The Great Fair turns 75

I recently began researching a small piece for the World War I Centennial Commission social media page when I came across these remarkable photographs taken during the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair. If you do the math you will note that we are currently in the middle of the fair’s 75th anniversary. It was a fascinating historical moment because the Depression was finally starting to lift, while at the same time the clouds of war were gathering in Europe. The fair began on April 30 and the German invasion of Poland was on September 1. Needless to say, these and other events wreaked havoc on the fair and its hope for a batter world of tomorrow. The Second World War also had immediate concerns for event planners from the dozens of participating nations. For instance, which constituency  would represent this or that recently conquered nation in the fair’s pavilions? Would it be the resistance leaders or the representatives of the new regime? Or neither? Perhaps a country’s organizers would be better off shutting down their nation’s pavilion and washing one’s hands of the entire matter. How does one celebrate knowing the news of such death and destruction back home? These are the issues they dealt with.

The photos here are of American Civil War veterans at the fair. I wish I could date the images more precisely but as of yet cannot. I hope to do more with this in the future. In some cursory digging I discovered that Civil War veterans went to the 1939-1940 World’s Fair on several occasions. Helen D. Longstreet, Pete Longstreet’s widow, was at the fair at least twice. In June 1939 she was there to dedicate an exhibit of Confederate artifacts at the Florida Pavilion. A month later–on 2 July 1939, the 76th anniversary of the second day’s fighting at Gettysburg–she appeared again. Her appearance came one year after Franklin Delano Roosevelt spoke at the unveiling of the Peace Light Memorial.

The very week the Germans and Soviets were dividing Poland Civil War vets inspected the tanks of the Seventh Cavalry Brigade at the fairgrounds in Queens. Again, it is not clear when these photographs were taken. The one of the soldiers standing in front of the Lincoln statue says it was taken on Lincoln’s Birthday. The heavy coats would seem to corroborate that. I would guess the photograph was taken in 1940 but it could have been 1939 when the final touches were being made in preparation for the opening that spring. Note the photo of Robert E. Lee. This was quite consciously a reconciliationist effort on the part of the organizers.



A young girl admires the medals of a Civil War veteran. One can imagine that Americans found comfort in the presence of these aging soldiers as war was getting underway yet again. The Second World War’s role in the reconciliation process is often overlooked.


Here are our friends in blue and grey yet again. I am not sure of the building in front of which they are standing.


This past August I took this photo of the rear of the New York City Building. This is today the Queens Museum of Art.


Here is a mosaic commemorating the fair. This area today is Flushing Meadows–Corona Park. I took these two photos on my way to a Mets game.

(images of Civil War veterans, NYPL)

Hubert Rochereau’s Great War

Lieutenant Hubert Rochereau died in Flanders fields a year before this postwar image was taken.

Lieutenant Hubert Rochereau died in Flanders fields a year before this postwar image was taken.

Nine million soldiers died in the Great War, each one of whom had a personal story to tell. My friend Susan sent me something today about one of those young men. Hubert Rochereau was a twenty-one year old second lieutenant in the 15th Dragoons when he perished in Flanders fields in April 1918. Later he would posthumously receive the croix de guerre and Legion of Honour. What makes his story so poignant is that Hubert’s parents preserved his childhood bedroom for posterity in the decades after he was killed. Even more incredibly, the home’s current owners have kept the room that way as well.

(image/Library of Congress)

Joffre does America

10 May 1917: Tens of thousands of New Yorkers, including Leonard Wood, turned out to see Marshal Joffre place a wreath on Ulysses S. Grant's sarcophagus

10 May 1917: Tens of thousands of New Yorkers, including Leonard Wood, turned out to see Marshal Joffre place a wreath on Ulysses S. Grant’s sarcophagus. Here he is outside the tomb meeting the public. Grant’s Tomb was one of the nation’s most-visited tourist sites in the early decades of the 20th century.

I mentioned the Joffre-Viviani Mission in a post the other day. Today on my way to visit a friend for lunch I began John S.D. Eisenhower’s Yanks: The Epic Story of the American Army in World War 1. One of my mantras is that time on the subway shall not go wasted. Yanks is a primer on the American experience during the Great War. It is funny how one mentions something–even something as obscure such as the French military mission of spring 1917–and then a few days later it appears again.

As if on cue Eisenhower begins his narrative with Marshal Joffre and Prime Minister Viviani’s trip. The trip was really Joffre’s, as he was the one most Americans were eager to see. The marshal was one of those great characters from history who blended charisma, intelligence, chutzpah, and just the right mix of shamelessness  and hucksterism into an oversized package one could only love. Joffre had a little bit of Lionel Hutz in him.

7 May 1917: Three days earlier Joffre had been in Illinois paying his respects to the 16th president

7 May 1917: Three days before the ceremony at Grant’s Tomb, Joffre had been in Illinois paying his respects to Lincoln.

The Frenchman in America is a theme I discuss in my tours at the the Roosevelt Birthplace. It comes up when I discuss famous people who came to the Birthplace. One individual was Marshal Ferdinand Foch, who came to East 20th Street in 1921 when the site was being being rebuilt. Going back there was Lafayette in the 1820s, Tocqueville in the 1830s, Joffre during the Great War, and Foch three after it ended. These are things they themselves would have grasped at the time. Indeed Foch’s 1921 trip was modeled consciously on Lafayette’s.

Joffre’s American excursion was more than casual however. He had business to conduct in addition to the goodwill aspects of his visit. For one thing the British were also in town too and competing for Wilson’s ear. This is a simplification, but Joffre won the public relations campaign over the Brits. One of the people he met first in the United States was the young Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Like Theodore, Franklin had long been an advocate of preparedness. About a week into the trip there was that ticker tape parade up lower Manhattan. Joffre also visited Grant’s Tomb and Lincoln’s resting place in Springfield, Illinois.

(images/Grant’s Tomb. Library of Congress; Lincoln resting place, NYPL)


We interrupt this weekend . . .

. . . to note that Coleman Hawkins’s rendition of “Body and Soul” turned seventy-five this week.

The Hawk’s version of the song was not the first, but it was the one that literally became the standard. Ten years ago the National Recording Preservation Board of the Library of Congress added “Body and Soul” to the National Recording Registry. Other entrants that year included Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust,” Woodrow Wilson’s Armistice Day 1918 broadcast, and Alexander Scourby’s reading of the King James Bible.

No one–not even the Duke himself–was cooler than Bean. Enjoy.


The protean Roosevelt


Staying with the Roosevelt/Joe Wheeler meme just a little longer, I though I would share this newspaper collage that appeared the day after Theodore’s 1905 inaugural. It captures various moments in the life and times of the 26th president. The image in the lower left hand corner depicts the two men in Chattanooga, presumably on the campaign trail in support of Roosevelt’s presidential candidacy. It is interesting on a number of levels. First of all everyone at the time would have understood the symbolism of the former Confederate general traversing the city where, just 41 years earlier, Grant’s forces had taken Missionary Ridge. Also Wheeler was Democrat, as were most white Southerners from the 1860s through the realignment of the 1960s. For him to campaign for and with the sitting Republican president was unusual. Wheeler likely thought of this as a reconciliationist gesture. Chickamauga/Chattanooga was the first of the Civil War national military parks, having been established by Congress in 1895.


From Chickamauga to Governors Island

Back in July I posted about the construction of the second Y.M.C.A. on Governors Island in 1927. That building still stands, though it is boarded up and would need considerable work to be functional. With so many other wothwhile projects underway in the city-managed portion of the island, I don’t know when or if that would ever happen. As I mentioned in that post, the original Y.M.C.A. had its soft opening in July 1900. The ceremony was understated because those who can get out of Gotham during the dog days of summer do so. In other words, all the big shots were out of town. Well today, October 10, marks the anniversary of the grand opening of that first Governors Island Y.M.C.A.

The original Y–the first ever on a U.S. Army base–was funded by William E. Dodge Jr. No one remembers who he was today, but Dodge was a member of one of the 19th century’s great merchant families. He also co-founded the Allotment Commission with Theodore Roosevelt Sr. during the American CIvil War. It says something about how young Roosevelt was when he died in 1878 that his friends and contemporaries were still going strong at the turn of the 20th century. Dodge said a few words on that October day. So did his son, the President of the Young Men’s Christian Association Cleveland H. Dodge.

The Rough Riders: General Joseph Wheeler (front), Leonard Wood (second from right), and Theodore Roosevelt Roosevelt (far right). Three years after this photo was taken the former Confederate general would help dedicate the Governors Island Y.M.C.A.

The Rough Riders: General Joseph Wheeler (front), Leonard Wood (second from right), and Theodore Roosevelt Roosevelt (far right). Three years after this photo was taken the former Confederate general would help dedicate the Governors Island Y.M.C.A.

One of the more interesting characters on hand was Joseph Wheeler. Yes, that Joe Wheeler. Wheeler had retired from the regular Army exactly one month earlier, on 10 September. In between his 1859 graduation from West Point he managed to fight as an officer in the Confederate infantry at Shiloh, command the cavalry of the Army of Mississippi, serve eight terms in Congress after the Civil War, and accept William McKinley’s call to service in the Spanish-American War. He fought in the Philippines as well. It was during the Spanish-American War that he came to know Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt had risen like a meteor after San Juan Hill and by 1900 he was McKinley’s running mate. The Y.M.C.A.’s ceremony fell in the middle of the 1900 presidential election. Roosevelt was in Indiana castigating Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan the day of the Y dedication.

It is unfortunate that the original Y.M.C.A. is no longer extant. I am not even certain where it stood–the closest I have gotten to a description is that it stood on the southwest part of the island. That could be anywhere. I have not been able to find any photographs either–and I have looked, believe me. Still, it was just as well that that first Y.M.C.A.–dedicated 114 years ago today–did not last. The Army loved it so much that they outgrew it so quickly. That is why they built the second, bigger and better one in the late 1920s. All told the Y.M.C.A. served its function on Governors Island for over sixty years.