Vonnegut in winter

February 2010 image of the slaughterhouse where, sixty-five Februaries previously, Kurt Vonnegut survived the Dresden firebombing

One of my undertakings for this winter is to re-read the Kurt Vonnegut catalog. Like many, I read Vonnegut extensively in high school and college but got away from him over the years, though I did return to Slaughterhouse Five from time to time. Vonnegut is one of those writers one can return to at different points in one’s life, reading him with fresh eyes from the changing perspectives of one’s age. I intend to read both the fiction and non-fiction. I will have to do a literature review before diving in fully, but I am considering some type of project in which I analyze the World Wars on Vonnegut’s family. I know that a fair amount has been done on Vonnegut but I think there are some threads left to untangle. If this happens, it will not be until summer or fall.

Vonnegut in uniform during the Second World War, circa 1943-45

Again it has been a while since I have read him, but I recall him discussing the effect that the anti-German hysteria had on his family in Indiana during the First World War. Vonnegut, born in 1922, was a young enlisted man during the Second World War and famously survived the February 1945 firebombing of Dresden Germany as a prisoner of war. That experience in turn was the basis of Slaughterhouse Five, usually considered his most important work. He often downplayed the role that his Second World War experiences played on his personal life, claiming that people often go through cataclysmic events with little to no impact on their own psyches. That may or may not be true. It is without question true that the Second World War played a huge role in his writings. His mother’s 1944 suicide was also a factor in his worldview.

Right now I am focusing on the early novels. I finished God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater on Friday and started Mother Night yesterday. I am struck by how little science fiction there is in these considering that he is usually put in the Sci Fi/Fantasy genre. Some of those devices, time travel, etc., would come in later works but I would hesitate to put him in that category. A second thing that strikes me on reading these novels today is that, when Vonnegut was writing them, the Second World War was more current events than history. I never saw it that way when I was reading them in the 1970s & 80s because to my perspective the Second World War was already part of Ancient History. My sense and perspective on time has changed entirely now that I am in full blown middle age. So it goes.

If I indeed pursue some type of project on Vonnegut, perhaps a series of articles here on the Strawfoot, I may try to tie it in with Rod Serling. Perhaps it might be a compare and contrast of the two men and how they were influenced by their experiences in the Second World War. In some ways these are still current events: it is striking to see how the problems created by the events of the twentieth century are touching the world we live in today.

(images/top, Keith Gard; bottom United States Army)

On to 2018

Hey all, I hope everyone’s 2018 is off to a good start. My timing was fortunate. I left for Florida the day before the snow came and returned the day after the freeze broke. I put the blog aside for a time since my return because I have been plugging away assiduously on the book about Civil War Era New York. I have another few thousand words to go. If I grind it out I may finish the draft as early as next weekend. I intend then to spend the rest of the winter revising, honing, fact checking and putting the bibliography into Zotero. I’m maintaining the energy level as I reach the finish line.

Last weekend I received the box you see below. About fifteen years ago my mother told me she wanted to start a stamp collection. She had had one when she was a girl, which ultimately went to one of my older cousins somewhere along the way many decades ago. She had great of fun building this new collection for about a decade until declining health rendered it impossible for her to continue. I told her when she began back in the early 2000s that there is no wrong way to collect stamps. One does it entirely for oneself and, if one goes about it well, the collection becomes an accurate representation of the individual who created it. Her knowledge of philately was never that extensive–neither is mine for that matter–but she managed with my help to create what grew into something special. Not valuable in a financial sense, but something that collectively was greater than the sum of the parts.

South Florida

As I mentioned she stopped adding to her stamp collection about five years ago due to health issues that rendered it difficult. Last year she asked if I wanted to bring it back to New York. I didn’t, hoping maybe she would pick it up again. This year she asked again and I knew that it was time; more than once she alluded to the fact that seeing the collection and not being able to work on it was painful. I didn’t press it. Two weeks ago today we pulled out the wicker basket containing the album and the supplies. It took fifteen minutes to dust it off–it had been that long. Then I sorted things out, packed them up for safe transport, and boxed them up. The following day, Sunday, we went to the post office in South Florida, put it on the machine, printed a stamp and label, and put it in the big locked box for USPS to start shipping the following day.


It came in the mail later that week. The first thing I did was open it to make sure everything arrived undamaged. (I had put the items, including the album on the right, in separate bags within the box and added packing material for safer traveling.) Thankfully it was all good. Since then it has sat undisturbed. I told my mother that while I will build on the collection because I do want it to be a living thing. For the most part though it will remain intact and much as it is. In the box are a sizable number of plate blocks and first day covers representing my mother’s various interests. One could call it a very feminine collection. I will sort and organize things in a systematic manner once I figure out how best to do all this. In the much longer term I will probably give it to my niece or nephew, if they want it, somewhere down the line. Time will tell.

Thinking of James Reese Europe

Hello all, I wanted to again wish everyone a happy and healthy 2018. I could not let the 100th anniversary of the arrival in France of James Reese Europe and the rest of the Harlem Hellfighters go unmentioned. Alas I could not find a recording of the rendition of “La Marseillaise” that they played upon their arrival on 1 January 1918. I don’t even know if a recording was made. If not, that is unfortunate. I intend to do more on Europe and the Hellfighters over the year. Enjoy this clip.

I will be off the computer grid for the next week. I am putting both the book and blog aside for a bit. Things will pick up again next week. I am looking forward to an exciting 2018. FYI, last week I received a reply from the person at the cultural institution I mentioned. Things are still in the planning stages and so I don’t want to give too much away, but it looks like we may indeed be doing something WW1-related this spring. I’ll have more on this in March.

Here is to a good 2018.


A new museum for a new era

I have been working on the draft of Incorporating New York for much of these past several weeks. I am now in December 1868. The book ends in 1878. I thought I would share the document you see above, which was sent on 30 December 1868, 149 years ago today. The letter was written by a number of New Yorkers to the commissioners of Central Park seeking permission to place what would become The American Museum of Natural History within the grounds of the park. The signers include Theodore Roosevelt Sr., Howard Potter, J.P. Morgan, Levi P. Morton and others. This is an interesting period in the city and the nation’s history. Being the end of the year, the individuals were naturally in a mood of reflection and thinking about prospects for the future. It was more than that however. December 1868 is less than a month after the election of Ulysses S. Grant. The country had just gotten over the Andrew Johnson impeachment and trial. Johnson would leave office in just over three months. Just three weeks prior to this letter the Union League Club of New York held a reception for Grant at which many of these very were in attendance.

(image/1870 AMNH annual report)

The Brooklyn Museum’s Kaiser Wilhelm II

This image of Corcos’s portrait of Kaiser Wilhelm II, perhaps from a 1907 New York Times clipping, shows the original painting upon which the Keinke in the Brooklyn Museum of Art was based.

A curious article appeared in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle on 26 December 1917 concerning a painting of Kaiser Wilhelm II in the possession of the Brooklyn Museum of Art. The letter was from a concerned citizen who wrote the newspaper wondering if, with the United States now at war with Germany, it was appropriate for the Kaiser’s likeness to remain in the museum’s collection. The portrait of the German leader had been given to the Brooklyn Museum of Art eleven year previously under happier circumstances; in a very public ceremony on 16 July 1906 Herr von Gneist, Consul General of the Port of New York, had presented the 6’ x 9’ full portrait to the Brooklyn Museum on behalf of the Kaiser and the German government. Accepting the work for the museum was the Prussian-born former mayor of Brooklyn, Charles Adolph Schieren. The Reverend Dr. S. Parkes Cadman gave an address to an assembled crowd. The Kaiser’s portrait held a prominent pride of place in the Brooklyn Museum for several years thereafter. The painting—a copy of a more famous work—had more historical than artistic merit however, and was later quietly relegated to a small cove and eventually the storage basement out of public view. This apparently all happened before the start of the war in 1914 and had nothing to do with the Kaiser’s damaged reputation once the conflict began. In the basement the portrait sat, unseen and all but forgotten until Boxing Day 1917.

This tempest all came about because, a few days before Christmas, Harvard theologian Francis Greenwood Peabody had very publicly returned to the Kaiser the Order of the Prussian Crown medal he had been awarded several years earlier while a visiting professor at the University of Berlin. Newspapers across the country had covered Peabody’s gesture and now, after reading about the theologian and how he returned his decoration, this Brooklyn Daily Eagle reader was calling on the museum to return its Wilhelm painting. On 28 December the newspaper ran a letter from someone using the pseudonym “Flatbush,” proposing a contest in which readers could suggest what might be done with the painting. The Eagle duly agreed and dozens of entries poured in over the next week. The winner was to win one ton of coal, which was no small thing.

The preponderance of the entries were banal; multiple readers argued for burning the art work while others suggested using it for target practice. Other suggestions were more imaginative and included hanging it upside down from the Statue of Liberty or giving it to Wisconsin’s isolationist Senator Robert M. La Follette. One of the best came from someone suggesting it should be sent to Buckingham Palace to be placed next to a portrait of the late Queen Victoria, the Kaiser’s grandmother; in an obvious dig at the inbred familial ties of the European royal rulers who had stumbled into the war, this individual noted wryly that “blood is thicker than water.”

A. Augustus Healy was president of the Brooklyn Institute of Arts & Sciences from 1895-1920 and helped build the Brooklyn Museum of Art. His wise and quick response to calls to destroy the portrait of Kaiser Wilhelm II helped prevent what would have been an unfortunate incident in New York City’s World War One experience.

The extent to which the Eagle and its readers were being sincere or ironic is difficult to gauge a century later, but the contest was representative of the wider anti-German sentiment common in America during the war. Museum officials responded to all this with a firm calmness and the painting was never in danger. On 31 December A. Augustus Healy, the president of the Brooklyn Institute of Arts & Sciences, the parent organization under whose auspices fell the Brooklyn Museum of Art, announced that it was the Insitute’s duty and responsibility to preserve the portrait. Healy averred that the museum’s stewardship of the suddenly-controversial artwork, like all the artwork in the museum, was “a perpetual trust.” Healy took his stewardship of that perpetual trust seriously. Born in 1850 and active in Brooklyn political and philanthropic causes throughout his life, Aaron Augustus Healy had been appointed president of the Brooklyn Institute of Arts & Sciences in October 1895 during the Institute’s crucial transitional decade when it founded and built the Brooklyn Museum of Art. On 14 December 1895 Healy presided over the laying of the cornerstone of the iconic McKim, Mead & White building that still stands on Eastern Parkway today. Mayor Schieren, who eleven years later as an Institute vice president accepted the Kaiser painting from the German Consul General, laid the cornerstone.

The contest over what to do with the Kaiser’s likeness came to its conclusion just after the New Year. The winner turned out to be one Charles A Jaqueth. In a moment of lucidity all the way around, Eagle editors agreed with Jaqueth that the painting should be kept in the museum for posterity. Jaqueth explains in this letter published in the Eagle on Thursday 3 January 1918:

Charles A. Jaqueth’s letter to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 3 Jan 1918

True to its word, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle paid up on the ton of coal; in its 10 January 1918 edition the newspaper published a letter from Jaqueth thanking it for the delivery. Jaqueth expressed his appreciation for the coal and noted that with the war on and it now being January: “the “black diamonds” are almost as difficult to obtain as those of fairer hue.”

(images/top, New York Public Library; bottom two, Brooklyn Daily Eagle)

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas, everyone. I saw this 1942 Christmas card from Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and fell in love with it for so many reasons. Judging by his white suit and her white dress the image would have been taken in that summer of 1942, seventy-five years ago. Franklin and Eleanor spent the Great War years in Washington and now here they are back in the District of Columbia as President and First Lady with the world at war a second time. One can only imagine the burden. In this image they seem to be trying to project an air of calm and tranquility in a troubled world. The white card stock is perfect for the photograph of two solitary figures sitting in white clothes on a veranda of the White House. There is no clutter on the table. Visually the picture is in balance with the concise message in simple black lettering on the right. Note that the card wishes the beholder a “happier” New Year, a subtle but telling word choice. The Roosevelts’ Christmas card went out to about 400 individuals.

Enjoy your day, all.

(image/White House)

A small Christmas Eve detective story

Roosevelt family, Christmas 1939

I hope everyone is enjoying their holidays. I came across the image you see above, which appears to an official Roosevelt Family Christmas portrait. Here is the image as I found it on Wikimedia Commons. It is titled Christmas 1941. For a few minutes I could not put my finger on it, but I knew something was off. The caption at the bottom reads 25 December 2041, with someone adding an addendum noting that “This date is not correct.” That is obvious true but something was still off. At first I noticed the relaxed poses of everyone in the picture; remember, this would have been just a few weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Even at Christmas, they would not have been so casual. The poses are a tip, but still just circumstantial.

After another minute or so I got it: that is Sara Roosevelt, Franklin’s mother, sitting next to Eleanor on the left. Sara died in September 1941, so for this Christmas photograph to have been from 1941 is obviously incorrect. So when was it? I then looked at the baby, not quite yet a toddler, seated to FDR’s left. That’s John Roosevelt Boettiger, standing on the lap of his mother Anna. An internet search informs us that John is Franklin and Eleanor’s grandson and that he was born in March 1939. A retired professor, he is still alive today. Here he is the center of attention. Everyone is looking at the little tyke. With Sara in the picture we know definitively that this is not 1941. For this photo to be taken in 1940 little John would have been well over 21 months old. That seems unlikely. 1939, when he would have been nine months, is a far better bet.  Sure enough, outtakes conclusively show that this Christmas family photograph was taken in 1939.

I found this image in several places where they get the date incorrect, which is inevitable but always a little dismaying. Were it not Christmas Eve, I would go into that more depth. The point in analyzing the image today is to have a little fun. Merry Christmas, all.

(image/National Archives)

World War I and the Visual Arts

Last night was a special evening: a friend invited me to a group event at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for a private reviewing of the World War I and the Visual Arts exhibit currently on display through 7 January 2018. There were about a dozen of us on the tour, which took place after the Met Museum closed. To be in the Metropolitan Museum of Art is always special, and even more so when it is the holidays and the place is empty. We arrived a little before the tour when the museum was emptying out and got to take in the Neapolitan Christmas tree that is on display every year. Here are a few photos from the evening.

Walter Trier color lithograph, “Maps of Europe.” Look closely.

As with the lithograph above, these color postcards are that much more striking in juxtaposition to the black and white images one usually sees from the Great War.

The four helmets are prototypes designed by Met curator Dr. Bashford Dean during the war for the United States military. As you can tell from the bottom two in particular, they are influenced by medieval armor. Here is more, including a letter to Dean from Theodore Roosevelt. President Roosevelt’s father helped found the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Our guide was the exhibition curator, seen here second from the right explaining this series.

Note the plea in the left hand portion asking the AEF to please rush. There were posters in the exhibit from all of the major nations.

It is not every day one sees the galleries empty at the Met. I snapped this one real fast as the group was heading out.

All in all this was a special night. Here is to good friends who think of you when opportunities such as this arise.



Sunday morning coffee

Men like Theodore Roosevelt Sr. sponsored Left-Handed Penmanship contests after the Civil War to help those wounded in the conflict move on with their lives.

I’m sorry for the lack of posts lately. I have been working hard on my Civil War Era book, the working title of which is Incorporating New York. I picked the manuscript up again the day after Thanksgiving and have put my head down and worked steadily since then. Between that and the wind down to the semester there has not been much time for writing here. It’s funny but as I have told some friends, if I can sit down and write just 50-75 words I can write 500-1000 for the day. It’s all about starting. I have another 4000-5000 words to go in the draft. I was listening to a podcast recently in which a just-published author recalled that when he told writing friends he was 90% done they replied: “Congratulations, you’re 50% done.”

My goal is complete the draft by January 26 at the latest, which is looking increasingly likely. That is a Friday and the day before the start of the spring semester. I’m trying not to lose focus or cut corners as I near the finish line. Incorporating New York is not so much a history of the Civil War per se, but an interpretation of how the city evolved from the 1840s-1870s. I’m in the postwar period now. It ends in 1878 with the death of Theodore Roosevelt Sr. and Frederick Law Olmsted’s move from New York City to Boston. The poster above is for the first of Left-Handed Penmanship contests put on from 1865-67 to help men who lost an arm in the war.

Yesterday I sat down and, to the musical accompaniment of the White Album, wrote out a list of topics I will be focusing on here over the course of 2018. That included searching historical newspapers online, finding, and saving some articles. This upcoming year marks the 100th anniversary of most of the American Expeditionary Forces’s involvement in the Great War. With this year winding down I am looking ahead to 2018. I also emailed someone I know at a cultural institution here in New York City with an idea for a small potential project for winter 2018. I don;t want to say to much right now. If/when I hear more, I will share it here. This would be a worthwhile and yet manageable endeavor. I really hope it comes to pass.

(image/New-York Historical Society)