Wednesday, November 28, 2018

The Runaway


 He ran away from this house in a suburb of New York City

The boy took off just after the school year ended, leaving a prim village in the New York City suburbs and heading west.  It was 1925, the crash was four years off, and in his pocket was the not insignificant sum of $40.

Kenneth left a note of explanation for his parents.  He had been up to some mischief, trespassing at the pool of a wealthy neighbor, and he didn’t want to face the humiliation of apology and punishment.  Please leave me alone, he added.

Kenneth’s father, advertising manager for the American Tobacco Company, offered a $5,000 reward.  His mother was said to be prostrated and in serious condition. 

Stylized portrait of Kenneth's father

Just outside Pittsburgh, an executive with the Hillman Coal and Coke Company picked up the 15-year old hitchhiker, bought him dinner at the local YMCA, and dropped him at the Salvation Army Home nearby.  Later he realized that the boy was Kenneth Penrod, the object of a nationwide search.  The following day, he wrote matter-of-factly to the father on Hillman company letterhead:

“Thursday your son was to leave for Columbus, and on to Chicago.  I did not get the impression that he had informed his parents of the proposed trip.  However, I am sure that you need not worry, as he is able to take of himself and was in good spirits.”

As Kenneth continued his journey, he spent a few days working on a farm in Ohio.  “Yes I can do farm work, chores, and I know how to take care of horses, harrow corn, and do other things about a place.  I got up at sunrise and quit work at dark.  I was to get $3.50 a day,” he would tell a reporter, triumphantly.

Original Lincoln Highway marker
 
Kenneth had hoped to stick to the Lincoln Highway from Philly to Pittsburgh to Chicago and onward.  But he strayed to the small city of Kenton, Ohio, where he got a lift from a truck driver named Carter, who recognized the boy from a newspaper photo and took him to the police in Cleveland, three hours away.  The next night, Kenneth’s father arrived by train to bring his son back to New York. 

There, much would be hashed out. 

When Kenneth was born in Omaha in 1909, his parents had been married a scant year and his father had already launched a career in advertising.  This profession was a very good choice.  As mass culture developed, radio, cars, film, music, and fashion – not to mention the Book-of-the-Month Club – drove modern entertainment and consumption. 

Billboards proliferated along with automobiles during
the first decade of the twentieth century 

In Omaha, the father made his name working for the Outdoor Advertising Association of America, where he helped create the market for roadside billboards.  Then he jumped to the tobacco industry, which took the family away from his wife’s Nebraska clan, first to Chicago and then New York.  By that time a daughter, Helen, had come along.  She was six and Kenneth was nine when they arrived in the affluent one square-mile village located a half-hour from Grand Central Terminal.

But Kenneth became deeply unhappy.  He remembered halcyon days in Omaha with aunts, uncles, and cousins all around.  He missed the easy Nebraska summers spent at the family’s country estate at Papillion, a small city with unpaved streets whose name derived from the French word for butterfly, papillon.  French fur traders were among its early settlers. Through it ran the Papio Creek, a tributary of the Missouri River; full of fish and prone to flood.

Unsurprisingly, after the swimming pool incident, Kenneth made his plan to go to Nebraska.

Kenneth in Papillion,
Nebraska (summer 1925)

But now he found himself in New York again, negotiating with his parents.  Finally, the father agreed to let Kenneth and Helen visit his wife’s family for a few weeks.  But something would have to be done about Kenneth’s schooling, he warned, for it seemed that more problems would ensue.

In Papillion, Warner smiled for a local photographer and sat for a newspaper interview.  “It’s great to be out here again – it’s just like coming home,” he said.  “I may even go to high school here in the fall.”

“When a fellow feels like that about a place, you can hardly blame him for making a run for it – now can you?” the reporter wrote.  He noted Kenneth’s blond hair and athletic ability.

Meanwhile, Kenneth’s father made plans for him to attend a boys’ boarding school in New Jersey.  In late August he drove Kenneth to Blairstown.  They talked with the headmaster and walked around the grounds.  After a few hours the father said goodbye to his son.   

One month later, Kenneth developed acute gangrenous appendicitis.  The local surgeon operated on him but he died five days later.

Part of this sad tale took place in a house where we once lived.  I keep wondering which room was Kenneth’s; where he stared out the window toward Nebraska.   


"It's just like coming home"

Sunday, November 11, 2018

The Armistice Turns 100



We took these photographs on a cold rainy day at the Somme Battlefields, in June 2016. 

That year marked the centennial of the Battle of the Somme, which actually comprised a series of bloody trench-warfare battles between the British and French armies, and the armies of the German Empire.  

Across nearly five months, three million soldiers fought and more than one million were killed or wounded.  On the first day of the battle, the British suffered 57,470 casualties, of which 19,240 were fatalities.  Most historians agree that neither side won.

As is the case in many World War I cemeteries, more than one thousand of the headstones bear the inscription, A Soldier of the Great War, Known Unto God

Here are two quotations that I like.

Every war is ironic because every war is worse than expected.  Every war constitutes an irony of situation because its means are so melodramatically disproportionate to its presumed ends. 



Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word – the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of marriages,
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.**






*Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory (1975).
**Last verse of MCMXIV, by British poet laureate Philip Larkin (1964).

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Wednesday, October 31, 2018

The First Lady is upstairs today




Now that the White House has celebrated Halloween, Melania Trump will retreat once more to the second-floor family residence.  Apart from the turkey pardon and Christmas parties, she probably will appear infrequently in public until 2019. 

From the start, this First Lady has been unusually remote; socially and emotionally unavailable to the American people.  She does not wish to conform to the modern conventions associated with the First Lady, which emerged around 1902 during the Theodore Roosevelt administration.

Edith Roosevelt became the first president’s wife to grant routine press coverage of herself and her children.  Such access increased over time.  During the past three decades, as the media grew and the realm of First Ladies scholarship intensified, historians have drawn ever greater attention to the role of the president’s wife, raising expectations that the women will engage fully with the public.
             
But now, nearly 20 months into the Trump presidency, we must conclude that the First Lady is most interested in engaging with a very small circle of friends and family.  

Historically, she is not alone. For antecedents, look to the dark, rainy first half of the nineteenth century.  One might not recognize the names outright, for the women are obscure. Just like Melania Trump, they were reluctant to leave the second floor of the White House.
             
The women were Margaret Taylor, Abigail Fillmore, and Jane Pierce, three ladies who never wanted their husbands to run for president and definitely didn’t care to move to the capital city that was flourishing at the edge of a swamp.

Margaret Taylor
          
Not everyone regarded the city with dread.  By 1850, notwithstanding the summertime mosquitoes and damp winter chill in the president’s house, Washington, D.C. captivated many a visitor. None other than the vivacious Dolley Madison (wife of the fourth president) made things sparkle. She hosted brilliant salons and encouraged the White House ladies who followed her to step lively.
             
Dolley died in 1849, the year before Margaret Taylor arrived at the executive mansion.  But it mattered not to Margaret, Abigail and Jane, who brushed off society and politics and participated in few White House events.
             
To be sure, they had reasons.
             
Margaret grieved for her daughter, the first wife of Jefferson Davis, who died of malaria while visiting Louisiana during “fever season.”

Jane Pierce
          
Jane mourned the loss of her 11-year old son who died before her eyes in a train accident less than two months before her husband was sworn in as president.
             
Abigail’s health was poor.

In turn, the three women stayed upstairs, read the Bible, and welcomed a few friends to the parlor.  They sent their daughters and nieces downstairs to receive visitors and preside over dinners.
             
The wives of presidents Taylor, Fillmore and Pierce were cast from the antebellum feminine ideal that historians refer to as “the cult of true womanhood,” which was fostered by a patriarchal system. The ideal virtues were piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity.

Abigail Fillmore
           
Melania Trump conforms, in part, to the type. Her adventures in modeling took her where no First Lady has gone before, so one might cross off purity. Her manner is largely compliant, however, and she prefers to be at home.
             
And so there exists an odd affinity on the second floor of the White House. 

On one hand, here is a woman who owes her rise to the twenty-first century’s lack of inhibitions.  On the other hand, there are three Victorian ladies dressed in black gowns with stiff lace bodices, bent over their embroidery and asking for smelling salts.   


Antebellum White House


Wednesday, October 17, 2018

The Wonderful World of Waldemar Kaempffert

An ambitious writer, Waldemar Kaempffert 

Think fearlessly of Waldemar Kaempffert, one of America’s first and most prolific science writers, striding onto the scene.  His blue eyes are brilliant and his hair prematurely gray. 

In 1919 he scolded the New York Times about the proper usage of the word “blimp”:

The R-34 is a rigid dirigible of the Zeppelin type. It has very little in common with the “blimp.”

Really, how could he help but correct the mistakes that assaulted him at every turn?  Not only was he bright and analytical.  He also held strong opinions about nearly everything:

The existence of canals on Mars,

Psychopathic laboratories in prisons,

the patent rights of inventors who worked for large corporations . . .

Waldemar Bernhard Kaempffert was born ambitious in New York City in 1877, the son of a German immigrant father and a Russian-German mother.  He received honors and awards all through his years in public school on the Upper West Side.

Soon after graduating from City College in 1897, Waldemar joined Scientific American as an assistant editor.  This gave him quite a perch, not to mention prestige.  He went on to earn an LL.B. from NYU while continuing at the magazine.  In 1905 he published his first major article, “The Protective Mimicry of Insects,” in Booklovers Magazine.   

Illustration from Kaempffert's
article about insects

Then he was off and running, covering carbon and Tungsten light, weather forecasting, alternative uses for pneumatic tubes – everything new that emerged through the scientific method or from someone’s crazy imagination.

For Waldemar had arrived at his profession at just at the right moment.  Radioactivity was revealed in 1895.  That led to the discovery of atomic particles.  The microscope lit up ever more infinitesimal lifeforms.  And the First World War would spur major advances in technology and medicine.  Waldemar was among the first Americans to grasp the extent to which German scientists had outpaced the United States and England. 

During the war, Waldemar left Scientific American to become editor of Popular Science Monthly, where he stayed until the mid-twenties when he joined the New York Times.  On the beat, he covered the invention of television and the radiotelephone, and the first transatlantic call between London and New York. 

Waldemar would write thousands of articles on scientific topics as well as several books.

He did have a break from journalism.  In 1928 he was called to Chicago where the businessman and philanthropist, Julius Rosenwald, planned to create a science museum inside the last remaining building of the 1893 World Columbian Exposition.  During a trip to Munich in 1911, the multimillionaire had been deeply impressed by the Deutsches Museum, which was -- still is -- the world's largest museum devoted to science and technology.

 Museum of Science and Industry, 1930s

In need of major repairs, the exposition building was located in Jackson Park in the Hyde Park neighborhood along Lake Michigan.  Ultimately it would be recast in limestone, thus keeping its Beaux Arts exterior. 

Rosenwald charged Waldemar with designing exhibitions and assembling the curatorial staff.  The mission of the new museum – like the one in Munich – would be to demonstrate how science and technology transform culture and society.  

By 1930, Waldemar’s wife Carolyn, a concert pianist, had joined him in Chicago and the couple moved into an apartment hotel just a few blocks from the museum.  But something went wrong; not quite a scandal but certain irregularities that led the board of directors to push Waldemar out.  In 1931 he headed back east to ask the Times editors to give him back his job, and they agreed. 

Carolyn died a few years later.  

 In his later years
Until his own death in 1956, Waldemar remained busy writing several stories each week. In his obituary, the Times quoted Waldemar himself, who often said that his function was “to make science so clear that the scientists could understand it.”

A childless widower, Waldemar bequeathed more than $25,000 to Memorial Hospital for cancer research.*  He left $5,000 to Dr. Elizabeth Baker, a social scientist at Columbia University who studied the effect of technology on jobs.  He left $2,500 to Marie Mossoba Berlinghoff, his assistant of nearly 25 years. 

The remainder went to a stage actress named Sophie Wilds, who seems to have pursued a Bohemian life from her little brick house in Greenwich Village!


*Now Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Manhattan Storm

A sense of foreboding nationwide

*Photo taken last night

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Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Lending Firelight in Montana



We went to Montana to visit friends.  They live in a hillside house that overlooks Flathead Lake.  There’s a dock made of weathered wood that reaches east toward the morning sun.  The light dances like diamonds on the glacial water. 

We faced the smoke-shrouded mountains from a spot so small that it is merely a Census Designated Place (CDP).  In the distance on Wild Horse Island, bighorn sheep and mule deer ambled around with the occasional brown bear, although we couldn’t see them. 

The property has been in the family for several generations.  Therefore, a great-great grandmother who taught at the local school must certainly have run into Frank Bird Linderman, who came to the territory in 1885 from Elyria, Ohio, at the age of 16.  Working as a trapper, in search of adventure, he was one of millions to whom the West beckoned as the American century loomed on the horizon.

Married in Missoula in 1893, the father of three children, Frank went on to be an assayer, furniture salesman, journalist, sculptor, and politician.  But it was the culture and history of Montana’s Native Americans that became his passion.



By 1917, when Frank built a cottage for his family on Flathead Lake, he had already published his first book, Indian Why Stories: Sparks from War Eagle’s Lodge-Fire. 

“Why the Chipmunk’s Back is Striped,” he explained in one story; “Why the Mountain-Lion is Long and Lean,” “Why Indians Whip the Buffalo Berries from the Bushes,” and much more. 

Western artist Charles Russell, widely admired for his paintings of cowboys and Indians, was Frank’s good friend and illustrated his books. 

The Flathead, Kootenai, Chippewa, Blackfeet, Cree and Crow – Frank interviewed members of the tribes using sign language and interpreters.  The legends he learned appeared in Bunch-Grass and Blue Joint (1921), Plenty-Coups, Chief of the Crows (1930) and his other books. 


Frank Bird Linderman, the Chippewa medicine man Big-rock,
and the artist Charles M. Russell in Montana
(1916)

Frank wanted to “write of the old days as they were, so men would appreciate and not forget,

to lend firelight,

to tell and not cheat in the telling.”

His affinity with Flathead Lake, which is bordered by mountains on the west and east, prompted him to tell his daughter:

“I know every inch of that country on both sides of the ranges.  I have camped in every place on the shore of the lake when Manitou was king.”

Who was Manitou? 

Among Native Americans, Manitou is a Great Spirit, a life force, the creator.  Manitou also refers to the things that are most valued in life.  

Manitou is a celebration of wonderful occurrences.  It is a rite of passage.  It is stumbling across a huckleberry bush on the way up the mountain, or the glint of a rainbow trout in the Flathead River.




*Linderman was not alone in his desire to document the lives of Native Americans.  The photographer and ethnographer Edward S. Curtis launched his North American Project around 1900, ultimately producing 40,000 photographs of 80 tribes, 10,000 wax recordings, and the 20-volume book, The North American Indian.

**Frank Linderman died in California in 1938 after years of poor health.

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Wednesday, August 29, 2018

George Sylvester Viereck's Busy Life




George Sylvester Viereck's magazine, The Fatherland (1914)

Imagine the scene outside his father-in-law’s home, about 20 people milling around in the warm August night, shouting that he should leave the city and never return. 

Did George Sylvester Viereck push aside the drapes to peer out the parlor window?  Apparently the presence of two policemen guarding the front door did not reassure him of his own safety.

And so as the dog days waned in the summer of 1918, George left his wife and two sons with her father and returned to the city. From there he would continue to edit his two magazines, The International and The Fatherland.   In their pages he strongly supported Germany throughout the Great War, which the U. S. had entered in April 1917.

Later, his work would be labeled propaganda.

The child of a German actress and – purportedly – an unacknowledged son of Kaiser Wilhelm II, George immigrated to the U. S. at the age of 13.  Known as Sylvester or “G.S.V.,” he graduated from City College of New York with literary aspirations, having published a small volume of verse in 1904 while he was still a student.  In 1907, George published a second collection of poems which won national attention.

George Sylvester Viereck as a young man

After college, George traveled frequently to his native land.  He developed a particular interest in foreign affairs and became a German nationalist. 

In 1915, agitated by the debate over U. S. involvement in the war, George helped found a nationwide antiwar group called Friends of Peace.  The group immediately demanded that the U. S. stop supplying ammunition to England and that England lift its blockade of German ships. 

Friends of Peace wasn’t really a pacifist organization.  Rather, it intended to prevent an alliance between the U. S. and England.  Its members were largely Americans of German and Irish descent who had a natural – understandable – antipathy toward England.  They included scholars, clergy, publishers, and business executives.

The group held rallies in Chicago, New York, and other cities.  Meanwhile, President Wilson campaigned for a second term on the slogan, “He Kept Us out of War.”  Friends of Peace did not trust Wilson and endorsed the Republican candidate Charles Evans Hughes (later appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court).

George led a busy life.  A prolific writer – novels and memoirs in addition to poetry and international affairs – he also lectured widely.  Over time he developed a reputation for being anti-American – hence the angry neighbors outside his father-in-law’s home – but that did not seem to bother him.  

The Fatherland became The American Weekly (1918)

After the war, Congress investigated how Germany had used propaganda in the U. S., and George was named as a saboteur.  American agents showed evidence that he had advance knowledge of Germany’s plans to sink the Lusitania.  But there were no consequences, and George resumed writing, turning his anger toward Wilson, the League of Nations, and reparations. 

In the early 1920s, George made his first visit to Europe since before the war.  He stayed for eight months, scoring interviews with Hitler, Mussolini, and the Kaiser, who was now in exile in the Netherlands.
 
His 1923 interview with Hitler occurred just a few months before the Beer Hall Putsch, an attempted Nazi coup in Munich.  But the putsch failed and Hitler was imprisoned for nine months, passing the time writing Mein Kampf.   

In the course of the interview, which did not see the light of day until 1932 when it was published in Liberty Magazine (another pro-German magazine), Hitler railed against Bolshevism and Marxism. 

“In my scheme of the German state, there will be no room for the alien, no use for the wastrel, for the usurer or the speculator, or anyone incapable of productive work,” he told George.

Back in the U. S., George emerged as an unabashed supporter of Hitler and registered as a foreign agent.  He established a publishing house that issued isolationist, Anglophobic and pro-German books. But things caught up with him.  In 1941, just a few weeks before Pearl Harbor, a grand jury indicted George for deliberately hiding the extent of his work as a propagandist.

He would serve about five years in prison, during which time his life fell apart.  His younger son was killed in the Battle of Anzio, and his wife left him after liquidating all of his assets and donating the money to Catholic and Jewish charities.  He died in the Berkshires in 1962.*

In his study hung portraits of Kaiser Wilhelm, Hitler, and Goebbels alongside those of Freud and Einstein.  “All these people I have known and admired,” he liked to tell visitors.  “The psychoanalyst, the scientist, and the dynamic force – all have been my friends.” 

After World War II

*He lived out his years with his son, Peter, a professor at Mt. Holyoke College, and Peter's family.

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