and lounge equipped with lightweight but comfortable tubular aluminum furniture and furnishings.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

While the costs of travel by airship excluded all but the very wealthy, this was also true of air travel generally at the time. The zeppelin afforded its passengers the ability to walk freely about the gondola and enjoy spectacular views; by contrast, even the most luxurious airplanes of the period confined passengers to cramped seating arrangements and a bumpy ride as small craft were buffeted by the winds.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Although airship pilots doubled as expert meteorologists to ensure fast, safe, and comfortable passage, the fact that the zeppelins were filled with highly flammable hydrogen gas made them extremely vulnerable to sparks or lightning storms. On May 6, 1937, the Hindenburg was still 60 meters above the ground and attempting to land at its mooring mast at Lakehurst when a presumed leak in one of the airship’s gas bags ignited. Within 34 seconds each of the hydrogen-filled gas bags inside burst into flames, consuming the giant canvas-covered structure in a fiery crash.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Of the 97 persons aboard, 29 died at the crash site and another 6 succumbed to their injuries at the hospital. A young and emotional radio announcer, Herbert Morrison, had been on hand along with a film crew there to capture the landing.

The fiery Hindenburg tragedy was neither the first nor deadliest of airship disasters, with 62 survivors, but the verbal and visual record of the event ensured worldwide exposure and negative publicity that doomed travel by zeppelin.

In the wake of the Hindenburg disaster, Eckener oversaw the building and commission of the LZ 130 Graf Zeppelin II in 1938/39.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

While he hoped to substitute noncombustible helium gas for hydrogen, the United States remained the sole source of substantial helium reserves and refused to allow shipment to the Nazi regime. Consequently, Eckener refused to put the Graf Zeppelin II into service as a commercial passenger ship. After the start of the Second World War, Air Marshall Hermann Goering decided to scrap the ship and its hangars to provide material for building military planes.

Only in the last few years has the idea of reviving airships been floated as a more ecologically sustainable means of transporting goods and people to otherwise inaccessible places on the planet.

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

•March 31, 2021 • 1 Comment

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

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

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mike Mathews Washington Storage Archive

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

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mike Mathews Washington Storage Archive

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

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mike Mathews Washington Storage Archive

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mike Mathews Washington Storage Archive

A Brief Sketch of Portrait Artist, Neysa McMein

•March 24, 2021 • Leave a Comment

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

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Vicki Gold Levi

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

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

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gifts of Vicki Gold Levi

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

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gifts of Henry S. Hacker

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

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gifts of Vicki Gold Levi

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

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

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

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

•February 28, 2021 • Leave a Comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

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

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

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

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

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

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

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

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

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

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

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

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

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

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

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

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

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

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

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