The Grey Lady’s technicolor Christmas

The Times understood the significance of the Monvel prints and advertised them heavily in the weeks prior to their release.
The Times understood the significance of the Monvel prints and advertised them heavily in the weeks prior to their release.

As you can see from the advertisement above the New York Times published a special Christmas supplement in early December 1914. What made it so special was the inclusion of several full color plates from artist Louis Boutet de Monvel’s Joan of Arc series. Monvel (1851-1913) had done numerous commissions about The Maid of Orléans over the years. Most famously these projects included a best selling children’s book and a ten panel masterwork in the church of the heroine’s hometown of Domrémy. Illness forced Monvel to abandon the latter project when it was twenty percent complete. The images published in the Times were reproductions of six much smaller panels Monvel had completed for Senator William A. Clark just before Monvel died. Clark hung them in his Fifth Avenue home.

Monvel published the children book in 1895. The 15th century French soldiers depicted here look suspiciously like the zouave units of Monvel's time. French soldiers first started wearing these in the mid nineteenth century and continued through the first months of the Great War.
Monvel published the children’s book in 1895. The 15th century French soldiers depicted here look suspiciously like the zouave units of Monvel’s time. French soldiers first started wearing these uniforms in the mid nineteenth century and some continued through the first months of the Great War.

For the prints to be in the New York Times was a big deal. No one knew this more than the New York Times. The article accompanying the supplement describes the project as “The finest single issue of a newspaper ever seen in the world.” That is some serious hyperbole, but it has a ring of truth to it. The public snapped up 335,000 issues of the special edition, and would have bought at least 40,000 more if the printing presses could have handled the demand. Gushing letters of praise poured in from curators and directors at the National Academy of Design, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and what would eventually become the Brooklyn Museum of Art. People wrote in from as far away as Indiana.

The inserts were indeed beautiful, but there was more to the intense public demand than that. By December 1914 the Great War had settled into a stalemate on the Western Front. The war that everyone had thought would be over by Christmas now a muddy stalemate. Joan of Arc, that heroine of the Hundred Years War, was emerging as a potent symbol of Gallic resolve.

War as it is. This is one of the panels Monvel painted for Clark just a few years prior to the Great War. It is easy to see why readers in December 1914 would have been intrigued by the series.
War as it is. This is one of the panels Monvel painted for Clark just a few years prior to the Great War. It is easy to see why readers in December 1914 would have been moved and inspired by the series.

It is unfortunate that the Times did not do something with these prints for the Great War Centennial. Indeed it is not even clear if the plates they commissioned a century ago–and paid a small fortune to reproduce–still exist. Thankfully the six panels from which they originated are still here. Senator Clark died in 1925 and bequeathed them to the Corcoran Gallery in Washington.


The Great War took all of France’s human resources. Among the poilus were Monvel’s son Roger and at least one descendent of Joan of Arc herself.



Roosevelt’s two cents

unnamedImagine Theodore Roosevelt’s likeness on a two cent piece. It sounds funny and yet almost happened. In September 1919 the Women’s Roosevelt Memorial Association petitioned the Treasury Department for such a coin. The last two cent piece had gone out of circulation in 1874. The proposal passed the U.S. Senate in May 1920. It stalled in the House when, curiously, a congressman from New Jersey pushed for a two ½ cent Roosevelt coin. This new proposal opened a whole new can of worms. The American Bankers Association threw their, uh, two cents in and came out against the proposal. The bankers argued that a 2 ½ center would necessitate the creation of a half cent piece to make change. The stalemate proved too much and the whole thing died soon thereafter.

Still something came of the measure. On October 27, 1922 the Postal Service issued a 5 cent Roosevelt stamp. It was the first time Theodore Roosevelt’s likeness appeared on an American postage stamp. His widow Edith was present at the ceremony held in Oyster Bay. Ted Jr. and Alice also received some. The stamps went on sale in a limited run in Long Island, Washington, and right here at the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace. Note that this was while the site was under still under construction. The 5 cent Roosevelt proved especially popular for international mail.

image/Roosevelt missed his chance at the 2 cent piece but made up for it with this gorgeous five cent stamp first issued in 1922.

Twas the night before . . .

This is Puck magazine’s take on Saint Nick/Theodore Roosevelt preparing for Christmas 1904. It is a curious image. A little context: This was three weeks after he won the 1904 presidential election and four months before the March 1905 inaugural. Roosevelt desperately wanted the legitimacy that came with that election victory because he had ascended to the Executive Mansion as an accidental president after the assassination of McKinley.

Puck, 30 November 1904
Puck, 30 November 1904

(image/Library of Congress)

The Great War week-by-week

Today is Thursday, which means there is a new posting from Indy Neidell and the crew at The Great War. In case you have not seen or heard of this, Neidell and his colleagues are chronicling the First World War week by week as it happened one hundred years earlier. The series began on 28 July and has been going ever since. Yours truly learned about it in mid-November and spent most of Thanksgiving weekend catching up. One thing I like about the series is that it is covering the war from a truly world wide perspective. There is especially a great deal of coverage of the war in Eastern Europe. Neidell has an interesting perspective; he is an American currently living in Sweden.

Mediakraft Networks, the production outfit behind the series, has a unique relationship with British Pathé to use the latter’s extensive library of moving imagery. The film clip up top is the introduction from this past July. One may or may not want to watch the entire series–and it is running through November 2018–but here is a link to the entire run so far. It is worth ten minutes a week.

Sunday morning coffee

3g11229rI hope everyone had a good week. I was so caught up in a few things that there was not much time to post here on the blog. Here is an interesting story that I knew nothing about until one of the TRB rangers posted it the other day. It is about a venture in which various Roosevelts opened a coffeeshop in Manhattan after the Great War. One thing that reading Geoffrey Ward’s Before the Trumpet reinforced for me is that to understand the Roosevelts you must know the relationships between the various cousins. There is a lot more to the story than the Big Three.

Coffee is a big part of the Theodore Roosevelt story. On tours I always tell of his drinking the dark brew as a toddler to alleviate his asthma. Many visitors also know that he coined the “good to the last drop” phrase that Maxwell House has been using ever since. I find the story of the coffeeshop intriguing in a few ways. First of all, they must have been inspired in part by their experience in Europe during the Great War. As the article states coffeeshops were not knew in the United States, but they were more for the new immigrants fresh from Ellis Island. In Europe they were/are ubiquitous. There is no way they could have missed that, especially Ethel being in Paris for much of the war as she was. Also, doughboys received coffee in their kits. How the Great War influenced material culture is something worth getting into during the centennial.

(image/Library of Congress)

Grover Cleveland meets FDR

Cleveland (left), Roosevelt (center), and D.R. Francis
Cleveland (left), Roosevelt (center), and David R. Francis, 1903

The Roosevelts knew many important and influential people. One person we don’t associate with the Roosevelts, probably because we don’t associate him with much of anything, is Grover Cleveland. Cleveland was the only Democrat elected president (twice) between Buchanan in 1856 and Woodrow Wilson in 1912. He had been the mayor of Buffalo and was governor of New York when Theodore was in the state assembly. In 1883 Governor Cleveland vetoed young Roosevelt’s cigar bill on legal principle. Five ears later President Cleveland appointed Robert Roosevelt U.S. Minister to the Netherlands. This makes sense as the Roosevelts were old Knickerbockers.

On the other side of the family James Roosevelt, FDR’s father, was also a friend of Cleveland’s, which makes sense as they were both Democrats. James’s older son, the kindly but ineffectual James “Rosy” Roosevelt, held some mid-level posts in Vienna and London during the Cleveland years. James Sr. was elated when Cleveland gained the Executive Mansion because  he wanted help in building a canal connecting the Atlantic and Pacific through Nicaragua. Of course a Nicaraguan waterway did not come to pass; a few decades later Theodore built the isthmian canal through Panama that opened a few days prior to the start of the Great War. James Roosevelt did not live to see that. He died in 1900.

Grover Cleveland once had some advice for James Roosevelt’s much younger son, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. When Franklin was five his father took him to meet the outgoing president. Cleveland looked down and gravely said, “My little man, I am making a strange wish for you. It is that you may never be president of the United States.”

(image/Library of Congress)


“Pearl Harbor? Who’s she?”

Veterans Day, 2014: Bombardier Herman "Whitey" Lykins approaching 100
Veterans Day 2014: WW2 Bombardier Herman “Whitey” Lykins going strong at nearly 100

Longtime readers will recognize the two pieces below. The first is from 2011 and the follow-up is from 2012. I was a little surprised the 75th anniversary of the start of the Second World War in Europe did not get more coverage than it did. I guess people were so focused on the Great War 100th. The passing of the WW2 generation is something I am quite conscious of, in part because I was a little too young to remember the passing of the Great War generation in a deep way. Still, they were there. I remember seeing them on television sitting together in the stands at Wimbledon during the Borg, McEnroe, Connors years. They were not yet totally anachronistic but their numbers were dwindling fast. The world became a little smaller when Frank Buckles died in February 2011. And now we are getting there with the Second World War. Anyways, from 2012 and 2011….

I wrote the piece below for the 70th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack and am posting it again. As I said last year, I will always remember  anniversaries such as December 7, June 6, and May 8 though they no longer resonate in the way they once did. I have been watching Eric Sevareid’s magnificent Between the Wars over the past several days.The sixteen part documentary, produced in 1978, provides a remarkable overview of the 1918-1941 period. What I find most striking is how recent the war, even the lead-up to the war, was as late as the 1970s. (One gets the same impression watching Lawrence Olivier narrate A World at Arms as well.) The Second World War was almost still current events in a way it obviously is not today. The highest leadership had died off by this time, but the majority of the people who fought in the war were now in full blown middle age and in the prime of their careers. Now those people have pretty much died off, or have aged considerably. I couldn’t help but think about this when I learned about the death of Congressman Jack Brooks earlier in the week. Maybe it is my own sense of aging, but I am not sure how I feel about this. Anyways, from Pearl Harbor Day 2011 . . .

Pearl Harbor 2011
Pearl Harbor 2011: the final gathering of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association

A few years ago the father of a good friend of mine happened to be in the food court of a shopping mall on Memorial Day. This is a man, now in his eighties, who served in the Air Force and later played semi-professional football. He still has his leather cleats. Lou is the essence of Old School. Like shopping mall food courts throughout the country, this one was full of teenagers. Striking up a conversation with the 4-5 at the neighboring table he asked them if they knew what Memorial Day was. After the blank stares, one offered that it was a day off from school. My friend’s dad was not impressed.

When I was in school in the seventies and eighties a visit from a World War 2 vet was a HUGE deal, even in the most cynical of times just after Vietnam. (I graduated high school just a decade after the Fall of Saigon.) One vet recounted today that during a recent school visit a girl asked who Pearl Harbor was and why he was there to talk about her.

I offer these stories not to blame our country’s historical amnesia on young people, but to emphasize the educational crisis we face.

I have written about the significance to me of D-Day and aging veterans before. Personally, Pearl Harbor Day 2011 is the end of something tangible, akin to the 75th anniversary of Gettysburg in July 1938 when aged veterans turned out for one final gathering. President Roosevelt was in attendance; three years after dedicating the Eternal Peace Light Memorial in front of the 1,800 veterans and 150,000 citizens that summer day he would tell the country that December 7 would forever live in infamy. Today in Hawaii the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association held its final gathering. There are just too few Pearl Harbor survivors left seventy years later to justify a seventy-first. There will be more World War 2 anniversaries between today and the commemoration of V-J Day in 2015, but for me they will no longer seem the same. By 2015 there will be fewer WW2 veterans, and those remaining will likely be too infirm to participate in any meaningful fashion. Time moves on. It was ever thus.

(bottom image/U.S. Navy)

Decision ’56


Here is an interesting little piece that fell into my hands yesterday. It is a pullout from the New York Herald Tribune printed for the 1956 presidential election. The pullout is neutral but I would imagine the Herald Tribune itself was for Eisenhower. It was Ike’s favorite newspaper.


The maps break down each election quite handsomely. Now that we have that thing called the internet we pull up information at the snap of our fingers. It is easy to forget today how difficult it once was to find news and information. Even twenty years ago this was true.

The states are color coded green and orange. Today we say red state/blue state as shorthand for so many things. I wouldn’t belabor the point, but it is worth noting that these designations only entered our vocabulary in recent years.

Note how Theodore Roosevelt’s 1904 victory broke down along regional lines. Also, by 1912 Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Arizona have achieved statehood. The forty-eight contiguous states were now all part of the Union. Geography has so much to teach.


It is amazing how quickly the party realignment took place. Look at the difference between Herbert Hoover’s 1928 victory and Franklin Roosevelt’s in 1932.

“As goes Maine so goes Vermont.” That’s what Alf Landon said after he lost the 1936 landslide to FDR. Your humble writer is old enough to remember Alf Landon. Really.

You can see how in 1940 Roosevelt lost the strongly isolationist Midwest.

Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt appeared on the national ticket eight time between 1900 and 1944.

They lose a little something in the snapshots I took with my phone camera, but the maps are brilliantly stunning in their simplicity. C.S. Hammond & Co. produced them. Some of the company’s papers are now in the Library of Congress. Again, these were printed on newsprint almost sixty years ago.


On the back they even gave you a chart to keep track of the election results.




Rediscovering Geoffrey Ward

Springwood: the birthplace and home of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Hyde Park, New York
Springwood: the birthplace and lifelong home of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Hyde Park, New York

Now that a few months have gone by since its premier, visitors to the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace have come to the house with a chance to absorb Ken Burns’s The Roosevelts: An Intimate History. Many folks, including yours truly, found it exhausting to take in two hours nightly for almost a week when it first showed. This past Saturday a couple visited who were in town for the long Thanksgiving Weekend. They had done Hyde Park on Friday and were now getting a dose of Theodore. That is becoming less unusual.

One of my favorite aspects of the Roosevelt documentary is that Geoffrey Ward received a considerable amount of facetime. I have always maintained that Ward plays the role of Larry David to Ken Burns’s Jerry Seinfeld. That is, Ward and Burns work together much in the way David and Seinfeld did. The public knows Seinfeld and Burns because they are the brand names. Behind the scenes though, Ward and David are very much equals to their more famous colleagues. Much of what you see on screen is theirs, even if the public doesn’t realize that.

I noted with pleasure yesterday that two of Ward’s long out-of-print titles are now back. My Kindle tells me that I am now 8% finished with Before the Trumpet: Young Franklin Roosevelt, 1882-1905 after having downloaded it last night from my local library. That’s good because after that there is A First-Class Temperament: The Emergence of Franklin Roosevelt, 1905-1928 waiting in the wings. These were just re-published in September, presumably to coincide with the PBS documentary’s release.

The “1928” brings FDR up to the election where he takes the New York governor’s mansion. I cannot help but wonder if Ward intended to write additional volumes that would bring the story up to 1945. If so, here is hoping he picks up the project. In the meantime, these two works will hopefully get the attention they deserve.



Digitizing the Harlem Hellfighters


Earlier in the week I finished Richard Slotkin’s Lost Battalions: The Great War and the Crisis of American Nationality. It is a dual history of the 369th Infantry Regiment and the 77th Division. Those looking for a triumphalist account of the war should look elsewhere. Slotkin tells a sobering tale of how and why men joined the Harlem Hellfighters and Melting Pot Division and what they hoped to get out of it. Briefly put, men joined for many reasons. The most important, though, was the idea that they were helping their people by by making this sacrifice. And understand, many of them made the ultimate sacrifice. The hope of the Armistice soon led to disillusionment with the failures of the League of Nations, the social and racial unrest, and the economic difficulties in the 1920s and 1930s.

The 369th was comprised of African Americans from many neighborhoods; the 77th was primarily immigrants who were new to the country. Fittingly Slotkin does not end the story on Armistice Day but takes the story all the way to the mid twentieth century. It was only then, after the Second World War, that social gains began to be made in any meaningful way.

The New York State Military Museum has begun digitizing the military records of the men of the 369th. So far staff and volunteers have digitized 2,500 of the 10,ooo documents. They can be viewed online. Reading them is addictive. The cards go all the way to 1949 and should be invaluable source for both military and social historians. Genealogists will find them useful as well.

(image/NYPL Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture)