Friday, April 24, 2015

APRIL 24 = The Library of Congress is Born




"If Adams found any relief or pleasure to his duties, it was approving, on April 24, legislation that appropriated $5,900 to 'purchase such books as may be necessary' for a new Library of Congress.  It was one of the few measures upon which he and the Vice President could have heartily agreed."

In this excerpt from his biography of John Adams, author David McCullough notes the strained circumstances both of the Adams presidency, and of our second president's relationship with out soon-to-be third president. But in this one area they found agreement.  And although this library would go through many misfortunes in its life, this would prove to be an area on which all of the citizens of the new republic could agree.  For the Library of Congress (pictured above, circa 1900) has grown to be a repository of knowledge that is unique in the world. But it all burned waaaay back near the beginning.....

The Origins of the Library of Congress

When the seat of our new national government was moved from Philadelphia to the Washington D.C., in 1800, a specialized collection of books for use by members of Congress was deemed a necessity.  So on April 24 John Adams did indeed approve legislation which provided for "such books as may necessary for the use of Congress -- and for putting up a suitable apartment for containing them therein."  As noted, the price tag for this in those days came to $5,900,  and some three thousand books were purchased over the next several years.  The
Library was at this time kept as a reference Library which was intended for the use of members of Congress only.  In 1801, Thomas Jefferson became President, and, as a man who possessed a large library himself, he naturally took an active interest in the Library of Congress, often recommending books that should be purchased.  An Act of Congress in 1802 gave the president the authority to name a Librarian of Congress.  John J. Beckley was so named and earned a salary of two dollars per day and in addition was to serve as Clerk of the House of Representatives. By 1814, the Library was housed in a timber framed room in the North wing of the Capitol building (above, circa 1800) with a double row of windows.

The Brits Burn the Library of Congress in 1814

The United States got wrapped up into the War of 1812 with Great Britain, and in 1814 the Brits swept into Maryland, and after quickly blowing away the disorganized defenses, marched into Washington on August 24.  And they decided to sack the town and burnt it and all of our public buildings, including the White House, and the Capitol
Building including the Library of Congress which was housed therein.  In fact, legend says that the marauders used the books in the library to light the Capitol building ablaze. While one American watched helplessly and expressed despair as the "elegant library" was being torched, the British commander, Rear Admiral Sir George Cockburn spoke regretfully, commenting "I do not make war against Letters nor Ladies." But burn it he did. Almost everything was lost... one of the few book to survive was a Government Account Book for 1810, which Cockburn took with him as a souvenir (his family returned it in 1940).

Jefferson Comes to the Rescue

Into this breech stepped Thomas Jefferson.  Living in retirement (below, circa 1821) he offered to sell his entire Library to the U.S. government to replace all of what was lost in the fire. Besides, he needed the money to pay debts.  He wanted a library of broader appeal
than just law: "I do not know that it contains any branch of science which Congress would wish to exclude from their collection; there is, in fact, no subject to which a member of Congress may not have occasion to refer." he remarked.  There was some opposition among Federalist lawmakers. Many of Jefferson's volumes were considered radical; the works of Rousseau and Voltaire in particular. A writer to one Boston newspaper summed up some of this feeling: "The grand library of Mr. Jefferson will undoubtedly be purchased with all its finery and philosophical nonsense." Eventually a price of $23,950 was settled on and the library of Jefferson was packed up in ten wagons and became the Library of Congress. Jefferson's friend John Adams (for they had patched up their quarrel) remarked "...I envy you this immortal honour; but I cannot enter into competition with you for my books are not half the number of yours..."  The addition of Jefferson's volume became the nucleus for the new library.

The Library of Congress Since Then

The Library of Congress (pictured below as it looks today) since those early days has grown into the foremost collection of knowledge in the world. In the words of the website, "Jefferson's Legacy":

"The diversity of the Library of Congress is startling. Simultaneously it serves as: a legislative library and the major research arm of the U.S. Congress; the copyright agency of the United States; a center for scholarship that collects research materials in many media and in... (more than) 450 languages; a public institution that is open to everyone over high school age and serves readers in twenty-two reading rooms; a government library that is heavily used by the executive branch and the judiciary; a national library for the blind and physically handicapped; an outstanding law library; one of the world's largest providers of bibliographic data and products; a center for the commissioning and performance of chamber music; the home of the nation's poet laureate; the sponsor of exhibitions and of musical, literary, and cultural programs that reach across the nation and the world; a research center for the preservation and conservation of library materials; and the world's largest repository of maps, atlases, printed and recorded music, motion pictures and television programs."




Sources =

"The Library, An Illustrated History" by Stuart P. Murray, Skyhorse Publishing, New York, 2009.

"John Adams" by David McCullough, Simon and Schuster, New York, 2001

"The Sage of Monticello" by Dumas Malone, Little, Brown and Co., Boston, 1981

"The Adams - Jefferson Letters" ed. by Lee Cappon, Univ. of N.C. Press, Chapel Hill, 1988

"A Picture History of the U.S. Navy" by Theodore Roscoe and Fred Freeman, Bonanza Books,
New York, 1956

http://www.loc.gov/loc/legacy/loc.html




























Monday, April 13, 2015

APRIL 13 = Handel's "Messiah" Premieres



“There were some parts that were affecting, but I doubt it has staying power” -  John Wesley

“I did think I saw heaven open, and saw the very face of God”.  - George Frideric Handel  

On today's date, April 13 in 1742, George Frideric Handel's classic Oratorio "The Messiah" had it's premiere performance in Dublin, Ireland. The two comments above are two very different reactions to the piece.  The first, by the founder of the Methodist Church was one that was shared by some of those who heard it.  But the second, by the composer himself during the writing of the work, is a better reflection of the general reaction to this piece as it has come down to us over the years.

Handel, the Oratorio, and "The Messiah"

George Frideric Handel (1685 - 1759) was a German born composer who had become well known outside of his native land. He had spent most of his career in England writing music to appeal to the noble caste of that country. Italian Opera was the favorite form of entertainment for the British aristocracy, and at this Handel had been quite successful.  But by 1740, Handel had had a medical setback (apparently
a stroke) which left him unable to perform. This left him in dire financial straights.  So he took to composing oratorios.  These were much like operas in that they usually told a story, and involved dramatic solos alternating with chorus.  But unlike operas, they were done in concert presentation; meaning no elaborate sets or costumes, or dramatic productions. Thus they were much cheaper and easier to produce. In July of 1741, Charles Jennens (above) sent a libretto (the text to be sung) to Handel for an oratorio. He wrote to a friend:  "I hope [Handel] will lay out his whole Genius & Skill upon it, that the Composition may excell all his former Compositions, as the Subject excells every other subject. The Subject is Messiah".

"The Messiah" is Written and Performed

And in two very busy months, Handel wrote a masterpiece. Like all of Handel's oratorios although it is on sacred subject matter, it is much closer to theater than it is to a church service. The text is entirely scriptural, and unlike the rest of Handel's oratorios, it doesn't tell a story, although it does follow the biblical telling of the life of Jesus of Nazareth.  It is actually a series of moments from the life of Jesus, contemplating the Christian ideal of sin and redemption, and going
through until Christ's final triumph. It is divided into three parts: Part One covering Christ's birth, Part Two covering his passion, his death and his resurrection, and Part Three covering judgement day and ending with Christ's acclamation. The first performance was given at the Great Music Hall in Dublin (above), Ireland as a part of a series of concerts.  But all of the proceeds of the performance of the Messiah were given to charity.  The name of Handel as the composer was still a draw and the audience grew to 700, as ladies heard requests by management to wear dresses "without Hoops" in order to make "Room for more company." The performance was a great success in Ireland. one clergyman was moved to shout "Woman, for this be all thy sins forgiven thee!" on hearing the aria "He Was Despised".

"Hallelujah!"

One can find many, many accounts online covering the story behind the Messiah, and it's writing. And these accounts tend to differ on points of detail.  There are various versions available online to be found on the reasons why King George II stood up for the "Hallelujah" Chorus which concludes Part Two during a performance in the 1750's.  One says that His Majesty's foot had simply fallen asleep, and he was simply trying to awaken it.  Another version has it that His Majesty was standing to honor the chorus's declaration of Christ as "King of Kings".  During the 1970's, my then private double bass teacher, Alex Cirin told me a version that he had heard that George II had himself fallen asleep, and that when the chorus made its forte' entrance, the King was awakened and startled into standing up.  Whatever the case, the audience of the day dutifully followed the tradition that when the King stands, everyone else must also stand.  And hence the tradition has stood right down to the present - whenever the Hallelujah Chorus is played, the entire audience stands. "The Messiah" did well in its Dublin premiere, but was less successful in its London premiere about a year later. Nevertheless, it has proven to be one of the most popular pieces ever written, and has long since become a staple of Christmas and Easter traditions all over the world.





Sources =

http://www.beliefnet.com/columnists/bibleandculture/2009/12/handels-messiah-the-story-behind-the-classic.html#

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Messiah_%28Handel%29

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Frideric_Handel

"A History of Western Music" by Donald Jay Grout, W.W. Norton and Co. Inc., 1973



Friday, April 10, 2015

APRIL 10 = The ASPCA is Founded



"On a New York street corner on April 22, 1866, Unitarian Henry Bergh gathered his courage and approached a cart driver unmercifully beating his exhausted horse. 'My friend, you can’t do that anymore.' Astonished, the driver exclaimed, 'Can’t beat my own horse?—the devil I can’t,' and resumed. Bergh added, 'You are not aware, probably, that you are breaking the law, but . . . I have the new statute in my pocket, and the horse is yours only to treat kindly.' Mouth agape, the driver advised, 'Go to hell—you’re mad!'”

This little vignette from a fine article by John Gibb Millspaugh is very illustrative of Mr. Henry Bergh (above), at least later in his life.  It was the heartfelt pleas on behalf off animals everywhere by Bergh which led to the incorporation of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (the ASPCA) on today's date, April 10 in 1866.  Called "the Great Meddler" in some quarters, Bergh made it everyone's business to prevent callous cruelty to animals, and his organization has made it everyone's business ever since.

Bergh is Appalled by What He Sees

Bergh had indeed been an occasional play writer as a young man.  He had no pets, and apparently didn't much think about animals early on in his life.  A prominent citizen who had studied at Columbia University, he was an heir to his father's shipyard business.  In 1862, Bergh was appointed secretary and acting vice-consul to the
American legation in St. Petersburg, Russia during the reign of Czar Alexander II by President Abraham Lincoln. It was while he was engaged in this diplomatic work that Bergh witnessed the cruel way in which many of the peasant drivers in Russia beat their horses that he became so very horrified with this attitude of wanton cruelty towards animals that he made it his mission to do something about it.  The cold climate in Russia obliged him to resign his diplomatic post in 1864. Bergh travelled around Europe and it was in June of 1865 that he paid a visit  to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in London. Here he studied the work that that organization performed.

Bergh Crusades for Animal Rights in the U.S.

Bergh returned to the United States determined secure a charter to incorporate the ASPCA.  Further,
he was dedicated to the idea that there needed to be statutes on the books which exercised the legal authority to arrest and prosecute violators of the law. At New York's Clinton Hall on February 8, 1866 Bergh made a speech in which he spoke up for humane consideration of animals, “these mute servants of mankind.” This was an issue of concern to everyone he said, regardless of political party or social class: “This is a matter purely of conscience; it has no perplexing side issues,” he said. “It is a moral question in all its aspects. It is a solemn recognition of that greatest attribute of the Almighty Ruler of the universe, mercy."  This address led a number of dignitaries who were present to sign his “Declaration of the Rights of Animals.”

"The Great Meddler" Triumphs

Bergh lobbied and won the support of such prominent citizens as the Rockefellers, and the great newspaper man Horace Greeley came to support his cause. He was often ridiculed in the newspapers of the day who viewed him as a busybody sticking his nose into other people's affairs. Derided as “An Ass That Should Have His Ears Cropped.” And also as “the Great Meddler”, Bergh nevertheless
worked tirelessly to achieve his goal of an SPCA, and for working laws to prevent just the sort of indifference and outright cruelty to animals such as demonstrated by the man he spoke to in the encounter that began this posting. His work paid off with the charter incorporating the ASPCA was passed by the New York State Legislature on today's date in 1866.  And just nine days later, the first important law against animal cruelty being passed which enabled the ASPCA investigate crimes of cruelty to animals and to make arrests in such cases. By the time of his death in 1888, more than 25 organizations like the ASPCA had sprouted in the U.S. and Canada, and 38 states had laws against animal cruelty protecting not only horses, but dogs, cats, and farm animals of all kinds. And this work goes on down to the present day, covering any and all animals, whether they are mammals, reptiles, fish or birds.



Sources:

http://www.uuworld.org/ideas/articles/183480.shtml

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Bergh

http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/aspca-is-founded

"Heritage of Care: The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals" by Marion S Lane and Stephen L. Zawistowski Ph.D., Praeger Publishers, Westport, CT. 2008



















Thursday, April 2, 2015

APRIL 2 = Ponce in Florida, Hans Christian Andersen

On today's date, April 2....
In 1513 =

Spanish Explorer Ponce de Leon, who was looking for the "Fountain of Youth" ran into Florida instead, or so the story went.  According to the History of Ponce de Leon in Florida compiled by Antonio de Herrera y Tordesillas:
"The 2nd of April running West-Northwest, the water diminishing to nine fathoms, at one league from land... they ran along beside the coast seeking harbor, and at night anchored near the land in eight fathoms of water.  And believing that this land was an island, they named it La Florida, because it had a very beautiful view of many and cool woodlands, and because it was level and uniform, and because, moreover, they discovered it in the time of the Feast of Flowers {Pascua Florida}..."

Antonio may have gotten these details right, as he had access to the ship's log.  But as he was writing in 1601, he likely was speculating about many of the details.  Further, the claim that Ponce de Leon was searching for the Fountain of Youth came from the Memoir of Hernando D'Escalante Fontaneda written in 1575. Fonteneda thought that the mythical fountain was in Florida, and said that Ponce de Leon was searching for it there.  His account likely influenced Antonio's work some 25 years later. But the fact remains that de Leon may possibly have heard these stories, but he did not mention it anywhere in his writings about his expedition to Florida.

In 1805 =

Hans Christian Andersen (right) , one of the worlds great story tellers, and the author of some of the classic children's fairy tales of history was born in Odensk, near the capital city of Denmark, Copenhagen.   Andersen's output during his life was not restricted to his children's stories as he wrote novels, plays and poetry.  In fact, "A Walk From Amager" (1829) a literary spoof was his first major work.  But it has been in his works for children that he expressed themes that have transcended his own time and place and touched on ideas which have come down to the present.

"The little mermaid grew fonder and fonder of human beings, and more and more she wished that she could live among them.... "Can't I do something to get an immortal soul?" "No," said the old woman said.  "Only if a human being loved you so much that you meant more to him than his father or mother -- and only if his thoughts and feelings were devoted to you, and he let the pastor put his right hand in your's with the promise of faithfulness now and for all eternity.  Then his soul would flow into your body, and you too could share in human happiness. "

Yes, that story is from the story "The Little Mermaid" which formed the basis of the enormously popular Walt Disney cartoon movie of the same name.  Just think: when you're thinking of a person who is hyper-sensitive to things and conditions, you're likely to think of "The Princess and the Pea" - a story by Andersen.  When you're thinking of a popular fad that everyone pretends to like, but which secretly they hate, or which they just don't understand, you're likely to think of "The Emperor's New Clothes." This man who would achieve considerable success with his published work in his lifetime died of liver cancer on August 4 in 1875. By that time he was paid an annual stipend by the Danish government as "national treasure." A statue of him by August Saaybe was erected and can now be seen in Rosenborg Castle Gardens in Copenhagen.




Sources:

Ponce de Leon =

http://content.wisconsinhistory.org/cdm/ref/collection/aj/id/12071

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Juan_Ponce_de_Le%C3%B3n

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fountain_of_Youth

Hans Christian Andersen =

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hans_Christian_Andersen

http://coffeehigh.ga.cch.schoolinsites.com/Common/CommonModules/DisplayEvent.asp?CalendarID=3981437&s=wg

"The Stories of Hans Christian Andersen"  Translated by Diana Crone Frank and Jeffrey Frank, Duke University Press, Durham and London, 2005.








Tuesday, March 31, 2015

MARCH 31 = The Eiffel Tower Opens



The Eiffel Tower,  perhaps one of the most recognizable structures in the world opened on today's date, March 31 in 1889.  The iron lattice tower located on the Champ de Mars in Paris, was built as an entrance arch to the 1889 World's Fair which was held to commemorate the centennial of the French Revolution. Named for its designer, Gustave Eiffel, the tower assumed the title of the tallest man-made structure in the world, at 1,063 feet until the Chrysler Building in New York City took that title in 1930.  In a ceremony presided over by Eiffel, and attended by French Prime Mister Pierre Tirard, other dignitaries, and 200 construction workers, an ascent was made to the top of the Tower. But since the elevators were not yet in service, this had to be done via the staircase.  Even with Monsieur Eiffel stopping at various points to explain various features of the structure, most of the company petered out at the lower levels.  But but a few, including several dignitaries, as well as reporters from the Paris newpapers Le Figaro and Le Monde Illustré managed to finish the epic trek. At 2:35 Eiffel hoisted a large French flag, accompanied a 25-gun salute fired from the lower level.

"Useless and Monstrous!!"

When the structure was proposed, there were of course, those who objected to the idea of this huge, iron gargoyle sitting atop their beloved Paris.  In fact, a group calling itself "The Committee of Three Hundred" - one for each meter of the Tower's proposed height and which included some of France's most important artistic names, such as  Guy de Maupassant, Charles Gounod and Jules Massenet published a particularly angry screed in the Paris newspaper Le Temps on February 14, 1887:

"We, writers, painters, sculptors, architects and passionate devotees of the hitherto untouched beauty of Paris, protest with all our strength, with all our indignation in the name of slighted French taste, against the erection … of this useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower … imagine for a moment a giddy, ridiculous tower dominating Paris like a gigantic black smokestack, crushing under its barbaric bulk Notre Dame, the Tour Saint-Jacques, the Louvre, the the Arc de Triomphe, all of our humiliated monuments will disappear in this ghastly dream.… we shall see stretching like a blot of ink the hateful shadow of the hateful column of bolted sheet metal."

But Monsieur Eiffel shot back with some verbiage of his own, upping the rhetoric by comparing his tower to the Pyramids of ancient Egypt: "My tower will be the tallest edifice ever erected by man. Will it not also be grandiose in its way? And why would something admirable in Egypt become hideous and ridiculous in Paris?" This brought about some of the caricature of Eiffel such as can be seen in the cartoon in the paper Le Central (above right).

The Eiffel Tower is Finished On Time and On Budget

In spite of all of the criticism, Gustave Eiffel (below) kept his eyes on the prize and managed to bring his "Monstrous" project in ahead of
time at two years and under budget, at 8 million francs or $1.5m (around $36m in today's money).  And thanks to the extensive safety precautions, such as the use of screens, guard rails, and movable stagings, the construction was finished with only one fatality. And in the end, no less an authority than Thomas Edison would write in the visitors book:  "engineer, the brave builder of so gigantic and original specimen of modern engineering from one who has the greatest respect and admiration for all engineers." This tower was almost torn down after the World Exposition's lease on the land atop which it stood expired after 20 years in 1909. But happily the value of the structure as a radio antenna saved it from demolition.  The Eiffel tower has since become an iconic landmark, in many ways the very symbol  of the city of Paris, indeed of France herself, and one of the most visited tourist attractions in the world.



Sources =

Photo at the top:

"Tour Eiffel Wikimedia Commons" by Benh LIEU SONG - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

Text:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eiffel_Tower

http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/eiffel-tower-opens

http://eandt.theiet.org/magazine/2011/05/classic-projects.cfm









Monday, March 23, 2015

MARCH 23 = Patrick Henry, "OK", and Elvis


On this date, March 23....

In 1775:

Patrick Henry (right) delivered a powerful rebuke to British policy in America.  In order to pay for the defense of the colonies Britain had levied taxes on tea and various other goods, and this left the colonials feeling as if they had no rights in determining their future.  "No taxation without representation!" became a cry frequently heard throughout the colonies. 
 The Coercive Acts (March 1774) closed Boston to merchant shipping, and among other things, required colonists to quarter British troops. The first Continental Congress was called to consider a united American resistance to the British.  Patrick Henry, an attorney in Virginia addressed the Second Virginia Assembly on today's date in a defiant speech which ended with a phrase which would become one of the most powerful calls which would ever be heard in the course of the American Revolution:

"The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!"

In 1836:


The term "OK" meaning everything is alright first was printed in the Boston Morning Herald as a kind of linguistic joke, meant as a short cut for “oll korrect,” a misspelling of “all correct” which was in popular vernacular use among circles of young, educated people at the time.
Just as young people in the present day have their own slang based on distortions of common words, such as “kewl” for “cool” or frequently used internet expressions such as "LOL" for "Loads of Laughs" or "OMG" for "Oh my god!!" The young, hip crowd of the 1830s had a whole host of slang terms they abbreviated. Popular abbreviations included “KY” for “No use” (“know yuse”), “KG” for “No go” (“Know go”), and “OW” for all right (“oll wright”).  Well the editor of the Boston Morning Herald published on today's date a humorous article in which he made fun of the whole thing.  Referring to a fictional organization called  the "Anti-Bell Ringing Society ",  he said:

"The 'Chairman of the Committee on Charity Lecture Bells,' is one of the deputation, and perhaps if he should return to Boston, via Providence, he of the Journal, and his train-band, would have his 'contribution box,' et ceteras, o.k.—all correct—and cause the corks to fly, like sparks, upward."

Well the idea seems to have gradually grown in popularity appearing in print throughout the country from then on until it stuck!!

In 1961:

Elvis Presley recorded the song "I Can't Help Falling in Love" at Radio Recorders studios in Hollywood California.  This song went on to become one of the biggest hits in the career of this man who had so many hits.  But clearly, this one held a special place in "The King's" heart because he would end his concert show with it to the end of his career. The melody is based on  a classical French love song, "Plaisir D'Amour" written in 1784 by Jean-Paul-Égide Martini (1741–1816).  The lyrics are based on a poem by Jean-Pierre Claris de Florian (1755–1794), which appears in his novel "Célestine."  Elvis sung a version of the song which had been written for him by the songwriting team of Luigi Creatore and Hugo Peretti, with the help of George David Weiss.

And it was sung in the film "Blue Hawaii" not for his love interest in the movie, "Maile Duval" played by Joan Blackmun but for a much older woman - that of the character of her grandmother, "Waihila" played by Hilo Hattie. The woman some 60 years old welcomes Elvis, "Chad Gates" back to Hawaii after his time in the army.  Remember, this was at the time when Elvis himself had finished his service in the
U.S. Army (March '58 - March '60).  He tells her that he picked her up a gift while he was in Austria, a small music box which he says plays a little tune which he then sings to her. It is a very sweet moment in a movie which was OK at best.  But it was sung by a young man who in real life had lost his own much beloved mother just three years before that film in 1958.  And as I and others have said the song likely held a special meaning for Elvis for that reason.  But the song, and the album of the movie went on to reach very high on the pop song charts that year after its release on October 1 of that year along with the album of "Blue Hawaii".


Sources:

Patrick Henry =

http://www.history.org/almanack/life/politics/giveme.cfm

http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/patrick-henry-voices-american-opposition-to-british-policy

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patrick_Henry

"OK" =

http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/ok-enters-national-vernacular

http://mentalfloss.com/article/50042/whats-real-origin-ok

Elvis =

http://www.songfacts.com/detail.php?id=1159

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plaisir_d%27amour

http://lastroseofsummer2.hubpages.com/hub/Elvis-and-Plaisir-damour-The-History-of-Cant-Help-Falling-in-Love-With-You

http://justasong2.blogspot.com/2010/02/elvis-presley-i-cant-help-falling-in.htm











Wednesday, March 18, 2015

MARCH 18 = The Gardner Museum Heist + 25



"Lost art doesn't fully explain the power of the Gardner case, why so many visit the museum to see the empty frames, why dozens of authors, artists, and academics have thrown themselves at the caper's mystery.  When I spoke to Gardner obsessives, they couldn't quite explain it either; they always talked about the theft as something intensely personal, often searching for metaphors in the way that people do when they want to comprehend something that is incomprehensible.  Some say the theft is like having something ripped from their soul.  Others compare the burglary to the death of a family member.  'Imagine you can never hear a Verdi Requiem or a Beethoven Symphony again. Just erased.  Imagine Shakespeare's Hamlet. Erased."  - Ulrich Boser

These are some of the reactions to the theft from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in the early morning hours of today's date in 1990 - 25 years ago today.  The thieves calmly walked off with artistic masterpieces valued at more than 500 MILLION dollars.  And the crime remains unsolved; the art un-recovered down to the present day.  And despite countless tips, leads and hopes raised quite recently, according to the Boston Globe, the world is no closer to recovering these elusive works of art than it was some twenty years ago.

Mrs. Gardner and Her Museum

One could scarcely conjure up a more eccentric character than Isabella Stewart Gardner.  Raised among the very upper crust of Boston Society in the late 19'th Century, Mrs. Gardner cut a very odd figure in that world wherein women were expected to be demure, pleasant and pretty, and nothing else.  But Mrs. Gardner was in this world for adventure, and made no bones about it. Her face was rather plain, but she had a remarkable figure (as captured by John Singer Sargent at right), and her sense of fun was unbounded. She used to gamble at racing cars, the horse track and even staged a boxing match in her living room. "Win as though you're used to it," she used to say, "and lose as though you like it."  Small wonder then that she freely indulged her life-long passion for art. She began planning her legacy museum in 1898, and spent the rest of her life lovingly stocking it with one of the finest art collections ever to be assembled into private hands, and left it to the people of Boston on her death in 1924 at the age of 83.

Two "Policemen" Demand Entrance 25 Years Ago

It was late on the night of a typically raucous St. Patrick's Day for the city of Boston. At about 1:15 am two men posing as police officers buzzed the side entrance doorway to the museum and said to the guard on the night shift "Police. Let us in.  We heard about a disturbance in the courtyard."  The security guard was suspicious, but let the two men in.  They asked if there were any other guards present.  There were. "Get him down here." the policeman ordered.  The other guard appeared and the two guards were promptly hand cuffed, had their eyes and their mouth covered with duct tape and were then chained to basement fixtures,  This was all that these men had to do to cut off the Gardner Museum from the rest of the world.  And for the next nearly 90 minutes they had the entire museum at their disposal. The thieves only encountered one other obstacle: at 1:48 am one of them set off a motion detector in one of the rooms, but this was quickly silenced.

The Gardner Thieves Steal Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Manet...

The first item the thieves went for was "The Storm on the Sea of Galilee" (below) by the immortal Dutch artist Rembrandt
Harmenszoon van Rijn known to the world simply as Rembrandt (1606 - 1669). This is the only seascape by the master painter into which he mischievously painted himself along with Christ and his disciples fighting for survival. The thieves pulled the painting down from the wall smashed it from its frame, and then pulled out a blade and savagely cut it from its stretcher. They give the same treatment to "A Lady and Gentleman in Black", also attributed to Rembrandt.  They next went and purloined "The Concert" (below) by the Dutch
painter Johannes Vermeer (1632 - 1675).  A delicate and very detailed work by this man about whom very little is known, and whose output is therefore quite limited. Many art historians refer to Vermeer's works as still lifes with people. This was taken by the intruders that night. Also taken were "Chez Tortoni" (below) by Edouard Manet (1832 - 1883), as well as other works... odd selections such as an ancient Chinese goblet and the Eagle finial from an Imperial Napoleonic flag.  And this is one of the most puzzling
aspects of the case: in order to get to the Eagle, the thieves passed by much more important and valuable items nearby by Raphael and Boticelli. It was as if they knew nothing about the value of art, but they clearly knew how to pull off the theft well enough. They were neither edgy nor nervous, and didn't use excessive violence on the security guards. They just calmly went about their business, And they had clearly familiarized themselves with the museum's security systems. They made two trips to a waiting vehicle to load up their loot, and then left. They had been in the Gardner for a total of 81 minutes. Thirteen items were stolen in all.

The Investigation Over the Years...

And this is where this story quickly becomes a dizzying run through countless dead-ends and tips that seemed tantalizing enough but which have lead nowhere.  I've read many articles in the web site for the Boston Globe.  I've read many other articles on the nature of the shadowy world of art theft.  I've read for example the book quoted at the top of this posting by Ulrich Boser, in which the investigation first was taken up by the great stolen art sleuth Harold Smith.  Ultimately
Smith was unable in his waning health to locate the stolen items. There was talk of a connection to the notorious gangster Whitey Bulger, and suggestions of a turf war over possession of the Gardner works with the Irish Republican Army.  But Bulger was captured in 2011, and the IRA has since gone over largely to peaceful governance.  Still the Gardner works are missing.  There was a promising tipster in 1994, but his tips and his contact dried up.  The FBI confidently announced in 2013 that it knew who was behind it. An aging conman named Robert Gentile was thought to have some knowledge of the Gardner thefts; maybe they were hidden beneath a garden shed in his backyard (above).  But as of March 11, 2015 this too, has lead nowhere.

The Frustration of Having No End....

This has been a tremendously frustrating story for the Director of the Gardner Museum Anne Hawley to deal with, for legions of art lovers to endure, for investigators to follow, and a very frustrating subject for me to write a posting about.  This was one of the very first items on which I planned to write.  In fact it was the very first Blog subject for which I purchased and read an entire book.  Mr. Boser's superb book was an introduction to this murky topic. But it has remained murky ever since
March 18, 1990,  since the publication of Mr. Boser's book in 2009, and it is still, at 25 years and counting still unsolved, the works still missing.  Mrs. Gardner's wonderful museum still has the empty frames in place to remind us of her missing children.  Legions of art lovers... of devotee's of Vermeer and Rembrandt still are left to stare into empty spaces where some of their most beloved works once hung.  Anne Hawley took over the reigns as the Gardner Director six weeks before the thefts, and despite her efforts to recover the stolen items (pictured above, a news conference on the thefts) as well as her other fine work as Director, her tenure seems destined to be marked by this tragedy.  Meanwhile, the Gardner Museum has valued the stolen works at 500 million dollars, and has offered 5 million dollars reward for information leading to the return of the artwork. And to this day, the empty frame of "Storm on the Sea of Galilee" remains (the picture of which is at the top of this posting), waiting for its subject to return.

Anyone with information about the stolen artworks and/or the investigation should contact Anthony Amore, Director of Security at the Gardner Museum, at 617 278 5114 or theft@gardnermuseum.org.  



Sources:

"The Gardner Heist" by Ulrich Boser, Harper Collins Publisher, 2009

https://www.bostonglobe.com/arts/theater-art/2015/03/14/for-gardner-museum-director-art-heist-set-off-year-odyssey-false-leads-and-loss/FksnFccbQiNonVdYrlOF2K/story.html

http://www.bostonglobe.com/magazine/2015/03/11/does-connecticut-shed-hold-secrets-gardner-heist/LHOwffI4jrOegKupbLdHwJ/story.html

The Boston Globe has many articles dealing with this subject in addition to the two to which I refer above.  A fairly comprehensive listing of them can be found at:

http://www.bostonglobe.com/arts/specials/gardner-museum-art-heist

Further on-line resources consulted:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isabella_Stewart_Gardner_Museum

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isabella_Stewart_Gardner

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rembrandt

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johannes_Vermeer

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C3%89douard_Manet