Matched and Mismatched Royal Couples

The big news this week has been the engagement of Britain’s Prince Harry to American actress Meghan Markle, with the wedding scheduled for May at Windsor Castle.  Although Prince Harry is currently fifth in line to inherit the throne (after his father, Prince Charles, elder brother Prince William, and nephew George and niece Charlotte), and thus this marriage won’t have political ramifications, the engagement is important in a symbolic way:  the British royal family, widely regarded as stuffy, intolerant, and tradition-bound, is now welcoming into their family a divorced, bi-racial, American actress.  (Although I can’t help wondering what Meghan’s African-American maternal grandparents think of welcoming a blue-eyed, red-haired Englishman into their family!). Given the attitudes of the royal family in the past to interlopers or rogue relatives,  the official approval of the engagement is momentous.

The importance to royal families of choosing the right marriage partner, though, has had very interesting effects in the past.   Certainly, the experience of Harry’s father, Charles, in finding the right consort was a lesson in what can go wrong.  Charles fell in love as a young man with Camilla Parker-Bowles, but he took so long in deciding to propose that she married someone else.  Charles eventually gave in to the pressure of his parents, and married a young woman who seemed, at least on paper, to have all the right credentials:  of noble ancestry (Spencers), young, innocent, and photogenic.   Yet, apparently within weeks of their marriage in July of 1981, it became obvious to friends, family, and the couple themselves, Charles and Diana, that this was no fairy-tale romance.  Eventually, after producing two sons (William and Harry), the couple divorced, but only after Charles had been forced to publicly admit he was still seeing his old flame Camilla.  Diana, of course, was a media superstar up until her tragic death in a car crash in 1997. (And Charles has since married Camilla, who is known as the Duchess of Cornwall).

Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, the monarch and her husband, perhaps had been so desirous of Charles choosing the right woman to marry because of a previous royal scandal that had significant political ramifications – the decision by Elizabeth’s uncle, King Edward VIII, in 1936 to marry an American divorcee, Wallis Warfield Simpson.

Edward VIII was the handsome, charming, and somewhat lazy eldest son of King George V.   He loved sports, particularly hunting and horseback riding, parties, and beautiful women. Known as the Prince of Wales, he also loved to travel, so as a young man he was regularly sent abroad by his father to visit nations within the British commonwealth.   Young women in particular crowded train stations and parade routes to see this “prince charming”.

Duke of Windsor as a young man
The Young Prince Edward, wearing a turtleneck sweater that became a fashion sensation

But, much to his parents’ despair, the Prince seemed to prefer the company of married women, and seemed in no hurry to marry a suitable woman and produce an heir to the throne.   In the mid 1930s, one of his mistresses introduced him to the wife of an English businessman, and the Prince and the American divorcee, Wallis Warfield Simpson, became inseparable.   Of course, the King and Queen were horrified, and even banned any mention of “that woman” in their household, and British newspapers also agreed not to write anything of the affair.   American journalists were fascinated, however, and by mid-1935 ran flattering and not-so-flattering stores and photos of the couple vacationing in the Mediterranean, golfing together in France, and partying with their friends in England.

King George died in January of 1936, and very quickly his Cabinet of advisers became concerned with the new king’s behavior.  Not only was he indiscreet with his new paramour, but he also seemed too friendly with certain Nazis.   He and Wallis actually visited Hitler and both were very impressed with him and his “New Germany.”

Duke and Duchess of Windsor with Hitler

Granted, Edward was not the only Brit who was very friendly with the Nazis;  there was a large group of the British aristocracy that also was pro-German, but Edward’s inability to look beyond the carefully choreographed facade of Hitler and his regime was very troubling to a number of British politicians.

In the autumn of 1936, though, the tipping point was reached when British newspapers decided to reveal the romance between the King and the now divorced (again) American.   Edward tried to get Parliament to approve of his marriage to Wallis, but she remained unacceptable to Parliament and his family. So, in December 1936,  Edward went on the radio to announce that if he could not have the “Woman I Love” next to him as his wife, he didn’t want to be king.    He abdicated and handed off the throne to his younger brother, George VI (father of Queen Elizabeth).  He and Wallis married quietly in June 1937 in France.

The Duke and Duchess of Windsor on their wedding day.  Both loved fashionable clothes, and her dress was widely copied.

Apparently, though, Edward, now formally known as the Duke of Windsor,  thought he still could have all of the rights and privileges of a king, and he spent the rest of his life trying to wring more money and respect from his family.   When WWII began, he went back into the army, stationed in Paris, but when the Germans attacked France, he and Wallis packed up their belongings and fled to their home on the Riviera, much to the embarrassment of the British royal family.   He and Wallis then went to Spain, where they became the center of a German plot to kidnap them and put them on the British throne after the Nazi’s planned conquest of England – although there is evidence that Edward was not so much a victim of the plot as a collaborator in it.   By the summer of 1940, the British government decided to move the troublesome Duke of Windsor and his bride across the pond to the Bahamas.

The Duke and Duchess of Windsor returned to Paris after the war, and remained very active on the party set.   He died in 1972, still angry with his family’s poor treatment of Wallis.  She died in Paris in 1989.  However, the Duke’s sister-in-law, the Queen Mother, never forgave the Duke for abandoning his duty to be king;  she, and to some degree, her daughter Queen Elizabeth II, also blamed the Duke for the premature death of King George VI, who had to shoulder the responsibilities of a job – king – that he felt unprepared for.   Both women were very sensitive to public opinion, and both also were deeply committed to public service, and thus marriage choices were not to be made lightly.

So, indeed, it is remarkable that Prince Harry will be marrying Meghan Markle – or maybe it isn’t so remarkable, given that we’re in the second decade of the 21st century.


DaVinci, Vermeer, and the Question of Forgery

Last week, Christie’s auction house in New York stunned the art world (and the media) by negotiating the sale of a recently restored DaVinci painting for the sum of (gulp) $450 million.   This sale has raised a lot of eyebrows, not only because of the purchase price (making this the most expensive painting ever), but because there are still some doubts as to the authenticity of the painting itself.   Then there’s the mystery of who would buy a painting with a questionable provence – for $450 million?  The media has made some guesses, ranging from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos to some anonymous Chinese billionaire, but the public may never find out, just adding to the mystery of the painting.

The DaVinci painting, dubbed “The DaVinci Christ”, was last sold in 1958 for around $90.00 to an English buyer;  not only were there questions even then about its painter, but the painting itself was in very bad shape.  Painted on a piece of wood (not canvas), because of an imperfection in the wood the painting had begun to split.   But, for some reason- this story just gets “curiouser and curiouser”- about ten years ago, the anonymous owner  sent this $90  painting to a well-known art restorer in Manhattan, who had the painting x-rayed, then subject to infrared rays, which showed underlying layers.   It was in those layers that she found evidence of DaVinci’s work.  Yet, not everyone in the art world is convinced that this painting is indeed the Italian master’s, many restorers and art experts pointing in particular to the clear sphere in Christ’s left hand – an object never used by DaVinci in any of his other work.Salvator Mundi attributed to Leonardo da Vinci

But such is DaVinci’s spell that the painting still brought in nearly half a billion dollars…quite a return on a $90 investment, and not only for the owner, but for the dealer and Christie’s as well.

But then again, art lovers and dealers have deluded themselves as well as the public before.  One of the most famous instances is the case of the fake Vermeers.

Johannes Vermeer was a 17th century Dutch painter who specialized in scenes of domestic life:  women doing household chores, men writing or reading, and so on.   At the time he painted, his work was not considered particularly remarkable, but by the 20th century, art critics and lovers had grown to appreciate his subtle use of color, light and shadow.

Vermeer globe
Man With a Globe by Johannes Vermeer

However, Vermeer was not a particularly prolific painter, so it was thought by the 1930s that all of his work had already been found.  Thus the art world and collectors were very excited when a new Vermeer seemed to have been discovered in the late 1930s by a Dutch art dealer, Hans van Meegeren. By the early 1940s, he claimed to have found others.

Among those who were eager to obtain a “new” Vermeer was none other than Hitler’s deputy, Hermann Goering.  Goering had begun building a sophisticated art collection since the 1920s, and as the Nazi war machine conquered most of the European continent by 1940, Goering and other Nazis began to add to their art collections from museums and art dealers in Poland, France, and the Netherlands.  Some of these art works were snatched from Jewish dealers and collectors, while others were “appropriated” from museums.

Amsterdam art dealer Han van Meegeren became known as the man who could “find” particularly rare or valuable pieces of art, including Vermeers.  In 1943, van Meegeren sold a reputed Vermeer called “Christ and the Adulteress” to Goering for a substantial amount of cash and an exchange of 137 Dutch paintings.  Van Meegeren also sold several other “newly found” Vermeers to Nazi-run museums, and one of these paintings even made its way into Hitler’s personal art collection.

Vermeer forgery
Two of the “Vermeers” sold by Han van Meegeren to the Nazis during World War II

But even during World War II there were rumors about van Meegeren and his uncanny ability to “find” previously unknown Vermeers.  Art experts in London and New York, unafraid of Nazi retaliation, pointed out the inconsistencies of the newly found Vermeers with the previously authenticated Vermeers, such as the famous “Girl with a Pearl Earring”, shown below:

Vermeer Girl With a Pearl Earring


At the end of the war, van Meegeren was arrested  by the Dutch government as a Nazi collaborator, and it was then, as prosecutors began to build their case against him, that his role as a forger was exposed.  In fact, van Meegeren, who was a gifted painter in his own right, admitted to having begun to forge Vermeers back in 1937 as a way to make money, then, in the 1940s as a means to trick the Nazis. Rather than being convicted as a Nazi collaborator, he argued, he should be celebrated as a national hero for having swindled the Nazis and protected those 137 Dutch paintings!

Van Meegeren negotiated with the Dutch government, and was allowed to plead guilty to forgery and fraud (punishable with a one-year prison sentence) instead of being tried for treason (with a death sentence).   He never completed his sentence, though, dying of a heart attack in the last month of his his prison term.

Van Meegeren’s tale is a fascinating one, and I suspect that the story of this new DaVinci painting is not yet over, and will contain a few more twists and turns!

Halloween, Houdini, and other Oddities

When did Halloween become such an important holiday?   There seems to now be a huge Halloween industry, churning out costumes, recipes, activities, and events for people of all ages.   Stores pop-up or hire extra help just for Halloween.   And by November 1st, the Christmas decorations will be up and America will be preparing for another round of celebrating and ritual!

Now that I’ve vented about Halloween, let’s look at a man whose life – and death- remain mysterious:  Harry Houdini, who died on October 31, 1926.  Born in Budapest, Hungary as Erik Weisz, son of a rabbi, he and his family immigrated to Wisconsin in the 1880s;  by the time he was nine, Erik had run away to join the circus (not an uncommon dream of children), where he proved to be adept at contorting his body, doing trapeze stunts – and picking locks.  He changed his name to a Houdini – supposedly after an obscure European performer, and his family abandoned Wisconsin to follow him to New York City.  His fame spread quickly, and in 1900 he returned to Europe and gave performances to huge crowds in which he escaped from manacles, locked boxes, and all manner of restraints.   Houdini admitted he possessed great concentration and unusual dexterity, but he also knew how to draw out the suspense and entertain even the most skeptical audiences.  Still, some of his escapes are still hard to fathom, even today.

As time went by, his performances became even more dramatic.  He often was bound by chains or other restraints, then dropped into a tank of water; of course, he was able to break free.   One of his most popular performances was in New York City, where he was dangled from a skyscraper, bound by a strait-jacket.   He also appeared in early movies, although he was disappointed that he wasn’t offered extended contracts.


Various “escape artists”, magicians, and other sleight-of-hand performers attracted huge crowds in the early 20th century, but Houdini had little respect for many of his colleagues who claimed supernatural powers or used tricks.  He insisted that his success was based not on tricks but on skill, dexterity, and concentration, although perhaps part of the attraction was the revealing outfit he wore!

Houdini stunt

Though he did secretly consult mediums after the death of his beloved mother in 1913, Houdini spent considerable energy attacking spiritualism. Spiritualism was very popular after the Great War ended in 1918 among women, in particular, eager to contact dead husbands, fathers or brothers, but Houdini believed that most of those who offered psychic services were charlatans. He got into some very public spats with spiritualist advocates, the most famous being British writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of charater of Sherlock Holmes.

Houdini against spiritualism poster

Houdini was a cautious man, though:  not only did he meticulously plan out all of his stunts, he and his second wife agreed that the surviving spouse would try to contact the deceased partner through a seance.  Houdini’s widow, Rosabelle, kept to the bargain for ten years after his death, but apparently never heard from her late husband.

Houdini died under tragic circumstances, but not from deliberately risking his life in an attempted escape nor from his hobby of flying;  no, Houdini died from a ruptured appendix, brought on by an incident of bragging.  Before a performance in Montreal, Houdini was approached by a group of young men who asked what his secret of success was.  Houdini proudly proclaimed that much of his talent was attributed to supreme physical fitness  (“abs of steel” would be the term used today), so one of the young men tested that claim by punching Houdini in the stomach.  By the next day, after arriving in Detroit, Houdini had to enter a hospital, where doctors concluded that the blow had ruptured the performer’s appendix, and before they could operate to remove the appendage, Houdini died of complications.  His funeral, held in New York City, was attended by over 2,000 people.  He is buried in Queens, near his parents.

People around the world were shocked by the circumstances of Houdini’s death, and of course conspiracy theorists quickly found other causes of Houdini’s death, one particular group arguing Houdini had actually been killed by spiritualists outraged by Houdini’s public attacks on their art.   One of his grand-nephews has tried to have Houdini’s body exhumed so another pathological exam can be performed to re-affirm the cause of death.

Since Houdini’s death, popular culture has remained fascinated by him.  A popular movie released in 1962 starred rising star Tony Curtis, and a made-for-TV movie featuring Wil Wheaton was broadcast in 1987.  One of my favorite Broadway musicals, “Ragtime”, also featured Houdini.  Just the word “Houdini” conjures up an escape artist or magician.

There is now a Houdini Museum in Scranton, Pennsylvania, as well as other museums highlighting Houdini’s work.  The American Society of Magicians pays to maintain Houdini’s gravesite in Queens.  And, of course, Houdini’s influence on other performers such as David Copperfield and Siegfried and Roy is significant.


Women and Housework

In my previous post, I discussed the role of women in promoting the arts and intellectual study in their communities.   This led me to some thought about the factors that enabled women such as the Gifford sisters to be active in their communities.   Women like the Giffords were from the upper middle-class, and this afforded them certain privileges,   access to education (either schools or tutors) and the means to travel and meet artists and intellectuals being two of the most important.   But we can’t overlook a critical element in their lives:  they had the money to pay other people to do their cooking, laundry, and housework, which freed up their own time to study, write, travel, and socialize with other like-minded women.

This is not something to be ignored.  Running a household was time-consuming for women in the 19th century (as it still is for many women).    Take a moment to ponder   the advancements we take for granted today.   There was no electricity in most homes before 1900, so baking and cooking had to be completed using wood-burning or coal-burning stoves  (coal stoves were particularly dirty, and coal residue had to be cleaned daily off the stove, walls and floor in the kitchen).   These stoves needed to be started before dawn so as to cook breakfast (and breakfast cereals were not widely available until the 1890s).    Getting the ovens to the correct temperature to bake bread, pies, and cakes or to roast meat could be tricky, and the kitchen itself grew very hot. There obviously were no refrigerators, so housewives relied on blocks of ice to keep milk, cheese, and butter from going bad,  but the lack of refrigeration required them to shop daily for meat and dairy products, although one convenience not widely available anymore was the daily visit from the milkman.

Keeping the rest of the house clean wasn’t easy, either.  Rugs and carpets needed to be swept or pulled up, taken outside, and beaten to get crumbs and other debris off of them.  Dust and dirt were constant problems, particularly in warm weather, when doors and windows were left open to bring in fresh air, but also brought in dust from the streets  (before automobiles became popular in the early 20th century, few roads or city streets were paved).

Then there was the chore of doing the laundry.   Before washing machines became popular, this task was done completely by hand, and usually took an entire day:   water had to be heated up on the stove, then divided into several wash tubs:  one for detergent (lye soap, which was very hard on the skin), a tub for rinsing, another tub for bluing (which removed other stains), then again for rinsing.   The process was made somewhat easier by the end of the 19th century, when wringer washers became available, but lifting wet laundry was still back-breaking labor.  Of course, the wet clothing, towels, sheets, and other items still had to hung up to dry, outside in good weather, inside in bad.

Household work 19th century tenement laundry

Another entire day was set aside for ironing the dry clothes.  Irons made out of cast-iron (hence the term “irons”) had to be heated up on the stove while the laundress applied starch to the dried clothes.   While one iron was being used, at least one other was being re-heated.  In the age before rayon, polyester and nylon, almost everything had to be ironed.

However, if we put this in a social context, it is easier to understand how a typical housewife could get this all completed.  First of all,  families tended to be larger, and girls from an early age were expected to help with these chores.  Unmarried adult women did not move out of their family’s home when they completed their education, nor did most of them seek paid employment;  they basically paid for their housing and food with their household labor.    My great-grandmother, for example, came from a family of nine children;  two of her older sisters never married nor left the family household, instead taking on responsibilities for childcare of younger siblings or nieces or nephews or handling household chores.

Even if there weren’t family members available to provide free labor, there were many other women in the community who would work cheaply.   Many women, particularly immigrant or African-Americans, needed to work outside of their own homes, either to supplement their husband’s or father’s income or because they were the sole breadwinner, and without  other skills, they were forced to sell their labor cheaply.   Families like the Giffords in Syracuse could afford to hire someone to shop for and cook their food, and also could pay someone to do the laundry and ironing.  Some families sent their laundry out to commercial laundries, but in fact, there was such a large labor pool of household workers that most middle-class families relied on at least one household worker well into the twentieth century:  my grandmother sent the laundry out weekly to a someone who returned it washed and ironed, and also hired a baby-nurse to take care of my father.   Many middle-class families hired someone to do major cleanings several times a year, as well as someone to tend to the lawn in warm weather.

Household work 19th century

But new “labor-saving” devices, and social changes impacted this system by the early 20th century.  The availability of electrical service in urban areas and smaller communities by the 1920s, as well as the introduction of installment buying, enabled housewives to purchase vacuum cleaners, electric stoves, and refrigerators (still called “iceboxes” and tiny by today’s standards), thus freeing them from daily shopping and hard physical labor.

household-household-appliances-hand-operated-vacuum-cleaner-two-persons-BJTRG5 The irony is though, as social historians frequently point out,  while such devices made household chores “easier”,  such “conveniences” did not necessarily give the housewife more time for leisure: since she no longer could justify hiring other people to do the laundry, cooking, or shopping when she had new appliances,  she had to do them instead.

While the wealthy and upper-middle class women still might have some “help” around the house, most middle-class women by the 1930s were expected by society to do their own housework, cooking and laundry.   After all, didn’t they have new technologies to do it? And, for the women who had provided their labor, this social change made their skills unmarketable.    The Great Depression was particularly hard on this group, and even government programs instituted by the New Deal did little to address their situation.  Few New Deal programs employed women (except for the WPA’s Sewing Schools division, which  was not terribly popular with Congress), and Social Security refused to include household laborers in the system until the late 1950s.

I am amused by television commercials advertising services providing household help and child-care, because they demonstrate that despite new technology and social advancements, household chores are still problematic.   Women- and men- can go out and get good-paying jobs, but still have to come home to deal with cooking, laundry, and the countless other tasks involved in daily living.

Women Educating Themselves – As Well as the Community

Several friends and I have season tickets for the Rosamund Gifford Lecture Series, sponsored by the county library.   This series, which has been in existence for decades, brings in a variety of authors every year;  in the years since I’ve been living in Central New York, guest lecturers have included Erik Larson, Bryan Stephenson, Elizabeth George, and Colson Whitehead.  Hundreds of people attend these lectures, and the authors inspire me to read more, and, more importantly, to read books that I might not choose on my own.  I find each series meaningful in the ways in which they inspire intellectual conversations as well as curiosity. This concept of bringing in lecturers is not new to Syracuse;  before the Civil War, guest lecturers such as Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison helped promote the abolitionist movement.  Other lecturers furthered women’s rights and temperance.

But these opportunities to expand their knowledge became increasingly important to women as the 19th century wore on.   Privately-run “Young ladies'” academies opened up in Syracuse by the 1850s, and New York state began to establish public-schools in the decades after the Civil War;  some colleges, including Syracuse University, Cornell,  and Elmira College also admitted women by the 1870s.  But, while many young women eagerly took advantage of these chances to become better educated, most families had neither the financial resources nor the desire to educate their daughters beyond secondary school.  Besides, daughters were brought up to become wives and mothers;   they were expected to run a household and rear children, not to pursue careers outside the home. Yet, many women found themselves less than satisfied with domestic activities  (particularly if they were unmarried).

In the early 1870s, the astronomer Maria Mitchell gave a series of lectures that proved to be an inspiration to a group of women in Syracuse. Eager to expand their own education, in 1875 they founded the Social Art Club, stating that its “object is to discuss practical and feasible means of improving conditions of women in America.”   Their founding document went on to point out, though, that they would avoid two controversial issues – women’s suffrage and free love (no readings of Victoria Woodhull for this group).  Instead, each year the membership would choose a subject to explore, such as “Women in Artistic Fields”.

Meetings were held monthly at members’ homes or at more public locations (such as in 1880 at the new high school) and each member served as either the hostess or the presenter.  Each presenter examined a subtopic, such as the work of one particular artist, and the lecture materials of the presenters were quite impressive.  In the age before public libraries or the internet, gathering information about particular artists was challenging, but these women proved themselves to be diligent researchers, as their notes in the files at the Onondaga Historical Association demonstrate.

A very important activity of this club was organizing art exhibits, usually of the art work owned by the members.  Several of the members came from prominent and wealthy families, such as the Giffords and the Crouse family (two important names locally even today), and they had the means to travel to Europe and New York and purchase art.  In 1882, for example, as members of the club began to plan their annual exhibition, they collectively owned “161 framed pictures and 93 unframed pictures”. Members of the club were eager to share their collections with the community, hoping to educate others about art.   Eventually, many of these pieces of art, which included Durer engravings and works by lesser known artists of the Italian Renaissance, became the seeds of the Syracuse Museum of Art (now known as the Everson Museum).

Other club topics included “Oriental Art”, “French Literature”, and “India”, but the club also responded to world events over the years.  One lecture in the 1920 season was “The Wise Protection of Art Objects and the Devastation in France and Belgium”, reflecting the effects of the Great War.

One of the leaders of the Social Art Club from its founding was the seventh of the eleven children of businessmen Henry Gifford, Frances.  Born in 1838, she never married, but devoted her energies to promoting education.   She was a close friend of Mrs. Russell Sage, a philanthropist in her own right.    One of Frances’ younger sisters, Isabella, was a sculptress who spent most of her life working in Florence, Italy, and Frances along with  another sister, Helen, frequently travelled to Europe to visit;  Isabella, in turn, introduced her sisters to many other artists and art-lovers.   Her travels deeply influenced Frances Gifford, and she became deeply committed to educating the Syracuse community in art, history and literature.   She remained active in the Syracuse Literary Art Club until shortly before her death in 1923;  upon her death, her considerable estate was distributed to a variety of arts organizations.   Her niece, Rosamund Gifford, continued her work in the arts and the community, particularly working with the local library and the zoo.

The activities of clubs such as the Social Art Club kept the arts alive in Syracuse, and provided an important means for women to keep their own intellectual lives vibrant.   Their work behind the scenes has added to the quality of life for thousands of people in Central New York.


The End of the “American Century”

This week, the current occupant of the Oval Office announced that the U.S. was withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accords.   His rationale was that the agreement harmed the U.S. more than it helped and was costing our nation too much in terms of money and jobs.   America First seems to be the theme.

White House storm clouds

I was struck by the timing of this withdrawal, just one hundred years after the U.S. stepped onto the world stage when it entered the Great War.  In 1917, according to journalist Walter Lippman, the U.S. entered what he termed “the American Century.” Up until 1917, the U.S. had shied away from “foreign entanglements” (the term used by President George Washington), reluctant to be sucked into foreign conflicts.   Yet, despite a great deal of opposition, in the spring of 1917, President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war against Germany, citing the interests of the nation.   The U.S. depended heavily on foreign trade, and in an age before transatlantic air travel, foreign trade was conducted on the high seas;  the Germans, desperate to limit the resources of France and Great Britain, released their U-boat (submarine) commanders to attack neutral shipping (particularly U.S. ships).  Wilson, and most of Congress, saw this as a direct threat to national security, and entered the “war to end all wars”.

But Wilson had loftier goals than just protecting trade;  a trained historian and political scientist, as well as a politician, he truly believed that the U.S. could provide the moral leadership the world so desperately seemed to need at that time.   Yes, the U.S. participation in the war could “make the world safe for democracy”, but it also could serve as a beacon of hope and integrity in a time when those two qualities seemed lacking.   Wilson also had a longer view – he wanted the U.S. to have a say in the post-war world.   Thus, after the Armistice, he left the White House to sail to Paris for six months of intense negotiations with many (not all) of the combatants, and the resulting document, the Versailles Treaty, met two of Wilson’s most dearly held goals:  to create a world forum to handle disputes (the League of Nations), and to establish the leadership of the U.S. in foreign affairs.

Woodrow Wilson in Paris 1919
Woodrow Wilson in Paris, 1919

Of course, we know that the League failed, and a second world war began just twenty years after the Versailles Treaty was signed in Paris, but many historians argue that the failure of the League, and the rise of tyrants such as Mussolini and Hitler, could have been avoided, or minimized, if the U.S. had not tried to turn its back on the world in the 1920s and 1930s.    The U.S. Senate failed to ratify the Versailles Treaty (a failure as much Wilson’s fault as the fault of isolationists in Congress), and thus the U.S. never joined the League of Nations.   It merely acted as an observer as Mussolini seized control of Italy, as Japan gobbled up Manchuria, and as Hitler blatantly ignored the Versailles Treaty.   The U.S. also failed to offer advice or caution to Britain and France when they scrambled about to respond to Hitler’s seizure of the Sudetenland in 1938.    The U.S. came out of the Great War the most powerful – and arguably, the most respected – nation in the world.  Our economy boomed during and after the war, bringing up living standards in the U.S. and in other nations;  the importance of our economic stability was so important that when the U.S. stock market crashed in 1929, the effects of that debacle were felt throughout the world.  But U.S. leaders, for various reasons, were reluctant to fulfill the obligations of leadership.

Compare this to American policies after World War II:  when famine and unrest threatened the economic, social, and political stability of Europe in the 1940s, the U.S. instituted the Marshall Plan (which while costing over $13 billion, created thousands of jobs in the U.S. and created economic growth lasting twenty-five years).   When the Soviets tried to take over all of Berlin, the U.S. began a massive airlift to the western sectors of Berlin, and then created NATO as a tool to fight Communist expansion; we recognized that the safety and security of the U.S. depended on the safety and security of other nations.

Europe devastation 1945

Skipping ahead to the 1970s and 1980s, American Presidents negotiated arms limitation deals with the Soviet Union that ultimately bankrupted the Soviets.     All of these policies took time, attention to detail, and a willingness to recognize the interdependence of nations.

Being a leader means more than just shoving aside less powerful nations;  it means learning to cooperate and recognize the validity of others’ viewpoints while also staying focused on your own interests;  leadership on the world stage demands an understanding of history and politics.  Sadly, the U.S. leadership in 2017 doesn’t see value in those things, nor in getting along with others (apparently they never went to kindergarten), and is like a spoiled child who demands friendship but doesn’t want to share toys.  Is it the end of the American Century?   I fear that the U.S. abandonment of a leadership role in climate change creates a vacancy that other nations, such as China, India or even Russia, will rush in to fill.  The U.S. won’t have a voice in an issue that affects the quality of life of all humans, and instead will leave the decision-making to other nations that we already fear.

Cars and more cars

The 101st Indianapolis 500 automobile race will start today at noon.   This is the iconic American car race – highly tuned vehicles racing around an oval track for 500 laps.     It doesn’t do much for me (but then again, car racing doesn’t really seem like a sport to me at all), but as a historical marker, the Indy 500 is fascinating.

The first Indy 500 was run in May of 1911, after a group of Indianapolis businessmen, eager to attract visitors and customers to their hometown, had been trying to organize such a race for over two years.  Eventually, 46 cars entered the race;   automobile manufacturers as well as tire producers saw the benefits of the race in terms of free advertising for what was still a luxury item – automobiles.    They raced on a surface paved with 3.2 million paving bricks (hence, the term “Brickyard Classic”).  The bricks would eventually be paved over with asphalt, the most recent repaving taking place in 2004.




Interesting note:  23 different car makes were included in that inaugural Indy, but only three of those have survived to 2017:  Buick, Fiat, and Mercedes.  Henry Ford, while attending the 1911 race, having chosen not to enter a car, but then again, the Model T probably wouldn’t have done well against the better powered European models.

In 1914,  the organizers of the race banned the drinking of alcohol by drivers during the race…apparently, the winner of the 1913 Indy had polished off an entire bottle of champagne while driving to victory, and the race promoters wanted to discourage such behavior.  Probably a good idea.

The Indianapolis 500 was suspended during U.S. involvement in World War I and World War II.   Fuel and oil were desperately needed by the military, and in fact, during World War II, gasoline and motor oil were rationed items.   It was considered patriotic to suspend automobile racing during World War II, but also, the race organizers were concerned that gas rationing would affect attendance.

Attendance was at its highest in the 1950s and 1960s, reflective of America’s love affair with cars and speed, but attendance has declined since then at various times;  NASCAR has proven to be a big rival of Indy racing, as well as the growing importance of television,  yet there still is nothing like the Indianapolis 500.

Flaherty wins a soggy 1956 Indy 500
The 1956 Race was won by Patrick Flaherty

This weekend also marks the anniversary of another iconic vehicle – the VW.  Eighty years ago, in 1937, Adolph Hitler launched the manufacture of a “People’s car” – the Volkswagon.  With a design coming from Austrian Ferdinand Porsche, this vehicle was supposed to enable all German citizens to enjoy the freedom (a relative term in Nazi Germany!!!) of driving around beautiful Germany.    Production, however, was delayed, and the first cars intended for ordinary citizens did not come off the assembly line until mid-1939 – and almost immediately suspended as the Germans began World War II.

Australian troops enjoying a ride in a captured VW

In fact, the VW was almost entirely a military vehicle used in the North African campaign, and then in Russia, during World War II.  At the end of the war, because of its association with the Nazis, the VW company nearly went bankrupt;  it did produce a limited number of vehicles, but it was unable to penetrate foreign markets for over a decade after the end of the war.

Volkswagon WW2

But a new generation of management hired a prominent New York advertising firm in 1959 to try to gain entry into the U.S. automobile market, and the advertising campaigns initiated in the 1960s dramatically expanded sales in the U.S.  In an age when Americans were motoring around in 6 or even 8 cylinder cars that gulped gasoline, the VW stood out for its small size and temperate use of fuel, as well as its low price.    The timing of the VW’s entry into the American car market was also important in that American families were beginning to add a second car, either for the housewife to run errands or for her husband to drive back and forth from work – and the VW seemed perfect.  (One of the only problems, though, was that most of the VWs still relied on a stick shift, and many Americans had gotten used to automatic transmissions.  I was lucky – my father believed that every driver should know how to use a stick shift, and I learned to use a clutch and shift when I was only 11!).

VW advertising 1959

The “Punchbug”, as one advertising campaign called it, became one of the most popular small cars on American roads in the 1960s, so popular that even Walt Disney produced a series of movies based on “Herbie the Lovebug”.   When the gas crisis hit the U.S. in the early 1970s, VWs became even more beloved.

Eventually, the VW company stopped selling the Punchbugs here in the U.S., only to revive the style in the early 21st century, at a much higher price than those of us who grew up in the 1960s could ever have anticipated.  They are something of a luxury item now, and certainly many generations removed from Hitler’s idea!