The Sinatra iconography


I made sure before summer’s end to get to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts and its Sinatra: An American Icon exhibit. The Voice would have been 100 this coming December. What makes the show so worthwhile is that virtually all of the items are from the Sinatra family’s personal collection. The curators did a good job covering the depth and breadth of the singer’s life. Sinatra’s parents were fortunate to get out of the Old Country when they did. His father was from Sicily and his mother from Genoa. Both came to the United States as part of the Great Migration in the years prior to the Great War. They married in 1913, a year before the war began and their only child was born in December 1915, seven months after Italy declared war on Austria-Hungary. The legacy of the Great War on early immigrants is a woefully understudied topic. What is certain is that Sinatra was a uniquely American singer. No one made the Great American Songbook more his own.

There is much to see in the show but my favorite exhibit was this re-creation of the Sinatra’s living room with its photo of Franklin Delano Roosevelt displayed so prominently. His music aside, Sinatra’s life in its key elements is representative of twentieth century American life. Sinatra turned eighteen the year FDR entered the White House. A decade later he wanted to name his only son after Roosevelt but that did not happen. Instead of Franklin Sinatra, the infant became Francis Jr.

Sinatra and Roosevelt did not know each other too well, but to the extent that they had a relationship it was an awkward one. Sinatra campaigned for FDR in 1944, performing fundraisers and even speaking on the incumbent’s behalf at Carnegie Hall. He must have had slightly mixed feelings. Roosevelt had once condescended to Sinatra in one of their few personal encounters, gently tweaking the swarthy crooner for both ethnicity and the zeal of his bobby-soxer following. Sinatra uncharacteristically held his tongue. Despite this episode Sinatra always maintained his admiration for FDR even after he left the Northeast for the Sunbelt and changed parties in late 60s and early 70s, just as many other Americans were doing at the same time.

The exhibit is free and runs though this Friday, September 4, if you’d like to catch it in its final week.

The Park Service enters its 100th year

Stephen T. Mather was the National Park Service's first director and guiding voice.

Stephen T. Mather was the National Park Service’s first director and guiding voice.

Today is the anniversary of the founding of the National Park Service. It was on this date in 1916 that President Woodrow Wilson signed the enabling legislation creating the system. National parks themselves pre-date the 1916 Organic Act. Yellowstone goes all the way back to Ulysses S. Grant’s first term in 1872. Many people helped create the NPS; the one who stands out the most was its greatest advocate and first director: Stephen Mather.

Mather was an independently wealthy industrialist who worked tirelessly for America’s wilderness areas as Park Director. He held that position for a dozen years, from 1917 to 1929. Things were markedly different in those early years. Most parks in the system at this time were west of the Mississippi. Note that the Civil War battlefields were not yet under the auspices of the Park Services. The War Department managed Gettysburg, Antietam, et al during these years. It was Franklin Roosevelt who put the battlefields under the management of the NPS in the early months of his first term. FDR’s New Deal also left a strong mark on the parks; CCC and WPA crews built light infrastructure–camp grounds, stone walls, parking lots, restrooms–in Civil War and other parks.

Eisenhower was another big influence on the Park Service. In 1956 he created the Mission 66 initiative to build visitor centers and other tourist accommodations. The idea was to get this billions-of-dollars undertaking complete for the 50th anniversary in 1966. This work was imperative. The parks were feeling the strain of the millions of American families Seeing the USA in Their Chevrolet during those prosperous postwar years. The Richard Neutra Cyclorama Building in Gettysburg was one example of the Mission 66 movement.

The NPS urges all Americans to Find Your Park during the centennial. Thankfully this is easier than ever. There are now over 400 National Park Service sites within the United States and even overseas. Many of the newer sites are reflective of the changes in historiography that have taken place in recent decades, with an emphasis on telling the stories of traditionally underrepresented groups. There are still very few World War One related destinations within the system; that is because the battles were fought overseas and the American Battle Monuments Commission handles the memorials and cemeteries there. I know firsthand that the rangers and volunteers at Governors Island National Monument are working hard to tell the story of the American Expeditionary Force. The island is rich in WW1 history. That will all play out in the next few years.

Wherever you are, I urge you to visit your national parks.

(image/Stephen T. Mather as he was around the time of the National Park Service founding; Library of Congress, permalink:



Thomas Sully’s Jonathan WIlliams

Though born in Boston, Jonathan Williams was very much part of Philadelphia society. He rests today in Laurel Hill Cemetery.

Though born in Boston, Jonathan Williams was very much part of Philadelphia society. He rests today in Laurel Hill Cemetery.

I was at the Philadelphia Museum of Art Museum yesterday. Imagine my shock when I turned a corner and came across this large portrait of Jonathan Williams. The name may not be familiar to everyone, but Colonel Williams was the engineer who modernized Governors Island’s Fort Jay and built Castle Williams. And those were just a few of his many accomplishments. I have never understood why Williams is not a better known figure in American history. He was a grand-nephew of Benjamin Franklin and a good friend of Thomas Jefferson. President Jefferson appointed Williams first superintendent of West Point in 1801. Williams codified many of the Military Academy’s early practices and incorporated a curriculum strong on science and engineering. This should not be a surprise; Williams and his great-uncle shared a fascination with science and technology.

At West Point Williams founded the United States Military Philosophical Society to promote science and engineering among the cadets. In this pursuit he was encouraged by President Jefferson. The MPS only lasted a decade or so, eventually giving way to the intense preparations for the War of 1812; Williams was in New York by Jefferson’s second term helping to fortify New York Harbor.

It is fitting that the painting above is in Philadelphia. Williams had returned there and spent the remainder of his life in the city of Brotherly Love. Among other things he was active in the American Philosophical Society, which is probably what led to this portrait. The APS provided studio space for artist Thomas Sully, who executed this portrait in 1815. Williams died that same year. Alexander Biddle gifted the painting to the museum in 1964.

Remembering Merle Hay and the men of the 16th Infantry Regiment

16th infantry graveYesterday the staff at Governors Island National Monument uploaded my video tribute to Merle David Hay. I say “my” video but really it was a team effort. I wrote and narrated the text. Before we videotaped one of the rangers reviewed the draft and added some valuable insights and recommendations. He and another ranger also forwarded along some images to go with the ones I had. Their contributions greatly added to the final cut.

We shot it over three consecutive Sunday mornings in July. It is amazing the work that goes into a four minute clip. Finally one of the summer interns edited the footage. Needless to say, his technical skills are considerably greater than mine. It would not look as good as it does without his hard work. I could not embed it so one will have to click here to watch. Please note that any mistakes are mine alone. We are hoping to do more of these as the WW1 centennial continues. Merle Hay was one of the first three American to have been killed in the First World War. I hope the video is worthy of his memory. It is just one of the stories one will hear at Governors Island.

Here is the link once more. Enjoy.

The Great War (hopefully) in philately

IMG_2595I received an interesting thing in the mail today: the U.S. Postal Service sent me this post card acknowledging their receipt of a letter I wrote in early summer. The letter pitched the idea of a particular WW1 centennial stamp. My missive was actually part of a larger initiative conducted by a group with which I volunteer. I don’t want to give too much away here, but several letters went out under the auspices of the organization proposing several stamp ideas to commemorative the First World War. The USPS did a beautiful job with the Civil War sesquicentennial series. Personally I would like to see them release at least a few issues in each of 2017-19. There are so many philatelic possibilities. We’ll see what happens. And if/when I learn more, I will certainly share here.

Sunday morning coffee

Sami Steigmann: volunteer, Holocaust survivor, educator

Sami Steigmann: volunteer, Holocaust survivor, educator

I received a message this weekend from our great friend Sami Steigmann. Sami was emailing to share the news that he was honored this past Thursday at a Words of Bonds event at the Bnai Zion Foundation Center here in New York City. Also featured at that program was Jennifer Teege, the granddaughter of Amon Goeth. Goeth was the commandant of the Plaszow concentration camp. Born in 1908, Goeth was an Austrian who came of age in the instability and chaos following the First World War and quickly found a home in the nascent Nazi Party. He was unrepentant until the end, which came in 1946 when he was hanged for torturing and murdering unknown scores of people. Goeth was played in the movie Schindler’s List by Ralph Fiennes. In one of those examples of Faulkner’s maxim that the past isn’t even past, his granddaughter, Ms. Teege, only learned of the family relation in 2008.

Words of BondsMy wife and I met Sami Steigmann for the first time in 2009. He was our tour guide on a walk through the Governors Island Historic District one summer afternoon. Sami was the one who got me to volunteer at Governors Island in the first place. I wrote a piece about this whole episode that will be published by the Yosemite Conservancy this coming fall, on which I will share more when the time comes. That 2009 chance meeting was a great experience; I can still see it clearly as I type these words. After the tour Sami told the two of us how he survived a Nazi labor camp in the Ukraine and what he learned from the experience. His life has had many twists and turns since then, but he has always managed to hold on to hope and to his faith in others. It is a lesson he shares with school groups across the Greater New York area. He also volunteers at several museums and service organizations here in the city. I was so glad to hear of the event last week.

And Sami, if you are reading this, we are going to do that interview this fall!

A Harding mystery solved

No prude or shrinking violet, Warrend G. Harding loved a good cigars, a social drink, and the company of women.

No prude or shrinking violet, Warren G. Harding loved good cigars, a social drink, and the company of women.

I am halfway through Frederick Lewis Allen’s Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s. It is one of those bucket list books that was always on my back burner until I made the leap a few days ago and down-loaded it to my Kindle from the public library. Too often in WW1 historiography we end the story with Versailles; much in the way we end the story of the Civil War with Appomattox. I believe we do this because wars and battles are so easy to follow, while their aftermaths and consequences are so convoluted and messy. We do the same thing with World War II, as if the carnage ended with the signing ceremony on the Missouri and all was well after that. It’s all so…unheroic.

So many of the problems of the 1920s stem from the Great War. It is not a coincidence that Prohibition–with its disastrous consequences that few foresaw–went into effect when it did. The Red Scare and the tightening of the immigration laws were other by-products. I have always been eager to know more about the three presidents elected in that decade. To the extent that we even think about Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover, it is so easy to fall into caricature. The tendency is to jump from Wilson to FDR and skip past these three altogether. Admittedly, it’s tough to get excited about Silent Cal. Still, the best thing one can do for oneself is embrace complexity and avoid easy cliché.

The reason I say all this is because in one of those strange coincidences it was revealed yesterday via DNA evidence that Warren G. Harding indeed had an illegitimate daughter with his mistress Nan Britton. This was no one night stand or Clinton/Lewinsky thing where it was a few trysts and that was it. Britton and Harding were from the same sometime in Ohio and carried on a relationship for over six years. Their affair began in 1917 when he was a senator during the war and it continued after he promised a return to normalcy in the wake of the race and labor riots, veterans housing crisis, Versailles negotiations and everything else. The relationship lasted until his death in 1923.

Apparently there is a bit of a rift in the current Harding generation, with some accepting the news and others not having yet processed it. You would have to think they will come around. The DNA doesn’t lie and they will only look petty if they hold out.

(image/Library of Congress, permalink:


The Slave Dwelling Project comes to New York

index.phpI remember reading an article a very long time ago by Alex Haley in which he recounted his experience in retracing the Middle Passage of his African ancestor. In that piece Haley mentioned lying in the hold of the ship in which he was traveling across the Atlantic to re-live, to the extent he could, the crossing. That experience was all the more poignant for Haley because he had served in the U.S. Coast Guard for twenty years and knew the sea. For the past decade and a half museum professional Joseph McGill has been on a similar mission; since 1999 he has traveled to various sites across the country and spent the night trying to re-live the experiences of the slaves who once lived there. This summer he is in New York State.

New York is rich in abolitionist and Underground Railroad history. Harriet Tubman, Gerrit Smith, and Sojourner Truth are just a few of the people who lived at least part of their lives in New York. Slavery existed in the Empire State until 1827. Sojourner Truth was born into bondage here in 1797. Today’s New York Times has more on Mr. McGill and his project. The New-York Historical Society had an outstanding exhibit on slavery in New York a few years ago. Jennifer Schuessler’s article fills in even more of the blanks on this still relatively unknown story.

(image/Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library. “I sell the shadow to support the substance, Sojourner Truth.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1864.


Francis in Philadelphia

Gettysburg National Cemetery

Gettysburg National Cemetery

I read with interest that when Pope Francis appears next month at Philadelphia’s Independence Hall he will be speaking from the lecturn used by Abraham Lincoln when the president gave the Gettysburg Address. The podium, originally part of Wert Collection, is currently on longterm loan to the Union League Club of Philadelphia. I have never visited the Union Club in Philadelphia, but I have been inside the one here in New York. Both institutions date to winter 1863 and have vast collections of Civil War and Gilded Age memorabilia.

I was a little surprised to read that the podium had ever even belonged to the Wert Collection. I have been in many of the shops along Steinwehr Avenue and have seen many Gettysburg relics for sale. Locals such as John Rosensteel and J. Howard Wert began collecting the battle’s detritus within hours of the fighting’s end. (I have been to Belgium and north France, where I have seen the same phenomenon relating to Ypres, the Battle of the Marne, and elsewhere.) The Rosensteel Collection today forms the base of the Park Service’s vast holdings. If Wert is to believed, some of the bullets and shrapnel pieces were still hot when he gathered them in the days immediately after the battle.

What surprised me was that Wert had even acquired the lecturn to begin with. He apparently obtained it right there and then just after Lincoln’s speech on November 19, 1863, adding it to his already extensive collection of Gettysburg relics.

Civil War Weekend 2015

Should you happen to live in New York City or the vicinity, here is something to do Saturday and Sunday: Governors Island’s annual Civil War Weekend is again upon us. There will be a lot to take in and the weather should be great all weekend. You can’t ask for better than blue skies and temperatures in the 80s for August. On Sunday a guy with my initials will even be leading tours starting atop Soinssons Dock and making our way to Nolan Park. We will be talking along the way about some of the many Civil War officers who spent time on the island over their careers. It is going to be a great weekend all the way around.

2015 CWW Flier

2015 CWW Fliers


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