It is hard to believe it has been a full year since the death of our great friend Charles Hirsch. Sometimes I still think he is here. I may see a person on the street with his familiar gait. Or maybe it is someone on the subway wearing a fedora like the one he himself wore. It is still strange not getting a text containing his excitement about how the Packers just won. Some may remember this piece that I wrote last year …
I just came from the funeral of our great friend Charles Hirsch. Charles was a professor in the English Department at the college where I work. He was so many other things as well. In years past he had worked for the Muppets and was a writer/editor at the magazine Highlights for Children. Unafraid to take chances, he often moved to different parts of the country and even the world, certain that his charm, talents, and intellect would allow him to succeed anywhere he went. Of course he was right.
The word brilliant came up more than once during the ceremony. I am glad it did; I don’t think I ever won a debate with Charles. And yet his personality was such that you never felt he was showing you up. His was the kind of intelligence that lifted those around him. As the priest pointed out, Charles was so dynamic that when you were in his presence you felt like the most important person in the world. Fittingly there was a huge, disparate, turnout for his service, a cross-section of the multitudes of lives Charles lived in his sixty-six years.
I cannot believe we live in a world without Charles Hirsch. I am grateful for times we all had together, at our wedding in Florida where it was freezing cold, in Gettysburg, Yankee Stadium, and so many other places besides. I wanted him to live long enough to see me accomplish some of the projects on which I am currently working. Alas, that was not meant to be. Still, I will carry on with the knowledge that he believed I have what it takes to do them. It meant the world to me when he said that.
We will miss you, Charles. Yours was a life well lived.
This past Wednesday morning I mentioned to the Hayfoot that it was Remembrance Day, the anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Remembrance Day, besides being an opportune time to contemplate Lincoln’s words, is a gentle reminder that the cold and early darkness will not last forever. Spring and summer will indeed return and with that will come our near-annual visit to Gettysburg.
I was thinking about this again yesterday when I realized it was the 51st anniversary of the Kennedy assassination. JFK’s murder is something I have never gotten too involved in; it just seems an interminable rabbit hole. I remember living in Dallas in the mid-1990s and coming across Dealey Plaza by accident one day. This was already thirty years after Kennedy’s death and more people than you might think were out selling their pamphlets with their individual theories. For 5/10 bucks someone would take you on a guided tour. Maybe people are still doing this.
One aspect of Kennedy’s assassination that does not always occur to people is that it came three days after the 100th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address. Quite intentionally, some of the iconography of Lincoln’s funeral was incorporated into the ceremonies for Kennedy. Interestingly they had invited Kennedy to Pennsylvania but he went to Texas instead. His predecessor, Eisenhower, took his place. Eisenhower of course lived in Gettysburg and was an active part of the community. One thing that stands out in the Eisenhower parlor are the statuettes of Meade and Lee on the mantel.
This past February, on Lincoln’s Birthday no less, I was doing research at the Union League Club for the Theodore Roosevelt Sr book. Nineteen sixty-three was the centennial not just of the Gettysburg Address but of the ULC as well. Roosevelt Senior and his brothers were early members of the club, which was founded in February 1863 to help Lincoln prosecute the war. This was just after Fredericksburg and the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln popularity was down and he needed all the help he could get. The Union League Club is something I always discuss during my tours of the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace.
I came across an interesting document. It is a letter written by Dwight Eisenhower to the leader of the Union League Club thanking him for honorary membership in the organization. Many things stand out in the letter. One of the most striking is that it was written on 30 November 1963, eight days after the Kennedy assassination.
(top image/Library of Congress)
I have been thinking more and more about the United American War Veterans since posting the bit the other day about the plaque they placed at the U.S. Custom House on Memorial Day 1921. It seems remarkable to me that a prominent group like that could just come and go so quickly. I intend to do more with this in the near future, but a cursory search reveals that the story is as fascinating as it is obscure.
The head of the the U.A.W.V. turns out to have been a New Yorker named Warren Shaw Fisher. He was a veteran of both the Spanish-American and Great Wars, and his father had fought in the American Civil War. It turns out Fisher was a bigwig in New York State Progressive politics. On 26 October 1919 he stood in for Leonard Wood at a veterans function at Carnegie Hall. The timing was not accidental, Theodore Roosevelt had died that January and his birthday was the next day. Everyone in the audience would have known that.
Just two weeks earlier Wood had spoken at Carnegie Hall himself, at a fundraiser of the Women’s Roosevelt Memorial Association. Corinne Roosevelt Robinson, Theodore’s sister and a published poet, read a poem she had written about Quentin Roosevelt’s air service buddies and the role they played at Theodore’s funeral that January. This Carnegie Hall fundraiser served the dual function of promoting Wood’s 1920 presidential prospects. It must have been an extraordinary moment.
The 1920 campaign was where Corinne Robinson gained fame as the first woman ever to speak for a major party candidate when she spoke on Wood’s behalf. Fisher threw his influence behind the general’s presidential run and was active in the Leonard Wood League.
On the 4th of July 1921, just five weeks after the dedication of that plaque on Bowling Green, Shaw was the grand marshall in a 100,000 strong march against Prohibition. The 69th Regiment Band played behind him with a sign declaring that “The Volstead Act Must Go.” In case anyone failed to get the message, the parade included wounded vets driven in automobiles.
In 1922 Fisher supported Al Smith in his successful bid to retake the Albany governor’s mansion. Like Smith, Shaw was a Tammany Democrat. There must be a great story here because in the 1924 presidential election Shaw abandoned Smith and backed Robert La Follette. Shaw ran for New York City mayor in 1925 on the Progressive Political League ticket. The Progressives were strong in New York because of Theodore Roosevelt’s roots here, but the election went to Jimmy Walker.
Fisher died just three years later at the tender age of forty-nine. This may explain why he and the veterans group he led are all but forgotten today.
(image/Library of Congress)
The World War One Centennial Commission has posted my article about the 1938 Armistice Day on its Facebook page. If so inclined, be sure to like the page to receive regular updates via the Commission. I can tell you that they are doing a lot of worthwhile things for the anniversary of the Great War.
Yesterday I submitted some research to the World War 1 Memorial Inventory Project about a plaque that stands on the northern wall of the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House in Bowling Green. The Custom House is a beautiful structure designed by Cass Gilbert at the turn of the twentieth century. Standing at the corners of Broadway and Whitehall, the building is one of the grandest and most distinct structures in Lower Manhattan. Today it houses the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and the National Archives. Late in the summer I stumbled upon this monument early on a Sunday morning on my way to Governors Island:
I had to look him up but William H. Todd was a shipbuilder who lived in Brooklyn, NY. That makes sense as his company, Todd Shipyards Corporation, was based Red Hook. The company was formed through various mergers in 1916 and built many of the barges and minesweepers used by the U.S. Navy during the Great War. Oddly Todd died in 1932 when he fell down a flight of stairs at his son’s home.
What caught my attention on the plaque though wasn’t Todd, but the reference to a U.A.M.V. It turns out this was something called the United American War Veterans. I had never heard of this group but as it turns out it was a veterans group that in some ways competed with the American Legion after the First World War. It did not last; the U.A.M.V. seems to have gone defunct in the late 1920s.
If you search old newspapers from the 1920 you see a crazy quilt of Memorial Day commemorations across New York City. The Grand Army of the Republic was shrinking but still very much around. Not to be outdone there were then the veterans of the Spanish-American War. Now in 1919 and into the 20s there were the doughboys. Sometimes these cross-generational groups marched together and sometimes not. What’s more, even after consolidation in 1898 Brooklyn and Manhattan, not to mention the other boroughs, often had their own separate commemorations. There could be even more than one within the boroughs.
We see the remnants of the G.A.R. all around us. And the American Legion is still with us. It is funny though how some of these other groups fell by the wayside, all but forgotten by history.
This article is a little dense but I wanted to pass along Wilfred M. McClay’s article about the First World War and what it did to the notion of human progress. I remember being in graduate school 10+ years ago and having this discussion with my professor in a class on Modernity. One of the most fascinating aspects of World War One is that it came at a moment when two opposing notions were running parallel to each other. Never was Europe stronger; never did it control so much of the earth’s surface; never did the future, with its rationalism and idea of scientific progress, seems so limitless. Yet things were tenuous underneath–and not so far underneath–the surface. Reactionary monarchies ruling over unwieldy constituencies. Social strife. Nascent colonial independence movements. Jim Crowism and racial unrest here in the United States. These were all there as well. How these problems might have been resolved had the war not come we will never know.
As McClay notes, there is still an odd duality in our consciousness. On one side there is the hand-ringing and the postmodern nihilism that says we can never find objective truth; at the same time many in the West still believe it is possible to intercede and improve the world’s lot through thoughtful effort. Think of Bill Gates’s work on eradicating West Nile virus. It could be that one needs the notion of Progress in order to move forward. Still, the idea can have disastrous results and unintended consequences. Think about current events from our own recent past.
(image/Imperial War Museum)